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Off the Menu

Stacey Ballis - Author

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ISBN 9781101581094 | 416 pages | 03 Jul 2012 | Berkley | 18 - AND UP
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As the executive culinary assistant to celebrity Chicago chef Patrick Conlon, Alana Ostermann works behind the scenes—and that’s just the way she likes it. But with developing recipes for Patrick’s cookbooks, training his sous chefs, picking out the perfect birthday gifts for his ex-mother-in-law, and dealing with the fallout from his romantic escapades, she barely has a personal life, much less time to spend with her combo platter of a mutt, Dumpling.

Then a fluke online connection brings her RJ, a transplant from Tennessee, who adds some Southern spice to her life. Suddenly Alana’s priorities shift, and Patrick—and Dumpling—find themselves facing a rival for her time and affection. With RJ in the mix, and some serious decisions to make about her personal and professional future, Alana must discover the perfect balance of work and play, money and meaning, to bring it all to the table—one delicious dish at a time…

Read Stacey Ballis's blog on the Penguin USA blog



One

Through the fog of those last ephemeral floaty moments before I fall into deep sleep, I suddenly feel a stirring in the bed next to me. I smile, knowing that as delicious as sleep is, there is something unbearably wonderful about the need for tenderness and contact. I roll over and let my tired lids open, forcing myself back from the brink of the sleep I desperately need, to attend to my sweetheart, who I need more. He looks at me with what can only be described as a perfect combination of love and longing, and tilts his head to one side, dark chocolate eyes sparkling wickedly in the darkness.

“Yes? Can I help you?” I say, my voice slightly roughened with exhaustion.

He lets his head tilt slowly to the other side and he reaches for me with a tentative teasing touch, then stops and just waits.

“You are very demanding, you know that?” I can’t help but laugh.

But what can I do? He is the love of my life. A smile appears on his face and he reaches out again, this time more assuredly, tapping my hand with gentle insistence.

“Okay, okay!” I give up. I can deny this boy nothing.

As soon as he hears that word, he pounces, all twenty-six pounds of him landing with a thump on my chest.

This dog will be the end of me.

“I know, I know, boy, you need some extra-special love time, because you were at doggie day care all day while I was working to put kibble on the table.”

Dumpling rolls over in my arms so that I can scratch his oddly broad chest. He is, to say the least, one of the strangest dogs anyone has ever seen. Which of course, is absolutely why I adopted him. I don’t really know for sure what his lineage is, but he has the coloring and legs of a Jack Russell, the head of a Chihuahua, with the broad chest and sloping back of a bulldog, wide pug-ly eyes that bug out and are a little watery, and happen to mostly look in opposite directions. His ears, one which sticks up and one which flops down, are definitely fruit bat–ish. And when he gets riled by something, he gets a two-inch-wide Mohawk down his whole back, which sticks straight up, definitively warthog. He’s a total ladies man, a relentless flirt, and the teensiest bit needy in the affection department, as are many rescue dogs. But of course, he is so irresistibly lovable he never has a problem finding the attention he desires.

He is also smart as a whip, and soon after I got him my dear friend Barry took him to train as a therapy dog so that the two of them could work occasionally in hospitals and nursing homes and with disabled kids. He has the highest possible certification for that work, and was one of only two dogs out of fifty to pass the test when he took it, proud mama me. Barry is an actor and cabaret performer, and on the days when he is not in rehearsal he often volunteers to “entertain the troops” as he calls it, singing standards for the elderly, doing dramatic readings of fairy tales for kids with cancer, and teaching music to teenagers with autism. He’d seen someone working with a therapy dog at Children’s Memorial Hospital, and when he found out how meaningful that work can be, he asked if he could borrow Dumpling and see if he was the right kind of dog. Dumpling turned out to be more than the right kind of dog; he turned out to be a total rock star, and has become a favorite at all of their stops. The fact that Barry has snagged many dates with handsome doctors and male nurses using Dumpling as bait is just a bonus for him. Dumpling loves the work and I love knowing that he spends at least one or two days a week out and about with Barry instead of just lazing around and getting too many treats from his pals at Best Friends doggie day care.

Dumpling is the kind of dog that makes people on the street do double- and triple-takes and ask in astonished voices, “What kind of dog IS that?!” His head is way too small for his thick solid body, and his legs are too spindly. His eyes point away from each other like a chameleon. One side of his mouth curls up a little, half-Elvis, half palsy-victim, and his tongue has a tendency to stick out just a smidgen on that side. He was found as a puppy running down the median of a local highway, and I adopted him from PAWS five years ago, after he had been there for nearly a year. He is, without a doubt, the best thing that ever happened to me.

My girlfriend Bennie says it looks like he was assembled by a disgruntled committee. Barry calls him a random collection of dog bits. My mom, in a classic ESL moment, asked upon meeting him, “He has the Jack Daniels in him, leetle bit, no?” I was going to correct her and say Jack Russell, but when you look at him, he does look a little bit like he has the Jack Daniels in him. My oldest nephew, Alex, who watches too much Family Guy and idolizes Stewie, took one look, and then turned to me in all seriousness and said in that weird almost-British accent, “Aunt Alana, precisely what brand of dog is that?” I replied, equally seriously, that he was a purebred Westphalian Stoat Hound. When the kid learns how to Google, I’m going to lose major cool aunt points.

Dumpling tilts his head back and licks the underside of my chin, wallowing in love.

“Dog, you are going to be the death of me. You have got to let me sleep sometime.”

These words are barely out of my mouth, when he leaps up and starts barking, in a powerful growly baritone that belies his small stature. The third bark is interrupted by the insistent ringing of my buzzer.

Crap. “Yes, you are very fierce. You are the best watchdog. Let’s go see what the crazy man wants.”

Only one person would have the audacity to ring my bell at a quarter to one on a weeknight.

Patrick Conlon.

Yes, the Patrick Conlon.

Owner and executive chef of Conlon Restaurant Group, based here in Chicago. Three local restaurants, Conlon, his flagship white tablecloth restaurant, housed in a Gold Coast historic mansion, which recently received a coveted second Michelin star. Patrick’s, a homey high-end comfort-food place in Lincoln Park, and PCGrub, his newest endeavor, innovative bar food in the suddenly hot Logan Square neighborhood, dangerously close to my apartment. He also has Conlon Las Vegas, Conlon Miami, and is in negotiations to open PCGrub in both those cities, and a one-off project looming in New York as well.

But even if you have never eaten in one of Patrick’s restaurants, you have probably seen him on Food TV, where he has two long-running shows, Feast, where he demonstrates home versions of his restaurant recipes and special menus for entertaining, and Conlon’s Academy, which is a heavily technique-based show for people who really want to learn professional-level cooking fundamentals as they relate to a passionate home cook. Maybe you have seen him guest judging on Top Chef, snarking and sparring with Tom Colicchio, Padma getting all giggly and tongue-tied in his handsome presence. Or judging on Iron Chef America, disagreeing charmingly with Jeffery Steingarten at his curmudgeoniest. Or on a booze-fueled tour of the best Chicago street food with Anthony Bourdain. Or giving his favorite foods a shout-out on The Best Thing I Ever Ate or Unique Eats compilation shows. Or maybe you have read one of his six bestselling cookbooks. Even more likely, you have seen him squiring an endless series of leggy actresses and pop princesses and supermodels on red carpets, and read about his latest heartbreaking act in a glossy tabloid. And yes, before you ask, that latest angry power-girl single by Ashley Bell rocketing up the country charts about “settin’ loose the one who cooked my goose” is totally about him.

Why, you might ask, is a world-famous chef and gadabout television celeb ringing my bell at a quarter to one in the morning on a weeknight? Because I am his Gal Friday, Miss Moneypenny, executive culinary assistant, general dogsbody, and occasional whipping post. I help him develop his recipes for the shows and cookbooks, and travel with him to prep and sous chef when he does television appearances and book tours. I also choose his gifts for birthdays and holidays, order his apology flowers for the Legs, as I call them, listen to him bitch about either being too famous or not famous enough, and write his witty answers to the e-mail questionnaires he gets since few journalists like to do actual note-taking live interviews anymore. I let the endless series of the fired and broken-up-with he leaves in his wake cry on my shoulder, and then I write half of them recommendations for other jobs, and the other half sincere apology notes, which I sign in a perfect replica of his signature, practiced on eleventy-million cases of cookbooks and glossy headshots that he can’t be bothered to sign himself.

And on nights like these, when he has a date or a long business dinner, I drag my ass out of bed to make him a snack, and listen to him wax either poetical or heretical, depending on how the evening went.

I quickly throw on a bra and my robe, while Patrick leans on the bell and Dumpling hops straight up and down as if he has springs in his paws, and joyously barks his ill-proportioned tiny little head off, knowing instinctively that this is not some scary intruder, but rather one of his favorite two-leggeds.

Cheese and rice, why are the men in my life so freaking demanding tonight?

“I. Am. Coming!” I yell in the vague direction of the door, turning on lights as I stumble through my apartment.

I open the front door, and there he is. Six foot three inches, broad shoulders, tousled light brown hair with a hint of strawberry, piercing blue eyes, chiseled jaw showing a hint of stubble, wide grin with impossibly even, white, teeth, except for the one chipped eyetooth from a football incident in high school, the one flaw in the perfect canvas of his face.

Fucker.

I gather up all five foot three of my well-padded round self, with my unruly dark brown curly hair in a frizzled shrubbery around my head, squint my sleepy blue eyes at him, and step aside so he can enter.

He leans down and kisses the top of my head. “Hello, Alana-falana, did I wake you?”

Patrick doesn’t walk as much as he glides in a forwardly direction. Most women find it sexy. I find it creepy.

“Of course you woke me, it’s one o’clock in the good-manned morning, and we have a meeting at eight.” I cringe at my accidental use of my dad’s broken-English epithet. A lifetime of being raised by Russian immigrants, who murdered their new language with passion and diligence, has turned me into someone who sometimes lapses into their odd versions of idioms. The way people who have worked to get rid of their Southern drawls can still slip into y’all mode when drinking or tired.

He turns and puts on his sheepish puppy-dog face.

“Oops. So sorry, sweet girl, you know I never keep official track of time.”

It’s true. Bastard doesn’t even wear a watch. It would make me crazy, except he is never late.

“It’s okay. How may I be of service this, um, morning?” He’ll ignore the emphasis on the hour, but I put it out there anyway.

Patrick reaches down and scoops Dumpling up in his arms, receiving grateful licks all over his face. Damned if my dog, who is generally indifferent to almost all men, doesn’t love Patrick.

“I had a very tedious evening, and a powerfully mediocre dinner, and I thought I would swing by and say hello and see if you had anything delicious in your treasure chest.”

“Of course you did. Eggs?”

“Please.”

“Fine.”

Patrick follows me to the kitchen, carrying and snuggling Dumpling, whispering little endearments to him, making him wiggle in delight. He folds himself into the small loveseat under the window, and watches me go to work.

Between culinary school, a year and a half of apprentice stages all over the world in amazing restaurants, ten years as the personal chef of talk show phenom Maria De Costa, and six years as Patrick’s culinary slave, I am nothing if not efficient in the kitchen. I grab eggs, butter, chives, a packet of prosciutto, my favorite nonstick skillet. I crack four eggs, whip them quickly with a bit of cold water, and then use my Microplane grater to grate a flurry of butter into them. I heat my pan, add just a tiny bit more butter to coat the bottom, and let it sizzle while I slice two generous slices off the rustic sourdough loaf I have on the counter and drop them in the toaster. I dump the eggs in the pan, stirring constantly over medium-low heat, making sure they cook slowly and stay in fluffy curds. The toast pops, and I put them on a plate, give them a schmear of butter, and lay two whisper-thin slices of the prosciutto on top. The eggs are ready, set perfectly; dry but still soft and succulent, and I slide them out of the pan on top of the toast, and quickly mince some chives to confetti the top. A sprinkle of gray fleur de sel sea salt, a quick grinding of grains of paradise, my favorite African pepper, and I hand the plate to Patrick, who rises from the loveseat to receive it, grabs a fork from the rack on my counter, and heads out of my kitchen toward the dining room, Dumpling following him, tail wagging, like a small furry acolyte.

“You’re welcome,” I say to the sink as I drop the pan in. I grab an apple out of the bowl on the counter and head out to keep him company while he eats. I’d love nothing more than a matching plate, but it is a constant struggle to not explode beyond my current size 14, and middle-of-the-night butter eggs are not a good idea.

Patrick is tucking in with relish, slipping Dumpling, who has happily returned to a place of honor in his lap, the occasional morsel of egg and sliver of salty ham. Usually I am very diligent about not giving the dog people-food, but I don’t have the energy to fight Patrick on it, especially since I am feeling a bit guilty about how little time I have had to spend with the pooch lately. Barry is out of town playing Oscar Wilde in a Philadelphia production of Gross Indecency, so it has been all day-care all the time for the past three weeks, and another three to go. So a little bit of egg and prosciutto I can’t argue with. Patrick manages to inhale his food and pet Dumpling nearly simultaneously with one hand. With his other hand, he is fiddling with my laptop, which I left open on the table when I went to sleep, after a night of working on new recipes for his latest cookbook. He pauses, and looks me right in the eyes.

“Damn, girl, you make the best scrambled eggs on the planet.” Patrick is a lot of things, but disingenuous is not one of them. When he lets fly a compliment, which is infrequent, he makes eye contact and lets you know he means it very sincerely.

I let go of my annoyance. “I know. It’s the grated butter.” I can’t stay mad at Patrick for longer than eighteen point seven minutes. I’ve timed it.

“I know. Wish I had thought of it.”

“According to the Feast episode about breakfasts for lovers, you did,” I tease him. I’m not mad about this. It’s my job to help him develop recipes and invent or improve methods. And since I am petrified at the idea of being on camera or in the public eye in any way, shape, or form, he is most welcome to claim all my tricks as his own. Lord knows, he pays me very very well for the privilege.

“Well, I know I inspired the idea.” He’s very confident of this, thinking that I came up with the technique to enhance his dining experience when he foists himself upon me in the middle of the night, which I also think he believes I secretly love.

He is enormously wrong on both counts.

I came up with it for Bruce Ellerton, the VP of show development for the Food TV Network and senior executive producer of our show. Bruce comes to Chicago periodically to check in on us since we are the only show that doesn’t tape in the Manhattan studios, and he and I have been enjoying a two- to three-day romp whenever he is here or I am there for the past four years. We are, as the kids say, friends with benefits, and I like to think we enjoy a very real friendship in addition to an excellent working relationship and very satisfying sex. We have enough in common to allow for some non-bedroom fun, and easy conversation. We also have a solid mutual knowledge that we would be terrible together as a real couple, which prevents either of us from trying to turn the relationship into more than it is. We stay strictly away from romantic gestures; no flowers or Valentine’s cards or overly personal gifts. If either of us begins dating someone seriously, we put our naked activities on hold.

Or, I’m sure we would, if either of us had time to actually date someone seriously.

Bruce’s favorite food is eggs, so I developed the recipe for him one evening when bed took precedence over dinner and by the time we came up for air, take-out places were shut down for the night. Patrick is blissfully unaware of the special nature of my relationship with Bruce, so I just let him think they are “his” eggs.

“You inspire all my best ideas. Or at least you pay for them. So was tonight business or pleasure?” I crunch into my apple.

“Biznuss,” he says around a mouthful of toast and egg. “The New York investors want to push the opening back a few months. Michael White is opening another place around the same time we were going to, and everything that guy touches is gold, so we don’t want to end up a footnote in the flood of press he will get. Mike is a fucking amazing chef, so I don’t want to invite any comparisons. Let him have a couple months of adulation, and then we’ll open.”

Patrick, to his credit, is a chef first and a television personality second. He keeps a very tight rein and close eye on all of his restaurants, develops all the menus in close consultation with his chefs de cuisine, who train the rest of their staff in his clean and impeccable style. For all his bluster, and as much as he has the vanity to enjoy the celebrity part of his life, the food does come first, not the brand. He is at the pass in each of his Chicago restaurants at least once a week, and checks in on his out-of-town places once a month or so. And he is secure enough to recognize when someone else is really magic in the kitchen and to not want to muddy the media waters. Having eaten at almost all of Michael’s restaurants over the years, I can’t blame Patrick for wanting to bump his own stuff to let the guy have his due. The words culinary genius come to mind immediately and without irony.

“So, late spring then?” I’m mentally adjusting my own schedule, since whatever Patrick does, inevitably impacts my life not insignificantly.

He takes the last morsel of toast and wipes the plate clean, popping it in his mouth and rolling his eyes back in satisfaction. “Yup.”

“I’ll go through the calendar with you tomorrow and we can make the necessary changes.” Crap. I have eight thousand things to do tomorrow, or rather, today, and this was not one of them.

“Sounds good. You just tell me where to be and when and what to do when I get there!”

I wish. “How about you be at your house in ten minutes, and go to sleep . . .”

He laughs. That is not good. That means he is choosing to believe that I am joking so that he can stay longer. There is not going to be enough caffeine on the planet to suffer through tomorrow. Er, today.

“So guess what started today?” He smirks at me, pushing his empty plate aside and moving my computer in front of him.

“I can’t begin to imagine.”

“EDestiny Fall Freebie Week!”

Oh. No.

“Patrick . . .”

“Let’s see what fabulous specimens of human maleness the old Destinometer has scraped up for our princess, shall we?” He chuckles as his fingers fly over the keys, logging into the dating site with my e-mail and password, settling in to see what new profiles the magical soul-mate algorithm has dredged up for me. It should be the last thing I would ever let him do, or even tell him about, but my ill-fated brief stint as an online dater somehow became part of our business practice. And it is my own damn fault.

Dumpling nuzzles under Patrick’s chin, another betrayal, and I clear Patrick’s plate and flatware, and go to wash dishes, while my bosshole in the other room yells out that there’s a very nice-looking seventy-two-year-old bus driver from Hammond, Indiana, who might just be perfect for me.




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