by Nina Fortmeyer (@NFortmeyer)
Editor: Elizabeth Buege (@ekbuege)
A Magical Realism
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Alice Hoffman meets Linda Holmes in THE RECIPE EFFECT, 88,000 words of upmarket fiction with a magic twist.
Aspiring chef Stella jump starts her career by landing a job at the locally famous Juniper Mansion restaurant. But culinary school never prepared her for Espie, the sous chef from hell. Singled out and constantly berated, Stella spends her days cutting, peeling, and grating, while all the training and cooking go to the other neophyte prep cook. Espie blames Stella for anything and everything, and makes sure their noted executive chef, who Stella longs to train with, knows how inept she is. Too terrified to confront Espie, Stella is at a loss to stop this woman from destroying her career before it begins.
Then Stella starts getting bombarded with recipes and food facts any time she hears yelling. When a mother scolds her son, Stella hears a recipe for the perfect carrot cake. A drunk shopper’s cussing emerges as an emu meat casserole suggestion. Embracing her newfound affliction, Stella realizes she doesn’t have to face down the kitchen bully—she can outshine her. She tests the argument-inspired dishes on her oddball but supportive housemates, and shows off her creations to the chef. But her superpower spins out of control, and when disaster strikes, it goes from awkward to dangerous when she can’t hear anything but foods. Facing conflict may no longer be avoidable—the only way to turn off the recipe effect and reclaim her life is to speak up and fight back.
I’m currently a catering pastry chef, and my years of kitchen work inspired this story and the cast of characters. I run an active writers group through Nashville Writers Meetup. I’ve been a volunteer with Killer Nashville Writers Conference and a contest reader for the Claymore Dagger Award. My short stories have appeared in Nashville Noir, Every Day Fiction, Origami Journal, Rose Red Review, Flash Fiction for Flash Memory, and 101 Words.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
First Five Pages
Overnight, a small wood table had appeared on our porch. It appeared to be antique, like most of the furniture that made a brief visit before disappearing again. I set down my breakfast and jiggled one of the two chairs. The bentwood back was sturdy, so possibly a modern replica.
I had been heading for the wide front steps on this fine autumn morning, to absorb some good day vibes and steel myself for work. The furniture, which smelled of carrot cake, was a plus. As it happened, my continental breakfast ended up on the single plate that had survived one hundred years of house residents. The gold rim peeking out from the toasted focaccia looked right at home on this table.
“Whoa. Nice.” Dan emerged from the house with a frosted Pop-Tart and a mug of coffee. My housemate sometimes started his day with Coke and donuts. I was amazed he hadn’t died yet.
“Much better than the time we opened the door to creepy porcelain doll parts.” I took a bite of an apple slice. “What does Adam do with this stuff? It can’t fit in that tiny apartment.”
“Well, no, that’s why it’s on the porch.” Dan smirked at me. “I think he sells it. He’s not paying rent by playing sax in bars, even for a studio apartment. What kind of trendy cheese is that?”
“Brie isn’t trendy. It was on sale, and reminds me of France.” France, where my dying grandmother planted the stupid idea that I become a chef, a delicious legacy from a grandfather I barely remembered. Not that the notion itself was stupid. I loved the idea, but my job was making me think I’d made a mistake. “Try some. Balance out the Pop-Tart.”
“Toaster pastry. True Pop-Tarts are elite.”
“Whatever. Here, eat some real food.” I slid my plate in his direction.
“Let’s share. Enjoy this. The table will be gone before you know it.” He held out his coffee mug to clink with mine. I obliged by breaking off a corner of the toaster pastry, which tasted like high-fructose corn syrup and strawberries, in that order.
Shouting erupted from across the street. That couple fought as much as my parents. I didn’t know them, and didn’t want to.
“Why didn’t you gas up?” yelled the woman. “Just making it home isn’t enough. Can’t you ever think ahead?” A car door slammed.
That was what I needed to do. Think ahead. I would become a chef—a great, innovative one—in a kitchen with fun, creative people who worked as a team. No one would single out anyone else to treat badly. If they did, I’d fire them. Or maybe I would give them a chance to change. Yeah, that was it. There would be one fewer bully, and the world would be a better place.
Ten minutes later, with teeth brushed and hair tied back, I packed a chef coat, knife roll, bandana, and a mental plea for fairness. Amid birdsong and a lingering scent of cinnamon, I headed to the job I’d fought for, working under the best chef in the city. I had never once imagined Espie.
# # #
I hung up my hoodie and bid Espie good morning as I clocked in. I didn’t wait for her to respond. The sous-chef spoke to me as little as possible before the chef arrived in the early afternoon. Then she acted as though I was a marginally valuable member of her team. I think it was the best she could muster.
That was also the only time she stopped telling me everything was a fireable offense.
“Better not burn those crostini,” she would say, as I pulled perfect tiny toasts out of the oven. “That’s a fireable offense.” Then she would go back to laughing with Ben, and giving him the useful instructions she was supposed to give both us prep cooks.
Somebody—often Megan, who ran the hot line at lunch—would roll their eyes, reacting just enough to let me know it was a false threat. It still made me edgy. If I expected to get anywhere in the chef world, job hopping wasn’t the way to do it. The last thing I needed was to get fired.
# # #
Sniffing made the tears worse. I set down my knife and scooted out the back door.
A warm breeze blew across my damp face. I blotted my eyes with the bar towel I kept folded over my apron strings and breathed deeply. The rich aroma of roasting lamb emerging from the exhaust fan nearly covered the ever-present hint of urine. The alcoves of the old mansion-turned-high-dollar-restaurant were a late-night magnet for wanderers, and we were always finding single socks and fast-food wrappers piled in front of the back door. The kitchen door.
Three men were arguing in the short driveway that led to Juniper Mansion’s loading dock. Make that two. The third, a tall light-skinned Black man, was diffusing the conflict by spreading waves of calm. Seriously. His aim wasn’t perfect, and some of it washed over me. He caught my eye and nodded before herding the other men towards the park across the street.
“Can it, Jon,” I heard one of them mutter as the door opened behind me.
I hoped to God it was anyone but Espie. So of course, that’s exactly who it was.
“What are you doing?” the sous-chef asked. Not nicely, either. This woman could make “good morning” sound contemptuous.
“Breathing. Those have got to be the world’s strongest onions.”
“Everyone else cuts onions with no problems.”
“I cut onions with no problems. Just not these.” My hands clenched, unbidden.
“We need to make the succotash, Stella. Get this done.”
We need to make the succotash? Including me? Was I actually going to cook something?
Wiping my eyes once more, I turned from the afternoon sun and followed her through the metal door, willing her to trip. It didn’t work. Really, I didn’t want her to trip. I wanted her to accept me as part of the kitchen. I had no more idea how to make that happen than how to make her to stumble.
I hustled to my cutting board to resume dicing the earth’s sharpest onions, squinting as much as I could without lopping off my fingertips. Espie chattered with Ben, a nice guy who would be friendly if she didn’t redirect him every time he spoke to me. She would implode if I laughed with a coworker.
When I first began working at Juniper Mansion, she was guarded, her speech clipped. I had assumed she and Ben were old buddies. She’d warm up to me in time. Turns out he’d been hired just two and a half weeks before me.
She sidled over. “Those need to be smaller.”
Figures. At least she didn’t say it was a fireable offense. I piled the diced onions on the green cutting board and minced them finer, adding to the fog. I chopped until I reached eight cups, relieved to move on to red bell peppers. When I finally had everything ready, Espie was nowhere in sight. At least she wasn’t badmouthing me to the chef. He was behind me, centering a rondeau between four burners.
“You do good knife work.” Keith picked up the onions. “A little bigger next time, though.” He motioned to Ben, who followed him over to the stove and added all those onions to the low wide pan.
Wait. Why not me? I was never going to cook, not as long as Espie was Keith’s connection to the daytime prep crew. Long-time work partners, he trusted her opinion, and she’d hated me from the moment I walked in. What I couldn’t figure out was how to fix it.
The only item left on the prep list was croutons. It had somehow become my job, never Ben’s. I grabbed a baguette from the top of the bread warmer and got myself a white cutting board. Sharpened my chef knife. It took a good blade to cut small squares and have them hold their shape.
A light touch on my back told me someone was behind me. I spun around, relieved to see Portia, the pastry chef. A fleece jacket covered her chef coat, and she carried a colorful woven purse.
“Oil your knife so starch won’t build up on the blade,” she said. “It keeps the bread from squishing down. I learned the hard way.”
“You used to make the croutons? Why?” I sprayed my knife with pan spray.
Portia laughed. “I’m guessing you don’t like croutons.”
“Less talking, Stella,” Espie scolded. “Focus on your work.” I hadn’t heard her return. She strode over to Keith, looking concerned. Or angry. The two looked the same on her.
“I want to do something besides cut,” I whispered, slicing a chunk of bread into four strips. I nodded at the stove, where Ben was sautéing the peppers I had diced, guided by the chef I wanted to learn from. I looked back quickly, before the witch called me out for not paying attention again. She never called out anyone else. Only me. Always me.
“Stay available. Offer to do everything. Let Keith see that you’re capable.”
“There’s somebody making sure he thinks I’m not.” I was pretty sure this wasn’t normal. At the Mediterranean cafe where I’d done my externship, the crew yelled wildly during a rush, but we were all buddies the second it was over.
“Espie’s done this before.” Portia kept her voice low.
“What happened?” I wanted to hear that her victim had become a star chef. Except the most renowned chef in this town was Keith Epperson, which is why I had jumped at this job.
“Angelia was gone one day. Either Espie got her fired, or she walked. Nobody talked about it. That was right after Ben started here. I got stuck with croutons and flatbreads until you replaced her.”
“Croutons, Stella,” Espie called from across the kitchen. Asshole.
Portia bade me good luck and left, having been there since dawn-thirty. I was tossing my uniform bread cubes with olive oil when Keith’s shadow dimmed the fluorescent lighting on my cutting board. I froze.
“Marco has a stomach virus,” the chef said. “Think you could work garde manger tonight?”
Garde manger. The cold station. A line shift. Me.