by Liz Cox
Marius the chef brought his meat cleaver down onto the scarred chopping board with a thud.
‘Lingonberries! Lingonberries! Who agreed to this? Where the hell do you think I’m going to find lingonberries in the Aude?’ The pot-wash boy cringed by the sink; the sous-chef sidled in the direction of the dining room. The maître d’ raised his eyebrows and stood his ground with his hands clasped behind his tail coat.
‘Yes Chef, the lady asked for a lingonberry sauce with her steak.’ He took one nervous step backwards.
Marius stormed out of the kitchen slamming the door behind him. There was sigh of relief.
Marius was a three Michelin starred chef and wasn’t going to be dictated to by anyone; least of all a customer. What did they know? They ate what he cooked not the other way around. What about his reputation! Out in the balmy evening, he threw himself down on a bench under the grape vine and lit a calming cigarette. The cicadas were chirruping in the kitchen garden, and bats were flitting around the eaves of the sixteenth-century building. As he gazed out over the plain, he could see the citadel of Carcassonne rising in the distance, its floodlights a golden glow in the darkening skies. He took off his chef’s hat and wiped his sweating brow with the tea towel hung from his waist. He really couldn’t believe a customer had come into his restaurant in South-West France and asked for lingonberries which only grew in Scandinavia. What a moron! What an ignoramus!
’Zut alors!’ He shouted at the night sky. The cicadas fell silent. He puffed on his Gauloise and fumed.
Andre, the sous-chef, came to find him. No one else in the kitchen brigade dared to risk it, but Andre had the measure of the man – all bark, no bite. But when Marius’ reputation was at stake, he knew his chef was a man possessed. Andre patted his boss on the shoulder.
‘Come on Chef, we’ll think of something,’ he cajoled. ‘Think of the kudos when you bring it off. Your name will be spread far and wide around the Aude. Think of the headlines, the first chef to make lingonberry sauce in the Aude.’ Andre spread his arms wide to indicate the breadth of the upcoming fame. ‘Think of the jealousy of your friends,’ he whispered. He knew he had him with that.
Marius gave his sous-chef a scathing look and without a word strode back through the door into the kitchen stamping out his cigarette on the gravel path.
‘Tell her she’ll have to wait while I conjure up a magnificent lingonberry sauce - in your more tactful words of course,’ he shouted to the maître d’. ‘Offer her champagne and amuse bouche.’ The maître d’ scuttled back to the restaurant with a worried look on his face, a bottle of the best vintage Champagne in one hand and a plate of hors d’oeuvres in the other. Turning to Andre, Marius barked,
‘Get the boy to find me a book about plants. I need to find out what they look like.’ Andre smirked, as he went off to find one of the juniors in the kitchen. He had known it would work. The chef’s arrogance would get the better of him in the end.
While Marius waited for the book to arrive, he peered through the steamed-up, round window in the restaurant door. Who was this person who had challenged his cooking? At thirty-five he was the youngest three-star chef in the area. Black curls were threatening to come loose from under his hat, and he pushed them back with his broad fingers. He glared at the diners in the restaurant. He soon found her, as she was the only one with the vintage champagne. ‘Misers the rest of them!’ he muttered. She wore her fair hair in a chin length bob, and as she perused the rest of the menu through her dark framed glasses, a stray lock fell across her face. Hmm, not young, but not old either, he mused. She wore a casual shirt open at the neck and an emerald green skirt. Pearl ear drops glowed in the low lighting of the room. She was biting her lips, as she read, as if she couldn’t decide what to choose. But she’d already chosen, hadn’t she? Steak with lingonberry sauce. Marius banged his forehead on the doorjamb and turned back to his work bench.
Just then, the chef-de-partie returned with the book which the pot-wash boy had found lurking amongst the cobwebs in a dusty cupboard.
‘Here Chef,’ he held out the weighty volume. ‘Pierre found it in the old cupboard at the back of the kitchen.’ Marius snatched the book and riffled through the fragile pages at speed.
‘There are no lingonberry pictures in here, not unsurprisingly,’ he stormed, his voice dripping with sarcasm. ‘Doesn’t anyone know what they look like?’
‘Excuse me Chef,’ a nervous voice piped up at his left elbow. He looked down from his height of six foot two to find the pot-wash boy wringing his hands in his apron. ‘Excuse me Sir, but my grandmother came from Sweden. I have eaten lingonberries on my visits there.’
‘Why didn’t you say so before, boy, we’re wasting time here.’ The boy shuffled his feet.
‘They’re red, Sir.’ He ventured.
‘Red! Is that all? What do they taste like?’ He flicked the boy’s head with his cloth.
‘They’re sort of sour and sweet; tart if you like. Bit like a blueberry to look at … but red.’ He faltered.
Marius strode over to the window again and peered out. He could see her drumming her fingers on the tablecloth. The Champagne bottle was half empty and the plate of nibbles was gone. He watched as the maître d’ approached the woman. She looked at her watch and said something to the man which caused him to blanche and hurry back towards the kitchen. He pushed open the door, nearly flooring Marius in the meantime.
‘Chef, she’s going to leave if she doesn’t get her steak within fifteen minutes. And what’s worse, she’s going to write a bad review on Trip Advisor. She says you’re an arrogant fool and to stop watching her through the window and get cooking.’ Marius saw her give him a little wave, when he glanced into the room again. Marius shouted at the brigade.
‘Get moving you lazy lot of good-for-nothings, you heard what the lady said.’ A giggle began with the pot-wash boy, gradually moving around the room like a Mexican wave, until it ended with the sous-chef who was doing his best to stifle it, as he was within hitting distance of the boss.
Chef was standing in the centre of the room scratching his head and casting around for inspiration. Andre went to the fridge and removed a lovely juicy fillet. He cut a generous slice from the whole piece, whilst Marius frowned at his generosity.
‘Got to butter her up Chef,’ he chortled. ‘Better get started on the lingonberry sauce. It won’t take me long to get this ready. With that Andre reached for a pan and melted some butter.
Marius was galvanised into action. If the steak was ready before the sauce, it would be totally wasted. How to make the sauce? He sautéed some shallots and garlic in another pan with some butter and whilst they were softening, he flung open the fridge door searching for a lingonberry substitute. Would she realise it wasn’t the real thing? She looked Scandinavian with that blonde hair. Red currants, he would use red currants. They were red, and although they didn’t look the same, when they were squashed down, they would look good enough. He couldn’t believe he was doing this; compromising his reputation for a woman. If it had been any other customer, he would have sent them packing with a flea in their ear.
‘Are you nearly ready Chef?’ Andre was enjoying the moment of finding his tricky boss in a situation like this. It almost made it worth the usual screaming and shouting of the apoplectic man to catch him on the back foot. ‘She’s gathering up her belongings.’
Marius could not let this woman leave his restaurant without her steak and faux lingonberry sauce. He sliced and diced and squashed, until he had a deep burgundy sauce in the pan. Andre warmed the plate and garnished it with a flourish. He placed the beautifully caramelised steak in the centre and wiped the dish carefully. Now for the pièce de resistance.
Marius approached the counter; in his left hand the pan of sauce, in his right the spoon. Lovingly, he spooned the sauce over the meat until it was completely red, and berries trickled down the side. He kissed his fingers in an extravagant gesture and turned around on his heel with the plate firmly resting on his palm.
‘Chef! Look out Chef!’ Andre was just in time to see the wine waiter right in the path of his boss. Too late! Marius lay sprawled across the restaurant floor, and the plate of steak and lingonberry sauce was neatly placed on the lap of the blonde woman. He gazed up into the most beautiful, frosty blue eyes, and smiled.
‘Steak with lingonberry Sauce, madam,’ he declared with a flourish.
The blonde dipped her finger into the mess on her lap and licked it delicately.
‘That is not lingonberry sauce monsieur,’ she declared as she scooped red berries off her white blouse. ‘I knew you would not be able to do it. A Michelin starred chef. I don’t think so.’ With that she stood up and sauntered out of the restaurant leaving a trail of meat, garnish and sticky red sauce across Marius’ bespoke deep pile carpet.
‘Huh! Call yourself a Michelin starred chef,’ she repeated as her parting shot, stepping over the prone Chef where he lay on the floor. ‘Everyone knows you can’t get lingonberries in the Aude. Ignoramus!’
Andre and the pot-wash boy stood in the kitchen sniggering. Their boss had finally got his comeuppance, beaten by a blonde and a Nordic berry.