Friday, October 5, 2012

Greetings from Hell City

Once the pinnacle of fine dining, Volari’s Restaurant lost that crown some time during the Harding administration and it’s been downhill ever since. Maybe at one time, plastic flowers, musty drapes, and old paintings were the sorts of things diners wanted surrounding them during dinner. Not anymore. More than that, like most every restaurant that’s fallen on hard times, it wasn’t the ambiance that drove diners away. It was the food. It’s always the food.

Now in its third generation of Volari ownership, what handicapped the joint most was old man Volari’s insistence in his will that all employees at the time of his death were welcome to stay on as long as they wished. And stay they did. So now, the place was more mausoleum than restaurant, with walking corpses parking your car, greeting you at the door, and delivering your meals.

There was a brief flicker of hope after their ninety-two year old chef passed away. Alas, it turned out the octogenarian kitchen staff were equally set in their ways. Long story short, they went through a dozen chefs before settling on the man now seated across from me, Chef Henri Broussaud.

Trained in Paris and London, feted in New York and Tokyo, Chef Henri was one of those rising stars of the culinary world who it seemed five-star Michelin ratings were sure to follow wherever he went. Then, he took on the challenge of Volari’s.

“You have no idea what I go through, Reeshar,” he slurred at me after I’d bought him his fourth drink. “People, they lose their taste buds at that age, you understand?”

I flashed him a look of concern and nodded that I did.

Given what he’d gone through in the year or so he’d been trying to turn the place around, it didn’t surprise me one bit he’d discovered Herlihy’s. I think he liked it for the same reasons I did, that it’s the kind of place that leaves you alone to drown your sorrows. It's also the kind of place where people don’t ask any questions.

It was only after I saw him weeping one night after a brutal experiment with duck à l’orange gone awry that I began speaking to him at all. I suppose it was because of all that, I felt bad about what I was about to do. Couldn’t be helped, though. Nature of the business.

“Let me buy another round,” I said.

Henri started to protest. I got up anyway and went to the bar where I motioned Seamus for two more. As he poured, I reached into my pocket for a slim vial and unscrewed the top. After Seamus put the drinks on the bar, I poured the Mickey Finn into Henri’s scotch and carried it back to the table.

Placing the drink in front of him, I raised my glass and waited for him to do the same. We clinked glasses. “To your health!” I said, and we both took long slugs. His was half gone when he put his glass down.

“Seriously, Reeshar," he continued, his French accent thickening with every word. "That place, she is a nightmare! No attention to quality, no standards. And the kitchen. Mon dieu! The kitchen, she is filthy!”

He fake spat off to the side and shivered at the memory before taking another slug.

“I do my best,” he went on, welling up. “Honestly, I do. But is not enough! Is never enough. Now, the owner say he has big plan, will fix everything! He bring in some famous consultant he say will make everything right. He think maybe even—”

This is the part I hate. I could only sit by helplessly and watch as Henri raised his eyebrows and cocked his head, moments before his face turned a shade of green not normally found in nature.

“You okay, Henri?” I asked rhetorically.

His head lolled about. His eyes rolled back in their sockets. He collapsed forward, his head hitting the table with a loud thump. Seconds later, the door opened and Kyle walked in.

“Kyle!” I said in an Irish whisper, loud enough for others to hear. “Thank goodness you’ve come. My friend here has had too much to drink. Can you give me a hand helping him home?”

Kyle took one side, I took the other, and together we lifted Henri from his chair and carried him out to Kyle’s waiting car. Before rolling him in the backseat, I unbuttoned and removed his chef’s tunic. Sharp looking things, those tunics. I couldn’t wait to see how I looked in it.

Once he was safely ensconced in the car, I rifled his pockets, found his keys, and handed them to Kyle. “Take him home and put him to bed,” I instructed. “He’s good for twelve hours at least.”

“Will do, boss,” Kyle answered, and then they were gone.

Good kid, that Kyle. But I had no time for fatherly pride. I had an appointment to keep at Volari’s, where tonight, I was head chef.

"Hell City," now available in both Kindle and paperback format from Amazon.Com.

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