idol prize fight | week 17, #1 | 1775 words
I can't believe it—I'm a celebrity chef! Sure, it's not the kind you see on magazine covers, those guys with their own TV shows. I mean the kind who works for a celebrity. A starlet, in this case, one Lissa Bellingham.
Lissa is a typical Hollywood blonde—full-lipped and skinny, a girl made of dreams, silicone implants, and two thousand miles of teeth. She is terrifying.
Apart from black-market pills and a little blow, the reason Lissa stays that skinny is that she practically lives on protein drinks and salads. It's exactly as boring as it sounds.
My job is to make it interesting.
Now, technically I was hired to be a regular chef. I've studied in New York and Paris, I've traveled all over the world. But since Lissa hardly ever eats anything that qualifies as actual food, most of my training goes to waste. My entire focus is the creative application of making water-heavy cuisine taste like real food.
Lissa isn't a vegetarian, so it's okay to add a little chicken or other protein into her salads. Or, as she puts it, to provide her with enough nutrients that her teeth don't fall out. Lissa can be a little dramatic at times. Overall, the goal is to stay within certain calorie limits, and make things look pretty and taste good.
And not run afoul of Lissa's picky palate or repeat myself too often.
First, I ask her whether there are any foods she dislikes. No olives, no avocado, no onions. That seems pretty simple. However, making varied and exquisite offerings each day—sometimes for more than one meal—proves a little more challenging.
I start off with simple, surefire winners that are a little out of the ordinary. Bibb lettuce, cucumber slices, Cajun-spiced grilled chicken strips, chopped pecans, raspberries, and balsamic vinaigrette for one meal. Romaine hearts, halved grape tomatoes, and sliced mushrooms on a bed of lemon-herbed quinoa, covered with a light layer of grated parmesan and a low-fat faux Caesar dressing for another. Voila!
Both are well-received, so I move on. Green leaf lettuce and arugula mix with carrot strips, shredded red cabbage, bamboo shoots, pan-seared ahi tuna, and a light sesame-ginger dressing. Lissa really likes it, thought that might mostly be the dressing. Then I try red leaf lettuce, endive, sliced red bell peppers, zucchini sticks, and crushed walnuts, sprinkled with gorgonzola cheese and walnut vinaigrette.
A note comes back with the plate and a pile of uneaten zucchini: "Tastes like cotton!"
All right then, no zucchini. So I offer an iceberg lettuce wedge with sliced radishes, green apple slices, and lean steak strips, garnished with crumbled bacon and a low-calorie blue cheese dressing. The note that comes back with that one says, "Nice," which is reassuring.
I test various combinations and ingredients, trying to get a better feel for how much Lissa likes sweet, bitter, and savory flavors. Many of these are successes, but others, not so much:
New potato halves: "No starch!"
Banana slices: "Are you kidding me?" (Fair enough, that was clearly a mistake)
Poppy seeds: "Are these FLEAS?"
Red swiss chard: "NO BEETS!"
Swiss chard is not a beet, but the flavors are similar, so I can see her point. But I didn't expect her to reject starch just on principal. I've never served her pasta salad or potato salad, because I know that's not the type of thing she's looking for, but she has no idea how far afield I can go.
Before I was Chef Pierre, I was Pete from Iowa, where people put walnuts and tiny marshmallows in Jello and call that salad. At least I've never made non-salad salad for her, though my salade niçoise is to die for.
I begin to feel a little pressured. Yes, I'm still making things Lissa enjoys, but I feel like I'm on thin ice with her. It's more than just the notes. Lissa has a bit of a temper, so I avoid her whenever possible out of fear of setting her off. That, and self-preservation against her blistering sarcasm.
Three months in, I've been reasonably successful. Lissa hasn't gained any weight, and all her teeth are still there. But sometimes, I worry about running out of ideas.
I create a phone app with a list of various salad leaf bases, vegetables, garnishes, and dressing. Then I enter the ingredients of each salad I make, so the app can keep track of what I've used and when. That way, I can type in a prospective salad, and the app tells me whether I've used part of it too frequently or recently, so I'm not repeating myself.
I also make a randomizer function for it, where the app goes through my lists of possible ingredients and creates something new. This is purely for inspiration, not because I'm desperate or lazy. I can reject what it suggests (chickpeas and peanuts in the same salad? I think not!), or I can try it out.
The timing is perfect, for instance, for the Halloween offering, which features spinach leaves, cauliflower florets, snow peas, and my raspberry vinaigrette. The result looks like tiny brains and brain stems floating on a bed of green with a splash of blood, and it makes me smile.
Lissa is sharp, but I think that one flies right over her head.
I have no idea what she does with her free time. Reads scripts, maybe? Goes to auditions, and works out with her personal trainer? All of that seems Hollywood-typical.
What I do know is that she isn't busy enough, because sometimes she takes it upon herself to come sit in the kitchen and watch me work.
This usually happens about an hour before her upcoming meal. She shows up in the doorway just as I'm starting to get ingredients out of the fridge, and then she sits on one of the barstools and talks. If I ask whether there's anything in particular she wants for her salad, she might say, "Surprise me."
It was one thing when my ex-wife used to say that. Dana was easy going, and she liked almost everything, so it was easy to make her happy. For Lissa, though, that phrase has the effect of throwing down the gauntlet.
It makes me second-guess every choice I make.
One day, I make a nice bed of Napa cabbage and add mizuna and halved yellow pear tomatoes. But I decide the pear tomatoes don't quite mesh with the mandarin slices I've planned, and start preparing jicama instead. And then realize the color palate is too bland against the basic leaf-display. Back to the pear tomatoes, which are at least mild enough for the mandarin combination, and look pretty. I add sliced almonds and a mandarin-ginger dressing, and the dish is complete. But Lissa's there to see the whole process, so she asks about the unused jicama, which is awkward.
Or there's the time I'm working on a nice green leaf lettuce salad with highlights of radicchio and cherry tomatoes and bias-cut celery. I add asparagus to boiling water to make a nice al dente accent and I'm spreading chickpeas across the salad when—
"Hold on," Lissa says.
"Those are mushy."
"Oh, I'm sorry." I feel a minor flare of panic. "Do you not like them?"
"No, they're okay. I'm just not in the mood for mushy today."
I throw out the salad and start over, recreating the base and adding the garnishes. But I forget about the asparagus! Now, it's overcooked. I turn off the burner, and choose julienned carrots for the finish instead, with a light Italian-style dressing.
"It smells awful in here," Lissa says. "Ugh, these purple things are horrible."
So, humiliation with the added mistake of overdoing the radicchio. Nice.
On the plus side, the debacle keeps Lissa away from the kitchen for the next two weeks, which lets me get my groove back.
Until Sunday afternoon, when she's bored and has nothing better to do.
"So, what is it today?" she asks.
"Romaine, mushrooms, grilled chicken, sliced pears, and pine nuts with a saffron-garlic cream sauce."
"Sounds interesting!" Lissa says. "I don't think I've ever had pine nuts before."
"Oh, well, I think you'll like them."
I arrange the lettuce and the sliced mushrooms and pears, then grill the chicken, adding it to the salad while it's still warm. I drizzle the dressing across the salad in a lattice pattern, then add few sprinkles of pine nuts. It looks fabulous.
Lissa takes a bite and chews. "This dressing is heavenly, and I like the flavor of these little nuts."
What a relief—I didn't screw anything up, and she didn't find anything to hate!
But suddenly, Lissa starts coughing. I notice her lips look a little plumper than usual—kind of lopsided. She takes her napkin and scrubs at her tongue with it. "It-thes," she says.
"Itches?" Oh god. "You didn't say you were allergic to pine nuts! Spit them out!" I can't think what to do. Wait—"Do you have an EpiPen?"
"For beeth," Lissa says. "My purth."
I race around looking for her purse, which isn't in the entry way or living room. Maybe her bedroom? I've never even been in this room before. Where—Aha! The purse, and the EpiPen is right there under Lissa's wallet!
I rush back to the kitchen, where she isn't dead yet, thank god. She grabs the EpiPen from me, rips the cap off, and stabs herself in the leg.
A moment later, we're both breathing easier. I hustle Lissa into my car and drive her to the hospital. As soon as I pull up outside the Emergency Room, she opens the door and gets out.
"You're fired," she says.
Like I didn't see that coming.
A week later, I'm doing prep work at a chichi little café in Westwood. The zip code is good, but what a letdown. I haven't done prep work in twelve years! If Chef Montagne could only see me now…
It helps pay the bills, though, and who knows how long it'll take me to find a real job? My connections aren't what they used to be.
I did just hear about a private chef position for a couple in Brentwood who are on the Paleo diet. I've already applied for it, and I'm hoping to hear from them soon.
The Paleo diet! That has real possibilities.
I mean, let's face it, you can never run out of things to do with meat. Right?
(Contestant-only voting for this prompt)