“So, you gentleman want a cooking lesson to go with your meal, yes?”
“That’s right,” I say with a nod, and Papa Chub, Erb, and I pull in tighter to watch more closely. Monk and Googe shrug to each other and watch from a bit further back, curious, but not particularly invested in what’s unfolding before them. We crack open beers, we learn about mise en place, about the virtues of salt and pepper alone as season for a steak (a fact that will never be applicable in our day to day lives, given the relative scarcity of beef,) about wine pairings, beer pairings, what cocktails make for good apertifs and which ones will just get your guests drunk (which, if you don’t know what the hell you’re doing in the kitchen, might not actually be a bad thing.) The smoke points of oils, bringing out the brightness of green vegetables with a touch of lemon juice, if you’re trying to sear something just leave it alone.
As the sous chef is assembling a salad, Googe reaches for a cherry tomato. She slaps his hand away and we erupt into laughter. She chastises him in a language that’s either French or something she made up on the spot, and this is even funnier to us. I know that this place is built on artifice; however you want to look at it, these women are service professionals, and their livelihood depends in no small measure on keeping us happy. But they seem to be genuinely enjoying themselves, too. Maybe they enjoy their work. Maybe we’re good customers. And maybe it’s the beer, or maybe it’s the promise of an amazing experience to come, or maybe it’s just the atmosphere of spending time with my friends, but for once in my life, I’m not dwelling on it. I’m just happy to be here. The sensation is odd. Alien. But not unwelcome.
The preparation takes more time than anything else. The steaks themselves cook in just minutes, but then they have to rest. The women shoo us out of the kitchen and over to the dining room table where there area already places set for each of us. How and when they managed to set things up without us noticing is a mystery we’ll surely never solve.
At their commands, we sit. The décor is immaculate, the scent of the food divine. The vegetables so fresh and exquisitely prepared are a rare treat, the steak something we may never see again in our lives. “Is there anything else we can get you gentlemen?” the head chef asks.
Everyone else says their no’s and thank you’s. I open my mouth, and the words fall out of me like a drunk tumbling down stairs. “Sit and eat with us.”
The women laugh. “No, no. We can’t, we have to get back, this is supposed to be your special meal, not ours,” and so forth.
“It’d be more special if you sat and talked to us, told us about yourselves.”
“It wouldn’t be proper.”
Despite myself, I roll my eyes. There’s that damn expectation of some kind of weird sex thing again. “Ladies, I insist. Please, you spent all that time and effort. Don’t you want to reap some of the fruits of your labor? And Hell, if the hotel’s going to give you trouble, we’ll just pay to hire you for another hour.”
The sous-chef says something in French again and the head chef laughs. Across the table, Googe snorts and mutters a reply. Even to my untrained ear it sounds clipped and awkward, but judging from the way the sous-chef’s blushing, it was an accurate response.
“What’d she say?” Monk asks.
“Something about us being dumb and pretty.”
“’Dumb and sweet,’ actually,” the head chef says, smiling at us all with a look of amusement on your face. “She said that you can always tell the ones who are not used to money because they are still dumb and sweet.”
“That’s us I say,” raising a beer bottle in a mock toast. “We’re basically educationally disadvantaged sugar.”