“[E]very bit as juicy as the dishes it describes.” —SPLASH
Twentysomething Allie Simon is used to playing by the rules—until Chicago’s most sought-after, up-and-coming culinary genius, Benji Zane, walks into her world and pulls her into his. The only thing more renowned than Benji’s mouthwatering masterpieces and equally luscious good looks? His struggle with addiction and his reckless tendency to live life on the edge, no matter the havoc he wreaks along the way. But loving someone means supporting him no matter what, or so Allie tells herself. That’s why, when Benji’s offered the chance to light up foodie hot spot Randolph Street with a high-profile new restaurant, Allie takes the ultimate risk and invests her life savings in his dream.
Then one day Benji disappears, relapsing to a place where Allie can’t reach him. Left with nothing but a massive withdrawal slip and a restaurant that absolutely must open in a matter of weeks, Allie finds herself thrust into a world of luxury and greed, cutthroat business and sensory delight. Lost in the mess of it all, she can either crumble completely or fight like hell for the life she wants and the love she deserves.
With razor-sharp wit and searing insight, Emily Belden serves up a deliciously dishy look behind the kitchen doors of a hot foodie town, perfect for fans of Sweetbitter and The Devil Wears Prada.
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|Publisher:||Graydon House Books|
|Edition description:||Original ed.|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.30(d)|
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"Are you going to be okay?"
His question gives me pause. Will I be okay? Was "okay" a hypothetical three exits ago?
All things considered, I'm hurtling through time and space with a guy whose recovery from a serious cocaine addiction matters as much as the rise of his chocolate soufflé tonight. So I answer honestly.
"I don't know." My voice sounds far away.
"Well if you're not sure, change. You'll be walking at least five miles between ushering people to tables and the bathroom and running back and forth from the kitchen."
"Oh, shoes. You're asking if I'm going to be okay in these shoes." I glance down at my black platform wedges.
"Yeah, babe. What the hell else would I be talking about?"
He grabs the bottom of my chin and plants a quick kiss on my lips before he rinses a whisk in the sink.
The shells of seventy-five hardboiled eggs are in the trunk of a car I rented to shuttle all the shit required for tonight's guests, I took an unpaid day off from work to be here to help, and my parents are about an hour away from arriving to this special "comeback dinner," which will be the first time they've seen Benji somewhere other than the headlines in the last thirty days.
And he was worried about my shoes.
"I'll be fine," I say sweetly, knowing now is not the time for a true audit of my emotional well-being. Tonight is about Benji's big return and my confidence that all — including my shoe choice — will go as smoothly as the housemade butter at room-temp that he's just whipped up.
I find my reflection in a nearby cryo-vac machine and take out a tube of my go-to matte pale pink lipstick from my makeup bag. I sweep it across my bottom lip, then fill in just above my lip line on the top for the illusion of a slightly fuller mouth. After all, I know at least half the guest list is here to see what the woman behind the man looks like.
Speaking of lists, I can see Benji in the reflection as well, leaning over a stainless steel counter consulting the prep list for tonight's dinner service. He takes a black Sharpie from the pocket of his apron and puts a quick slash through each item as he recites them out loud to himself.
I come up behind him and cast my arms around him slowly; my touch puts him at ease. He curls his left arm up to hold my arms in place and continues to mouth ingredients one by one to make sure he hasn't forgotten anything. It sounds like sweet nothings being whispered to me a romance language I barely understand.
Benji crumples the list, a sign he's successfully on track with everything from the dehydrated goat's milk to emulsified caramel, and I snap out of my schoolgirl daydream. He turns to face me, shuffles a few steps back in his worn kitchen clogs, and bends down to shake out his longish dark hair.
He shimmies a hair tie — my hair tie — off his right wrist and ties his mane up into a disheveled topknot. For anyone who says the man-bun trend isn't their thing, they're lying.
He re-ties his white apron for the umpteenth time over a tight black T-shirt that shows off his tattooed-solid arms. I know for a fact he doesn't work out, but somehow he's been blessed with the body of a lumberjack. The only thing missing is the ax, which has been appropriately swapped out for an expensive Santoku knife custom engraved with some filigree and his initials: BZ.
No doubt he's got the "hot and up-and-coming chef" thing down: tattooed, confident, exhausted, and exhilarated. Hard to believe this isn't a casting event for Top Chef.
Harder to believe this is the man I get to take home every night.
"FUCK! Are you kidding me, Sebastian? Where the fuck is the lid to that thing?" Benji's words effectively snap me out of the trance I was in danger of being lulled into. It takes me a minute to realize what happened: his sous chef Sebastian has pressed "pulverize" on a Vita-Mix full of would-be avocado aioli, except the lid to the blender is nowhere to be found. Green schmutz has gone flying, marking up Benji's pristine apron like the start of a Jackson Pollock piece.
"Sorry, chef. I got it on now." Tail between his legs, Sebastian gets back to work as Benji furiously wipes at the streak with his bare hand. He's making it worse.
"Benji. Breathe." I grab his half-drank can of LaCroix and pour a little onto a clean kitchen rag. While tending to the stain in the hot kitchen, I look directly into those deep brown eyes and give him a reassuring smile. He smells of cigarettes and sweat, garlic and onions. It's intoxicating.
"I know, Allie. This is just ... huge for me. Huge for us. The press is going to be here tonight." He wipes some sweat off his brow.
"And my parents," I whisper.
"Oh god, them too." He releases the tension by cracking the bones in his neck. A poor substitute, I imagine, for his true preference: a shot of whiskey.
But even a slug of 120 proof wouldn't take the edge off the fact that Benji's pop-up dinners are the new It Thing. People salivate at their screens just waiting for him to tweet out the next time and place he'll be cooking. Why? Because he's the hottest chef in Chicago and you can't taste his food at any restaurant. So when he announces a dinner, it's a mad, server-crashing race to claim one of only twelve spots at the table. And when everyone wants to see how the reformed addict is faring, they'll cancel all their plans for the day on the off chance they'll be one of the first to submit a reservation request, followed by prompt pre-payment — which all goes to me, the fan-favorite girlfriend of Benji Zane.
I can't blame his followers for the obsession. Our flash-in-the-pan love story was covered by the most read food blog back in the spring, and since then, there have been myriad articles chronicling his love-hate relationship with hard drugs and high-end cooking. Between his unlikely relationship with me, his checkered past, and his unmatched kitchen skills, Benji's managed to divide people like we're talking about healthcare reform or the immigration.
Half see him as a prodigy in the kitchen who was given a second chance when some no-name poster child of millennial living suddenly inspired him get clean. The other half of Chicago views him as an all-hype hack who uses the media attention to rob his patrons of their hard-earned money so he can get his next score.
Fuck those people. Because the Benji that I know, that I live with ... well, he's a stand-up guy whose brunch — and bedroom — game happens to be on point.
"Listen, babe," I say. "What did I tell you? I'm not going to let you down tonight, okay? I'll pace the seating however you need me to. I'll greet the press and spot the critics, too. We got this, okay? I believe in you." And I do.
I don't always agree to help Benji at his pop-ups — usually I just accept the reservation requests and keep the books straight. But tonight is different. Benji told me yesterday that he's got an outstanding dealer debt to pay off and so he's oversold the dining room by about twenty-five chairs to try and make a little extra cash. Without me here to help host a guest list of this size, this highly-publicized dinner would look and feel more like a dysfunctional family reunion. Something I'm sure the piranha-like press would love to write about.
I wanted to be pissed about this little "oops" moment. How careless could he be? Now, by over-inviting a hoard of overzealous foodies, and in the past, by racking up a $2,000 coke bill. But he assured me it's just one of those things that needs to be handled in order for him to move on with his sobriety. And that's what I signed up for by being his girlfriend: unconditional support and a back that would never turn on him.
He's even arranged for Sebastian to be the one to hand over the cash tonight after the last diner goes home. Consider it just another example of how hungry people are to work alongside Mr. Zane. The same set of hands is willing to debone fifty squab and pay off gang-banging drug dealers from the south side, all in the same night.
I don't blame Sebastian, though. There's something about Benji that makes you want to strap in for the ride. It's like rushing a sorority: you'll do what you need to do to get in, because ultimately, you end up part of something bigger than yourself. I just don't think any of us know what that something is yet.
At least that's the way I see it from my vantage point, which is currently the groin area of a brand new apron that was marked with an unsightly stain until I stepped in.
"See babe?" I say. "All clean."
Benji pulls me in for a kiss, his hand cupped around the back of my neck. With my French twist fragile in his palm, I feel the stress in the kitchen disintegrate. I'm no superhero, but if I were, my power would surely be managing to make it all okay for him, every time. It doesn't even matter that there's garlic burning in a sauté pan, my lipstick is now smeared, or that my work email is probably blowing up with a hundred notifications an hour.
"You're my rock, babe," he tells me, tucking a few strands of loose hair behind my ears. I love hearing that I'm doing a good job, because it's not always easy.
"Okay, so here's the final guest list," he says, getting back to business. Benji hands me a piece of paper from the back pocket of his charcoal-gray skinny jeans. At the top, "Aug. 20 Pop-Up" is underlined in black marker. I give the list a quick once-over.
"So the first round of seating is at 7, second is at 9. Simple enough," I say.
"Well, it's more than just ushering people to their chairs." He tenses back up. "After everyone's seated, I'll need you to run food and bus tables if we get in the weeds."
"Busy as shit."
"And water. Constantly. You should be carrying the pitcher and filling any glass that's lower than two-thirds."
"Pay attention to what people are saying. Any issues, come find me immediately."
"And as we're wrapping, make sure you call a cab for anyone who's too drunk to drive. The last thing I need is bad press about a deadly DUI from someone I fed." "Anything else, your highness?" I jest to lighten the mood. I get that he's on edge, and rightfully so. So am I, to be frank. This mini-romper won't be forgiving in the derriere area should anyone drop a fork while I'm rehydrating them. I also barely know the difference between kale and spinach, and am about to play hostess to a room full of people who are jone-sing to fire off a photo or two of this year's culinary Kimye to their judgmental social sphere. It's a lot.
"Very funny. And yes, there is one more thing. Mark and Rita just texted me. They can't make it tonight. Couldn't find a sitter for Maverick or something."
While it would be great to finally meet Benji's sponsor, Mark — and his wife Rita — I'm okay with the last-minute cancelation. Two less comp seats means more profit and less work for Benji. It also means two less people who I need to impress on the spot. Especially people whose job it is to spot bullshit. They'll be missed by Benji, I'm sure, since they're basically the parents he never had from what I gather. But hopefully he'll just shake it off.
"I'm sorry, that sucks. It's tough with kids," I say like I know.
"Yeah, it's whatever. I told them we'll see them next weekend. Anyways, can you just promise me something?"
He looks me dead in the eye and says: "Promise that you'll fuck me after this is all done."
I give him a wink and turn toward the dining room. I've got a little time before our first guests are set to arrive and I need to get my game face on. I need to feel less like someone whose super-hot boyfriend wants to ravish her across the very counter the amuse-bouches are being prepped on and more like someone who knows on what side of the plate the fork goes.
Tonight's pop-up is in a small indoor ballroom on the 45th floor of a high-rise luxury apartment building way up on the north side. For a Friday night, it'll be a bit of a clusterfuck for anyone who lives in the heart of Chicago, The Loop, or out in the suburbs like my parents, to get up here, but the views of the boats on Lake Michigan and the sunset reflecting off the buildings in the skyline will be so worth it. This summer evening is the kind of night Instagram is made for.
How Benji secured the venue this time is a doozy. He put an ad on Craigslist: "Party Room Needed." Said he couldn't pay money for the space, but would leave all his leftovers behind and the secret to "a roasted chicken guaranteed to get you laid." Thirty minutes later, some teenager whose parents live in the building dropped off the keys to the penthouse floor. It never ceases to amaze me the things people will do just to feel like they have a personal connection to the Steven Tyler of the food world. Alas, here we are.
I push on the balcony door handles fully expecting they'd be locked. But they pop down with ease and the warm summer wind hits me in the face. I grab the railing, close my eyes, and suck in that city air.
I don't breathe enough. Not like this, deep and alone. I have to admit that being Benji's girlfriend sometimes feels like sitting in the passenger seat as he drives 110 miles per hour on the freeway in a jalopy with no seatbelts. It's easy to get overwhelmed, but I remind myself that Benji came into my life for a reason. Every low-life, going-nowhere guy I dated before him was worth it because they led me to him: a beautiful genius who knows exactly who he is and what he wants. A guy with talent, charisma, and nothing but pure adoration for me. So what if he had a flawed start? All that matters is that I stopped the top from spinning out of control and now we're good. We're really fucking good.
Just then my phone, which I have stashed in my bra (hey, no pockets, okay?), buzzes with a text. I dig around in my cleavage and read the message from Benji.
"2-top off elevator. It's time, babe."
My feet are aching and I'm sweating, but as far as everyone can tell by the smile on my face, I'm having a grand old time filling water glasses. By now, we're more than halfway through the service and so far, Benji's only used the bottle of bourbon in the back for a caramely glaze on the dessert course, not to ease the kitchen chaos. In fact, in the ten or so times I've popped my head in to check on him, he appeared to be keeping his cool entirely.
"And how are you two enjoying your evening?" I say, hovering over a couple at a round top table I haven't checked on yet.
"There she is." My dad wipes his mouth as he stands up to give me a hug. My god, he's wearing a wool suit and a silk tie. Overdress much?
"What do you think of the food?" I ask.
"It's outstanding, Allie. Say, can we get another one of those Siracha Jell-o cubes?"
"Goodness Bill, don't embarrass me like that. Just ignore him, Allie. Although, yes, the Siracha cube was ..." My mom closes her eyes, puckers her lips, and explodes an air kiss off the tips of her fingers. I think that's mom-code for amaze-balls.
"I'm really glad you guys could make it," I say. And I mean that. It's not easy to accept the fact that your daughter is dating the most talked-about, tattooed chef in the Midwest, let alone show your support by attending a BYOB makeshift dinner party on the far north side.
"Wouldn't miss it for the world. And hey, I couldn't figure out how to get the flash on this dang iPhone to work, but I took a bunch of pictures," my dad says. "You'll have to explain later how I'm supposed to send them to you."
"Sweet, Dad. Thanks for doing that." I'm positive they will all be blurry but it's the thought that counts.
"Is Benji going to come out?" my mom asks, playing with the pearls on her necklace. Her question captures the attention of strangers sitting across the table and now everyone's eyes are on me.
"We'll see," I say, knowing that answer isn't good enough. Not for anyone in the room who paid to be here. "You'll have to excuse me. I've got to keep checking on other tables. Love you guys."
As I make my rounds, everyone seems to be gushing over the fifth and final course of the night: grilled fig panna cotta with a bourbon, honeycomb drizzle over vanilla bean gelato. I hear one person whisper it was better than Alinea's dessert. Another says she just had a foodgasm. At that, I set down the water pitcher and offer to clear a few dirty plates back to the kitchen. When no one is looking, I dip my pinky into some melted gelato and run it through a glob of the bourbon honey before quickly licking it off my manicured finger.
Heaven. Pure heaven.
Even though there's no negative feedback to report to the kitchen and everyone is stuffed, I can tell people are saving room for one more culinary delight.
Excerpted from "Hot Mess"
Copyright © 2018 Emily Belden.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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