About this blog...

Food has been an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. Food and the festivities surrounding its arrival to the table has always been a focal point in our family. For many years I have been amassing the cookbooks, recipe cards, cooking journals, diaries, manuscripts and clipping files of our once extensive family.

Personally, I’ve been professionally involved with food for over 40 years in numerous and varied culinary capacities across the country so I also have the collected stories, as well as current and on-going food-related experiences from my own life I’d like to share.

My idea has long been that someday I would bring all of this marvelous raw material together into a culinary journey through our family’s heritage. This journal is the beginnings of that journey.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Private Chefdom - Part 9: The Lobster Trap

Part 9 of a 9-part series

One of the very best things the private chef job for the Quires was the over-all freedom to prepare just about anything I wanted to for them.  Money, truly was no object and they never once said, “Hey you’re sure spending an awful lot of money for food”.  After so many years in the food service industry, an industry often with single-digit profit percentages I can’t describe how luxurious it was not to have a budget to follow.
If I wanted to buy a couple of pints of fresh raspberries in the middle of January at $8 a pop?  No problem!  Fresh morel mushrooms at $40 a pound?  Sure, why not!  Saffron?  Use it like salt if you want to! 
The other nice thing was that The Quires, by and large, had pretty sophisticated palates.  They truly appreciated good food when it came their way.  While one cannot always say that with money comes good taste, it certainly was the case with them.  While there were some exceptions to the rule (I found a stack of full Velveeta “cheese” boxes in the storeroom and while I never saw anyone actually eat it, it must have been there for a reason right?) I found that they were receptive to fine new things and mostly liked them.
So between The Quires interest in good food and their apathy toward setting a food budget I should have been in heaven right?  Unfortunately there were so many other things going on in and around that house that I ended getting caught up in all kind of little Family soap operas.  The Quires were also masters of playing head-games, something I had no experience with or tolerance for, and so I found myself often distracted from the job at hand.  It was almost a “golden handcuff” situation, where despite some of the unpleasantries of the job, I felt I wanted to stay for the benefits and frequent perks. 
Then there came a time when golden handcuffs had really begun to chafe.  It had been a series of really tough days, with more side games and interpersonal conflicts than I could take.  Damit, I was there to cook, not be the football or the referee, or a player at some contest.  I had lost my interest in the job and suddenly its benefits didn’t come close to balancing its draw-backs.  I had even discussed, with my wife, giving them notice to quit but in the bright light of the following day I decided that maybe it wasn’t all that bad and I would go back with a fresh attitude and give it my best shot.  So off I went, fresh as a daisy, ready to take on the day with a smile.
My normal work routine saw me stopping at one or more grocery stores on my way to the estate and that day was no different.  I went a bit out of my way to go to a ritzy (read as pricey!) little independent supermarket which catered to the many wealthy folks in the tri-state region.  Tucked away near the Salisbury CT town hall it stocked the very best variety of exotic foods anywhere around.  It was one of Mrs. Quire’s favorite places and she kept an open account there for me to charge on.  Their produce department was also something special.  They always had plenty of produce men working so that you didn’t actually get to bag or weigh your own produce, they would jump in and do it for you.  Personally I found this rather annoying.  I wanted to be able to check out each piece of fruit or vegetable I bought, but I guess they thought they were offering a service.  Truth be told, I never got so much as a slightly old mushroom from them so I guess they did earn my trust in the end.
Anyway, I went about my business there with the intent of 1) building the finest dinner I’d ever cooked for them as a fresh-start gesture (even if they didn’t know how upset I’d been), and 2) making it the most expensive meal I could put together for them (this was to make me feel better.  I love working with the best ingredients!).  A quick tour of the store to see what specialties they had in, and I had myself a great menu to prepare.  I don’t remember the whole thing,  but there was an appetizer of Fresh Morels in a Cognac Cream Sauce, followed by a Tomato, Belgian Endive, Basil and Roquefort Salad.  The entrée was to be Medallions of Lobster Tails with Saffron, Leeks and Pernod over Fresh Sun-Dried Tomato Linguini with a side of Cilantro-Lime Grilled Baby Vegetables.  For dessert I was going to make my renowned White Chocolate Mousse Torte, served with a warm Frangelico–Bitter Chocolate Sauce.   I was really jazzed and hurried to work.
When I first took the job with them, one of my immediate concerns was to discern if there were any food allergies in The Family which I needed to be careful of (there were none).  I also asked about food preferences at that time and found that, aside from mackerel, refried beans and capers, there weren’t any foods that I needed to steer clear of.   That made my job a lot easier than it could have been.  Anyway, upon arriving at the house, I put all of the ingredients in the fridge.  The two large live lobsters I’d gotten for the entrée were feisty and fresh but they fit fine.  When I saw Karen (the house staff manager) I told her that I was planning a special meal for that night, and told her some of the menu including having the lobster for the entrée.  She thought it sounded great, saying that they both loved lobster then went off, I guess, off to tell Mrs. Quire all about it. 
Soon Mrs. Quire arrived in the kitchen and began asking lots of questions about the meal.  I happily told her everything but I was glad when she left because I had a lot of work to get done.  As I was heading down to the basement for some things from the dry storage room I over heard her on the phone, apparently to her husband who was probably down at the office annex.  “…a real fancy meal with lobster, your favorite.”…”I think so”…”Yes, I could tell him that we need to eat early tonight then”…”OK I’ll do that…”
I wasn’t sure about what she was up to, but it sounded to me like they were plotting to submarine the dinner.  Why would they want to do that?  It didn’t make any sense at all.  If they suddenly disliked me so much why not just fire me?  I must have been wrong about the conversation.  I finished getting the stores I needed and went back to the kitchen and continues work on the meal.  In an hour or so Mrs. Quire returned to the kitchen.
“David, I just found out that my daughters are going to be here this afternoon.  They might  stay for dinner OK?”
Oh boy, I hadn’t planned on doing this dinner for four people but  I could probably stretch out everything enough for two more people.  It just wouldn’t be quite as nice.
“”That’s fine with me.  Anything else?”  I was wondering about the phone conversation.
“No.  That’s all”.  But as she walked away she turned back “Jenny [one of the daughters] won’t eat mushrooms you know”
Well that was odd.  The last time Jenny had visited a month or so ago, she had eaten mushroom and cheese omelets at every lunch meal for 4 days straight.  What was this woman up to?  I tried to shake off that sinking feeling I was getting, reminding myself of my “new attitude”.  I told her I would find something else nice for her for that course, then went back to work.
Maybe 45 minutes elapsed and she was back again in the kitchen.  What now? I wondered to myself.
“I phoned my daughters about the menu for tonight and they are very excited”  I sensed a “but..” coming soon.  She looked around the kitchen airily, “Are you sure that you can have all this ready by 6PM”?
6 PM!!  Dinner had always, always, always been at 8 PM.  It was one of the few things that hadn’t changed even once the whole time I’d been there.  I guess she saw the look on my face.
“Oh dear, I guess you forgot that when Jenny and her sister are here we eat earlier!”
Now that just wasn’t true!  My old attitude was coming back with a vengeance but what could I do?  I thought I could possibly make the earlier time but some of the fancies and special garnishes I had planned would not be happening.  I told her I would be ready and again jumped into the preparations. 
A short while later Karen wandered in to get a beverage.
“Wow, you’re really flying around in here today!  Is everything going OK?”  She seemed honestly concerned.
“Well my special little intimate dinner for two has turned into a Family reunion for four, and bumped up two hours, but I’m doing OK.”
“What do you mean Family reunion?”  So I told her about Jenny and her sister coming for dinner tonight.  “Are you sure that’s what Mrs. Quire said?”
“She was pretty clear.  I don’t see how I could be mistaken.  Why?”
“Well, uhhh, umm”  She tried starting again, “She, ahhh.  You see, Jenny is in Europe now and for another week.  I don’t see how she could be here for dinner tonight.”
I was dumbfounded.  Mrs. Quire had flat-out lied to me and I just couldn’t figure out why.  My old attitude was now in complete control and it was not a happy camper at all.  I said something lame to Karen about there being some kind of mix-up, and not to worry about it.  I didn’t really know what to do next so I headed back down to the basement for another trip to the storeroom as I was now cooking for four (or was I?).  As I was coming up the stairs I heard a crash coming from the kitchen area.  Good grief, now what?
As I entered the room, Mrs. Quire was standing at the refrigerator door with her back to me, looking at the floor.  Around the corner of the cabinets I saw a thick white mass spreading its way across the floor, impeded occasionally by various sized chunks of glass.  I immediately recognized it as having been the bowl of white chocolate I’d melted with the heavy cream.  It had been cooling in the back of the refrigerator in preparation for making the mousse for tonight’s torte.  I was so close to losing it that I just stood there for a moment pressing my lips together so I couldn’t say anything.  Time seemed to stand still for a just moment, before all hell broke.
Karen rocketed into the room through another door, saw me standing like a statue.  She dismissed me with a glance and hurried over to Mrs. Quire to see if she was injured.  As she reached her, the three rat-dogs came scrabbling across the polished cherry wood floor, lost their collective footing and, in unison, careened off a cupboard door before scurrying on toward their mistress.  Mistress turned in my direction as the canine commotion approached her.  Never catching my eye, or perhaps never noticing me, she bent and tried to shoo them away from the mess on the floor even as they made contact with the leading edge of the molten confection.
The dogs quickly realized that they were standing in some pretty yummy stuff and any pea-sized thoughts of rushing to their mistress’ rescue was forgotten in a short-lived feeding frenzy.  Mistress quickly scooped up one of the beasts as it was about to snag a tasty piece of glass and handed it back to Karen who accepted it, but at arms length, trying to avoid its dripping feet.  Mistress then deftly grabbed the other two and oblivious of their goop-covered faces and paws, tucked them one under each arm.  All of this action was happening in front of the forgotten and still open door to the fridge.  As Mrs. Quire and Karen began moving off with their burdens I saw another motion, this time inside the refrigerator.
The two lobsters had managed to get out of their bag and had chosen this diversion as a cue to make their great escape.  As I was noticing the jail break on the top shelf one of the gardeners entered the kitchen.  He had apparently heard the commotion from outside and had come to help.  Mrs. Quire held out the two dogs she was carrying for him to take, which he did and left.  Karen was still trying to step carefully over-around-through the white ganache puddle, holding the dog out in front like it might pee on her.  It was then, for the first time, I think that Mistress noticed me.  I can’t even imagine what expression must have been on my face but when she saw it, it made her get immediately defensive.
“I just opened door to get drink.  It fell on me!  I could have been killed!”  I shook my head in disbelief.  I knew full well where that bowl had been.  It was way behind the box of mushrooms (which I now saw was sitting on the counter beside the fridge).  What in the devil had she been up to?  Taste testing, snitching, or something more nefarious?
“Really”, she continued, “it was right…” and she turned back towards the refrigerator, her finger pointing, getting ready to show me from where my bowl of nascent mousse had attacked her.  My eyes followed the path of the finger and now saw that the lobsters again were on the move.  No one else had seen them as they approached the shelf edge. Then, just as The Mistresses, and Karen (still with the dog), and my eyes locked onto the fridge the lobsters made a jump for it.  It was not a pretty sight.  No style or grace involved, just gravity.
Hitting the floor just a few inches from ground-zero for the mousse they flopped and flailed, trying to right themselves, getting covered in the now-congealing white chocolate mass.  The sight was more than Karen could take I guess.  She hurled the dog in the general direction of the door while trying to make traction in that direction herself.   I finally made out the noise coming from her as “Ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod…”
Mrs. Quire hadn’t moved.  Her finger still pointed in the air, but her wide eyes were riveted to the wiggling crustaceans on the floor.
“What are those?”  I assumed she must have been speaking to me as I was the only one left in the room.
“Lobsters.  Your dinner actually.”  If I can salvage anything from all this mess, I said to myself.
“They’re moving.  They’re alive!  We can’t eat those!”
I tried to assure her that I was planning on cooking them first and that’s when she really lost it.
“No, no, no, no!  No killing in this house!  I won’t eat!  Take them away NOW!  I never eat ever, ever.  No live food comes here.”  She scurried out of the kitchen, leaving a trail of thick milky footprints in her wake out towards the dining room.  Well, so much for my special dinner.  Staring at the mess on the floor I actually laughed.  The two lobsters stared up with their eye stalks, looking amazingly like a picture I’d once seen in a Garde Manger book of a lobster Choid-froid buffet presentation.  It took me about an hour to clean the place to a relatively decent level.  I decided that I couldn’t ask for a better sign to tell me to move on and find another job so I wrote a nice note telling Karen where to send my last pay check and I left.
On my way out to my car I saw Mrs. Quire and several gardeners working on cleaning off the dogs.  They didn’t see me leave.
What happened to the lobsters?  Darned if I know.  I rinsed them off and put them back in the bag in the fridge.  If my observations about the Family’s refrigerator habits are accurate, they’re probably still there today.

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