Sandrine works as a functionary in an employment office, but there is a lot more to her than one might suspect from her job description. With a volcanic personality and an imagination to match, she is also a world-class cook waiting for the right occasion to realize her dream of opening a restaurant of her own. With a master plan that one could only describe as Machiavellian, Sandrine ropes Antoine, an unemployed professor, into her venture. A carousel of extravagant characters follows: the giant Senegalese man, Toussaint N’Diaye; the magical chef, Vairam; the extravagantly flatulent Alsatian Schmutz and his twelve-year-old daughter Juliette (IQ 172!); the alluring psychologist and Kama Sutra specialist Annabelle Villemin-Dubreuil. Plans for the restaurant proceed smoothly until Sandrine discovers a shady newspaper operation next-door that leads her to a sinister magnate’s plot . . . Set in the storied and culturally diverse Parisian quarter of Montmartre, made famous by artists, writers, and bon vivants of every ilk, this heartwarming, comic tale is a must for foodies, Francophiles, and lovers of a good story well told.
“This farcical novel envelops readers in the sights, sounds, and smells of Montmartre and is sure to be enjoyed by fans of Mary Simses, Laura Madeleine, and Nina George. With lively characters and a dreamy setting, Little Culinary Triumphs will awaken the Francophile in all.”Booklist
“Pujol keeps the tone light as she takes on serious themes of economics and immigration . . . The plot adds characters like ingredients in a recipe until everything finally sets like a creamy quiche. Will everybody get what they wantor deserve? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s fun watching the schemes unfold.”The Star Tribune
|Publisher:||Europa Editions, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)|
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If Karine Becker had known better how to use the rhythm method, none of the following story would ever have happened. But she was on maternity leave, and due to budgetary restrictions, a temp was not hired. Sandrine Cordier, who had inherited the bulk of Karine's files, glanced grumpily over at the wall clock — an ugly digital model with red diodes on a black background which marked out the minutes backwards, like in a radio studio. 11:48: still an hour to go until lunch break, which lasted three-quarters of an hour. Then hang on until 5:40 P.M., the end of the day. Well, no, 5:25 actually, which was when the doors to the office closed and the crowd of pests receded until the next morning.
That was often the best moment of the day, when she saw Césaire heading toward the door the public used. He would post himself next to it, his hand on the electric controls, and activate the metal shutter that went slowly down over the glass door. A few last complainers were still dragging their feet in the hall; some of them lingered by the noticeboards or reached for leaflets. The most depraved slipped away to the restroom with a contrite little smile. But Césaire's booming voice hustled them all out — if he had to he'd flush them out by the sinks —"No dozing off! Let's move!" The metal shutter continued down its rail with the sound of a medieval instrument of torture — greee, greee, greee — and on a bad day Sandrine Cordier pictured it as a guillotine slipping down to tickle the neck of the last pests. Shlap! Struck off the list for all eternity.
Judging by the way the morning had started, that Tuesday might be one to file among the bad days, as it happened. But the worst was yet to come: now she had to deal with a few cases of newly registered applicants and transfers. To get herself going, Sandrine slipped her hand soundlessly in the top drawer of her desk to take out a cinnamon cookie. She'd brought the bag in the day before. Normally she would share them with her colleagues; she loved cooking and was good at it, and often brought in cakes or cookies after a weekend baking. But today she wasn't in the mood to share, given the pile of files that were waiting. She lingered a few more seconds before pressing the button that controlled the luminous signboard in the waiting room, then gave a little sigh: number 48 could proceed to office C.
She had skimmed through Antoine Lacuenta's file the day before, and it had left her with a headache. Thirty-five years old, a slew of diplomas and something of a chronic inability to adjust to the world of work. She'd reread his resume several times, and could not believe her eyes: he had a degree in history and geography, spoke fluent English, Spanish, and Italian — and even had a technical school certificate as a cook! This last qualification had piqued her interest, intrigued her. Then came a long-term nervous breakdown — that was less captivating. And he'd been a regular client of the public employment service for over five years, in half a dozen départements. Another stage winner for the Tour de France of the unemployed. He'd just landed in Paris and, worse luck, she'd gotten his file. All because Karine Becker would rather use natural contraceptive methods. But maybe it was just as well: she thought her colleague tended to be a bit soft with cases like this. Psychological approach, empathy, understanding ... not Sandrine Cordier's thing. So she had decided she would make the most of this period to finalize a certain number of cases. Intimidation, threats, or, why not, an actual job (even if, judging by the client, such a possibility was by far the most fantastical): before long, Antoine Lacuenta would no longer be on welfare. Of course, she knew this was only a drop of water in a bottomless ocean, but the prospect of this little victory brought her a real anticipatory pleasure.
Truth be told, this was the thing she found most interesting about her profession — other than the fairly easygoing schedule, which left her some free time for indulging her passion for cooking. She had never found it all that interesting, helping good citizens to find a job, or a training course, or at least renewed confidence in their professional potential; she figured that only the weak and the parasites ended up in her office. The weak — those who had real difficulties integrating professionally, who'd suffered major mishaps in life — bored her stiff. The others, however, were much more interesting: good-for-nothings, shifty types, compulsive liars, a few cranks as well. It was not that she cared about the taxpayers' money or even the proper recording of public statistics on unemployment. But what she hated more than anything was for anyone to insult her intelligence or her intuition, which was particularly keen. Uncovering and getting the better of complicated strategies had initially been a delightful game that she excelled at, then it quickly became an addiction. She no longer saw the time go by when there was a chance to confound a guy who was working regularly under the table while claiming his benefits, or an executive rigging pseudo-professional interviews to get a few extra months of compensation. Long illnesses. Applicants who went in for one treatment after another: lungs in the spring, rheumatology in summer, digestion in the autumn. Freelance journalists were a real treat. Almost as delightful as the on-again, off-again theatre crowd! She'd been missing those down-at-heel actors since she left the office on the rue de Malte, but she'd learned to make do, with a certain pleasure, with the journalists, especially the freelance ones.
Just last month she'd nailed another one who thought he had the right to turn down a six-month contract at La Revue du Cigare under the pretext that for fifteen years he'd been a specialist on North-South relations for Le Monde Diplomatique and Alternatives Économiques. Yes, and so what? He'd bleated like a goat when she herself had arranged a meeting with the CEO of the venerable cigar publication to show him that she had unearthed the perfect candidate. You'll see, he's an expert on Cuba, she'd added disingenuously. He'll cook you up a tasty little feature and it won't even cost you the airfare. She was even beginning to have a bit of a reputation. When a newcomer in the waiting room was asked by his neighbor who his adviser was, and received the uncritical reply that it was Madame Cordier, the neighbor responded with a mute grimace which spoke volumes, before turning his head away — like at the beginning of the year at the lycée, when you'd ask about the math or philosophy teacher. Sandrine was, quite simply, formidable.
Her daughter Juliette, back in third grade, had asked her to explain what her job consisted of, for a class project. Standing in front of her awestruck, somewhat intimidated schoolmates, Juliette had declared that her mother was a sort of sleuth, the secular arm of the government in the fight against rising unemployment. Where had an eight-year-old kid come up with an expression like that? the teacher wondered, ill at ease. She'd had to console a little African boy whom Juliette had assured, her tone brooking no appeal, that the only good unemployed person is the one who's been struck off the list. Juliette's teacher hoped she'd never have to cross swords with parents like that.
Sometimes Sandrine was sorry she hadn't continued her studies at university, hadn't taken the bar exam or gone on to be a judge — she clearly had what it took. Or, at least, she could have gone for a master's, and after that she could have worked as a jurist, and maybe later as a private investigator. It would have been grander than this little job as a civil servant, which aroused her neighbors' skepticism when she told them what she did: adviser at the public employment service. What exactly was she advising? Moreover, law had not been her first choice. She would have preferred hotel school by far, but her parents wouldn't hear of it. Maybe because her grandmothers, both widowed in their thirties, had had to slave away at other people's stoves to raise their children. The Breton one as private chef for an upper-class family in Paimpol, and the one from Auvergne in an auberge in Rodez. Although they didn't know each other, the two women had dreamt of the civil service for their progeny, jobs that were modest but stable, obscure and respectable. The son of one had become an employee at the post office and the daughter of the other a teacher, and they in turn perpetuated the republican dream of social ascension by compelling Sandrine and her brother to take the competitive recruitment exams for a position in the administration. Oddly enough, the young woman's curious, impulsive, and mischievous disposition, along with a certain stubbornness, was a perfect fit for the austerity of the law, creating an unexpected but powerful alchemy. Since she couldn't work side-by-side with a great chef and then go on to open her own restaurant — her childhood dream — Sandrine gradually adapted to the subtleties of the codes and ruses of jurisprudence. But then at the end of her second year she fell in love with Guillaume; he'd charmed her with his bashed-up face and his six foot four — between boozy parties and rugby matches he was dragging his feet along a career path in social and economic administration. As a result, before she knew it she was married, with no more than a bachelor's degree in her pocket. Then, while her belly expanded, she dropped her studies and at the last minute took several administrative exams, before becoming a mother at the age of twenty-four. Her dream had been shelved but not altogether abandoned, for she put her considerable talent to use at home, even if she couldn't have her own little eatery.
* * *
The man who sat down across from her would have seemed totally harmless to any of her halfwit colleagues. And how wrong they would be! Sandrine Cordier knew from experience that he was anything but. First of all because, judging from his file, he was a Parasite, with a capital P. Then because he was far too good-looking to be honest. Dark, with trendy brooding looks, a three-day stubble and hair loose to his shoulders, slim, a slightly emaciated face dominated by huge dark doe eyes, and very red, moist lips. Not her type, though: she preferred sturdy blonds, men who took up space. She took a last bite from her cookie and tried to remember who the visitor reminded her of. A movie star? A TV anchor? One of those fashionable syrupy crooners? No, that wasn't it, he was simply the spitting image of ... Jesus! The Jesus of the vintage catechism pictures she'd found not long ago when she was cleaning out her drawers. She had trusted in the natural regulation of the free market, where every offer has its demand, so she'd tried to sell those images during a neighborhood garage sale, along with other old things that had collected in the basement and in her wardrobes. Well, she hadn't really had much luck. She'd only managed to offload three of them to an old lady clinging to her Zimmer frame, who struggled to find her change purse at the bottom of her handbag. Later on, a gang of teenagers had fiddled with the remaining pictures, guffawing and nudging each other. After a few minutes one of them had asked her if she also had some pictures of the Virgin, but wearing a string like that other dummy on the cross. They ran off, screaming with laughter and slapping their palms together, little punks. As they moved off, one of them had turned around, and she thought she heard, Hey, it's Aurélien's mom, how crazy is that! One girl shot back, I'm not surprised, and their laughter grew even louder.
The straight nose, the gentle, sorrowful gaze, that fragile, almost feminine beauty ... it was all there, but in the guise of a lingering adolescent: hoodie, jeans, worn-out Converses, canvas bag over his shoulder. She repressed a faint shiver and couldn't help but glance at his fine, white hands: phew, no obvious stigmata. As for his feet, his sneakers came up a little too high on his ankles for her to judge.
"Monsieur Lacuenta, you file has just been transferred to us. I'd like to go over the situation since you were last employed, which was the substitute position for a few months at the lycée Marie-de-la-Conception in Manosque, teaching history and geography. You see, I don't really understand why you left that position when you could have gone on working as a substitute. It was a perfect match for your skills, wasn't it?"
The man shot her a long, angry gaze, and he sighed, which Sandrine Cordier understood to mean that he found it difficult to speak of a trying episode. Another ultrasensitive guy, how annoying. Just wait, any minute he'd start up on those old schoolteacher blues.
"The pressure, you have no idea ... you can't get kids to behave, they don't listen, they're not interested in anything, they have no respect for authority anymore."
No, of course not. As if you didn't have five months of vacation to recover, she thought, ready to say as much to his face.
In reality, above all Antoine Lacuenta found it hard to explain something that to him seemed obvious. But where everything else was concerned, he had no problem going over it in detail: he'd already had to do it many times, and he remained convinced he was in good faith.
"The school made absolutely no effort at all to convert to sustainable development. The heating was all electric, there were no local products at the cafeteria, and the principal had even installed the most anti-ecological device you can imagine: a coffee machine with capsules," he explained, with detachment, as if he were teaching a class at the blackboard. "No selective recycling, so as a result the waste wasn't put to good use. During civic education class I asked the pupils to sort the school's garbage cans and it caused a huge fuss, the parents even got involved. When I suggested at the faculty meeting that carpooling among the teachers should be made obligatory and that they should install dry toilets, everyone laughed in my face. They weren't even interested in the plans for a communal organic vegetable garden in an urban environment. And yet there were plenty of subsidies available. This failure to consider the problems of the planet and the urgency of finding solutions was quite simply intolerable. Teaching in such conditions was tantamount to condoning an irresponsible attitude, so by resigning I have made a statement whose impact is both educational and socially aware. Moreover, I've started a blog to explain why I acted as I did."
While staring at Lacuenta with a look that was both engrossed and severe, Sandrine Cordier lost the thread of the conversation. An organic vegetable garden in an urban setting ... A rather nice idea, although she would not like to share her garden with just anyone. Her balcony ran the length of her apartment and was overrun with aromatic herbs, but it was hard to grow vegetables in such conditions. Dry toilets, on the other hand ... What did that imply? She cautiously refrained from asking, for fear of being treated to a lecture on the subject, but her mind began to wander. Could it mean that instead of porcelain bowls, nesting reservoirs, and silent flush systems, the bathroom department at Leroy Merlin would suddenly be replaced by an entire aisle of giant plastic trays and bags of kitty litter? Vegetable, mineral, perfumed, family size, fifty liters minimum? Would kindergarten sandboxes be requisitioned and transformed into municipal pissotières? Having said that, if there were subsidies available, it was worth looking into. She noted the information in the follow-up box, cleared her throat, and sent him a polite but stern smile.
Antoine Lacuenta gave her a look that was both wretched and furious.
"You can see that I had no choice."
"Well, I cannot judge the heart of the matter," she said, going no further, for she was not sure she'd completely followed the thread of his explanation.
She turned a page in the file, read a few lines, frowned, then stared darkly at her visitor.
"Your militant ecological stance almost convinced me ... But then, well, look, I read here that you didn't resign but that you were fired for hurting the school's cleaning woman. What's that all about? Maybe you suspected her of being a lackey for major investors? An agent infiltrated from Unilever who'd come to enlist your pimply teenagers? In my opinion, most of them already boycott a certain number of personal hygiene products, you know ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Little Culinary Triumphs"
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