It has been a few years since I have posted a new recipe. When the pandemic started it seemed a bit limiting on what any of us could do, so I took to writing, and wrote a novel. The Last White Truffle is a mystery novel with a little romance thrown in. And since I love blogging about food, I naturally situated my novel at a catering venue, in San Francisco. If you have a few minutes for a light read, would love to receive comments on what you think so far in this first chapter. Thanks in advance for taking the time!
In less than seventy-two hours, the world as Jennifer Pope knew it would be rocked off its axis, and Monroe Manor would never seem quite the same again.
The Independence Day Gala, which had happened every year for the last twenty-eight, depended on clear skies. But standing out on the grey cement balcony of her town house, all Jennifer could detect was the smell of imminent rain, followed by a flash of lightning and a clap of thunder. Fog had even started to roll in, and puffy white masses that resembled a mix between the Pillsbury Doughboy and the Michelin Man took over the July sky. Jennifer was fairly confident they were what meteorologists referred to as “cumulus clouds,” and she prayed they were not a sign of inclement weather for the weekend. It just couldn’t happen.
The planned fireworks extravaganza could still go on if it rained, but the bigger dilemma was how eight hundred guests at Monroe Manor would watch it and stay dry at the same time. The rotunda in the Versailles Ballroom was set to open precisely at 10:30 p.m., so every single guest would technically have “front-row seating” as they gazed up at the exquisite spectacle lighting up the night sky.
Jennifer’s boss had made it quite clear that the board of directors was expecting—no, demanding—absolute perfection at this year’s gala if she desired the coveted promotion to vice president. Jennifer closed her eyes and sat down on the balcony in the Cobbler’s yoga pose and took a cleansing breath while murmuring, “Flawless evening, perfection, flawless evening, perfection.” Tiny drops of rain sprinkled the deck all around her. Yoga on the balcony was over. Before moving inside, she changed her mantra to a quick prayer to Saint Jude, patron saint of the impossible. And promised she would find time to stop at St. Gabriel’s on her way home to drop off a few dollars in the poor box to seal the deal.
Her prayers were interrupted when her phone chirped, and she read the text from her assistant, Rachel: Chef having meltdown.
Jennifer changed out of her yoga clothes and drove to the Manor, settling in at her desk shortly before eight a.m. She fired up her computer and said good morning to the girls gathered around Rachel’s desk viewing the latest fashion trends on the Kate Spade website.
She did a quick run-through of her email inbox and was happy to note no new emergencies had popped up. She looked at her watch and figured she could take five minutes to open the package someone had left on her desk. Inside was a beautiful crystal bowl along with a thank-you note from the mother of the bride from a wedding she organized two weeks prior. How cool, she thought, that’s such a nice touch.
Next, Jennifer jumped into a golf cart, drove over to the master kitchen, and headed for Chef Robert’s office. At the opposite end of the kitchen was the bullpen where Chloe Dawson, administrative assistant to Chef Robert and his minions, sat.
“Morning, Chloe,” Jennifer said. “Thought I would stop by as I heard there was a bit of an upset early this morning. Everything okay now?”
Chloe laughed out loud. “Chef was in a snit over some missing truffles.”
“I believe he refers to them as his ‘prize possession.’” Jennifer scoffed.
“You know he keeps them under lock and key in a glass jar in that little refrigerator in his office. He wants to be the only one to dole them out in the kitchen,” Chloe said.
“Yes, I heard that too. Guess they’re a bit expensive.”
“Like two thousand dollars a pound, I was told.” Chloe rolled her eyes.
Jennifer paused. “So maybe there is some justification for his tantrum this morning.”
“He was told that today was his last truffle purchase for at least a year, and I think that sent him over the edge.” Chloe turned her back and pulled out the invoice from her printer and handed it to Jennifer.
She looked at it and saw the bright red PAID stamped across the invoice. “How odd. He’s famous for his dishes with truffles, why take them away from him?” Jennifer said.
“Rumor has it, someone high up in the company made cuts to his food budget when they were slashing dollars to finance Chef’s kitchen renovation,” Chloe said.
“That explains it. No wonder he’s in a snit.”
Chloe surveyed her immediate area in the kitchen, checking that no one else was around. She leaned in toward Jennifer. “Lately, he’s been zero tolerance about any change in the kitchen, and he always ends up having a tantrum. He goes berserk, Jennifer. Earlier this morning, he threw an entire pot of marinara sauce—only, it hit one of the dishwashers and burned his arm. Course, Alexi never said a word to anyone and just cleaned it all up. Come to think of it, it happened right after Tom left Chef’s office.”
Jennifer nodded her head. “Tom Stone from finance?”
“Yes. Chef gets a little crazy sometimes, Jennifer, really scary.”
“I hear you. Think it’s time to address his outbursts once and for all. Talk to you later.”
“And, Jennifer, please don’t ever let Chef and his cronies know I implied it’s anything but heaven to work here in his kitchen. Otherwise, those guys will make my life a living hell.”
“My lips are sealed.” She swiftly moved her fingers across her lips in a zipping motion and smiled.
Jennifer meandered her way through the kitchen and noticed the incredible amount of activity. The crew was busy preparing appetizers and side dishes for a wedding the Friday before the gala. Staff were focused, heads down busy at work, bodies rhythmically moving back and forth in time with the music blasting from the CD player.
She passed the refrigerator section, turned the corner, and headed toward Chef’s office. As she got close, she heard shouts coming from inside about missing truffles and filet mignon, so she continued to walk straight ahead as if that had been her intention. The blinds to his office were closed halfway, but out of the corner of her eye, she could see a visitor dressed in a white coat and wearing a black baseball cap with the company logo on it.
She made a quick circle of a few of the changing rooms, which were mostly used by brides before wedding receptions, then spoke with members of the banquets staff, stalling for time. She returned to the kitchen and saw Alexi Petrov over by the deep sinks with his right arm wrapped in layers of gauze from his wrist to his elbow.
“Alexi, you got a minute?”
“Yes, ma’am, what’s up?” He squinted his eyes, turned sideways to Jennifer and dropped the blackened pot back in the sink
“I heard there was a problem this morning and you burned your arm. Want to talk about it?”
“Nothing to say.” His head twitched to the left, and he scrunched up his mouth. “A minor burn from a pot of sauce, nothing more.”
“Rumor has it, Chef threw the pot at you.”
Alexi stepped back a bit and stared directly at Jennifer, raising his eyebrows. “No. He threw the pot against the wall, and some sauce splashed back on me and Chef. It was an accident, and nothing more.”
“Okay. Thanks for clearing that up.”
Jennifer saw Chef’s office door was now fully open. She headed back over, then knocked quickly and poked her head inside.
Chef Robert looked up and smiled when he saw Jennifer.
“Bobby, how’s your morning going?” Jennifer asked.
“Look who’s here, my best neophyte cook.” He chuckled.
“You wound me, sir. I think of myself as intermediate, at least, after all your culinary tutoring,” she teased back.
“Bite?” He held up a spoonful of glop toward her face. The smell alone was off-putting.
“Good Lord, what is it?” She reeled backward from the smell.
“I thought it was banned in the US years ago.”
“Right, you can’t import it from Scotland. That’s not to say you can’t make it on your own. Chef friend of mine makes it once a year on his wedding anniversary.” Robert picked up papers on his desk and started opening all his drawers, one by one.
“I’ll pass. I tried stopping by earlier, but I heard arguing. Is everything okay with you?” Jennifer picked up the stapler off his desk and handed it to him.
He laughed. “I forgot you could read my mind. Anyway, everything is fine. just a little misunderstanding. I’m handling it,” he said, wadding up a piece of paper and tossing it into the wastebasket as if he were an NBA star shooting hoops. He missed.
“Okay, but HR is here to help if you need advice. Olivia can even handle matters without your presence, if that makes you feel more comfortable. And, of course, you can always count on me if you need to vent.”
“I get it and appreciate that, but it’s really unnecessary. I can handle this on my own.”
“I heard they eliminated your famous truffle dishes from the menu. What’s going on?”
“Ask your friend Matt. Tom, that penny-pinching account man, cut the expenditure, so today was my last order. My Truffle Chive Fettuccine is a draw, and we all know it.” He paused and narrowed his eyes. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking people won’t notice the change on the menu. It’s embarrassing and I’m really pissed about it,” he said as he threw a wad of menus with large red X’s across them on top of the credenza behind him.
“I can tell you’re pissed. Sorry.”
“We just won our second Michelin star, so now’s not the time to go cheap on me. And that frickin’ idiot told your boyfriend we could save over a hundred thousand dollars annually by eliminating the truffles.” Robert drummed his index finger on his desk with every word he spoke.
“Matt is not my boyfriend, and you know it, so don’t start,” she warned.
Matt Stewart was the VP of operations at Monroe Manor and a close friend to Jennifer. They had formed a good working relationship on many projects at the Manor. But their close personal friendship was sealed when the two of them collaborated twenty-four seven for six days straight on setting up the strategy and promotional efforts to win another Michelin star. They worked seamlessly together day and night; she had become the yin to his yang.
“Hit a nerve, did I? My apologies,” Robert teased. He stroked his beard and put on his black framed glasses.
“Not at all. And that’s megabucks for mushrooms, I might add.”
“Pocket change. And don’t call them mushrooms, Jennifer, your ignorance is showing,” he said, squinting his eyes and nodding his head thoughtfully.
“What I don’t understand is, why are they so expensive?”
“Mainly because they are so hard to locate. White truffles are predominantly found in Italy,” Chef said.
“And pigs sniff them out, right?”
“Some places, yes. But more likely, they use specially trained dogs now, as they don’t try to eat the truffles the way pigs do.”
“Okay, I get it, but how does that drive up the price so much?”
“Simple as the fact they are scarce to find and a delicacy. Some experts even say truffles have a reputation as an aphrodisiac. But, bottom line, they just taste so darn good.”
“You’re right they do.” Jennifer let out a big laugh, putting her hand in front of her mouth, an old habit from her teen years.
“I always did love your laugh. You laugh and then a little giggle smoothly slides down your throat, all the way to your pretty painted toes,” he said.
Jennifer smiled, and a slight pang lurched in her heart. When Chef’s charming, there’s nothing like it, she thought. Nothing can compare. She took a deep breath and realized now was not the time to talk with him about his “temper.” Jennifer remembered the days when she and Bobby were a couple and he could be charming and fun. But then a mere few hours could pass, and he would turn morose with feelings of hopelessness. That was long before he was diagnosed as bipolar. Once he found out the reasons for his feelings, he got on board with therapy and started to enjoy the benefits of change.
Bobby offered Jennifer a seat on the couch so they could spread out the menus for the gala on the coffee table. The gala and two wedding receptions for the weekend accounted for the forty-plus people already busy at work. It was going to be quite a memorable holiday weekend.