“Oysters were borne aloft in a silver chalice, reclining on a bed of ice and garnished with seaweed. One of the male guests was heard to gasp”: a short story by New Plymouth author Elizabeth Smither

When Francine Marquand took over the old Bel Cibo restaurant, she inherited, not just the black walls and black interior, but two cooks, one black-haired and pale, the other red-haired and freckled and a waitress with hair dyed orange and green. This unlikely trio she summoned to a meeting after the previous owner had fled the country ahead of his creditors. Not even the tills were paid for.

Francine had rehearsed a little speech as she drove. Some words of her father, a wine importer, came to mind. ‘Begin harsh and act soft later,’ was one of his favourite sayings, practically a foundation stone. Francine guessed there was wisdom in it. Should she begin as a bitch and later take them to dinner? Provide dinner herself: little steaks and a salad, bread rolls? Then she might suggest that someone make coffee. The first test.

But when she saw the three faces: sullen, greasy as the skin of cooks often is (not enough vitamin D), pimples jostling with freckles, the line of dandruff in the colourful parting, she knew she would have to improvise. Her father’s bottom line could wait. Perhaps after the first week…

The three were standing, sullenly, against the long bar, from which the cash register had been repossessed. Behind were shelves emptied of bottles, the colours that took the place of books. Though she might add books, unblock the fireplace which was hidden behind particleboard painted black.

(Later Julie was to confide she thought this meant they were to wear uniforms).

“I think we should have coffee first,” Francine said, abandoning her plan. “Who would like to volunteer?”

Enrico, the taller of the cooks, moved towards the ancient Cona coffee maker. He was thinking of poison or salt in the sugar bowl. Still if he was being kept on for another hour it might count towards his final payout. As it was his hand trembled and the milk did not froth properly. Who gives a shit, he thought, as he brought the woman a flat white and a short black each for Julie and Sam. Thinking to dissociate himself he sipped pointedly at his water bottle.

“This coffee is not good enough,” Francine began, “but I’m sure you know that. Whether there is enough business to warrant a barista is something I’d like to talk about.”

“You mean we’re not fired?” Julie said, and her voice sounded silky, sullen, as if it could go either way.

“I’m not thinking of firing anyone,” Francine stated. “Not yet. I hope it will not be necessary. It’s not easy out there and I mean to make a go of this. Let’s just see how we get on together.”

There was a slight lift in the atmosphere around the table with its scoured wood and knotholes you could sink a finger in. It was possible to detect the softest, most tentative of released breaths from three sets of lungs.

“The first thing I am going to do is give you all a week off, on your normal pay, while I get this place up to speed. I think it will be good to take a break. The following week I will expect you here at 8 a.m. and we can start dressing the interior. The only caution I want to offer at this stage is that I expect my staff to arrive sober and ready to work. I will not tolerate bleary-eyed cooks, a hung-over waitress. And now I must have a word with the electrician about a new oven.”

There were new French doors, between a grey and a blue, and something had been done to the surface so they had a Parisian look. Julie pushed with her hand and they opened like the covers of a book. The old oven was gone, replaced by a Vulcan. There was no sign of a microwave but a new Vibiemme Replica stood in place, glowing as if it should rightly be considered part of the furniture. The tables were new and close together and the chairs suggested a spine could lean in comfort. Each table had two white cloths, one floor length, the other to be whisked away at the end of each sitting.   

Francine was supervising the installation of a little display case that looked like a safe on legs. The glass had a pattern on it – doves and a fringe of leaves – and inside were two glass shelves. “A présentoir,” Francine explained. “A place to display cakes and desserts. The glass has to be beautifully polished each morning. A single smear would spoil the look of it.”

She can do it herself if she’s going to be a fusspot, Julie thought, though her eyes kept being drawn back to it. Against her will she was forced to admit it looked cool.

That day they sat down to talk menus. Francine talked about a book written by monks in a Cistercian abbey. The food was plain and simple: windfall apples gathered into long brown skirts and turned into pies. Each recipe was prefaced by a prayer. Severely Francine looked at Enrico who was beginning to sneer. “If you want to work for Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White I suggest you leave immediately. I want a kitchen where the food is prepared slowly and lovingly. No screaming and abuse, no barks of ‘Yes, chef’. I want us to have real pride in what we do.”

“Do you think she’s a nutter?” Enrico said to Sam when they were walking home an hour earlier than usual. They stopped at a bar and had a beer and then, because if felt daring, a whisky. “I don’t think I can go with all this lovey-dovey stuff.”

“Give it a chance, man,” Sam replied. He hadn’t had such a mellow day in ages. “That new oven is really something.”

Julie suspected she would have to wear a uniform but she was relieved when she was told it would be simple: white shirts, black slacks or skirts, and the long Parisian aprons she had always envied, the tapes wrapped around and tied in the front. She could wear a mini skirt and the apron over it and feel the gaze of the male customers on the backs of her legs. Nothing had been said about her hair or the six rings in each ear.

“Le Restaurant Compatissant. How does that sound?” Francine asked when they were assembled, Enrico and Tom in their chef uniforms, Julie in a new white shirt and black leggings.

“A bit weird,” said Sam.

“I can’t get my tongue around it,” said Julie.

“You can practise your pronunciation while you work.”

The awnings were up, very Parisian, and in the winter there might be heat lamps and coffee outside, enjoying the fumes from theatre patrons’ cars’ exhausts. The Opera House was practically next door and in its previous incarnation the restaurant had served inferior coffee and slabs of carrot cake.  

“Slow down,” Francine said to Enrico who was rattling and banging around in the kitchen. “I want all your movements to be gentle and deliberate. Whipping an egg within an inch of its life will not improve a sauce. Concentrate. And I don’t want finger smudges on plates or fingers pressing food into towers. That sort of arrangement is very disappointing to eat. Human beings are not crocodiles.”

Julie stifled a giggle. The night before she and her flatmate had eaten giant Texas burgers and bits of  meat and sauce had dripped onto their laps.

“Eat slowly and you’ll live longer,” Francine admonished said as she moved away to hand a businessman a flyer.

To launch Le Restaurant Compatissant – the Restaurant C as it would soon be shortened to – Francine had organised an apéritifs and canapés evening. She would insist on the staff having a small glass of wine before starting work on the evening meals. She had written a little manifesto on the invitations that were sent out. At Le Restaurant Compatissant (The Compassionate Restaurant) you will notice a difference in food and service. Our staff are not rushed – she had toyed with ‘not barking mad’ – and we cook in a manner than honours food and prepares it with a calm and loving attention.

When Sam curdled a sauce and was about to throw his whisk, which had signally failed to right matters, on the floor, Francine had sat him down and suggested a quiet five minutes and a glass of Evian water before he tried again. “I want no hysterics,” she said.  “To cook well you need a clear and attentive mind.” The second time the sauce Béarnaise was perfect, gleaming with the rich colour of egg yolks and clarified butter.

“What if something fails when we are open? I can’t sit down for five minutes then.”

“If something fails – but it won’t happen often if our attitudes are right and we take care – I shall explain to the customer that there will be a slight delay and offer them an exquisite hors d’oeuvres.”

Le Restaurant Compatissant opened and the first diners were greeted by Francine and Sam. Francine reached out a hand and straightened Sam’s toque. Julie was overseeing the table settings, checking the position of the cutlery and the single white rose in a long thin vase. Then she would pull out the chairs, undo the napkins, flourish them onto laps.

“We’d like to greet you with an aperitif,” Francine said, smiling. “Our recommendation this evening is an exotic and powerful Gewürtztraminer which perfectly complements our menu.”

Soon the tables at Le Restaurant C were filling up. Julie was attempting to arrange compatible guests at adjoining tables. She handed out the pristine menus in their covers and the wine list. Then Enrico brought out the complimentary hors d’oeuvre: minted pea purée vol au vents. Francine moved between the tables, unhurried, stopping to reminisce about her time in Paris. She laid her hand on Sam’s shoulder as he basted a rack of lamb. There were no heat lamps for the plated food to rest under; in fact there was no plating of food, pressing of fingers, wiping the edge of a plate where a jus had spilled with a less than pristine tea towel. The vegetables, piping hot, went into big white serving dishes and Enrico carried them on a tray supported by his flat palm. Then he triumphantly lowered them onto the cloth from which Julie had whisked aside the rose. When entrecotes were ordered they arrived glittering with a dab of unsalted Normandy butter and a scattering of fresh herbs. Oysters were borne aloft in a silver chalice, reclining on a bed of ice and garnished with seaweed. One of the male guests was heard to gasp.

When the final guest had gone, Francine, Julie, Sam and Enrico had a small calvados and Sam was allowed to take the last small entrecote home for his cat. Enrico had his motorbike but a taxi was ordered for Julie and Sam and into each hand Francine pressed a small white envelope: their share of the tips.

“It went better than I thought,” Julie admitted as the taxi bore them away. “She’s not such a bad boss.”

“Don’t be so lukewarm,” Sam chided from the back seat. He had a little container of chocolate mousse which he would eat for breakfast. Or he might even watch a late late movie.

Alone in the Restaurant C, Francine lit the one cigarette a day she allowed herself. She looked down with amusement at the business card a man had proffered. “If you ever feel like cooking for a single client…” he had murmured, and she had smiled archly and shook her head.

Slowly the staff were getting used to her ways. Julie was becoming more punctual and her nails were cut straight across and spotless. No longer did she wear a miniskirt under her long apron and her white blouse was beautifully pressed. The orange and green streaks were gone from her hair. The real reason was that one of the businessmen in a group on Fridays had written his cellphone number on the back of a paper tissue and pressed it into her hand with a $20 tip. When she pried open her fingers there it was: a whole future on offer. She had made some enquiries and he appeared to be single.

Enrico and Sam were enjoying themselves in the kitchen. No longer were pots and pans crashed down on surfaces. Food preparation was a lot slower. “Think gentle thoughts,” Enrico had said snidely to Sam when he was julienning carrots but he had not risen to the bait. “I don’t mind Jamie Oliver,” he said, when the carrots were done and he was slicing shallots. “At least his heart’s in the right place. But those potty mouths…”

“It’s not about power and machismo,” Francine told them when they were slowly learning to relax. ‘It’s about having a proper attitude to food. If a plant reacts to a person approaching it and can tell its intentions, how should you apply that in the kitchen?”

“By tenderly slicing an onion,” Enrico suggested.

“And by breathing through your mouth and wearing goggles,” Francine added.

Francine was working on a new menu for autumn. And new desserts for the présentoir. The books were starting to balance but could they survive the winter? Winter food was her favourite: the rich cassoulets, coq au vin, onion soup and the beautiful sticky date puddings, creamy rice baked in the oven all day. Should she confide in the staff, she wondered. She thought of her father again, the captain of industry, and his tough-first-soften-later stance. Then she chided herself for faintheartedness. Winter was the season of string quartets, orchestra concerts, musical revivals and an endless procession of aging rock stars.

Nonetheless that evening, when the last guest had departed, Francine asked the staff to stay behind for ten minutes. She got down an old bottle of cognac and poured each of them a tiny glass. Enrico put his toque on the table and Julie undid her apron, tied uncomfortably tight to show off her waist. The man she was interested in had not been in that night but it was well to be prepared.

“I’ve ordered two heat lamps,” Francine said, looking into the tired young faces. Even slow cooking did not entirely reduce stress.

“I’m thinking about the winter, how we shall get through it.”

“Why shouldn’t we?” Julie piped up.

“There’s supposed to be a recession. Dining out is one of the first things to go.”

But Julie couldn’t believe it.

Besides she had an idea.

“Get a chanteuse,” she suggested.

Three months later, on a wet night in July, Lulu Gibson made her debut at the Restaurant Compatissant. Sam, stepping out from the kitchen, with a wooden spoon still in his hand, introduced her. And Julie, oddly, had taken her under her wing. It might have been because her waif-like look was no threat to Julie’s curves. That night her apron was tied tighter than ever, her admirer was in attendance, and she was wearing her leather mini-skirt.

Lulu Gibson stepped up to the old-fashioned replica mike Francine had found and began to sing Non, je ne regrette rien. Her voice was a little uncertain at first, but then the huskiness swelled into something bolder, something to do with the wet night outside, the umbrellas dripping in the big urns inside the door, the diners turned on their chairs as Julie opened the présentoir and cut a big slice of tarte aux cerises.

Francine’s musings were very different. She was thinking of the book she had ordered that morning which she would place on a special stand. ‘Recipes from a Monastery Kitchen’ with the monks picking up the windfall apples. Brown apples and brown monks. And then the pies made with such love and thanksgiving the spotted apples were tastier than any other apple in the world.

Elizabeth Smither’s next collection of short stories, The Piano Girls, is scheduled to be published by Quentin Wilson in November. Next week’s short story is “Psycho Ex” by Whanganui author Airini Beautrais.

Elizabeth Smither has published written 18 poetry collections, six novels and five short story collections.

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