Paco was groggy when his little maid who he discovered was called Nella brought in a tray with steaming coffee, thick cream, a bowl of melon and raspberries along with a plate of honey drenched frittellas. She made him understand after several tries that he must bathe and pack and meet the others downstairs at the entrance. The chauffeur, who had enjoyed himself immensely chumming with the Captain’s large staff in the more than comfortable quarters, had already pulled Ludington’s luxurious touring car around into the circle drive for the trip back to Montecito.
While Paco bathed he thought about going home. He and Madonna would be back to normal. He worried momentarily about Ranger left alone at the Quien Sabe then thought about Diehl’s and the huge pile of orders that would be waiting. Shaving and finally giving himself a flirty smile in the mirror, his mood clearly upbeat, he found a nice piece of leather luggage waiting for him to fill on the bed. Thinking seriously about what he wanted to take home then going to the dresser he selected a generous helping of the underwear and sox. Next to the closet, Paco pulled out his own shirt and jodhpurs to wear home then, hesitating for an instant, he put a pair of pants and a shirt in his suitcase leaving the rest along with his perfect tuxedo and velvet slippers. He opened the Cartier case and took a last look at the superb gold watch knowing it represented an image he did not quite fit. Packed and ready he threw his leather jacket over one shoulder grabbed the luggage and skipped down the staircase two steps at a time as if he was eager to escape.
At the bottom he met the Captain looking serious. “Come with me to my office Paco, we must talk about the plans for our family.” Following Oakley and entering the imposing room, half museum and half library, he was stunned to see his Mother sitting in a chair. She arose as he entered and the Captain moved to his command post behind the big desk. He started, “Your Mother and I have discussed the idea of your coming to stay at Mio Cuore and of course that is entirely your decision. We know you are determined to enter the Acadameia in Florence. We are especially proud of your talent and passion for this endeavor. For many other reasons it is not a good idea for you to join my wine business. Maybe one day, when this abominable Prohibition is over, and it will be over, you will have a choice in the matter.” With that Madonna moved toward him with her arms outstretched saying, “Mio amore, please understand, I am going to stay here with your Father. I know it will be so hard to be without each other but the safest course is for you to go home to the Quien Sabe and fulfill your dreams there.” She was hugging him closely now as he slightly slumped noticeably in shock.
It was a rough journey home. His mind was scrambled. The car was loud and bouncing wildly around the treacherous coast highway that provided spectacular views of a glistening ocean made endlessly fascinating by the sight of birds and marine life that appeared and disappeared like a movie. He was actually sick to his stomach and declined the offers of delicacies Miss Penny brought out from a wicker hamper, many left over from the Chef’s great dinner the night before. When the wine was opened however he accepted all they would pour and then asked for more. As he stepped from the car, hours later, finally in the driveway of the Quien Sabe, Paco’s head was aching right along with his heart. He was alone, all the others having been taken home before him. Standing with his suitcase in a kind of stupor, the big bounding form of Ranger came lovingly at him forcing his return to reality. He kneeled down for the full impact of the dog’s greeting, grateful for the warm sticky kisses and the long wet nose that poked into private places.
They entered the small dark quarters he and Madonna had called home for years. He went to the kitchen and removing some steaks from the icebox he turned the fire up high and heated the big iron skillet to scorching with Ranger sitting in his corner savoring the scent of meat with anticipation. Crusty on the outside and rare on the inside the beef was unbelievably tender and succulent with a big pat of butter as garnish. Paco was reviving. He started to plot and plan a future that would take him to Italy to see the world and leave his insane family behind. As the dog ate some liberal leftovers, Paco made a phone call. ‘Guess who”, he whispered, “Can I see you in thirty minutes?” Smiling inside he went to shower, shave and wash away all the confusion and grief. ‘Just let it all go’, he thought, ‘There is so much left’, visualizing what he loved, ‘my art, and yes’, he thought with delicious contemplation, ‘there is Charmaine’.
It was late August so the night air was hot and laden with the scent of night blooming Jasmine that hung in great curtains on the hedges all the way to Il Brolino. He had jumped on the Indian shirtless and arrived at the secret entry point he often used. She was there, waiting for him in the shadows. Appearing secretive she explained with a dash of fear in her shining golden eyes that the Master was home but sleeping deeply in his own chamber. She was confounded, not knowing what to do. Paco flashed his irresistible smile licking his perfect lips then with his eyes crinkling he took her hand and led her through the hedge. Swinging an excited Charmaine behind him on the bike, the two rode a short distance to the Quien Sabe.
Ranger was waiting and dancing around them as they entered the tiny living room and in the interest of privacy, Paco reasoned, he headed for his Mother’s room, pulled the altogether willing young woman along and shut the door. Charmaine was removing every stich of clothing on her way into the bed that smelled of lemon-scented starch, a result of Madonna’s technique for ironing the linens. She sat on top of him teasing with an unashamed flaunting of her delectable full breasts each centered with lovely pink rose buds now standing out nicely. She noticed a bottle marked almond oil on the side table and taking a taste smiled with approval. Now this went onto Paco’s chest and then lower, causing him to arch and rise with pleasure. Charmaine knew how to slow him down and magically extend the evening’s enjoyment so turning him over she massaged his back and neck with an uncommon skill that exposed her early life growing up in a high-toned brothel. Wild with desire by now, Paco turned and grabbed the woman forcing her to the bed. This started a powerful physical pursuit for fulfillment, slowly building the movements from soft and gentle to a kind of sensual fury, heated to the limit, finding the way to quench an undeniable thirst. Then they were limp and glistening with sweat. Laying back on the moist pillows slowly bringing their fast beating hearts to normal, Paco and Charmaine began to talk about their intimate emotions, private desires and personal stories, something they had never done before.
Paco walked into the back entrance of Diehl’s early the next morning noticing the fine delivery truck sat with a layer of dust. He surprised Taj and Sal who had been doing his job for almost a week. Overjoyed to see him alive they hugged and pounded his back with pleasure asking for a full account of his ordeal. This caught him a little off guard. He had not prepared the story he wanted known about the kidnap and Mio Cuore. Quickly he said, “I was picked up by a ship and taken to San Francisco. It has taken all this time to get home”, hoping that would be answer enough and it was.
The business at Diehl’s was brisk. Many of the Chefs, arriving just two days away, had ordered crates and baskets of goods they needed for their submissions to the Medallion d’Oro judges. Salvador worked to prepare them all and now wanted to pass this over to Paco fast so he could return to his fans at the big soda fountain. Energized now by the mounting excitement over the competition and momentary flashes of Charmaine in ecstasy, he checked the orders, filled some more and then answering the phone with his free hand he heard the sweet, softly French, sound of Miss Penny.
“Paco, are you all right? I cannot believe what we did? I am exhausted and you must be too. Are you all right Darling? I mean did you spend a lonesome night without Madonna? I was thinking about you and wondering if you will stay here?” He asked her to keep everything quiet for now and she quickly promised, saying all that had been worked out with the Captain before they left the mansion, then continued, “Printise just called me and wants us to go with him this afternoon to see the set up at the Biltmore. He is getting very, very anxious already. You can imagine how serious this is since he rarely leaves his bed before ten in the morning. Can you? We will pick you up at two?” Paco agreed and planned to take the things Printise requested for the competition along.
And so it was that the three of them arrived at the giant oval Biltmore Ballroom called “El Loggia D’Oro” because of the opulent black and gold color scheme. The location was perfect for press photographers who had a special vantage point in the ceiling. There was a team of workmen covering the glossy parquet floors with matting and then a black linoleum-like carpet. Utilities were being installed capable of supporting twelve complete kitchens outfitted to please the world-class needs of competing chefs from around the country. Chef Printise was unusually dignified and business like as he signed in with the event coordinator. They could see the layout of the room emerging. On the floor, lined up on one side of the room, there would be a row of the twelve kitchens all done in stainless steel with partitions between each one for privacy. The front was left open for the audience, seated in an elevated grandstand on the other side, able to have a full view. The alternate half of the floor would be set up for the panel of ten Judges and the serving tables that surrounded the main pedestal to display the platter for brief minutes so the audience could cheer and the photos could be done. There was an electrician working on the spotlights that would make dramatic pools of illumination.
On the stage Paco recognized the Santa Barbara Chamber Orchestra practicing together, sounding wonderful. They were honestly bowled over by the extravagance of the preparations. This would be an event the city would remember for a long time. Miss Penny stole three programs from a cardboard box on a side table. The three walked to the patio and finding a sunny table ordered drinks and began to analyze the list of participants. There were only thirty-seven in all, mostly coming from major cities like New York, Chicago, St. Louis, New Orleans, Boston and several from San Francisco and Los Angeles. Then there were five from Santa Barbara; Chef De Vielmond, Chef Pulga, Chef Madam Genet, Chef Printise Yonkopolis, Chef Wilfredo Henriques and Chef Phillbert Omeyer. The long journey plus the two hundred dollar entry fee did prove to make the list a little shorter than in the past.
Printise nervously murmured observations as he read little snippets of the biographies attached to each picture. He acknowledged knowing Chef Henri Bassetti of the Ambassador, “He’s a prick my Darlings”, and Chef Gus Wasser from the Biltmore, “Just stay out of the lu when he is in it, that’s all I need to say”. Printise worked with both men in Los Angeles during a charity event given by Les Gourmands Regal Society. Nodding and rubbing his forehead he admitted they were, “formidable”. A noticeable sigh and an anxious glance at the ceiling began to show even more stress during the reading of names like Chef Grevillet, Delmonico’s, and Chef La Mer, Maxim’s, both from Manhattan and considered legendary. The cocky Chef’s confidence began to wither.
Out of the corner of his eye Paco noticed Chef Fredo walk by with several of his staff in tow followed several minutes later by Chef Velly who came alone, striding rapidly, deep in thought. As fate would have it they both arrived at the sign in desk simultaneously causing a dangerous dilemma. Unbeknown to the officious organizer overseeing the process these two were a potential powder keg, capable of a messy blowup if they wanted it, and so she innocently selected Velly to begin. Whereupon, instantly outraged, Fredo grabbed the pen and attempted to sign the entry form. Hot with displeasure the short muscular Frenchman circled around coming up between the arms of the tall Austrian and recovered the pen attempting to regain the front position. Wild scuffling ensued and the security guards were summoned. Their old habit of spewing out fowl insults began but, upon references to fornication, ended abruptly as the official grabbed the sign in form and threatened to disqualify them on the spot.
The pair now both had a firm grip on the pen but displayed cheeky saccharin smiles faking an over polite attitude. The official eyed the chefs’ hands with a vicious glare that worked to dissolve their grip and then, separating, each man bowed to the other, offering first place. Two guards finally arrived as Velly, following the lady’s original directions, signed in and with his heavy French accent apologized, “No trouble, pas de problem Policiers, pardonnez-moi, excuse me Madame”. Fredo was biting his tongue, waiting for his turn, thinking all the while that he was maltreated and storing up a deep hatred for the woman. A bitterness was spreading in his mind, expanding to indite the entire administration of Medaillion d’Oro, a bad omen that would predict his downfall if he dared to include the judges.
That evening, after calling Rosalita to keep Ranger with her, Paco went to Val Verde instead of home so he could practice producing the competition platters with Printise. Unknown until now the famous French culinary event was not new to the Chef who actually attended several and worked as Commis for Chef Eugene Plazermine his mentor from the Old Parsonage. They really did travel to Paris to compete although, Printise admitted still wounded by the experience, the Chef passed out drunk and after a desperate effort to revive him, was unable to cook. That left a pitiful Printise on his own, undaunted, to watch and commit to memory many techniques and tricks that he dreamed of using one day.
They worked for hours refining every detail of the menus then hunting for an appropriate platter Printise decided to call Ludington and ask if he had anything stored away that might work. It was almost midnight but he had been up reading so passing out powerful flashlights, proceeding up stairs in his cashmere robe and slippers, he led the three to an enormous attic. There they found the furnishings left from two of his family’s sumptuous homes when they moved everything to California. One lot was traditional English style from the Pennsylvania estate and the other Deco from the very modern Manhattan apartment that occupied two top floors of a 5th Avenue building. Ludington had no idea where to start so the three split up and began searching through the boxes and crates, uncovering long forgotten tables and sideboards filled with all manner of china and crystal. Printise came across several large silver trays that could work but the decoration was so ornate he decided it would detract from the food. Paco began snooping around paying more attention to the paintings that stood leaning against each other than a platter. He carefully pulled them apart enough to get a glimpse of the top portion. Some looked like very fine work and he wanted to pull them out for a really good look. At the far end of the room Ludington called out, “Here is something. Printise come and have a look. It isn’t a platter but I think it may be even better.”
What he found was a large rectangular mirror that looked to be lightly tinted in a bronze hue. The frame was simply two small strips one gold and one silver. Centered on either end were decorative embellishments in gold and silver with severe clean lines that looked like handles. There were very small adornments centered on the long sides that repeated the same pattern. “This is a bit modern and a brilliant example of Art Deco. Do you think this would work?” Chef Printise looked dazzled by the idea so they decided to carry it to the kitchen to have a better look and measure to see that it conformed to the size requirement. Sitting on the big center worktable, the Chef found a ruler and declared it was perfect. Ludington said that Paco must stay the night and then left the two who carefully cleaned the stunning treasure that would present the dishes to very sophisticated judges with uncommon style.
Diehl’s was sizzling with excitement the next day as many of the competing Chefs arrived from all over the country to pick up their telephone orders. Everyone was aware that tomorrow would begin the first level trials, selecting the twelve finalists who then will have the opportunity to endure the two days of judging. The first day was for presentation of the Fish Platters and the final day for the Meat Platters culminating in a spectacular awards ceremony. Each platter must be completed in five hours and feature a main ingredient with four side dishes. These elements will be prepared to create ten servings of each selection to accommodate plates for the ten famous Chefs on the panel of Judges.
The rules of the Medallion d’Oro were strictly enforced. The finalists must have a Commis or assistant and a Coach who remains outside the kitchen and can consult, but more important, keep track of time. Teams may be immediately disqualified for tardiness, knife or equipment mishaps and contamination issues. The Chefs must bring their own knives, presentation platters, unique implements and all ingredients, except for the necessities to prepare the preliminary test and basic supplies that will be provided by the Biltmore. All items must be delivered to a Hotel supply center no later than one hour before the contest begins. Presentation of the plates comprises 50% of the contestant's total score, broken down to 10% for texture and cuisson (perfection in doneness), harmony of flavors, sophistication and creativity. The presentation of elaborate platters counts for 30% of the scores with 10% each attributed to complexity, technical knife skills and originality. The final 20% of the score is kitchen organization, broken down to 10% for the Commis performance, 5% for cleanliness and 5% for efficiency in timing.
Now all was in place to begin the event. It was publicized that Auguste Escoffier, considered the greatest Chef alive and recently exalted by the French Government, as a Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur, now in his eighties, would travel to Santa Barbara to be honored and act as “Juge en Chef”. Other culinary luminaries were expected along with glamorous devoted fans that attracted the press from all over. Locals had been following the newspaper stories that served to advertise the historic competition so the tickets were sold out weeks ago. In Paris the Medallion d’Oro caused a sensation every year and drew crowds carrying flags of their countries and banners for favored entrants. They blew horns, beat drums and in general created a hullaballoo. Now, occurring way out west in California, no one really knew how much revelry to expect.
So Chef Printise, Paco as the Commis and Miss Penny who was appointed Coach gathered in the great Val Verde kitchen on the last night to polish their performance. Paco had exceptionally strong knife skills, something that the Chef noticed way back when he helped to create the King Tut Party. It was something he learned from Velly who was a Maestro in this art. All the time hanging around the Il Brolino kitchen, secretly wanting a tiny glimpse of it’s bewitching Mistress, Charmaine, had paid off. He spent hours practicing the proper French method to create all the mandatory cuts. Paco knew, the large and small dice, battonet, allumette, julienne, brunoise and the fine form of each.
Printise demonstrated the way this knife work should be done so that the judges and the audience would fully appreciate their talents. Basically he recommended a style of slicing and chopping, guiding the knife away from the fingertips, that would allow them to look away from their work scanning the other action in the kitchen with a calm slightly arrogant expression. This, he promised would earn them points. He warned Paco that they must taste, taste, taste, as often as possible and when they arrange the dishes they must give the appearance of an artist painting a portrait. All this he described and demonstrated with theatrical gestures then going over all the proper food safety issues he finished with a final admonition. “You must treat me as you would a symphony conductor, establishing eye contact continually, in order to convince the Judges we are working as one.”
The great Medallion d’Oro culinary extravaganza began with an opening ceremony, accompanied by the Chamber Orchestra, with enough pomp and circumstance to stir any heart. The room was dazzling with the magnificent crystal chandeliers, all the gold and black creating a perfect backdrop for the long line of thirty-seven Chefs, in white jackets and matching traditional toques that stood very tall. Some of the thirty-seven wore striped ribbons with gold or silver medals they had already won in previous years. The audience was brimming with excited onlookers waving pennants or banners and set off a tremendous ovation as the line of Judges paraded out to their table set with pads, pens, crystal goblets and individual silver carafes of water.
When the bent but amazingly agile figure of the world famous Master Chef Auguste Escoffier entered, flanked by two assistants looking like French soldiers carrying flags of the French and American culinary organizations, the crowd went wild, bringing out the noisemakers and shouts of, “Bravo, bravo”. The old Chef, at eighty-two, had a splendid face with intelligent bold features and a large white perfectly manicured mustache. He wore a black tam trimmed with some sort of gold medallion pinned to a small black ribbon. A black cape that turned back on one side to show the dark red satin lining covered his suit and there was a dignified array of braid and medals that decorated his chest. To have such a man come so far gave the entire event such credence. The photographer’s bulbs flashed from the ceiling like fireworks as he took a seat of honor set at the far end of the Judges table.
Both French and American flags stood at the podium where an announcer spoke in English that was followed by a French translation. After the beginning salutations, a brief reading of the rules introduced the dish that would be prepared by each chef within two hours determining the final twelve. Four large carts rolled out with heaps of wild California trout, caught locally, garnished with greens and little carrot rosettes, sitting on big beds of crushed ice. Additional carts brought potatoes and all manner of vegetables artfully arranged like parade floats. The audience cheered with a standing ovation. All competitors had drawn lots earlier since there were only twelve kitchens. This demanded three separate groups, the first two with twelve chefs and the third with nine. When the high-pitched whistle blew, the test began and when it blew again, they must stop immediately and walk away from the kitchens to begin the service of plates to the judges.
Paco and Miss Penny were standing on the sidelines among a sizable group of those waiting to assist their Chefs. He could see Printise, among the tallest, standing stiff along side others he did not know. Further along there was Velly, so short but looking fierce, almost dangerous, with his dark chiseled face, a scar darting down one side and black eyes always flashing. Paco admired him so much and knew it would be a miracle if he were to win and return to Paris, reclaiming his rightful place as one of the cities’ great culinary artists. With that title he could possibly rise above the brother who was determined to have him killed, maybe even retake his family’s famous restaurant? If it had not been for Printise who asked him first, Paco would have loved to Commis with Velly. Thinking it over, the great Chef may not have even asked him since he had a very capable kitchen staff who followed him like disciples.
All this was running through Paco’s mind as he scanned the lineup and recognized Mama Genet’s little round figure, the whites of her eyes and big teeth matching her formal jacket and tall hat. ‘What an incredible woman she is, so strong and able to create a taste that equaled the best I ever had and the only woman’, he wondered if she had a chance. Fayola and Latrice where standing nearby with anxious faces, probably overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Chef Omeyer, always called Bertie, was as wide as two people and cherubic as ever, in his own Universe, swaying and gently giggling as if listening to a funny story. Chef Pulga was there and Victore was also waiting. Chef Fredo, looming over everyone, looked gloomy. Sadly he drew a position in the third group. It was well known that this could be a handicap since the Judges pallet would be saturated, no longer able to taste the complexities required of the wining dishes.
Paco picked out all the famous faces that he only knew from their pictures and biographies in the program. He knew Chef Printise was going against tremendous odds but he took a giant breath and strode across the floor with a purposeful gaze along with the other assistants who’s Chefs were in the first round. This was considered a prime place to start out. All the Chefs with their Commis and Coach stood at attention in front of their kitchens. They waited for the whistle that would allow the Chefs only to go to the carts and carry away their selections in baskets. This was done rapidly and for the most part with respectful manners. Printise passed almost a dozen or more trout to Paco to begin the butchering process. He rushed back for the potatoes and found three kinds of squash along with big sweet yellow onions, garlic, peppers, scallions and greens including a bundle of chives with lovely lavender flowers. The additional items needed could be brought from the baskets they left in the Hotel’s supply center. All the dairy products and basic necessities would be waiting in the kitchens. Penny looked officious checking her watch often, waiting to receive directions.
For this test they must prepare ten small tasting plates that had to be not only magnificent but also show creativity in presentation. Thinking of this first the Chef cut the scallions and ultra thin strips of zucchini and yellow squash into shapes he knew would bloom and curl as they sat in ice water. He worked with Paco to perfectly scale and fillet the fish. Printise made a list of things to be brought from the supply center. He wanted the herbs, spices and two bottles of Ludington’s best French Sauterne, alcohol allowed by special consent for culinary purposes during Prohibition. Knowing he was dealing with Masters of Haute Cuisine, he concentrated on refining his style that was normally a little rustic, influenced by Greek and California style.
Chef Printise decided to sauté small rectangles of trout on the skin side in the iron skillets using butter only, knowing this would produce the crunchiest skin. Taking the skin off additional fillets cut to the same rectangular size, he would clad them in very, very thin perfectly identical circles of potato that would mimic fish scales. He and Paco would fashion small fish heads and tails from potato, poaching them separately, then place them on the ends to finish the illusion of a whole fish. These he could delicately sauté and serve golden brown propped to the side of the crunchy piece. Each plate would have one of each and then under this Printise planned a small salad that he intended to express the beauty of a California garden but not detract too much from the fish. So that was the plan and Paco was impressed thinking, ‘Maybe the crazy Chef really was a genius?’
Two kitchens down, as the giant room filled with aromas both savory and sweet, the little team of Chef Madam Genet was working like a well-oiled engine. Lora Knight, Mistress of Cima Del Mundo, the raucous bevy of Grand children with friends and Gunnar, the chauffeur, waving a huge flag, sat well positioned in the crowd. Mama immediately knew to duplicate Antoine’s legendary Louisiana specialty, “Trout Amandine”, and for good luck add her signature side dish, Potatoes soufflé. In her experience the trout selected were small, just enough for an individual serving, prepared whole including head and tail. Stuffed with a combination of sautéed tasso sausage, finely chopped shallots, garlic and aromatic herbs, they were put through her secret method. Washed clean, then dried well, they were massaged lightly with a little lard then dusted with flour. The whole fish was first rapidly pan seared then sautéed briefly in butter, finally stuffed then baked in a very hot oven just to finish. The sauce was made in the same pan after removing the fish to a heated dish and covered to keep warm. Adding more butter she fried the thinly sliced almonds and removed them while adding splashes of finest Montrachet, the great white burgundy from Chardonnay in the Côte de Beaune. Swirling this around scraping off all the brown bits and allowing the remnants of the flour to thicken the sauce she finished with a teeny drop of almond extract, a bit of sugar, final salt with a touch of white and cayenne pepper. This was quickly put through a sieve and then spooned over the fish sprinkling the almonds on top. Preparing this dish for ten Judges set Mama to whistling just like she did back in New Orleans, working in Antoine’s stifling hot kitchen, serving a full house. This relaxed Fayola and Latrice too as the plump potatoes soufflé expanded nicely like little golden brown balloons.
At the same time the audience was riveted to the kitchen of Georges La Mer, the Executive Chef of the American branch of Paris’ landmark Maxim’s in Manhattan. The crowd maintained a continual hum, a kind of buzz, that would waver in volume based on the competitors’ actions. Many of the onlookers had binoculars and opera glasses that allowed them to see exactly what technique the Chefs were using. They would pass the word along to others about the selections of herbs and spices as well as the vintages of wine or other exotic elements that might appear.
The hum hit a crescendo when La Mer set up smokers using large covered roasting pans with little grills over some smoldering chips of his favorite oak. He did this for only minutes to give the trout a delicate touch that would layer over the other subtle flavors including lavender and champagne. He stunned everyone when he removed the skin then broke the fish apart into pieces and mixed it with a light creamy mayonnaise making perfect quenelles that were topped with finest caviar dotted by tiny pink and blue flowers. To the plate he added several spears of chartreuse green asparagus and all these components were finally set in a small pool of thick potage parmentier, a very light green potato leek soup. Four matching parsley leafs were floating equidistant from each other to complete the composition. There was a big round of applause when the first plates were finished.
Paco had no idea what was happening outside his kitchen. Miss Penny kept the stress level high with her continual calling out of the time. Printise was turning red and sweaty asking Paco for anything that came to mind and prompting him to affect the style he predicted would win the Judges favor. They created the little faux fish out of the potatoes as planned and then brushed them with butter. The light sauté needed to cook the trout inside yet keep the color consistent cooking the potatoes to perfect doneness was daunting but it worked like magic. There resting on grill pans sat the ten skillfully sculpted fish that even sported a slight smile that just made them all the more irresistible.
The Chef pulled together the salad that was very simple, only frilly leaves of butter lettuce and some strands of radicchio that looked surprisingly like undersea flora and served as a great bed for the trout. The final garnish was made with discreet positioning of the pretty curls of scallion and twisted tendrils of green and yellow squash. As they finished the front row of plates there was a nice response from the audience, someone even shouting, “That’s a winner Chef Printise, bravo, bravo.” They were coming down to the wire now time wise. Miss Penny began the countdown as the final touches were made. Then the loud shrill whistle blew and holding their hands in the air they walked out of the kitchen exhausted. Both men stood stoic waiting for their moment to serve the panel of Judges now sitting with solemn faces. Chef Printice and Paco, returning to their kitchen, watched the important Chefs who would determine their destiny intently as they made notes, generally giving the appearance of pleasure. What this meant they could only guess and the process would go on through two more rounds. The finalists would be announced at 5:00 pm so they could make further plans for the two grueling days ahead.
All the dishes passed through the critic’s palettes. Chef Bertie received a big response from the crowd, certainly expected since he was a Santa Barbara star chef well known for his opening of the Biltmore. Chef Pulga was as always petulant but extremely focused on producing an Escabeche of Trout, his creation that was Spanish inspired with his California style. Chef Victore his Commis made the most beautiful julienne of carrots, peppers in three colors and celery that altogether looked like a confetti of matchsticks. These were lightly blanched so as to preserve the color and then topped the trout after it was baked in a rich red chili sauce. To mimic the shape of the julienned vegetables the potatoes were cut into skinny batons and deep-fried then stacked beside the trout. A delicious creation for sure but it probably lacked the refinement and presentation needed to win.
A wide variety of styles emerged. There was the classic Truite Meuniere on silky puree of potato, Trout Fillets with mint pipian, Trout Choucroute, Troute Genobloise, and so many more, Paco, joining the audience, was astonished. As the final group stood waiting for the blast of the whistle, signaling the Chefs to select their ingredients, a shocking incident took place that drastically changed the tone of the day. Paco could only shake his head, knowing how big a crisis it would be for Chef Fredo, a man of extreme complexity and in some sense an old friend. As Fredo walked to the carts of vegetables now somewhat depleted, picked over by the preceding contestants, the Chef grabbed at the last basket of chanterelle mushrooms, something he had eyed for hours. This was the one element he must have to make the dish he envisioned and win a chance to compete.
Fredo was so tall that he stood out automatically. Added to this was his piercing voice now spewing expletives in German at the offending Chef who dared to take his mushrooms. Disqualified on the spot for his bad temper, he refused to leave the floor, flailing around in desperation, pointing and waving at the judges and especially threatening the woman who first enraged him at the sign in desk. The security guards came running and to finalize his total downfall, Fredo turned his back on the audience and lifted up his jacket in the back. With the whole room aghast, he pulled down his trousers to reveal a bizarre looking pink and white derriere, oddly striped with ugly purple scars, so offensive visually that the crowd began to hiss and boo, some threatening to attack.
This was a painful end for the proud Austrian who was forced to flee followed by his frightened little team. Paco, worried he might be suicidal, found him, head in his arms, seated by the Hotel fountain. His staff was huddled a little distance away fearing another blow up. Kneeling down and placing a hand on the heartbroken Chef he whispered, “You are still the same great culinary artist you have always been. Nothing can change that.” The big man raised his head and looking into Paco’s sweet eyes with a confirming nod just quietly said, “Thank you, danke sehr, das ist rightig, das ist richtig mein Junge”. Then Fredo stood tall and motioning to leave commanded, “Marsch auf!” To Paco’s relief, the little group just walked away, it’s leader now striding with an imperial attitude, his head high, chest out, inside thanking his lucky stars that his employer, the highly respected Mistress of Piranhurst was on an extended vacation in Europe.
It was nearly five and the big ballroom was filling to capacity. The Judges had resumed their places and the long line of contestants stood waiting for an announcement of the twelve finalists. Paco was again on the side with all the other assistants and he could see Chef Printise standing at attention, his handsome face flushed with anxiety. After a salutation the names were read with bursts of applause after each one; “Chef Peter Wan, Chef Maurice Grevillet, Chef Francoise De Vielmond,” ‘that’s Velly’, Paco’s heart beat faster, “Chef Manuel Acurio, Chef Raymond Olvera, Chef Phillbert Omeyer,” ‘I knew it!’ thought Paco, “Chef Alejandro Ruiz, Chef Sebastian Molina, Chef Printise Yonkopolis,” Paco staggered backwards and caught himself leaning on Chef Victore standing next to him. The announcer read three more names but he was too excited to hear them. As the winners were called they stepped forward from the line. The spectators went wild with drums and noisemakers, bouncing the banners high. Flash bulbs were popping madly from the photographers positioned in the ceiling and sidelines. The orchestra played Tchaikovsky’s Military March for Brass. Running to the side where he spotted Ludington clapping wildly, with Oren Star catching Miss Penny, revolving around in circles, Paco was beyond thrilled. ‘This is unbelievable’ he said over and over to himself.