Romance

Till There Was You by Lindsay Hameroff (Excerpt)

1

MISE EN PLACE. A place for everything, and everything in its place. It’s a French expression based on the idea that a good meal can only come from an organized kitchen. It’s also the first lesson every student learns in culinary school.

In the kitchen, a chef must anticipate everything before the process of cooking begins. There are pans to prepare, stations to sanitize, and vegetables to cut, peel, slice, and grate. Proper mise is all about planning, time management, and foresight. For most of my classmates, it is the worst type of drudgery. For me, it is a symphony.

A symphony that, at the moment, has me in the Institute of Culinary Education’s kitchen at 6 A.M., a full hour before my first class. It’s my turn to prep Chef’s mise for today’s demonstration, so I’ve been here since dawn, peeling head after head of garlic like we’re expecting a visit from the Volturi.

Truthfully, I don’t mind the early hour. There’s something magical about this time of morning, when the kitchen is quiet, and I can lose myself in the soothing rhythms of food preparation. Potatoes, peeled. Onions, diced. Fat, trimmed. And every prep bowl laid out with military precision.

I pause to inventory my work, basking in its orderliness before glancing up at the clock. Shit. How is it already 6:45? I throw on my toque, grab my coffee and purse, and head down to my classroom.

Though I’m one of the first to arrive, I’m happy to see my friend Ali is already in our usual spot. I slide into the seat next to her, take out my notebook, and start copying the day’s menu.

Sautéed lamb chops with herbes de Provence. Radish, asparagus, and burrata salad with chives and lemon. Creamy watercress, pea, and mint soup. I’m salivating at the thought of sampling it all at lunchtime.

“So?” I whisper, as I neatly write down each item. “Don’t leave me in suspense. How did it go last night with Bobble Boy?”

I’ve known Ali less than a year, but in that time, she’s managed to go on a truly mind-blowing number of bad dates. First there was Tony, the brilliant chef behind a buzzy fusion place in the West Village. Unfortunately, his passion for the culinary arts was rivaled only by his love for cocaine.

After that came Ted, a Wall Street broker with a great sense of humor and McDreamy-level hair. He was perfect—or at least he’d seemed that way, right up until the wife he’d never mentioned crashed their date at Gallaghers and started rage-hurling hunks of filet mignon around the dining room. Ted got a faceful of Worcestershire sauce. His wife got a restraining order. And Ali got a to-go box.

And who could forget the gaslighter; the embezzler; the guy who called his mom for forty-five minutes in the middle of their first date; or the one with an Instagram account that featured photos of him sleeping in human-sized bird nests? Naturally, my anticipation was high for her date last night: the long-awaited meetup with a guy we’ve been exclusively referring to as “Bobble Boy,” due to the fact that his Tinder profile claims he owns more than four hundred bobbleheads.

“Lexi, the evening exceeded even my wildest expectations.” Ali grins at me, her brown eyes sparkling. “Not only did he have exactly as many bobbleheads as he claimed, but they’re all displayed on shelves facing his bed. Like, watching him. Do you have any idea how hard it is to orgasm when you’re being stared down by the bobblehead version of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory?”

I try and fail to suppress a snicker. Ali leans into my shoulder as we collapse into a fit of giggles, earning a glare from John, the ever-serious forty-year-old career changer. I adore Ali, but every time she recaps one of her disastrous escapades, I silently renew my vow to avoid dating for the duration of culinary school.

Before I can say anything else, Chef Jean-Pierre takes his place at the front of the room and clears his throat, signaling the start of demonstration. We spend the next hour and a half in rapt attention as he expertly sears lamb chops, cooks asparagus to tender perfection, and elegantly arranges it all on a platter.

And now, it’s our turn. Chef makes it look effortless and intuitive, but replicating his recipes is never easy. He assigns us each a dish, and I’m tasked with the pea soup.

Time never moves faster than in the minutes before service, and before I know it, it’s time to plate. My hands tremble as I ladle the thick green soup into a ceramic bowl and gingerly place the carrot garnish on top. Then I carry my dish to the metal flat top in the center of the kitchen. My classmates follow suit, and the air grows thick with savory aromas.

Chef circles the room silently, his expression unreadable as he takes a small taste of every dish. I hold my breath as he approaches my soup. Subconsciously, I raise my fingers to my mouth to chew on my nails, forgetting they’re covered in Band-Aids from yesterday’s ill-fated attempt at grating lemons. I shudder when my lips brush against the sticky adhesive, and the lingering smell of garlic fills my nostrils.

Chef raises a spoon to his lips. He sips, then pauses. His eyebrows furrow. His forehead wrinkles. I’m not sure what face he’s making, but it doesn’t seem good.

“Tell me something, Miss Berman.” He levels a stern gaze at me. “What did you think when you tasted this soup?”

The taste test. How could I have forgotten? I suppress my mounting panic as I figure out what to say next.

“Um, actually, I didn’t,” I confess, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. “I sort of … ran out of time.”

Chef’s mouth hardens into a line. “That makes sense.” He holds out a fresh spoon and gestures toward the bowl. “Go ahead and try a bite.”

A fat bead of sweat rolls down my spine. Heart pounding, I dip the spoon into the bowl, filling it with steamy soup before raising it to my lips. Disappointment floods through me—it’s bland as rainwater.

“It seems we’ve forgotten an important step, haven’t we?” Chef asks. The entire class seems to have tapped into my humiliation now, as they busy themselves staring out the window or fussing with their own dishes. I try to imagine how this could have gone so wrong, but my mind is drawing a blank.

Think, Lexi. What could you have forgotten? I lift the spoon again for another small taste. The flavors are all there—cool, crisp mint, tart crème fraîche. But Chef is right: something is missing.

“Miss Berman,” Chef’s accented voice cuts through my internal monologue, “I’m afraid you’ve failed to properly season your base.”

I feel the heat rising to my cheeks. Of course. I’d been so focused on following the recipe exactly that I completely forgot to season between ingredients. I can’t believe I’ve made such a basic mistake. After all, I’m already six months into the two-year program; it’s not like this is my very first day of classes.

For his part, Chef seems to soften when he notices my humiliation.

“Look,” he says quietly. “Cooking is more than just following a recipe. It’s also about instinct and intuition. It needs to come from here.” He gestures toward my stomach. “In your gut.”


Copyright © 2024 by Lindsay Hameroff

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