Read Too Many Cooks Online

Authors: Joanne Pence

Too Many Cooks

Too Many Cooks

An Angie Amalfi Mystery

Joanne Pence

Dedication
 

With thanks to two very special people:
Barbara Truax, and my agent. Sue Yuen

Angelina Amalfi sat
on the edge of her chair at radio station KYME, scarcely breathing for fear the sound might be picked up and carried over the airwaves. She watched Henry LaTour hit the button that opened up the telephone line.

“Hello,” Henry said into his microphone. “Welcome to
Lunch with Henri
. What may I do for you today?”

“Good afternoon, Chef Henri. I'm Bonnie from San Francisco.”

An exuberant female voice pierced through the headphones Angie wore. Wincing with pain, she lifted them off her ears and looked for the volume control. But which knob to turn, button to push, or switch to flick was a mystery. Luckily, as Bonnie continued talking, her decibels dipped a bit.

“Thank you so much for taking my call. I'm a first-time caller, and I'm a little nervous.”

She's
nervous, Angie thought. She reached for a glass of water, then pulled back her hand. What if she
spilled it? Or the ice rattled? Or she gulped too loudly? Never before had she thought about how noisy drinking a little water could be. As she tried to ignore the sudden dryness of her throat, Henry LaTour, called “Chef Ahnree” by his devoted followers, rocked his corpulent body forward in his chair, closer to the microphone, and half closed his eyelids. “No need to be nervous, my dear.” His tone was too sweet, too oily—much like his cooking, Angie thought.

“I love your program so much,” Bonnie gushed.

Henry's jowls jiggled as he nodded appreciatively. “Why, thank you, Bonnie.” His headphones, Angie noticed, pressed grooves into his snowy white pompadour.

She breathed a little easier now that Henry and Bonnie had begun to converse. She knew Chef Henri could waste more valuable airtime listening to a woman sing his praises than any other human being ever. The man was devoted to his own wonderfulness.

This was Angie's second day at the station and her first day performing her new job. Last Friday, she'd sat in the studio and observed the program, then met the station manager, his assistant, his secretary, and the radio engineer.

Henry had introduced Angie to them as his personal assistant, announcing that she would take the names and addresses of callers who requested helpful hints, recipes, or other information about cooking from Chef Henri; write down any particularly prescient statements he made about food and its preparation so he could put them into his next cookbook; and answer his many pieces of fan mail.

None of it was true.

Chef Henri couldn't admit to anyone that he was going to get help from Angie. Their little secret, to Chef Henri, was as hush-hush as the recipe for Classic Coke.

That they ever found each other was a miracle. KYME was a little-listened-to station in the nether regions of the AM dial that blended together a blur of talk shows, sermons, and popular music. A couple of weeks ago, after hitting the “SEEK” button on her car radio, Angie mistakenly stopped it on KYME. On the air, a pompous sounding man bumbled his way through a simple question about pickling green tomatoes. The germ of an idea took hold. She listened to Chef Henri for the rest of the hour and every day for a week thereafter with a mixture of amusement and slack-jawed horror at his assault on the Bay Area's collective palate.

He needs me, she'd concluded. And since she was currently out of work, she had the perfect solution for his predicament.

KYME's small broadcasting studio was located in an old building in San Francisco's South-of-Market area, a rough low-rent district recently showing signs of revitalization into what was being called “SoMa”—a poor man's Greenwich Village. Angie drove there, then paced the hallway until Chef Henri, his show completed for the day, stepped out of the station's executive offices.

“I'm exactly what you need, Mr. LaTour.” Angie hurried up to him, her hand extended in greeting. As soon as he got over looking startled, his expression turned skeptical. In fact, he looked at her as if she were crazy and, ignoring her outstretched hand, walked
past her, head held high, almost strutting.

“My name's Angelina Amalfi.” She chased along beside him and stuck her card in his hand. “I've had my own newspaper food column, where I discussed food preparation and presented recipes. The paper, unfortunately, went out of business. Also, I've written reviews of restaurants for a number of local magazines and newspapers.”

He stopped walking and gazed down a long ski-slope-shaped nose at her. “So what?”

“I've got a terrific idea,” she said. “I'll sit quietly in the studio with a bunch of specialty cookbooks in front of me. As soon as a caller mentions a topic, I'll find the right book and look it up. Then, if you get stuck—”

“Chef Henri never gets stuck, Miss Amalfi!” He proceeded toward the elevators.

Didn't the man ever listen to himself? No, a man who refers to himself in the third person rarely did. She followed. “Well, what I meant was, if the question was a really bizarre one, I'd hand you the book so you could see what the answer was.”

“Oh.”

At last he was paying attention to her. “And then,” she continued, her enthusiasm growing with each word, “we could discuss some special menus or rare foods, which would be really interesting for your listeners.”

“We?” She got his peering-down-the-ski-slope-nose routine again. “As in
you and I?

“That's right.”

The elevator doors opened and he got on, blocking her entry. “I hardly think so.”

Her mouth snapped shut and her smile faded as she watched the doors shut in her face.

Three days later, a caller asked Chef Henri about making walnut catsup. His answer ran true to form. That night, he phoned Angie and told her to come see him at KYME the next day, with the proviso that no one—listeners or station—should know that she was “assisting” him with callers' questions. Couldn't compromise the image of Chef Henri, he'd stated, making Angie shudder.

And so she'd found herself a job in radio. It wasn't exactly what she wanted, but at least it was a start. Now here she was, seated at a desk across from Henry, partitions blocking her from the engineer's view.

“What can I do for you today, Bonnie?” Henry finally asked.

Angie perked up. Her fingers twitched as they hovered over the row of cookbooks propped up between bookends in front of her on the desk.

“I have a general question about making sweet breads.”

“Ah, sweetbreads, one of my favorite delicacies…”

Henry glanced knowingly at Angie as he kept talking. She flipped to the index of Henry's recently released cookbook,
Luscious Licks from LaTour's
, named after his restaurant. Henry liked to quote himself and plug his restaurant as often as possible on his talk show, given the restaurant's lack of repeat customers.

“…a dry wine, light,” Henry was droning, “with a delicate bouquet so as not to overwhelm the subtle flavors…”

Angie madly scanned the index, looking under sweetbreads, organ meats, glands, even innards. Nothing.
What kind of a cookbook was this? She nearly tossed it aside, but then caught herself in mid-toss. No noise! Gently setting it down, she checked the other books, laying them on the desktop as she dismissed them in turn. A promising one was named
Organ Meats Can Be Fun
. She doubted it—probably more like “can be awful,” not to mention “offal”—but she flipped to the index anyway. Success! Chapter 9 began a whole series of examples of how to cook the little devils.

Smiling broadly, she quietly handed Henry the cookbook. This wasn't so bad. It was fun, in fact.

He beamed at her. “Now, Bonnie. What's your question?”

“Well, the dough doesn't want to rise properly. I'm wondering if it has anything to do with the sugar?”

“Sugar?” Henry glanced helplessly at the cookbook, then at Angie, then the cookbook again. “Ah, sweet
bread
. Of course. Bread, the fruit of all life. ‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.'”

He was waving his arm frantically, waiting for a cookbook to magically materialize. Angie was too; she had no idea what the question was. Bread…the possibilities were endless. She reached for his book, but it had gotten buried in her rush to find one on the gourmet glands. A book named
Simply Breads
jumped out at her and she opened it, ready to research the question—whatever it was.

Bonnie kept talking. “I used a half cup of honey instead of a whole cup of sugar, because it's more natural and all. Do you think it matters? After all, the ancient Egyptians used honey in everything. Pharaohs had it buried in their pyramids, and we all know about the marvels of the Great Pyramid.”

“Oh,” Henry said, his eyes a little wild. He stood, gesturing for Angie to hurry up. Not knowing what else to do, Angie stood too. But the cord on her headphones caught on the edge of the desk, yanking the phones nearly off her head. She jerked at the cord. The connector pulled free of its socket and flew into the air. With her left hand she managed to catch it before it hit anything. She felt like Willie Mays fighting the winds at Candlestick.

“Honey, yes,” Henry blathered. “Nectar of the gods. I love it myself, so smooth, tasty…. Uh, Egyptians are nice too.” Angie hoped he didn't sound as bumbling to his radio audience as he did to her. Poring over her materials, her heart pounding, she found a pamphlet called
Politically Correct Eatery
. Putting her finger on the section labeled “Substitutes for Refined Sugar,” she leaned over the table. Henry's eagerly awaiting hand snatched it from her, making her lose her balance. Waving her arms like a windmill, she somehow managed to right herself just inches above her now freestanding library.

Straightening herself, she caught Henry's eye to find him glaring like a foul-tempered librarian, his forefinger pressed against protruding lips and pointed upward toward his nose. His caller chattered on, now asking him about the evils of corn syrup. He should tell her the ancient Egyptians poured corn syrup on the Sphinx. Maybe that'd stop her.

Angie collapsed into her chair again…quietly. Where the hell was the commercial break?

 

The visitor reached out a gloved hand and rang the doorbell. One would have thought that Karl Wielund, owner of the most popular new restaurant in San Francisco, would live in a more prepossessing place than a middle-class Sunset District bungalow. But Wielund was too busy harassing people and beefing up his restaurant to take the time to move.

Wielund pulled the door opened. His eyes narrowed. “This is a surprise.”

“Is that any way to greet me?” The visitor held up a cardboard grocery box holding a wine bottle and a platter with a red-checkered napkin over it. “I want to talk.”

“There's nothing more to say.”

“Can't I come in?”

A muscle on the left side of Wielund's face began to jump. He didn't answer.

“You can frisk me,” his guest said. “If you want. I assure you, I'm unarmed. But you're right to be cautious. This is a violent country. Much more so than Germany. Right, Karl?”

Grimacing with disgust, Wielund stepped aside. The visitor walked straight into the kitchen and placed the box on the counter.

Wielund sat beside his small butcher-block table. Of medium height and weight, Wielund worked out in the gym often enough that his build was solid, with no flab. Blond hair, without a trace of gray, made him look younger than his forty-eight years, and his ever-mocking eyes were a bright clear blue.

The visitor turned on the oven and then, gloves removed, returned to the grocery box, tossed aside the napkin, and lifted out a small quiche.

“What's that for?” Wielund asked, leaning closer to inspect the quiche.

“A peace offering.”

“Truffles?”

“Exactly—fresh, from Périgord, the finest in the world.”

Wielund's lips turned down. “I don't know that I should eat anything you've cooked.”

The visitor placed the quiche in the oven to reheat. “It's your choice. As I said, this is a peace offering. I think we can arrive at an agreement.”

“We've already discussed it.”

“Not completely.” The visitor took out a bottle of Château-Lafite Rothschild, and picked up a corkscrew.

 

Henry was rattled. The station manager looked anguished, no doubt thinking of the radio dials being spun throughout northern California. Angie suddenly understood station KYME's call letters: Why Me?

As the hour crawled by, with one faux pas after the other, Henry's face turned red and sweaty. Instead of his infamously smooth way with words even if they were wrong, he'd become a man whose mind and mouth were divorced—irreconcilable differences. In a business where elocution meant everything, this was a recipe for disaster.

“And now, friends,” Henry said, taking a deep breath, “to my surprise, our hour together is almost up. But it brings the moment I know all of you eagerly await. It's time for our helpful hint of the day. Yes, Helpful Hints from Henri are brought to you each day
by Bellwether Automotive Oil, the oil that will keep your engine running smooth as clarified batter…butter!”

Angie cringed. This was, for sure, her first and last day on the job.

His sweaty fingers clutched the note Angie passed him. “My hint for today is this.” He adjusted his reading glasses and cleared his throat. “A good way to sicken thoup and add a nice nutty flavor to it at the same time is to add two tablespoons of peanut butter per—”

Angie lunged across the desk and stabbed at the words.

“Peanut
flour
, that is,” Henry said, mopping his brow. “Two tablespoons of peanut flour per one cup of water of the th—uh, soup.”

He cleared his throat, an angry flush creeping up his neck. “I hope you enjoyed our little tête-à-tête today as much as I did. And remember, tomorrow, same time, same place.” He took a deep breath and bellowed into the microphone, “Let's
do
lunch!”

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