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The Man with the Veal Medallions
updated: Sep 17, 2011, 9:45 AM
by Frank Frost
The chef peeked through the little window in the kitchen door to check the crowd. He should have started the show five minutes ago but there were still only two couples waiting. And a garrulous old lady, Mrs. Rodeheaver, who was talking away as usual, waving her hands. He figured that if he didn't get going pretty soon she might drive the other customers away.
The poster out there in the dining room said,
WEDNESDAY, 3 PM.
KITCHEN TOUR WITH CHEF EUGENE.
DISCOVER THE SECRETS BEHIND OUR FABULOUS MENUS
It was the manager's idea. With the hiking, the mountain climbing, the horseback riding, canoeing, and so forth, some clients had asked for something relaxing to do there at the lodge in the afternoon. So the manager thought this was a natural. Everyone loved the food so much, people from New York, San Francisco, raving about the menus, spending so much time talking to Chef Eugene when he toured the dining room every evening. Not just asking, of course, but wanting him to realize that they knew what a beurre blanc was...where did you ever find morilles in Idaho?...Not even Jean-Georges, or Thomas, or Alice ever made ginger catfish, truffled quail ravioli, caramelized-pear-lamb shanks––and so on, take your pick––like this! It was a high-powered crowd. If they weren't here from the big cities, it was Aspen, or the Vineyard, or Santa Barbara. They knew that the $550.00 they were paying per couple every day gave them a little log cabin, with no TV (the lodge advertised that) and unlimited riding, hiking, whatever. They could figure out the rest was going into their two meals a day, breakfast and dinner––so they'd better be good.
The meals were much better than good, and so the manager––call me Herb, he said––Herb thought people would love to spend some real time with the chef, look at the kitchen, all that sparkling stainless steel, maybe watch someone chopping onions.
Which was why Chef Eugene couldn't figure out how come there were only five people? He was just opening the kitchen door when a sixth client came in, a slender man, medium height, wearing jeans, beautiful snakeskin boots, a denim work shirt and a suede jacket.
"Hi! I'm sorry I'm late. Did I miss anything?"
He was a pleasant-sounding man, middle age. He spoke quietly, relaxed and at ease.
The others turned to look, turned back to greet the chef. The clients all knew each other––just to nod to in the dining room––but they tended not to get too clubby. You didn't spend five and a half bills a day to get stuck with a bore, which was why someone like Mrs. Rodeheaver generally felt surrounded by peoples' backs. Judge Rodeheaver himself was always up in the mountains all day, painting. Three guesses.
"Hi, hi! Thanks for coming, everyone! I hope you realize you're the first group ever to tour the Clanton Lake Lodge kitchen. No sir, you didn't miss a thing. Uh...you were the veal medallions with chanterelles last night?"
Everyone chuckled, and the newcomer was surprised.
"How did you––?"
"You know, I see the whole crowd every night. There's only fifty-two of you, so after a few dinners, I've got everyone figured out. I'm real busy back there but I've still got time to play this little game, you know? Like, 'That guy took the trout last night; I bet he goes for some real meat tonight.' Or, 'That lady ate every course last night. And two desserts. Today she's going to take the clear soup, skip the first course, and order the crawfish tails à la nage.'" Everybody laughed.
"Now––" He was going to continue but Mrs. Rodeheaver started to interrupt. Chef Eugene had escaped from her in the dining room before and didn't want to get bogged down, so he just held up a hand, smiling, and said," You know what? We should get started. There's plenty of time for questions as we do the tour."
Everyone gladly moved through the double doors into the kitchen. Chef Eugene turned, his back to a long metal counter. "Here's the last stop folks, just before you get your food." He gestured with his hands in both directions, like a symphony conductor acknowledging his musicians.
Everyone's attention was on Chef Eugene. He was a fairly young man, maybe thirty-eight or so, but looking younger, with his very short blondish hair, his round, very open freckled face. A stocky frame, not at all fat, but an appropriate build for a good cook. He was a naturally friendly man, full of good cheer, and they all had talked to him in the dining room, if only briefly.
"Every plate comes out here and I look at it, check to see if it's just right. You may not notice all the little garnishes, the fresh herbs, the parsley oil––"
There were murmurs, objections, almost indignant denials...they had noticed.
"Okay! okay, great. But it's not just the garnish. You don't want a little slop of sauce on the edge of the plate..."
No they didn't.
"Or maybe even forget the potatoes!" They all laughed, shaking their heads. As if!
"So I check the order very carefully and enter it on the computer right here––table number and a little code for the dish. Just a 'V-M' for your veal medallions, sir. That way I can take ten minutes, end of the evening, sit down at the computer and boom it's all there, exactly how much of every ingredient––"
"What was my elk chop?" Mrs. Rodeheaver asked. Someone groaned, quickly turned it into a throat-clearing.
"Your elk chop on the green peppercorn cream coulis? Just an L-K. Elk."
"We musta seen a hundred elk yesterday, driving around," said Mr. Nilwater, and his wife nodded. "No problem getting elk chops here, I bet."
"You know the darnedest thing? I get my elk from New Zealand. Venison too. It's farmed there." There was a chorus of disbelief.
"No. Listen, you wouldn't believe the Park regulations, what we can serve or not. And my trout? With all the trout streams and lakes around here? That has to be flown in too. Not so far though, Wisconsin."
"You probably get consistent supply that way," said Mr. Biddle, sounding knowedgable. "And no waste."
"You got it! No waste. And you got your portion control. If we butchered a whole elk here we'd have about five hundred pounds of elk meat left over. What are you gonna do with that?"
"Host the Elks' Club convention?" Everyone laughed. It was the man with the veal medallions.
"Ha ha, that's good. Now folks, if you'll just follow me...?"
They wound in and out of the counters in the kitchen, observing the sauté line, the wood-fired grill, the two sous-chef stations, the prep tables, the walk-in cold rooms. The conversation was spirited. The two couples were obviously both foodies, knew how to cook, went to good restaurants. Mrs. Rodeheaver was even a bit intimidated by the expert flow of food conversation. She would just start to say something about a meal she had in Des Moines and someone would break in...
"The smoked duck breast? You brine that first?"
"Yes sir. Just overnight. Firms up the outer meat a bit, keeps it juicy. Got a little backyard smoker right out back."
They had circled back to the kitchen door again and the subject of memorable dishes had come up. They were going on and on. Mrs. Rodeheaver even finally got in her meal in Des Moines, and Chef Eugene thought maybe he'd ask the man with the veal medallions to say something and then he could shoo them out the door.
"You sir? You've been pretty quiet. Are you a great cook like the rest of these folks?"
"Not really. I do fool around in the kitchen now and then. Right now I'm trying to duplicate a recipe I had at this hunt club back in New Jersey. Just a simple linguine with eggplant, but I think there's something missing."
Everyone looked to Chef Eugene, expecting him to volunteer some surefire trick, but he had suddenly frozen in his tracks.
Finally, he looked at his watch. "Whoa! The time! Gotta get movin' folks, or dinner'll be late." He abruptly turned away and walked toward the back of the kitchen.
Later he found the man with the veal medallions out in the lounge having a cup of coffee. It was the quiet time before cocktails and no on else was in the lounge. Late afternoon sun was streaming through the windows. Eugene came out and sat down across from him.
"Brown. Nathan Brown. That's what the register says."
"That's really my name, too, Gino."
"You didn't look like a wiseguy to me. Man, you startled me like that. I almost had a heart attack. I been expecting, you know, a couple of years, some bent nose is gonna walk in and that's it."
Nathan Brown chuckled. "Gino, I'm a lawyer. They asked me to see if I could find you."
"A lawyer...? Does that mean Vinnie...Mr. Castle might––"
"Might settle for what you owe him?"
"That's what I meant, Mr.––"
"And the vig?"
Chef Eugene's face fell. "Mr. Brown. I been saving up some money. I been planning all along to make good. I'm close to what I owed, you know? But if I have to pay the vig...what's it been now, almost three years? I could never––"
Nathan Brown smiled, waved his hand dismissively. "Just kidding, Gino. No. Vinnie always liked you. When you disappeared he almost cried, you know why? The food at the club. It just went downhill. And especially the linguine siciliana. The one with the eggplant?"
"I know. Every Friday lunch. I offered to put it on the menu twice a week, but Mr. Castle said, no, he liked getting hungry for it in the middle of the week––anticipating––you know what I mean?" Eugene was silent for a moment, just thinking it over. "You mind telling me how you found me?"
Mr. Brown smiled. "It's not like it was a full-time job, Gino, you know? Vinnie goes, 'You think you can find him?' And I go, 'I'll have some people look into it.' Basically it was just checking lists. I figured you'd be at a private club somewhere, a resort, not a restaurant where you might show up in restaurant reviews. I told my people, 'Check every place within fifty miles of a casino. This guy gambles. Has to gamble.'"
The chef was shaking his head, rubbing his jaw, a rueful expression on his broad face.
"Mr. Brown, you figured me out all right." He looked up, confident now.
"But you know what? How I used to throw all my money away on the tables, the horses? I got out here, I spent some time in therapy. Like in AA, which I did that too ten years ago. They can treat gambling the same way. Not just gambling, but, you know, gamblaholics, I used to be? I got rid of all that insanity––gotta catch up, bigger and bigger bets. Now I can just walk up to the tables, win a little, lose a little, walk away. Besides, it's different here! The Indians, got that casino the other side of the lake? It's a great casino, and you know what? Babes in the woods, comes to real gaming. They been trying to hire people from Nevada, but they can't get enough. They really don't know what they're doing, how to squeeze the clients!" He was becoming animated.
Nathan Brown was looking skeptical, so Eugene kept talking even faster.
"What I been doing, every week, is going over there and playing the safe games, blackjack, sometimes poker...you know I could always play poker. Almost every night it's been a hundred, two hundred, one night over a thousand, even––"
The lawyer was holding up a hand, laughing. "Enough, enough. That sounds great, Gino. We're talking about seventeen large, now. You think you can come up with a good down payment on that?"
Eugene leaned forward, confident now. "Mr. Brown. Couple of years ago I just figured one day I'd be dead. But I still started planning, maybe if I could make a deal, I don't know. I put aside half my salary every month. And then I just started adding whatever I won. I've got everything in this leather bank envelope, you know, like I was just thinking something like this could happen? I got that money! Really. I got that much saved up, I could show you!"
Nathan Brown got up, filled his coffee cup at the big coffee maker. Chef Eugene was on his feet in a second.
"Mr. Brown, why don't you let me get you a nice espresso? I'll just holler to Mike in the kitchen––"
The lawyer smiled, waved him off. "I just wanted another mouthful, Gino. You know everything you're telling me is good news. Vinnie's going to be a happy man. But what about this casino. Maybe we should take a look at it, just from a business point of view. What time you get off tonight?"
It was ten-thirty when they drove around to the other side of the lake. There in the remote Idaho mountains the Indian casino had been carved into the pine forest, its garish lights blinding the stars and its parking lot jammed with hundreds of cars. They had to park in the trees, off the asphalt, and walk for over a hundred yards. A light wind was stirring the trees and they could smell the pines, the wood smoke––and then look at the absurdity of this trashy casino. Two stolid, silent bouncers gave them a glance and waved them through into a cacaphonous alley of beeping, booping, flashing slots. Eugene pointed to the back of the main room.
"Poker tonight. See if we can find a game. There's some guys drive here all the way from Boise to get taken, you know the type? It used to be me. Just watch."
Eugene wandered a bit through the poker tables. It was obvious he was known. He soon found a table of four where he was enthusiastically welcomed. Nathan Brown said that he was just going to poke around, maybe have a drink. From the bar he could see the players he figured Gino was targeting, a younger man, flushed, talking too much. And a stolid old Indian, it looked like, never said a word, just looked at his cards, made his bets. In less than an hour Gino came back to the bar, counting chips.
"You saw me sandbag that guy? I let him catch me bluffing one hand, he wins a few bucks. Then, eight hundred or so on the table, I've got two pair, but I've been counting cards and I don't figure there's bupkus out there. He stayed in until he caught on and then it was too late. Bingo!"
"Also," said Nathan Brown, "I notice every time the Indian deals you win, or almost."
"Well. That too." Eugene was sheepish. "They call him Chief Many Chips here. He's a real Blackfoot, you know, but he was a dealer in Tahoe for thirty years. Nobody here knows that. We hooked up a long time ago. I gotta pay him off tomorrow."
They cashed in and the chef tucked his winnings into the large leather envelope. "You see, Mr. Brown? I learned a lesson here. I never take a drink anymore, always quit while it still feels too early, win or lose. You'll give this to Mr. Castle, let him know I want to come back?"
They paused at the lounge. Dark reddish light, only a few tables occupied, everyone else out where the action was.
The lawyer looked around. "There's just one other thing, Gino. The linguine. Vinnie wants the exact recipe. Can we sit down a minute? You just reel it off and I'll jot it down." A waitress in a miniskirt and net stockings came to take their orders. Eugene ordered a coke, Nathan Brown a bourbon-rocks.
Later Gino was talking and laughing non-stop all the way back to the woods where they'd parked the car. He was going on about how he'd always loved the hunt club, didn't have to do anything but cook, but here at the lodge he had to be the kitchen accountant too and he'd always hated that side of it.
"You know what I mean?" he asked, his hand on the door of the car. "You know what it's like, having to do two different jobs at the same time?"
"I surely do," said Nathan Brown.
* * *
It was a warm day for fall and the luncheon crowd was out on the terrace of the hunt club overlooking the forested slope leading down to the Delaware river. Nathan Brown joined Vincent Castle at a table for two.
"Nate, Nate! Great to see you back." He put up a big meaty hand. "Now don't tell me... First of all, you got the recipe?"
Smiling, Nathan Brown pulled a note pad out of his jacket. Today he was wearing dark grey flannel slacks, a black faux turtleneck, and a light grey silk herringbone jacket.
"Wait, wait just a minute!" Castle gestured to a waiter. "Aldo, go get Aristide, quick." He turned back to Brown. "You gotta catch this guy, this cook. My cousin discovered him in a hotel in Marsala two months ago, now he cooks the whole menu, French, American, you name it."
A quiet man came out of the kitchen wearing a chef's jacket and checkered pants, wiping his hands on his apron, a question on his face. He pulled up a chair, straddled it.
"Aristide! This is my lawyer, Mr. Brown. He brought back that recipe I told you about, the linguine?"
Aristide nodded politely.
"Okay, Nate, let'er rip."
Brown checked his notes, wanting to get everything in the right order.
"Okay, the whole secret, Gino says, is how you do the eggplant. First thing, you gotta crush some garlic, chop some rosemary and basil and put it in your olive oil, maybe a cup, the best you got, let it steep. Then after an hour or so, you slice your eggplant and just brush the oil on, both sides. Then––and this is important––you gotta grill the eggplant on a wood fire, real hot. Other than that, just cook your linguine, toss it with the left over oil––that has the garlic and stuff in it––use a fresh tomato sauce not cooked too much, fresh chopped basil, top it all with your eggplant and of course the caciocavallo to grate at the table. How's that sound?"
"You get that all, chef?" asked Castle, anxiously.
There was a brief exchange in Sicilian, Aristide nodded again, even smiled, and went back to the kitchen.
"What Gino said, the oil the eggplant is grilled with, crisp, a little black even––it calls to the oil on the pasta, almost a spiritual thing.
"Fabulous, fabulous." said Vincent Castle. He looked around, lowered his voice. "So. How was the rest of your trip? Gino look like he could pay anything off?"
The lawyer shook his head. "He wanted to show me how well he was doing. Took me out to this Indian casino out in the woods and dropped a bundle. He's still a loser. So I took care of it. How about lunch, shall we order, or what?"
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