Roland, executive chef at Noveau!, rarely visits the kitchen, and then only during dinner rush. Positioned ahead of Eric the expediter, he intercepts plates exiting the line, adds a sprinkle of sea salt, a slash of balsamic reduction, or a pinch of micro-greens. He projects a meticulously cultivated image of aloof invincibility. Sometimes, he returns a plate to the line due to under or over-cooking, less-than-elegant plating, or poor seasoning. Sometimes, he returns a plate for no other reason than he possesses the power to do so.
Roland devotes most of his time to menu creation, searching for new and exciting ingredients, and meeting with vendors. Except for his infrequent appearances at dinner, he entrusts the kitchen and food preparation to his sous chef, Francesca. Unlike Francesca, he is no longer young and lacks the energy to stand on his feet all day and evening. Also, he has lost the passion for food that one consumed him, the joie de cuisine that drove him to apprentice at the great restaurants of France, to leave Paris for New York, and to eventually transplant from New York to New Orleans.
The truth is the doctors have told him he is dying and has only a few months to live. They say he suffers from a condition of the heart he cannot pronounce. The doctors want him to undergo chemotherapy, which they confess will briefly prolong his life, but not save it.
This afternoon, while the kitchen thrums with activity, Roland slips out to visit Madame Ladue, a fortune teller and renowned practitioner of the dark arts. He places more faith in her prognostications and spells than any doctor or medication.
A few years ago, not long after arriving in New Orleans and opening Noveau!, he sought Madame’s advice on a matter of the heart.
Back then, a younger Roland had fallen in love with a married woman of substantial financial means and physical girth. Elena Claiborne lived in one of the grand homes adjacent to the streetcar line on St. Charles Avenue. With her husband often out of town on business, she frequented Roland’s restaurant alone. A rotund man himself, even in those days, he lacked interest in skinny American girls with their slender hips and flat breasts.
Once, Elena requested for dessert an item not on the menu —Grand Marnier soufflé with Crème Anglaise. The waiter brought her request to Roland. Until then, he’d admired her hearty laughter and ample breasts only from a distance. That night, however, he invited her into his kitchen while he prepared the soufflé she’d requested. He explained that he’d learned the recipe and requisite skill from the renowned chef, Pierre LaMotte. LaMotte taught his disciples that the first one thousand soufflés a chef prepares should be discarded—technique and experience were everything, and could be gained only through practice.
“This is not among my first one thousand soufflés,” Roland confided with a wink.
“I suspect a chef of your stature has had many soufflés,” Elena replied with a wink of her own
They stood shoulder to shoulder while he created a roux to which he slowly added milk. Next, he combined the roux with egg yolks, beaten and flavored with sugar, vanilla, and Grand Marnier. He whipped egg whites to soft peaks before folding them gently into the base.
Elena and Roland continued to flirt over a glass of French Bordeaux while the soufflés baked. She watched him create the Crème Anglaise—heavy cream combined with more egg yolks, vanilla, and Grand Marnier. When the soufflés stood firm and slightly toasted above the ramekins, Roland removed them from the oven and spooned Crème Anglaise on top.
After one bite, Elena embraced him.”My God,” she exclaimed. “To think I married for money when I should have married for food.”
Over the course of the following weeks, late at night after closing the restaurant, he rode the streetcar to her home. There, near midnight, he cooked splendid meals—Mussels and Frites, Steak au Poivre, and Coq au Vin. Their passion ignited, they made love in every room of the rambling mansion and in the secluded garden, leaving scratches on the hardwood floors and toppling a water fountain.
Then, as quickly as she’d begun their affair, she abruptly brought it to an end. Fearing discovery by her husband and the possibility of a divorce that would leave her penniless, she wished to re-dedicate herself to the success of her marriage. To Roland’s horror, she undertook a low-carb diet and began an exercise regime.
Desperate and devastated, Roland sobbed out his troubles to his head waiter. The head waiter gave him Madame Ladue’s address.
A slender Creole woman with a leathery face and a scar on her chin, Madame Ladue smoked non-filtered cigarettes and wore a handkerchief wrapped about her head. While listening to Roland in the candlelight of her parlor, she toyed with a gris gris bag that hung from a rawhide string tied around her neck. Wooing Elena away from her husband required a spell, she told Roland—blood in the husband’s coffee to poison him or salt on the man’s door step to drive him away.
Over the next few weeks, Roland secretly salted to no avail. To his dismay, the husband delegated out- of-town travel to an associate and was more often seen at home and about the city.
Roland had nearly resigned himself to his loss, when one evening the Claibornes showed for dinner at Noveau!. He kept his distance and feigned disinterest until Mr. Claiborne, apparently at his wife’s urging, ordered a Grand Marnier soufflé with Crème Anglaise. Imagine the gall. Feeling as if he’d been stabbed, he prepared the soufflé and served it himself with great aplomb, refusing to look his former lover (thinner now by far) in the eye. He also personally served the couple their coffees. Just prior to service, he sliced his palm with his chef’s knife and drizzled blood into Mr. Claiborne’s cup.
The following morning, the Times Picayune reported that Claiborne had died during the night. An autopsy attributed his death to a “massive stroke,” but Roland was convinced he’d committed murder—his blood in Claiborne’s coffee. He assumed a low profile and never attempted to re-kindle his affair with Elena.
This afternoon, walking as briskly as his condition will allow, he crosses Jackson Square. Ignoring the tourists, mimes, and caricature artists, he ducks down Pirate’s Alley and devotes his remaining strength to climbing the rickety wooden stairway to Madame Ladue’s quarters.
Despite the intervening years since his last visit, she remembers him. She listens while he describes the death sentence meted out by his doctors.
“I need to know,” he says, “if it’s true.”
She frowns, lights a cigarette, and takes his hand in hers. She studies it and runs a brownish fingernail over his palm, pausing at the scar left from the self-administered cut that Roland believes did Claiborne in.
“You’ve done something you regret,” she says through a balloon of smoke.
“None of us is without regret,” he replies.
She raises her eyebrows, blows a smoke ring. “I see a long life for you. A new love. A younger woman. Children and grandchildren.”
Roland feels a sense of elation, a weight rising from his shoulders. “You’re sure about this?”
She shrugs. “More likely than not. Nothing is certain.”
Energized by the prospect for life, Roland floats through the Quarter, pausing to feed the pigeons and dispense a dollar to a homeless man. Noveau’s! first dinner guests, the “early birds” are arriving. He strides through the kitchen, confident and ebullient for the first time in weeks.
He pats Angel, the prepper, on the shoulder and compliments him for his fine work on the tomato tartar. He hovers near Javier while the line cook simmers hand-made pasta in cream, garlic, and nutmeg before stirring in freshly grated parmigiano reggiano.
The Fettuccini Alfredo is passed to Francesca. She blackens a filet of red fish in a pan. Blue flame flickers about the pan’s edges, causing the blackening spices to catch in Roland’s throat. In one swift motion, while holding the plate of fettuccini in her left hand, Francesca expertly flips the red fish filet with her right. Spooning from a nearby pan, she tops the fish with okra fried in corn meal.
Roland sniffs the plate. He adds a splash of olive oil for sheen, a pinch of cayenne pepper for heat, and a dot here and there of basil oil for color and freshness.
Francesca smiles, appreciative of his embellishments. Roland knows her situation with her husband is difficult. Maybe she is the young woman to whom Madame Ladue referred. Maybe she’s been here all this time and he didn’t realize it.
Buoyed by his new-found vigor, he leans in and asks, “Can you stay late?”
“I always stay late.”
“I’d like to show you the secret to my soufflé.”
She places a hand on her hip. “I know how to make a soufflé.”
“But how many soufflés have you made?”
“Not a thousand.”
“Then, my dear, we have work to do.”