Authors: Mia Caldwell
Never Miss a Thing
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The hardest thing about being a personal chef for rich people is that their kitchens are so understocked. They have these giant, impractical rooms full of custom cabinets and Italian granite, eight-burner stoves and double ovens. But they eat out every meal. So when, in a fit of New Year’s resolve or on the advice of a personal trainer, they call me in to prepare meals for them, I usually find their pantries woefully understocked.
You know how on those cooking challenge shows, it’s just a given that you’ll have olive oil, salt, onions, that sort of thing? Not in rich people kitchens. I’ve had customers digging in the depths of old Harry and David’s gift baskets, swearing they had a little bottle of what they were pretty sure was Tuscan olive oil. And when they find it, it’s actually balsamic vinegar.
This job was shaping up to be no different.
Some rich guy had hired me to cook for his mother while she recovered from a knee replacement. I was to come in and make her a lunch and a dinner for three days. I wasn’t quite sure how he’d found my name, I tend to get new customers through word of mouth, but he didn’t mention any referral. I also never go to a house twice a day…but he’d made it worth my while.
I’ve had my own personal chef business for three years. I wasn’t out of cooking school long before I realized I was going to be really bad at working for others. Having some foul-breathed old chef shouting in my face was not why I went to L’Academie de Cuisine. Which I guess tells you a little something about me–sure, everyone knows that Chef is going to shout at you and it’s part of coming up in the culinary world. But my mama taught my brother and me that you shouldn’t let people treat you badly just because they have more money and power than you–and growing up broke in Anacostia, it seemed like everybody had more money and power than we did. I don’t mind working hard. I don’t mind doing menial jobs (okay, I do mind, but I know they have to get done and sometimes I have to do them). I don’t even mind being told what to do by someone in charge. But I do not take it well when they abuse their power, when they treat me like dirt, like I could never be where they are. Like they’d never had to start out chopping onions and washing lettuce. So one day, after the sous chef called me “ignorant girl” because I brought him regular sea salt instead of fleur de sel (guess what? they taste the same), I took off my apron and walked out of restaurant kitchens for good.
Luckily, I live in Washington, D.C., which is full of people with a lot more money than time. I kept reading about personal chefs and local food movements and I put the two together. I started Farm 2U “Bringing the bounty of the region’s family farms to your family’s table.” In truth? Most of these folks don’t eat at a family table. They eat on the run from soccer practice to dance rehearsal or standing up at the breakfast bar while they prepare tomorrow’s briefs. But at least if they hire me, they get to eat good food on the run. I get to work for myself, they get to tell everyone they eat local. Everybody wins.
I don’t want to sound like I hate my customers–far from it. Most of the people that hire me are kind, thoughtful folks that just don’t have the time to live the way they think they should. They want to have everything–full time jobs, kids with all the activities they want, social lives–and something has to give. If you have the money, you can buy time. And that’s what I sell, the time they would have spent throwing some food together or going out to eat. I go to their houses once a week and cook the meals they’ve ordered to see them through until I come back. Usually, I have the house to myself–seven thousand square feet and no one home.
Of course, having the house to myself means there’s no one to ask when I can’t find the colander or discover that the $80 pepper grinder has no actual pepper in it. Which brings me to the palatial kitchen in a massive townhouse in Georgetown, digging through the cherry cabinets, trying to find the jar to a blender. I had found the base–it was a Vitamix, of course–but the pitcher and lid were nowhere to be found.
Walker Alexander had asked me to come every day, twice a day, and to make his mother a green smoothie with her meal, as she didn’t like to eat many vegetables. That was going to be a challenge if I couldn’t find the rest of the blender. Tomorrow, I could just bring my own–a thrift store Waring, of course–but that didn’t turn today’s spinach into a beverage. Just when I’d begun to seriously consider putting green food coloring in a glass of milk, I found it in the cabinet that held all the spare glassware. A caterer’s superpower is knowing, instinctively, where people keep their stuff, but this one had really put my powers to the test.
“Thought you could hide from me, did you? You don’t know who you’re dealing with!” I gave it a good shake as I pulled it out from the depths, just to show it who’s boss.
“Well, I certainly hired the right woman for the job!”
I whirled to find the source of the masculine voice, knocking one of the wine goblets I’d moved aside onto the mediterranean tile floor. Fine crystal and stone do not play well together.
“Oh no!” I dropped to the floor to start gathering the big pieces. Breaking customers’ stuff happens, but it’s always mortifying. Even shattered, I could tell this was expensive glass. Probably Baccarat, with my luck. Each glass a day’s pay.
The man that had startled me dropped down to help, saying, “Don’t sweat it, Mother never drinks Sauternes.”
I looked up into smiling hazel eyes. “I’m sorry?”
He smiled, dimples faint on either cheek, teeth perfect and white. “Sauternes. It was a Sauternes glass that fell.”
I realized I was staring at him and broke my gaze away. But holy cow, he was easy to stare at. “Wow,” I said, picking up the last of the big pieces, “that’s a new one for me. I thought I’d learned them all. But still, I’ll pay for the breakage, of course. Just deduct it from my invoice.” I shrugged as I stood back up and tossed the shards into the trash bin. “A cost of doing business, I’m afraid.”
He leaned past me to toss his pieces in and I realized how tall he was. I’d seen he was tall, but now that he was so near, I thought he must be six-six or so, fit but not bulky, like an athlete. I don’t often feel petite, but I was just a little bitty thing next to him. And a mess. His suit was perfectly tailored to fit him. I noticed that the buttons on the jacket cuffs actually unbuttoned–custom.
“Nonsense. It’s just a glass. I’m Walker, by the way,” he said, extending his hand. “We spoke on the phone.”
“Ah! Mr. Alexander, hello. I’m Andrea Wilson, of course, not just someone who threatens blenders and breaks glasses.”
He chuckled, which made me feel a little better, on firmer footing. “Nice to meet you. Please call me Walker.”
He was still standing really close to me. He smelled good, like freshly cut grass. I was pretty sure he hadn’t been mowing.
“All the articles I read about you mentioned how young you are, but none said that your photo wouldn’t do justice to your beauty in person,” he said.
I felt my face get hot. I’m not good with personal compliments or awkward social interactions and this was both. Well, I’m good at awkward social interactions, in that I cause them a lot, but even with all that experience I don’t always handle myself well.
“Maybe because I’m a chef and not a beauty contestant?” I asked. See?
He took a step back, but kept smiling that dazzling smile. “Well, there’d be no contest if you showed up.”
Okay, this was just weird, right? No one talks like that. I put a hand on my hip. “Are you into that pickup artist stuff? Are you trying out lines on me?” I hoped I was keeping my tone light. I needed this job, but I did not need this hassle, not even from this fine looking man. And then what he’d said earlier filtered into my brain and I added, “And you were reading articles about me?”
“That’s how I found you, Andrea, I saw you in the Post Magazine’s Top 30 Under 30 feature. Then when I researched you a bit, I found mentions here and there.” He was still grinning at me, his eyes were still twinkling, and my knees were still strangely weak. “I couldn’t just let you into my mother’s home and let you cook for her without finding out more about you, could I? I mean, ‘bonded and insured’? Who isn’t, these days? I couldn’t leave my poor, defenseless mother in the hands of a serial killer.”
We both laughed. I’d met his mother. She was about as defenseless as a honey badger.
Reluctantly, I mentally shook myself free of his gaze and I half-turned back to the sink. “I really do need to wipe up this glass and get back to work, now that I’ve found the rest of the blender.”
“Is there anything else you need? I just have time to check on Mother and then I have to get to a meeting. I’ll be back for a bit tonight, so I can get anything that’s missing. I know this kitchen is bare, Mother hasn’t made anything more complicated than a martini since the 1980s.”
“Actually, yes. I can’t find a saute pan. I thought I’d bring one from home for tonight, but if you know where it’s hidden, that would be much easier.” I busied myself with chopping the spinach so I wouldn’t have to keep looking at him. He was watching me so intently it was unnerving.
“Saute pan. Got it. I’ll ask Mother and then I’ll ask Rosa, I think she’s still cleaning upstairs, she’s more likely to know where things are.” I felt his energy leave the room and it felt weirdly empty. You know how some people just have a presence? A lot of the really big politicians around here have that. Walker Alexander had that. Like he somehow filled the room. I went back to my chopping, willing my heart to stop beating so fast.
Really, what the heck was that? It was intense, that’s what. How could cleaning up broken glass and asking for a saute pan feel so…intimate? I resolved to keep him out of my personal space and to stare at his shoes if I had to, to keep from getting sucked into those green-gold eyes. Rich white boys might flirt with girls from Anacostia. They might even take them to bed so they can tell their frat brothers about the time they had sex with a black girl. But I’m not looking for affirmative action hook-ups.
My best friend Kiera says I’m an old lady in a hot girl’s body. She’s one of those work hard/play hard lawyers and she teases me because I’d rather watch Netflix than hit the bounce clubs. Partly, it’s that my job is hard–if I’m not cooking for customers or shopping the farmers markets then I’m on the phone trying to work deals with farmers in the area or in my own little kitchen, trying out new recipes. I’m on my feet most of the day, most days. But also, I don’t have the time and I can’t spare the mental energy. I’m not the only personal chef in town; if I don’t stay at the top of my game, some other hungry chef is going to take my place and take my clients. I do not have the time to be mooning after some boy. Like I said, if you have the money, you can buy time. I only sell it.
All my resolve was wasted, though, because Walker never came back to the kitchen. When I took Christina Alexander her lunch, he wasn’t in the room.
“What’s this shit?” she asked, sitting up in her huge bed and glaring at the bright green smoothie. Her voice had the rasp of a life-long cigarette smoker, although I didn’t smell smoke in the house.
“It’s a spinach, apple, and avocado smoothie, with a bit of ginger, Mrs. Alexander. It’s delicious, I swear.”
“I get to do all the swearing,” she said with a grimace. “My knee hurts like hell.” She looked too old to be Walker’s mother, more like his grandmother, but she clearly had been leading that fit, outdoorsy life wealthy retirees seemed to go for around here. Probably a lot of golf. While smoking. She looked over the plates on her tray. “I’ll eat this, but I’m not drinking that green shit.”
It was so shocking to me to hear this rich old lady swearing like a sailor that I had to suppress a giggle. “You’ll need to take it up with your son, Mrs. Alexander, that smoothie was on his orders. Just take a sip. I think you’ll like it.”
She fixed me with a steely glare. I won’t lie to you, I wanted to take that whole tray away and bring that woman anything she wanted. That was some kinda glare. But I’m a stone professional, so I just smiled at her, my very sweetest smile, and she picked up the glass and lifted it to her lips.
“Hmpf,” she said, setting it down again. “That’s not bad. Doesn’t taste like you put a hay field in a juicer.”
It probably also tells you something about me that begrudging praise means the most to me. My smile grew to a wider, more genuine one.
“Is that cream in there?” she asked.
“No, it’s the avocado that makes it creamy.”
“Avocado? I’ll be damned. Rosa!” she called. “Come here!”
A short Central American woman came into the room, taking off rubber gloves as she entered.
“Taste this, and tell me what you think is in it.” Mrs. Alexander looked at me. “She’s from Honduras. She eats all sorts of weird shit.”
The small woman took a sip and handed the glass back to her employer. “Um, some greens, sugar, and cream?”
“No!” said the older woman triumphantly. “It’s avocado! Isn’t that the damnedest thing?” She drank the last of it and set the glass back on the tray. “You can go,” she said to me, “I’ll give Rosa the tray when I’m done. I’ll see you at dinner. Can’t wait to see what you make me then.”