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Authors: Kim Barnouin

Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Comedy, #Contemporary Women

Skinny Bitch in Love

BOOK: Skinny Bitch in Love
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To my bookworm mom, Linda, thank you for inspiring me with your love of books. And to Jack, you assisted in the inspiration of this book, thank you.

Chapter 1

If anyone had told me five, even ten years ago, that one day my life would depend on a plate of nine butternut squash ravioli with garlic and sage sauce, I would have said, “Shit, yeah, it would!”

O. Ellery Rice, food critic for the
Los Angeles Times,
sat at Table Three,
the
table at Fresh, sipping a glass of organic white wine and tapping her blood-orange nails into her iPhone. O was also the “anonymous” Lady Chew of
Los Angeles
magazine. Obviously, she had a lot of juice.

I was born to be chef of Fresh, the hottest vegan restaurant in Santa Monica and maybe all of L.A. And because Emil Jones, our superstar chef, was down and out with an ailment unmentionable in a kitchen, sous chef—that would be me—had her chance.

“Blow it, Clementine—one mistake—and you’re dead,” Emil had called to scream into my ear a half hour earlier when
he’d heard from probably twenty people that O’s silver Mercedes had pulled up outside Fresh.

We had nothing to worry about. I stood at my station, working on the ravioli in the gleaming, stainless steel kitchen, oblivious to the clangs of pans around me, the hiss of sautéing oil, the chop, chop, chop of knives against cutting boards, the comings and goings of the waitstaff. I filled each delicate wonton wrapper with perfectly seasoned yellow-orange squash and whisked the sage sauce until it magically appeared both translucent and opaque at the same time. The ravioli would be perfect.

I’d spent years working toward this night, toward this moment, training under the best. And I wasn’t talking about the famed Vegan Culinary Institute teachers or my executive chefs at Candle 22 or Desdemona’s, restaurants where I’d chopped, sliced, and scalded my way from vegetables to line cook to assistant sous chef. I was talking about my father, organic farmer and amazing cook, who’d given me a chef’s hat for my ninth birthday and taught me how to nudge flour and water into a pasta dough so sublime it melted on the tongue. How to take one vegetable from the ground—eggplant, for instance—and make a savory dinner that would satisfy a family of five. How to simmer a chipotle chile that had won me a sparkly blue ribbon at age eleven.

Even before that chile, I knew I wanted to be a vegan chef. Veganism was in my blood.

Let’s get something straight right here, since I get this question all the time: what the hell do vegans eat? First let
me tell you what vegans
don’t
eat: anything that comes from an animal. Yeah, even if you don’t have to slaughter the creature to get it. So no eggs, either. No milk. No brie on that cracker. And yes, fish are animals. Then what
do
vegans eat? Duh: everything else.

Nothing made me happier than being in the kitchen, learning, experimenting, perfecting. But like an idiot, I’d decided to forget all that the summer I graduated from high school and before I started cooking school in the fall. Away from home—in L.A.—for the first time, I ate whatever the hell I wanted. Having your first hamburger at eighteen? Enlightening. I lived at In-N-Out Burger that July. Stuffed my face with cupcakes. Drank every kind of sugary alcoholic beverage imaginable. Hit up diners after drinking till 2 a.m. and had fat omelets stuffed with bacon and Swiss cheese. I even thought about trying to switch from the Vegan Culinary Institute to Le Cordon Bleu or the Culinary Institute of America.

And guess what? Also for the first time ever, I started feeling like shit. And not like the hot shit I thought I was for “breaking free” from my parents’ way of life, doing my thing. My once clear skin? Zits everywhere. My one pair of expensive, perfect jeans? Suddenly too tight. And was I allergic to something? Everything in me felt clogged, including what little brain I had left.

I gave up the meat. Bad kinds of booze. Dairy—all of it. I went back to eating the way I had growing up, and within weeks, right before I started at the Vegan Culinary Institute, I was back to my old self. I gave up the crap and stopped feeling
like crap.
Quelle surprise
. It made me more committed than ever to becoming a vegan chef.

So last weekend, when the stricken Emil announced he was making me chef for O’s scheduled visit, there was only one place to go to practice under the best eye: my parents’ farm in Bluff Valley, three hours north. I’d made Fresh’s entire Italian menu for my dad so that no matter what O chose, it would pass his test. Fresh’s gimmick was that the menu changed every week. On Fridays, when the guarded secret was revealed via a one-word mosaic tile sign that Emil hung in the window, a line wrapped around the block. This coming Friday: Italian.

And so in my parents’ big country kitchen, greens and root vegetables and apple trees as far as the eye could see when looking out the window over the sink, I made it all. From the intense minestrone soup to the melt-on-your-tongue butternut squash ravioli to an orgasmic tiramisu. My dad couldn’t stand next to me at the center island the way he used to—not since his cancer went from stage two to three. Before the C word came into our lives, he’d tower beside me, shaking his head and dumping the entire tray of seitan I’d just over-seasoned or tasting the soup and pointing at the garlic cloves. But now he watched from his wheelchair, opinionated as ever, nodding, directing, and occasionally giving me the prized, “You make me so proud, Clem.”

Twice I had to step outside and gulp in air. My mom, with her long graying braid and red Wellies, had come over while harvesting the cucumbers and assured me that every time I
visited, my dad was happier and stronger. I drove up every month since his diagnosis more than a year ago, but sometimes, the sight of my formerly robust father—now so frail and weak, his cheeks gaunt and his eyebrows gone along with the blond hair I inherited—made me burst into tears. And trust me, I’m no crier.

I’d had to make the pizza primavera twice and the butternut squash ravioli three times to pass my dad’s test. (The second time it only got a 9.5 out of 10.)

For O. Ellery Rice, no less than perfection.

I turned down the burner on my sage sauce, then gestured for my sous chef, the trusty Faye (thank
God
Emil hadn’t forced me to work with Rain—definition of frenemy—even though Rain was sauté chef and technically should have been named my sous chef during Emil’s absence), to man the pan while I dashed over to the peephole. James, the Shakespearean drama student/waiter chosen to serve O, stopped at her table with the one hundred seventy dollar bottle of biodynamic white wine to top off her glass. O shook her head so slightly that a waiter less dramatically trained than James might have missed it and bothered her by asking the unnecessary question.

You don’t scare me,
I silently told her as she slid a forkful of escarole and plum tomato into her mouth. In her early fifties, rail thin and tall, her dark hair in her signature bun, and her face almost obscured by the trademark huge black sunglasses, O sat regally, alone—as always. Her MO was to announce the day she’d visit a restaurant, but not the time. I’d been on red
alert since five thirty. The moment that silver Mercedes pulled up, I went to work on the ravioli, working the dough the way my father taught me long ago, precisely cutting each square, filling each space extra lightly with the mixture of squash so it would layer on the tongue. The sage sauce was simmering, awaiting the final sauté of the boiled ravioli, the tiny crumbles of garlic at the ready.

I watched Service, as Emil called the waiters, in their blinding white uniforms, gliding past the rectangular steel tables. It was lateish, almost nine, and all but two of the fifteen tables were taken. O. Ellery Rice tapped at her phone. Took a sip of wine. Another bite of escarole. I gestured for my sous chef to turn the burner on for my garlic, then darted over and waited for the oil to ping exactly right before sliding in the crumbled bits.

“She’s tapping on the phone now,” Jane, a busgirl, reported at the peephole. “Eyeing the plate of fusilli that just passed. Tapping again. Fork going up. That’s it, Clem, three bites of the salad.” O never took a fourth bite of anything.

I added the ravioli to the sage sauce for a perfectly timed infusion, gently stirring the garlic one pan over. In two minutes, I plated the ravioli and scraped up the garlic, then shook the slotted spoon with such a practiced shake that each crumble landed perfectly atop the sauce.

The ravioli would go out in exactly five seconds.

Four. Three. Two . . . As James held the plate for my final inspection, his white T-shirt, white pants, and white shoes so pristine you’d never guess he’d been serving for three hours, I
knew it was perfect. This ravioli would make my father proud. An eleven, maybe even a twelve.

The plate went out. The kitchen applauded. Ty, vegan pastry chef and one of my best friends, placed a cup of his sick tiramisu at my station, CHEF spelled out on top with chocolate shavings. I loved that guy. After closing tonight, Ty and his boyfriend were throwing me a little party at their amazing West Hollywood house to celebrate my big night. T-minus three hours.

I quickly went to work on the backup plate, just in case James tripped or someone crashed into him (happened to my least favorite waitress last week) and waited. My heart was beating in my ears.

Please let her love it. Please let her write that Clementine Cooper, just twenty-six, is a chef to watch, that the ravioli melted on her tongue, that the explosion of squash and garlic in her mouth was like “being made love to with exquisite rough tenderness by your fantasy lover,” which is how she’d once bizarrely described a shepherd’s pie.

In less than thirty seconds, James returned to the kitchen, the plate of ravioli shaking in his hand.

“Oh shit, she’s leaving!” Jane whispered from the peephole.

“Who’s leaving?” I said.

“O,” she said.

What? I stared at the plate in James’s hand. One third of one ravioli had been eaten. That was not three bites. It was only one third of one! I darted to the peephole. O. Ellery Rice’s table was empty.

What just happened?

James, never at a loss for words, was practically choking. “She said—”

The kitchen went dead quiet.

James tried again. “She said—”

“What the fuck did she say?” I shouted.

“She said it’s no wonder people rave about Fresh’s pastas when there’s real butter in the sauce.”

I laughed. The way people did when something made absolutely no sense. “
Butter?
” Butter was almost a dirty word. There would no more be real butter in the kitchen of a vegan restaurant than there’d be a cow carcass hanging in the pantry and a bloody ax against the wall. I’d perfected my own vegan “butter” sticks from soy milk, vinegar, and coconut oil, and though they were good substitutes, no one, and certainly not O. Ellery Rice, would mistake it for churned milk.

BOOK: Skinny Bitch in Love
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