Chef Printise and his team stayed for publicity shots after winning a place among the twelve contenders with a coveted chance to win the Medallion d’Oro. After making arrangements for meeting that night at Val Verde to practice for the first platter competition, Paco rode the Indian fast all the way to the Quien Sabe, high on the promise of tomorrow. Pulling into the driveway he could see Ranger dancing around and he worried about leaving the big dog on his own. His quarters felt empty and dark so he showered and packed some clothes then called Val Verde, asking Jasper to pick him up, planning to stay over since he expected a late night of preparation. Soon the chauffeur, with Ludington’s pearl grey Mercedes Roadster pulled up. Paco walked out with Ranger on his heels. Looking into the dog’s pleading eyes, he strapped the suitcase on the back and then lifted the collie into the jump seat. ‘There are dogs at Val Verde’, he reasoned. Printise was a cat person with several Siamese that he treated like children, even dressing them up for occasions. This may cause concern, but Ranger was not interested in cats having grown up with them on the Ranch. He knew to avoid eye contact at all times remembering the painful deep scratches on his long sensitive nose when he was a pup.
Paco and Ranger walked into the kitchen causing the cats to leap onto the top of the tall icebox. This set Chef Printise off. Morphing into his female persona, he began crying out in a panicky high voice. “Paco, oh my God, Paco what is that? A lion? Will it bite? It will eat my babies!” Then, Ranger, minding his Master’s bidding, nested himself in a corner as was his habit in the kitchen and Printise began to soften. Thinking it best to simply change the subject Paco donned an apron and said, “What do we do now Chef? We are finalists!” This refocused Printise right away and the great artist, the gifted man who won the day, returned and began calling out orders in his deepest commanding voice, much like the one he used that thrilled the tourists in the Theatre of Apollo. They began the hard work it would take to win the Medallion d’Oro.
Late that night Ludington came to the kitchen and drawing Paco aside said, “I have an offer for you. It is time to select the final pieces for your portfolio submission to the Academia. We need to send this to Florence by the end of September if you intend to start in January. I have a guesthouse on the far side of the property bordering Il Fureidis. It has a large garage attached that I believe is empty and would work well as a studio. Java Sir’s staff is always accommodating and if you give them compensation some would certainly agree to model. I would be very pleased and your big dog is welcome too. I can ask Jasper to take you there and try it out tonight.” Paco who was very lonely at the Quien Sabe without Madonna agreed right away, thinking a move out of the garden house studio before the rains began a good idea. And so it was that Paco and Ranger jumped in the middle of a big iron bed covered with pillows and multi patterned Indian coverlets. He was so tired he did not even explore the space.
Early the next morning Paco arose and a little groggy took Ranger outside knowing it was important to find him some bushes. They were on the outskirts of the estate where the landscape was completely natural. Handsome oaks stood around on the softly rounded hills like people and there was a rocky streambed below only showing a modest flow of rippling water. The dog relieved himself often making his mark on the foliage then went to the creek for a long satisfying drink. Paco sat on a large boulder enchanted by the entire setting when out of seemingly nowhere the figure of his little temptress from Il Fureidis stood before him. She put her hand on his mouth wanting him to listen to what she needed to say. “Paco I have a very, very sad thing to tell you now. I have wanted to love you for many, many months but I must say with all possible regret that I may not kiss you again. I may not touch you again either. I am to be married”. And with that big tears rolled down her smooth brown cheeks from those huge black eyes with a very pale yellow where the white should be. She continued, “My Father, the great Sepehr Jafar Javeed Foroohar, your Java Sir, has selected a boy who I do not know and he will arrive soon from India. And so you see I must never, never love you again.” Paco realized she had taken their little sport in the broom closet seriously while he had not given it a second thought. He needed to show some sensitivity but also agree completely that they would not touch again. This he did sincerely and as Ranger came up to inspect the girl Paco explained he would be staying in the guest house and asked her name never knowing it before. “I am Perichercher but you must call me Peri. And who will take care of your lovely big dog?” She had a voice like little bells with the singsong sound common to the Indians, always enriched by a hint of the British. Paco did not know who would care for Ranger and as he looked at her with question she cried out, “Oh let me, let me, I can watch to see that he comes to no harm. I am caring for a very sick lady who loves animals and I think this dog might make her happy?” Satisfied with this idea he instructed Ranger to follow the girl, something he did with great interest, mesmerized by the scent on the hem of her long skirt as they walked away together.
Spirited by the apparent positive turns of fate that brought him to such exciting new opportunities, he reported to the kitchen finding Chef Printise ready to pack and head for the Biltmore on day one of the grand competition. Carefully padding the Deco mirror they planned to use as a platter and then loading all the baskets of ingredients that covered the entire floor of Ludington’s big touring car, they were off. Arriving at the Biltmore they checked in, unpacked and secured everything in their designated kitchen. An excited Miss Penny arrived with Oren and all four found a table in the bar to wait for the moment when they were allowed to begin. Star found the Newspaper, as always. He began to read a story about the competition the day before and the shocking disturbance cause by a disgruntled Chef who was, miracle of miracles, not mentioned by name, probably with due respect to the charitable Hill Baron of Piranhurst who employed him. There were photos of the final twelve with Chef Printice looking like a movie actor, beaming with a big toothy smile. One interesting paragraph described the legendary Maxim’s Chef La Mer’s spectacular smoked Trout Quenelles in Potage Parmentier and how it shocked the onlookers when he was not included in the finalists. Now this drew big interest from Prentise, Paco and Penny who did not even realize the great Chef was not among the twelve. Oren read on, “The dish was spectacular in presentation and won all the percentage possible for that feature but it is whispered that the Great Escoffier himself found a tiny bone in one perfectly formed egg shaped dumpling with an elegant caviar topping and this was the reason for his elimination.”
“You can see my Darling Paco that even the mightiest can fall on their face if they allow anything to be less than perfect”, Printise warned, really a little stunned and frightened himself. The article ended with a big story about Chef Omeyer, the Biltmore’s Bertie, and now he was one of the probable winners along with Chef Maurice Grevillet, Delmonico’s, NY and Chef Molina, of The International Club, NY. The Chef they targeted to win it all was Chef Oscar Tschirky, The Waldorf, NY, who was a protégée of Chef Escoffier. Penny nudged Oren under the table hoping he would stop reading the details that were making them so nervous.
The Contest now formally opened with a big audience already gathering and the Chamber Orchestra playing. All twelve Chefs lined up, each in front of a kitchen, looking impressive in their whites and tall matching toques. The Judges filed in and then the most honored Chef Judge, the Maestro Escoffier, walked in slowly with the flag bearers. All were waiting breathless for the whistle that would mark the start. A signal was given for the Commis and Coaches to take their places and to the amazement of a cheering crowd and Paco who followed him out, Chef La Mer, the favorite who lost out due to a tiny fish bone, walked proudly to Chef de Vielmond’s kitchen to act as Coach. Knowing he was Velly’s American mentor when he first came to work in the New York version of Maxim’s gave Paco a little satisfied feeling. In his heart of hearts he knew that the greatest talent on the floor that day was Chef Velly for sure.
There was a ten-minute wait between the start times for each chef, allowing the service to the Judges to be spaced out a little and Chef Printise was in 9th place. That meant there would be a little over an hour of anxious waiting before they could begin but it also gave Paco a chance to see the others working. Immediately the Brilliance of the first culinary artist emerged with Chef Peter Wan, from the greatest Hotel in San Francisco, the fabulous St. Francis. The original Chef who made the restaurant’s fine dinning legendary was Victor Hirtzler who learned to cook in Strasbourg, France, and then for royal courts across Europe. According to Hirtzler, he had created a dish for King Carlos I of Portugal, called La Mousse Faisan Lucullus, a mousse of Bavarian pheasant's breast and woodcock flavored with truffles, and a sauce of cognac, Madeira and champagne. The dish was so expensive, and the King ate it so frequently, that he bankrupted Portugal twice and was assassinated in 1908.
Hirtzler fled to America becoming the brilliant mentor of Peter Wan who was half Chinese and grew up in San Francisco. Common knowledge had it that he was the son of a woman abducted by the Tong who died in childbirth. He was rescued as an infant and restored to his prominent family who supported him with every opportunity, sending him to France for a culinary education. Wan became a celebrity Chef creating spectacular productions, in his half French-half Chinese style, for the Hollywood set. He prepared parties for Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, cowboy star Tom Mix, Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, and directors D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, constantly making news that was reported on the gossipy society pages. Even at the competition there was a sizable loud fan club waving a banner that said, “WAN WILL WIN”.
Each of the Chefs must announce the menu for their platter so the audience turned quiet as Peter Wan described his creation. “I will prepare for you today a seafood pastiche of seared yellowtail accompanied by sautéed mussels, clams, shrimp, red onion and cilantro in cloudberry consume, fried calamari, four crispy garden vegetables on jasmine tea scented rice pillows with hoisin, sweet & sour, and ginger scallion dipping sauces”. This was followed by a polite round of applause.
Next up was Chef Maurice Grevillet renowned Executive Chef for the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel who became famous for his signature dish, a dramatic presentation of lobster served in a crunchy vermicelli cage on white porto sauce and pea pomponette. For the contest he added risotto fennel balls, wild mushroom confit and a bitter orange marmalade jell. This sounded intriguing and even caused one or two of the Judges to lift their eyebrows with anticipation.
Chef Francoise De Vielmond, Il Brolino, came next. Velly’s menu was sleek and sophisticated calling for the most difficult techniques known. He asked Chef La Mer, his famous coach, to announce the dishes because his French accent was so heavy and hard to understand. The Platter promised to be a work of art. Chef Velly’s main attraction was a Checkerboard of Steamed Sole and Salmon sitting on a sliver of black truffle and sauce Bonnefoy, a white Bordelaise. This dish promised a memorable image with it’s intricate basket weave presentation in creamy white and pale pink. For sides he planned caramelized black cod mignonette, artichoke canapé with sauce coquille and golden caviar garnish. There would be peas in spring onion custard topped by parsnip chips and graceful little pea pod tendrils. Finally Chef Velly added celery root puree and torched blanched almonds.
Five more Chefs announced their menus and began their platters including Chef Bertie who ended up with a main dish of colossal Santa Barbara prawns and lobster tail with several sauces. One of his sides was a fancy version of pomme frites; cut very long and thin, making a sensational spiky presentation standing up in black paper cylinders lined with lacy doilies. This last item was something he served often in the Biltmore’s premier restaurant, “The Golden Marlin”, and Paco knew immediately it would be eye-catching for the Judges.
Finally it was Chef Printise who took the microphone and described his platter. He decided to go a little tropical since at the Biltmore the Judges would be almost sitting on the beach. His main entre was langoustine nuggets and grilled pineapple on small skewers with a buttery mango-orange, caramelized onion, and coriander sauce. The sides were candied smoked eel, crab in mint and green apple sauce, (something everyone adored from the Mio Cuore dinner party), a tabouli timbale, grapefruit, argan oil, and blanched endive served standing with a spicy tangerine shallot sauce. Printise and Paco had practiced the techniques and especially worked on the theatrical way they used their knives. They planned every little detail of the way each item would be served and placed on the big Deco mirror. They found ten small plain crystal glasses or plates for each side dish that would be placed in four rows. For the centerpiece, they planned to elevate ten skewers of lobster on a spectacular cut crystal Deco style bowl placed upside down. The entire creation would be judiciously decorated with orchids and little strands of jasmine. ‘Leave it to the Chef for a big dramatic statement but, remember something that Velly said, there could be purists among the older Judges who may not like an excessive display” thought Paco.
Three more followed finishing with Chef Oscar Tschirky of the Waldorf in Manhattan.
Working too hard for even a glance at this famous culinary star who was touted to win the entire competition, Printise, Paco and Penny would have to hear the details later from Ludington and Oren who had settled into the audience. Chef Oscar announced the menu for his platter and there were “oooo’s” and “ahhh’s” as he described each dish. “Today I will have for your approval an entree of halibut rolled and stuffed with morel fricassee kissed by rosemary, and for the side dishes a classic gratin Dauphinois, mille-feuille of marinated salmon with fresh herbs, pancetta wrapped tuna & melon, avocado and orange on escarole with pimento shallot and tarragon vinaigrette.”
The competition became heated, really heated. There were several small fires that needed to be doused along with a surprising turn of events that sadly ushered the big loveable Chef Bertie out of the race. His Commis, a regular sous chef in his kitchen at the Biltmore accidentally had a serious knife wound that spilled blood over the giant prawns as he was cleaning them and one of the monitors saw it happen. The whistle was blown and the team, after serious consideration by the Judges, was demanded to leave the kitchen immediately. The crowd, many locals included, set up a fierce outburst with boos and general sounds of complaint. Undaunted, the popular Chef with his big pink cheeks plumped and smiling waved goodbye with a sporty gesture and slowly left the ballroom, off to go to work in his big hotel kitchen where he was always number one.
It started five hours to the minute that the first chef to begin became the first chef to present their platter for photos and audience appreciation and then bring it to the table where the servers made the individual plates for each Judge. So Peter Wan was first and received a tremendous ovation as his yellowtail, artistically ornamented by a festoon of cilantro laced with exotic looking orchids, was carried to the table. This was surrounded by small plum colored lacquer bowls of his cloudberry consume presenting various shellfish and a red onion ring garni. All this was esthetically placed on a very large deep red lacquer platter that gleamed in places with lucky Chinese characters in gold. His crispy vegetables on jasmine tea scented rice pillows were exquisite and dotted with a surround of the sauces. And so the Judges began the long process that would finally proclaim the greatest Chef in America.
Going by audience reaction, the big favorite so far was Chef Velly with his jaw-dropping presentation that featured the checkerboard of sole and salmon. This spectacular entre was so elegantly produced that the first sight of his platter caused a hush among the on-lookers before they exploded into a standing ovation.
Four more Chefs presented and then it was time for Chef Printise and Paco to carry out their masterpiece. Astonishing as it seemed to them the audience went wild, banging drums and someone shouting “Bravo, bravo”. For the first time they saw many pennants emblazoned with “Chef Printise” waving and a big banner appeared up on the back row that Paco realized was carried by the Val Verde garden staff. It read, “CHEF PRINTISE OUR CHAMPION”. Encouraged by all this approval Printise and Paco made a very dramatic display of the magnificent mirrored platter that was exploding with brilliance, reflecting the lights from a crystal chandelier and the flashes of the photographer’s cameras in the ceiling. ‘Now if only the dishes taste as great as they look’, thought Paco, nervously coordinating the hand over to the serving table and the opinions of the Judges.
The team of three were now released to join the audience were they found a delighted Ludington with Oren and Jasper holding seats. Printise winked at Ludington saying, “Loved the pennants and the banner Darling.” Oren whispered, “We paid the drummer twenty dollars.” They all felt high with expectation, as the event appeared to be going very, very well. Finally the great Chef Oscar of the Waldorf, sitting in the most handicapped position, going last, brought forth what could be the winner of the day. First, he too chose a mirrored plateau. Large and oval he served his halibut rolls in the center of a very tall crystal pedestal that was lifted high above a bouquet of flowering rosemary and other decorative herbs with small flowers tied together by a powder blue silk ribbon that was wired in place to stand up and create a simulated Baroque medallion. His ten servings of Dauphinois, whipped potatoes, were placed in small cut crystal goblets with a pastry nib that created little castles. Salmon was rolled into ten tiny swirls filled with caviar. Then little packages of the pancetta wrapped tuna & melon were tied with celery strings. Perfect slices of avocado fanned out on ten small crystal plates topped with perfectly supremed slices of orange, a pimento-laced vinaigrette and the addition of small beautifully created orange peel roses, each made from a single strip carved from a single fruit. The overall vision was stunning and the crowd knew it was possibly the winner. Printise looked at Paco with his eyebrows a mile high, spirits a little dashed, obviously thinking they were up against a powerful opponent.
With that it was over for the day and although the Biltmore staff would clean the kitchens, Chef Printise asked Paco and Jasper to retrieve the knives and the mirrored platter. As the two entered their kitchen and stood possibly unobserved they noticed an Asian in black walk by with a nefarious attitude. Paco, thinking he looked strangely like the men recently encountered during the kidnap, stood high on the sink where he could actually see into the surrounding kitchens including the one belonging to Chef Oscar on the far end. The dark figure was in there. He opened the icebox and did some unknown thing then left rapidly. ‘This was weird’ concluded Paco, but Jasper motioned to him for help with the platter and during the hassle it took to carry everything to the car he totally forgot about the incident.
It was twilight by the time Paco had shared a happy dinner, noticing that Prentise drank far more than his share of the excellent vintage Mumms Ludington pulled out to celebrate a job well done. He had opted to walk through the estate grounds to his quarters, a refreshing little journey through the manicured and sculpture ornamented gardens to the natural landscape that marked his part of Val Verde. Striding up the pathway to his quant wood frame cottage with a big front porch he could make out the image of Ranger sitting on the top step with a turbaned person, apparently restraining him, along side. Coming closer the dog was released and the person introduced himself, “Salutations Sahib, my name is Sorush, I have come at the wishes of Miss Perichercher who has instructed me to watch over the giant dog and guard you through the night.” Ranger bounded up to him, jingling with little bells attached to a paisley bandeau tied around his neck. He looked unusually fluffy, his hair feathering out like the collar of a lion. Then landing big front paws on his chest, the collie gave his face a cheery thorough wash with his long pink tongue.
Paco thanked the man but explained he did not need a guard. Hoping he was understood, and bowing to each other several times over, he just turned and entered the little house. He really never had time to look carefully at the place and as he lit the only lamp he could make out a small kitchen in the far corner, a large bookcase filled to the brim and a roll-top desk on the opposite wall. The big iron bed was sitting almost in the middle of the room on a magnificent Persian carpet and at the other end there was a mammoth stone fireplace. Everything seemed very clean and decorated with a hint of Indian style that was further expressed by the distinct scent of patchouli, a perfume he recognized as warm sweet and pungent all at the same time.
Paco felt good here. He inhaled deeply and sensed the comfort that the little cottage would provide. He massaged his aching body, so over worked and exhausted by the events of the day. Entering the bathroom with it’s big old iron tub and vintage plumbing he filled the bath and treated himself to a long soaking with Ranger sitting in the corner mildly amused. He dried off with an enormous cotton sheet, the only thing there, and just leaped into the big bed, a collie dog nestling in behind him. Paco slept soundly until almost dawn when he awoke from a vivid sensual dream. He only remembered the ending. He recalled the heart-stopping figure of Lillian standing over him with her long blond hair brushing his bare chest; he could smell roses and the heat of her body pulling him to consciousness. He sat up rubbing his eyes and looked out toward the front door that had been left open with only the screen door closed. He could see Ranger outside sitting on the porch so grabbing the sheet he wrapped up and walked out to the steps. Everything was still and the light was just beginning to filter in through the limbs of a giant oak that created a glorious canopy. All was peaceful but it seemed curious that Ranger was now standing a little way down the front path looking out in the distance with his tail wagging as if he was greeting a friend.
Now it was probably only five in the morning but knowing it was impossible to go back to sleep he planned to make a little coffee and check out everything in the bookcase. Turning to walk in he noticed a big heap of something leaned against the house at the far end of the porch. Looking closer he recognized the turban of Sorush now unwound and serving as a cover. It completely hid the man’s entire sleeping body, apparently in a sitting position with knees up as a headrest. Paco, slightly annoyed, resisted the urge to ask him to leave and finding coffee among plenty of provisions he began to examine the books.
Finding numerous brown notebooks he opened one and read the name “Krishnamurti”. This was the famous Philosopher who had his learning center in Ojai, a small town nearby, and he recently made news. Oren Star read aloud about it one morning from his special chair at a tiny table in front of the great marble soda fountain at Diehl’s. The story, as Paco remembered it, was that the man had headed an international organization and, after years of its existence, he dissolved the order several weeks ago. It was a society that proclaimed the coming of a world teacher and many believed this man was the one. The news article went on to explain that Krishnamurti professed to have undergone a profound spiritual awakening that changed his entire outlook on life. He believed he found a new understanding of his own spiritual mission as a Teacher. This awakening was achieved by something he called “the process” and required days of existing in a dreamlike state refusing food or water.
All this was passing through Paco’s mind as he flipped through the hand written pages. One journal entry marked January 9, 1929 read: “On the death of my beloved brother I suffered, but I set about to free myself from everything that bound me, till in the end I became united with the Beloved, I entered into the sea of liberation, and established that liberation within me”.
Another entry was as follows: “I could not have said last year, as I can say now, that I am the Teacher; for had I said it then it would have been insincere, it would have been untrue . . . But now I can say it. I have become one with the Beloved. I have been made simple. I have become glorified because of Him, and because of Him I can help. My purpose is not to create discussions on authority, on manifestations in the personality of Krishnamurti, but to give the waters that shall wash away your sorrows, your petty tyrannies, your limitations, so that you will be free, so that you will eventually join that ocean where there is no limitation, where there is the Beloved”.
Paco put away the documents and watched Sorush, turban back in place on his head with a stylish knot, making tea and some kind of cinnamon scented porridge that he soon served to Paco with a bow and a captivating smile. For Ranger, pulled from the icebox, there was a lamb stew with lentils and big chunks of carrot. This pleased the dog who ate everything with ten gulps in seconds. Paco was now very intrigued by what he found in the bookcase and it occurred to him that this Persian servant might know something about Krishnamurti. “Sorush, did you know the man who wrote the books? Was he living here?” Paco was fishing.
Sorush replied, “Oh yes Sahib, I did serve the great one, the most blessed Teacher. He came here often to do his process and it was I who watched very, very carefully to see that he was safely crossing back and forth into his dreamland. This is a secret place for him and I am the guardian of his documents. Now he is traveling and he may not return for many months.” This left Paco completely stunned sitting with mouth open as Jasper came bursting in urging Paco to dress and come quickly, the big touring car was leaving for the contest. So clothes rapidly pulled on he headed out for the final day of challenge for the title of Best Chef in America. On the way out Sorush took hold of the scarf around Rangers neck and said, “Come mighty lion and I will give you your morning brushing and massage.”
Back at the Biltmore ballroom, stocking their kitchen and placing the brilliant mirrored platter on the counter, Chef Printise and Paco quietly reviewed their game plan. When Miss Penny arrived they carefully discussed the cooking times that would be critical and take several watches to track. The audience was filtering in slowly, a quartet playing a lite piece in the background. An announcer began the salutations and introduced Escoffier, then as if a replay of his prior appearances, with the flag bearers on either side, he walked to his commanding place at the head of the table to resounding applause. The rest of the Judges filed in and the eleven chefs, minus Bertie who had been disqualified, each took their place standing in front of their respective kitchens. The shrill whistle blew and it was Chef Peter Wan who started first with an enthusiastic band of fans cheering him on, some chanting, “Wan will win”, over and over.
The other chefs were not allowed to begin cooking since there was a wait period between the start times for each one. The teams who would be waiting for a while sat in a lounge area or just walked around experiencing the event. It would be a little over an hour before Chef Printise and his team would begin so Paco strolled about meeting friends and checking out the menus from the competition printed in a new program. Just reading through the dishes gave him a queasy feeling knowing they were in for a tough ride.
Paco noticed Chef Oscar, the big star from the Waldorf, and his team carrying in provisions. The monitors watched to see that they did not start cooking but after several moments there was a loud commotion erupting in the kitchen. Other monitors were called over and the competition staff arrived. Something had happened and Paco flashed on the man he saw late the night before who appeared to be sneaking into Chef Oscar’s icebox. Moving as close as he could he heard the words, “Everything is spoiled, all the veal and foie gras, my rabbits and the caviar are missing, the vegetables and fresh herbs are limp and useless. We cannot go on? The ice in the bottom of the box has been removed! This is sabotage! Call the police! We are ruined!” Oscar and his Commis, arms waving wildly clearly furious, were threatening to go for the knives. Word of this disaster spread around the crowd and the buzz grew to a small roar. The announcer came to the microphone and tried to calm the on-lookers, “Your attention please, Ladies and Gentlemen, there has been an incident that we are rushing to resolve. The competition continues and we will bring further information to you promptly. Now please enjoy the show.”
Paco felt a little shaky from this development and found Chef Printise standing with Miss Penny and Jasper. He had to share what was bothering him and asked Jasper if he had a good look at the oriental man they saw in Chef Oscar’s kitchen the evening before getting a negative response. The little team hurried to their kitchen asking for entrance from the monitor and then checked out everything. Nodding with relief they knew it was all there. The ice had kept everything fresh. Only minutes later the announcement came, Chef Oscar of the Waldorf, the man everyone thought was winning so far had been forced to withdraw along with Chef Maurice Grevillet of the Los Angeles Ambassador who had taken suddenly ill.
Concerned now that three competitors were counted out, and possibly it was more than a coincidence that they were considered by many to be the strongest contenders, Paco had a fleeting thought about Chef Velly, thinking he was now the probable champion. ‘Could he be in danger?’ Maybe it was his recent experience with men in black that caused his concern. Looking down the way he saw Velly, his powerful arms passionately chopping something in his kitchen and he felt relieved. Just minutes later the whistle for Chef Printise to start blew. Now they had five hours to create the winning meat platter and hopefully the coveted Medallion d’Oro.
They began preparing the veal and chicken stock needed for the Duck a la Greco. Artful chopping and detailed creation of clever garnishes took so much time since they needed ten identical samples of each item. Paco set the pine nuts aside in a sauté pan waiting for the time when he would lightly warm them, keeping them white to create a decorative pattern as a finish on the duck. Careful attention to the preparation of their prime stalks of white asparagus and the trimming of clementine segments would follow. Dressing for the lettuce salad with fancy herbs, the very thin slices of onion to sauté in rich honey wine sauce and the potatoes for the Greek style gratin must be done with precision, every serving perfectly matching. All eyes would be on the visual presentation of the platter and uniformity was a key feature.
The giant ballroom was boisterous almost drowning out the pianist playing Chopin selections. There were bars at either end serving non-alcoholic drinks that would be secretly spiked by many flasks carried in the pockets and handbags of the crowd. People milled around the room, leaving periodically to have lunch, and continually observed the action in each kitchen that by three in the afternoon began drawing to a frenetic conclusion.
The audience was finally asked to take their seats for service to the judges. The excitement was mounting. The flag waving started with vigor and fans eager to encourage their favorite shouted out names. The person with the big drum made an appearance and long banners were showing up. The atmosphere was turning buoyant as the first chef, Peter Wan, was motioned to present his platter. His menu was announced and Paco’s heart sank a little when he heard the entre was a rosette of roasted duck with white truffle cherry sauce. His work was excellent, served on the same large lacquered tray with the gold Chinese characters. The dumplings were served in porcelain soupspoons. He made ten tiny servings of froie gras with roasted cepes and sunchoke puree on mushroom cups. Next a warm salad of Brussels sprout leaves, pear and Duchilly hazelnut, presented on ten matching maple leaves. And finally chilled pink grapefruit, elderflower and fennel jelly topped with amazing pink button chrysanthemums carved from watermelon, revealed later as a special talent of his Chinese Commis. Wan’s platter received a big ovation with a chant “Wan will win” and lots of red and black pennants with his name in gold waving madly.
Chef Printise and Paco were finalizing the platter with the placement of the dishes but could not resist looking at the work of the others as they passed by. Next up was Chef Velly carrying out a magnificent platter, but Paco who knew him so well could see that his old friend was white, not with his usual dark coloring and bright red cheeks. Even his dark eyes that normally sparkled with energy looked dull and empty. Something was wrong and as the spectacular presentation was placed on the serving table Velly fell to the floor. The crowd groaned as medical personnel came with a stretcher and carried him out, then turned to cheers and a standing ovation for the masterpiece that lay before them on the large white porcelain platter. In the center high atop a tower of many, many layered leaves of frilly edged chartreuse green cabbage, interspersed with a tiny garni of thyme and violets, was a ring of ten stuffed confit of duck legs, French cut, the bones created a stunning crown touched on the tips with gold leaf. Quail cakes under little crystal domes stood in a straight line. Wild mushroom duxelle and caramelized pear had been rolled in individual pastries, baked to golden perfection and fastened by tall toothpicks, the tops dipped into dark chocolate then studded with little dark red berries. Ten tiny bite sized boats beautifully cut out of cucumber rind looked like sculptures. They ferried morsels of fine fromage siting on thin strips of black truffles in an apricot sea of creme fraiche garnished with ultra crispy spikes of duck skin. It was clearly a work of art and given Chef Velly’s immense talent each dish would thrill the pallets of the experts.
Four more chefs presented then it was time for Printise and Paco to carry out the dazzling Deco mirror skillfully displaying their culinary best. The Duck a la Greco was done in ten bite-sized Napoleons, the meat layered between crispy sheets of fillo dough that topped the inverted crystal bowl in the center of the platter. Each one was decorated with teardrop shapes made from black olive that closely matched the pine nuts creating a very chic geometric pattern. The white asparagus was served in ten small altogether matching bundles wrapped with the curls of bright orange Mimolette and finished with clementine segments. Bitter lettuce salad was formed into ten rings then placed on matching rings of sautéed sweet onions in honey. The Greek style gratin of potatoes looked savory with a buttery glaze and a single pressed mint leaf on each of ten small rectangular cakes. The fans made a resounding roar, the drummer went wild and Chef Printise, red faced from the heat was in his glory, curly blond hair feathering out from the humidity and his big white perfect teeth centered in a monstrous smile. Paco was holding up his end almost blinded by the flash bulbs popping and spotlights dancing around the huge oval room causing the chandeliers to cast little rainbows over everyone. They laid the big-mirrored platter on the service table and stepped back releasing their ardent labors to a row of gentlemen looking severe and discriminating.
Paco was thinking the Judges may have even saturated their taste buds by this time but the relief from finishing well was so liberating they rushed to the sidelines joining Ludington, Penny and Oren Star standing nearby. They began to hug, spinning around and other friends piled on forming a group including Mama Genet, Fayola, Chef Victore, Savadore even Corliss and her new boy friend. The congratulations were pouring in as they walked to the restaurant, waiting for the final ceremony to grant the top three winners their copper, silver and gold medallions. These prizes would include cash rewards and round trip tickets plus lodging for the World culinary contest, the Medallion d’Oro Internationale later on in France.
A little before five the great gold and black Biltmore ballroom with it’s fabulous chandeliers was filled to capacity by a mob throbbing from excitement. The orchestra played and the spotlights swept around the huge oval space. The Chefs with their Commis and Coach standing behind them were all lined up. Judges were introduced and the Great Chef Escoffier was awarded a lifetime Grand Judge medal. Then it was time to announce the winners with third place first. So many holding their breath made for a sudden silence. “And the winner of the Copper Medallion d’Oro goes to…” he waited for seconds to add drama, “Chef Printise Yonkopolis!”
The sound was deafening and there was a modest cloud of confetti released from the top row of the grandstand. Printise gathered Paco and Penny up in his big arms lifting them off their feet, whirling around and around. They were really stunned, secretly thinking they didn’t have a chance. The hoopla was over quickly and again there was a sudden silence. The announcer continued, “And now, the second place award goes too…” a little wait, “Chef Peter Wan”. This brought on even louder celebrating and his fans began the familiar chant, “Wan will win! Wan will win!” The Chef bowed politely but it was apparent he was disappointed. His team looked down at the floor and because they displayed such a lack of joy the revelry ended fast. So the silence resumed and the spirit in the room floated, suspended in air, everyone poised to cheer on the gold medal winner, the greatest Chef in America. The announcer began, “We have the great honor to award the Medalion d’Oro, Americane 1929, to…” now a long wait making the crowd buzz a little with exasperation. “Chef Francoise De Vielmond!” Paco was extatic! It was Velly! The wonderful, wonderful Velly who deserved it so much! Then looking down the line he realized the Chef was not there? The room had exploded with jubilation with all the lights flashing and a big burst of confetti sailing around more for the finale of the event than the first place winner. The Chefs were given the precious medals hanging from handsome striped ribbons that Escoffier himself placed around their necks. When it came to Chef Velly’s turn his able Commis accepted the award looking dazed and humble. For Paco it was an unbelievable moment and he missed Madonna thinking she would have loved this almost more than he did.
Everyone began to leave as Paco and Jasper packed up everything from the kitchen. They needed several trips and on one of them, out in the parking lot, they passed some reporters surrounding Chef Peter Wan. Flash bulbs burst and the Chef said, “Gentlemen, this is for publication, I fully intend to file an appeal for a complete review of the judging since the rules of the contest specifically state that the competitors must be attending in person and illness or accident is a cause for immediate disqualification.” This made Paco’s mouth drop wide open. ‘What a ridiculous idea’, Paco thought, ‘Velly was finished with his platter when he passed out. Where is he anyway? Chef Wan is a sore looser!’ Looking a little closer at him he was thinking back to the man who was in Chef Oscar’s refrigerator. ‘There is something familiar about Wan’s face? It was so dark and I really could not get a good look at the man’s features? ’
All this was still churning around in his mind as they drove home, packed to the rafters with equipment, the platter and food, so much food that when they arrived at Val Verdi Ludington declared, “Let’s start the party! Printise call everyone! We will eat the spoils of war and Jasper get out the Mumms!” Within the hour the big terrace was filled with all the local friends and neighbors who considered a good party their life’s work. Hot Jazz from Louis Armstrong floated out from the record player and each guest was getting high on a variety of mood lifters. Paco, dizzy and homesick, found the phone in a little office off of the kitchen. He fumbled through his wallet and found the card with numbers for Mia Cuore. Placing a call through the operator it was a long wait before Zio answered in a deep voice. “Good evening, may I help you?” his Italian accent thicker than remembered.
“Yes, Zio, it’s me Paco. Is my Mother there?” The old butler was surprised and fumbled for an answer. “No young Master, she has gone on holiday with your Father. They are not coming back for three weeks. When the Captain calls I will give him a message.” Sad and empty, Paco simply said thank you and hung up not even caring where they went without letting him know. It was times like this his brain always conjured up the delicious vision of Charmaine and it occurred to him she would know where Velly was. He dialed the number. “Hi, it’s me. We won third place? I still can’t believe it. Where is Velly? He won the gold you know? I want to see you.” Listening intently eyes widening he replied, “Yes, yes, right away, I’m at Val Verde. I’ll be waiting at the front gate.”