Arriving at the appointed time Paco found his way to the entrance of Ludington’s estate, Val Verde, with its spectacular landscape now expanded. Manicured hedges artfully formed the passages and gardens that were now in the process of displaying his exceptional collection of Greek and Roman sculpture. Normally he took a service entrance route but today he selected the main entrance. Featured at the entry, off of the motor court, was one spectacular reflecting pool with a graceful statue of Aphrodite floating on a pedestal at the far end.
Climbing the steps with a roll of drawings, including nine of a single orange, he rang the bell. A flash of fabric streaked by French doors and then returned. Soon an apparent specter of Isis, her eyes decorated with heavy kohl liner and audacious crimson lips, inspected him slowly from head to toe. He heard the loud clacking of high heels disappear down the deep red tiled floor. Time passed, the footsteps approaching. Doors swung wide to reveal a huge woman dressed in a deep blue glittering evening gown with big shoulders, a matching headdress that was held in place by a golden cobra and a black and gold striped scarf that flared out with Pharaonic style. She was smoking, wielding a very long cigarette holder, and as she beckoned him in he noticed the perfectly groomed sandy blond mustache that revealed his true sex.
“Come this way Paco, Mr. Ludington is in the galleria unpacking. We are completely crazed with exhaustion and tonight, oh my God, it’s bloody awful, we are having the King Tut Party!” Chef/Butler Printise Yonkopolis threw his arms skyward and then with dainty balletic steps led the way through an entry and large living room cluttered with giant crates and multi-sized packages. “Watch your step, my Darling boy. The Master has gone potty. Everything is in an ugly tangle, a shamble. Renovations, renovations everywhere!”
Paco knew Printise very well because as the Chef at Val Verde he ordered either by phone or in person all the extravagant food selections from Diehl’s and he delivered at least once a week. Unusually fair with classic Roman features he was quick to tell anyone that his Mother, British, fell in love with his Father, a Greek Sicilian, on an archeological dig at the ancient site of Delos. She spent just long enough in the hot dusty ruins to create him and divorcing quickly went back to her family properties near Oxford. There, his Mother, still intensely in love with classical Greece, raised him as a golden child of Olympus. The toddler, dressed in tiny togas and sandals with wings, was called Apollo until he left for schooling.
Printise departed college early, partly because of his heavy drug use and notably due to his compulsion to neglect his studies for work in warm kitchens. He had done this since a child, content next to his great love, the family Cook Martha, possibly in order to escape his bizarre circumstances. Attending Magdalen College, planning for a career in literature, his room was in the famous Old Parsonage just steps away from Oscar Wilde’s student quarters. Printise found the kitchen and attached himself to the wondrous Chef de Cuisine, the legendary Eugene Plazermine, who had been fired from all the greatest restaurants in France due to alcoholism. The old drunk Chef loved the boy and taught him well until the terrible day when he burned the kitchen down including himself. Simultaneous with this tragedy his Mother married an Ancient Antiquities Professor who hated the young man on sight. Rising one morning and packing lightly, Prentiss left for Sicily where he was taken in by his dead Father’s big extended family. There he languished for some years, refining his art, always watching, learning and cooking in one of the many warm kitchens he craved for solace.
With all the nurturing of Sicilian society, sun and good eating, Prentiss became the personification of his childhood name. He was as beautiful as Apollo should be. Very tall and muscular with a crown of golden curls and azure eyes, he was a remarkable sight. Soon it occurred to his ever-enterprising Yonkopolis cousins, who ran a rustic restaurant under the arbors and olive trees, to take advantage of what nature had brought them.
The majestic young man found himself again dressed in a toga portraying the Sun God. This time it was for a brutally cut up production of several Greek tragedies. Created to entertain tourists on the steps of the great Temple of Segesta and often in the well-preserved ancient theatre on Delos, Prentiss became a local celebrity. These events, done on order by British tour agencies, included a lunch that Prentiss and a few relatives prepared and served with dramatic effect. This added income was a boon for the family. Now they clearly adored their newfound relative and gave him every accommodation but all he seemed to want was to cook.
The plays were actually concocted by an aging Yonkopolis Grandfather, a mathematics teacher for years. The gentle ladies and men, taking the grand tour of ancient and exotic lands, where highly amused and often drawn back by the sexual antics and bloody accounts drawn from an unending supply of Greek and Roman mythology. One of the most entertaining presentations combined snippets of Euripedes’ “Heracules” and a completely fabricated version of the myth of Cassandra. This quirky adaptation told that her beauty caused Apollo to grant the gift of prophecy. For this she spent a night at his temple, where the sacred snakes licked her ears clean. That, they asserted, was why she was able to hear the future.
It was during one such event that destiny brought Prentiss and Ludington irrevocably together. Sitting in the theatre audience, feasting on a sumptuous basket of just picked vegetables drenched in thick green rosemary scented olive oil, a mound of herbed goat cheese and the most glorious tomatoes ever tasted, was Wright and his architect Bertrand. They were smirking over the dialog but swooning with joy over the food. In the hot sun, drinking wine like water, they were soon intoxicated with the vision of Prentiss. His magnificent body, tanned and glistening with sweat, was enough to garner an invitation to join them at their hotel. That was all it took for the eager Apollo to pack his bags and waving goodbye to his grief stricken Greek family, he simply showed up at Ludington’s door unannounced and declared, “I’m coming with you.”
So on the evening of Paco’s visit to Val Verde, almost two years later, the true nature in the child of Olympus appeared fulfilled. He was deeply in love with Ludington and passionate about his kitchen that he treated as personal territory. Even impersonating Isis he was a very attractive figure with the most hilarious palaver, rich in expletives, polished by an elegant British accent, continually delivering bountiful eccentric wit.
Paco presented himself with a bundle of drawings to Ludington who was wrestling a large framed painting that he pulled gently from the crate. Awesome with powerful imagery the piece was done by the Parisian artist Georges Rouault. The heavy black thickly painted line work followed the contours of a body in motion with glowing colors filling in the volumes suggesting leaded glass. Sitting back the two men eyed the impressive piece with excitement. This began the education of Paco and launched his dream to study in Florence at the Academia. Wright brought out canvas after canvas of the new purchases he had just made from young artists like Picasso, Matisse and Braque. There were large portfolios of drawings selected from obscure British artists and leaning against the wall at the end was the splendid oil, “Lady in Pink” by the great teacher William Merritt Chase that was inherited from his Mother, an avid collector of the impressionists. The piece was almost six feet tall and a brilliant display of the artist’s sublime painterly strokes that made the lady, his wife, come magically alive from a distance.
Paco spread out his work on the dark tile floor as Ludington paced back and forth over it, fingers brushing his lips in thought. “You have it”, he concluded. “You have possibilities, but your work just begins. You must create a portfolio that will convince the Board of Entry you can be committed to the challenge.”
Wright went to a closet nearby and returned holding a fine black leather portfolio. He collected Paco’s pieces, placed them inside and handed it over saying, “Here is the vessel, fill it with your inspiration and intelligence. If you prove to me you have the talent, I will pay your way. Now go and help Chef Printise in the kitchen. You are invited to the evening’s festivities. I imagine you will make a handsome Egyptian.”
Paco was a little dazed by this good fortune and setting his perfect portfolio against the wall near the entry he found his way to the kitchen almost floating on air. There was Printise along with a number of cooks and staff borrowed from Java Sir’s kitchen at Il Fureidis, an adjoining property. Everyone was working with all the elements that made up the grand buffet of an ancient Pharaoh. Roasted onions, sweet fig, apple and nut forcemeat for stuffing duck, beef marinated in scented spices then grilled in chunks with whole leeks, coconuts ground for creamy milk puddings that were scattered with pomegranate seeds, mounds of grapes, olives, dates, various baked and fried breads being taken from the ovens and stacked in woven baskets supposedly from Thebes. To complete the menu there was a very large crock filled with honeyed beer, accented in the ancient tradition by adding citrus and touches of lavender.
The sight of it was astonishing. There was Chef Printise, the kohl from his make up now creating grey rings around his eyes like a raccoon, shouting orders in a high fey voice. “Make it silky Darling”, he said to one cook slowly stirring the thickening coconut cream. “No, not that way, like this”. He demonstrated his fine chopping method and with an impassioned demand. “It must be thoroughly squidgy my Darlings”. Then motioning to Paco he said, “Join us if you will and carry the dishes to the atrium as they are finished. There’s a fine lad, and get yourself a caftan with a turban from the Indian gents. They can make you into a little King Tut!”
So it was a stunning night to remember for the aspiring artist, sitting cross-legged at a long feast table set up in the outside courtyard that was designed as a noble’s house from Pompeii. The food was eaten with hands, only picked up with the thin flat bread. His guests were sophisticated and properly profound. In the gathering he knew Gana Walska who trumped everyone with her spectacular Cleopatra costume, once worn in her disastrously reviewed musical production of Julius Caesar. Bertram Goodhue and Lockwood de Forest, both in matching togas looking like Romans were sketching on napkins. Oren Star was in his customary chambray shirt with jodhpurs and Miss Penny, his companion for the evening, was delectable in her shimmering deep green harem costume. Joannah Prang ignored the line in the invitation that specified, “ancient Egyptian attire required” and came dressed in her preferred Gothic style. Many others who were familiar from Diehl’s did arrive as proper members of Tutankhamen’s court making the spectacle appear strangely authentic. Paco listened intently to the fascinating conversations, getting very drunk on the Theban beer. Late that evening came an elaborate hookah with sweet apple flavored tobacco and then the finisher, they passed the tiny pipes filled with opium laced hashish.
Paco was dizzy and feeling he may soon be sick so, escaping down into the gardens, he wandered for a long way in the cool air. Following a rocky stream through the property, the path went down and then up to a large rectangular pool. He tasted the water that was fresh. Then, disrobing, he walked in and lay down floating in a dreamlike state. The stars were out on this clear night as he contemplated the immensity of a deep indigo sky.
Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a movement high up in what he determined was a tower with a small balcony. There he could see a woman. As he strained and stood up moving closer to get a better slant she turned her head, looking directly at him. Paco was standing stunned at the foot of the tall structure straining to clarify the face of this figure high above. She was so angelic and fair, so familiar to him, breathtaking with her alabaster skin gleaming in the moonlight, he knew it was Lillian and he loved her deeply, hopelessly. Finding the door he climbed the winding staircase and moved across a circular sitting room. He could see her silhouette through fluttering curtains to the balcony ahead. Pulling the drapery aside he gently called her name and as she turned he bent down on one knee. He held her hand and told her he was ashamed to have left her in the Sevilla Club. He kissed her fingers and begged for her forgiveness, then standing he held her in his arms for long moments, promising never to let her be hurt again. Finally their eyes met but he could see by her empty gaze, glistening blue focused on some point miles away, she never heard a word he said. Slumping to the ground he laid unconscious for hours.
Waking just at dawn Paco found himself on a small living room sofa, his legs draped over the end. Rushing to leave before anyone woke he found his clothes and grabbing his new portfolio raced to the Indian and sped home. He was trying to put the pieces together. ‘Was it really Lillian? Is that what opium does to your mind? Was I actually holding her? I remember her body next to mine. That is unforgettable even if only a delusion.’ He was concentrating hard trying to separate his fantasy from reality but gave up, thinking instead of the opportunities Ludington had described. As he found his bed on the sleeping porch and layback with Ranger nuzzling his neck it came clear that there were voices in his Mother’s room. Low whispers but definitely sounds of a conversation. He could make out the low voice of a man and then Madonna answering. Before he could stand to move closer the door opened and Captain Oakley, his father walked out the door with his Mother following. He could see them through the window as they embraced. Paco was touched by the apparent great love they shared but forgiveness was far from his heart and he faked sleep as his Mother returned, not able to face the strangeness of it all.
Arriving that morning for work late there was a line of customers waiting for him to open. Like a theatre performance all the characters filtered in and began the show. Quincy and Patrice started to move the vegetable stand out in front as Salvador made the coffee, whipped his cream and heated the luscious hot fudge in case anyone ordered a “Mocha Frappe”. Libby, the cook, began the magnificent pepper spiked, corned beef and potato hash, then whipped up her famous pancake batter that produced Flap Jacks lighter than air. Esperanza, having survived her horrendous disappointment over the loss of Bona Nova, was feeling much better. Ever since her sister recruited her as a partner in the new door-to-door make-up business, she flourished. They had taken the entire County of Santa Barbara exclusively and it would not be long before she intended to leave Diehl’s to make a small fortune. Mac Massini, the butcher, was in his enormous refrigerator while his assistant, Sal’s little brother Martine, made the sausages, seasoned with a secret Sicilian spice combination that had the whole town addicted. All the regulars took their places at the small tables or the big soda fountain.
A convivial chatter arose, just an ordinary morning at the finest culinary establishment in the region. Opening a large grey envelope with a seriously important return address that Paco knew would bring great interest, he found a stack of forms with a hand written note attached that read.
Kindly circulate this invitation to any Chefs of quality you may consider fit for this challenge.
We will conduct the American competition at the Santa Barbara Biltmore; therefore your facility to supply products will be necessary. Please find applications enclosed herewith.
Sincere acknowledgement of your noble establishment,
Master Chef, Director General, Medallion d’Or Foundation of America,
- Gus Wasser, The Biltmore, New York, NY
The forms were actually applications that stated the following:
Application for Team USA:
The Medallion d’Or World Cuisine Contest is the most rigorous international culinary competition, held every two years in Paris, France. Twenty-four countries are selected to compete, and each country’s team is comprised of one chef and one assistant.
Each team is provided five and a half hours to create two elaborate platter presentations, one centered around seafood and one on meat, each accompanied by three original garnishes. The platters are presented before twenty-four judges, each of whom is among the most esteemed chefs in his/her own country. Honored this year as the Co-Chairmen of the Board are Master Chef Auguste Escoffier, Savoy Hotel, London and Master Chef Fernand Point, La Pyramide, Vienne, France. The judges evaluate the overall harmony of flavors in the dish, the presentation of the platter, the techniques employed and the efficiency in which the teams work.
The intensity of the spectator’s enthusiasm is unique. Thousands of fans attend the event and are seated in sections in front of their competitors’ booth, waving flags, singing national chants, and providing general encouragement. The noise level of the arena elevates as the candidates race to complete their presentations to the judges. Hundreds of international photo and film journalists canvas the location, broadcasting the competition live around the world.
The day following the competition there is a ceremony to honor the top three teams by installing a plaque engraved with their names and countries on the wall of distinction.
Competition for Team USA will be held June 10 ~ 14 at The Santa Barbara Biltmore.
Paco read on to see that the form requested all information about the education and work description of the applicant. His mind ran on thinking of the Chefs who might qualify. Certainly Chef Velly would and Fredo too. Chef Pulga and Chef Victore of course could compete. Bertie, the great Chef Omeyer, had to be invited, might even win. He would take one to Chef Java Sir, but he probably would not be interested. Mama Genet should be added to the list just because she made the best dishes he ever tasted. Cannot forget about Chef Printise, he thought, wondering which gender he would choose for the competition. There must be more he thought as he went through his orders and added another half dozen names, making almost twenty in all.
Oren Star, seated comfortably at his usual table across from Diehl’s big marble Soda Fountain, began reading aloud, as was his want, a newspaper story that headlined, “Portafortuna ordered beyond 30 mi. limit.” Continuing he quoted, “Although gambling is not a Federal crime, in the interest of Public Safety and propriety, Governor Frederick Hastings Storm has issued a public statement declaring his intentions to shut down any gambling ships found inside the newly set 30 mi. limit for California waters. In an effort to enforce this ruling, local and state authorities were recently repelled when a committee tried to board the Portfortuna but the crew forced them away with the use of well aimed fire hoses. The Governor specifically denounced the ship and it’s Captain, Pacomio Basinorios Oakley, who was considered blatantly unwilling to cooperate with the Government demands. Storm said he intended to call the Navy and Coast Guard if necessary and there is an arrest order issued for Captain Oakley.”
Paco heard these words plainly and his face began to flush. He put his fingertips to his temples and began to rub in a circular motion, his eyes closed. Now his father was a wanted fugitive. His heart was breaking for his Mother who would take this news very hard indeed. Just as he was sinking into a deep black mood, Chef Printise, followed by a breathless Miss Penny, swooped in to announce their newest culinary undertaking.
“Wake up Darling!” Printise crooned, “we are having a fabulous party and we need you. Ahhh, the little Darling has a little hangover? Someone said you almost drowned in the Persian water garden last night? Must learn to party with a bit more panache my Darling. We carried you in to sleep it off on the sofa. Really,” clicking his tongue with disdain, “Quel dommage Darling. You are such a bebe.”
Miss Penny hugged his shoulders and pulled him to standing. “We are having another spectacular event on the Portafortuna and your services are essential. Salvador too. I’ve had a meeting with Captain Oakley. We can pay you even more than before and guess what the theme will be? Just like last night at Val Verde we will have an Egyptian extravaganza. It will be called, ‘Naughty Arabian Nights!’ Oh I can just see it, up in the ballroom, little striped tents with all of Chef Printise’s best dishes and leave it to me the entertainment will be mad. I can get the performers from El Paseo to dress in Persian Palace costumes. All they need to do is change a few songs and find some Egyptian instruments. We can get caftans and turbans for the crew. It will be another sell out.”
“What do you say Darling?” Printise urged, sounding extra sugary. Paco was astonished. “They must not have read today’s paper”, he said to himself. ‘What do I do now?’ He felt cornered. ‘Should I admit the Captain is my father? They would surely put two & two together once they read the name?’ his mind was racing. ‘And what about the threat to shut down the ship? Where they crazy?’ Paco pointed at Owen still sitting with the paper and said, “Go and have a look at the article about the Portafortuna and then come back.”
The two headed for the paper where they both finished reading at the same time and then dropped it on the table. Racing back to Paco with a distressingly cavalier disregard for the possible dire consequences, Penny demanded again with her pretty French accent, “Are you in or are you out? They would never attempt to attack a ship in the middle of an event filled with a thousand or more guests. Everyone who is anyone will be on-board? That would just be insane. This is an issue that will take months, maybe years to play out.” She emphasized this opinion with her hands, palms up, motioning up and down then dropping them to her sides with a final flourish she implored, “You have to do it!”
Next Chef Printise started in. “And, my dear boy, just how well do you know this Captain Oakley who appears to have your very same name? Is this a mysterious relative of yours? Someone you’ve been stuffing under the carpet? Someone you wish would go away? He can’t hurt you Darling. We would not let him. What is he anyway some old uncle? A cousin? What is the connection Paco?” With his head down, eyes focused on the tip of his boot, he whispered, “He’s my Father”.
Now he was filled with an intense anger that turned into a strange tender courage. Silently he made a commitment to confront the Captain in person and secure his promise to leave his Mother alone. Looking steadily into Miss Penny’s brilliant golden brown eyes, he agreed to supply the event with anything they needed. Later as he rode the Indian home to confront his Mother he took dangerous chances racing toward dips in the road and skidding around a hairpin turn that was referred to by the locals as “suicide corner”. The pain in his heart had moved on down to his stomach. He felt sickened by this mission to prepare Madonna for such an ominous future. Paco even pushed Ranger aside as he danced around the driveway in circles of welcome. Entering the kitchen where he knew he would find his Mother gracefully preparing the evening meal, he inhaled the nostalgic aromas of her celebrated cooking that was both classic Italian from her ancestors with touches of California style that turned the traditional into her signature cuisine.
He stood by the door just watching as she rolled out long strands of dough from mashed potato, butter, cream and a trace of mace with just enough flour to hold it together. He knew this recipe by heart and loved to help cut the small pieces and roll them on the trines of a fork making a large pile of gnocchi that would be tossed into the highly salted boiling water. They were removed as soon as they floated to the top. Paco crossed the kitchen and kissing his Mother softly on her warm rosy cheek he quietly took over and completed the job. With a giant slotted spoon he added the little pillows to a silky sorrel leek sauce that was waiting on the stove. Tonight the dinner began with this rich starter and after grating a generous coating of Madonna’s favored Parmigiano-Reggiano from Montova with it’s nutty salty top notes, he carried the large platter into the main dinning room serving the patron’s family and guests with his impeccable manners, eyes crinkling at the corners while sharing his devastating smile that curiously connected with everyone heart to heart.
There was a fish course and the meat was fiery skillet fried veal chops with tomatoes, peppers and garlic. A lightly braised lettuce, fennel and olive dish followed. Finally, Paco brought out a doily lined silver platter mounded with Madonna’s prized Cannoli and a sterling saucier filled with hazelnut spiked melted chocolate. He proceeded to clear and help clean the kitchen. All the while he felt the knot in his stomach. Wanting but dreading the right time to report the devastating developments, he practiced saying the words that now made Captain Oakley a dangerous criminal. Finally as he polished the big copper skillet, he just said it out loud. “They are going to send out the Coast Guard to stop the Portafortuna. There is an arrest warrant out for Captain Oakley. He is considered an outlaw. They will be coming to talk to us. We need to expect trouble.”
Madonna’s big eyes filled as she found the closest chair and began to weep. Paco sat on the floor at her feet and mumbled over and over, “it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright, it’s going to be alright.” But in his heart he could not imagine any way it ever could be. Unprotected they would now be discovered and could be associated with the Captain in crime or worse yet they would be vulnerable now to the forces from the old country who pledged to have them killed. For his Mother it was the final blow and meant she could never be with her one great love. Deeply wounded now she began to speak.
“You don’t know him Paco, and now you never will. He is kind and loving, an artist just like you. He would never hurt a soul, never.” Now this was unacceptable for the young man who saw first hand what his Father was like and it was far from kind, more like brutal. The only time they spoke he was violent. “No, Mother”, Paco said ferociously, “I’m hurt and you are hurt by him. I was on the Portafortuna. I know what a gangster he really is. You would hate him if you saw this. He makes a fortune from the gullible drunk people who engage in all forms of debauchery. The ship is a floating den of depravity.” Paco was now even surprised at himself for such a fanatical outburst and he finished with a dark oath, “He is our enemy and I want him dead”, whereupon Madonna whaled even louder.