I. Boeuf Bourguignon

             Angel preps vegetables with a heavy chef’s knife honed sharp enough to shred paper. He chops onions, garlic, tomatoes, carrots, celery, and bell pepper. The executive chef, Roland, demands perfection. In certain dishes, a thin broth seasoned with a tiny brunoise augments flavor. Other dishes, ratatouille, for example, require a precise one-quarter inch dice, assuring that the squash, eggplant, and tomato are cooked evenly and appeal as much to the eye as the palate. For stocks, Angel rough cuts, not even bothering to peel, knowing the stocks will be strained then reduced and strained again before combining with wine and aromatics to create sauces.

In his pocket Angel carries another knife—a switchblade. Unlike the chef’s knife, which he uses all day, every day, he’s used his switchblade only once.

His daily meal is taken with the other kitchen staff of Noveau!, a restaurant near the French Quarter in New Orleans. Part of Angel’s job is to prepare staff meals, but like everything that occurs in the kitchen, his work is overseen by Francesca, the sous chef.

She is a striking woman, dark, long-limbed, and angular, with cheekbones and hips as hard as diamonds. Her passion for cooking—the act of turning raw, inedible vegetables, meats, and fish into beautiful and delicious food—burns as hot as the midday Sonoran sun. Her senses of taste and smell are impeccable, as is her ability to judge the exact moment when a filet of fish is about to pass from moist and succulent to dry and tasteless, or a rack of lamb turn from a lovely pink medium-rare to a disgustingly gray medium-well.

Earlier in the week, while he removed the seeds and skins from cucumbers, Angel overheard Francesca confide to the pastry chef that her husband has bragged to friends that she fucks like she cooks.

All afternoon he has watched her flit about the kitchen, checking fish for freshness, tasting and seasoning sauces, looking over his shoulder while he assembles the mise en place for today’s staff meal of boeuf bourguignon. Once, when she passed behind him in the cramped confines of the kitchen, he felt her breasts brush his shoulder blades.

Angel is a man who has gnawed raw corn stolen from a farmer’s field, swallowed grubs plucked from the underside of a dead log, and consumed half-eaten hamburgers lifted from a dumpster. He has felt the emptiness of hunger and fears that hunger will find him again. He enjoys staff meals because they are the most wonderful meals he’s ever eaten and also because Francesca has a hand in them. He is also wary of them because they weaken with their lush flavors and multi-layered textures, and weakness is a luxury Angel cannot afford. Someday, to survive, he may again have to bite the head off a lizard.

Angel fries thick-cut, smoky bacon in a Dutch oven. After removing the bacon, he sears chunks of chuck beef, dicing the crisp bacon while the meat sizzles. He plates the browned beef, allowing the juices to pool, and then sweats a mirepoix of celery, carrots, and onion, fresh from his knife. He adds tomato paste, garlic, and fresh thyme to the mirepoix and stirs briefly before returning the beef to the pot. He deglazes with Cognac and grins when a blue flame leaps high enough to scald pans hanging from an overhead rack. Next, Angel adds beef stock and most of a bottle of dry red wine, saving a swallow for himself.

What separates this boeuf bourguignon from any other is the care Francesca brings to finishing the dish, transforming a rustic stew into an elegant meal. Angel marvels at this. Surely, she must know that even without her extra effort, the staff would devour every bite like wolves on an antelope.

While the stew simmers, she parboils peas, pearl onions, fingerling potatoes, and carrots in heavily-salted water. After a few minutes, she plunges the vegetables into an ice bath. When the beef is fork-tender, she will direct Angel to separate it from the mirepoix, which will be discarded, and strain the remaining braising liquid into a large pan. The braising liquid will be reduced by half and transferred to a smaller sauce pan, where it will be de-greased and reduced by half again. Francesca will fold the beef, bacon, and parboiled vegetables into the sauce and gently warm. Off heat, she will season to taste and swirl butter into the stew until the sauce acquires a velvety consistency. Just before serving, she will sprinkle fresh parsley.

Eaten with a handful of crusty garlic bread, the bread dripping with sauce, Francesca’s stew will carry Angel through the evening and into the next day.

When he is not fantasizing about her—fantasies both lurid and tender—he wonders about the fate of the man he stabbed.

Attacked while sleeping in a doorway his first week in New Orleans, Angel cut his assailant. The man howled and backed away, clutching his thigh, blood wetting his trousers like water gushing from a spigot. Angel ran from the scene, and for two days hid in an abandoned warehouse, the eyes of river rats shining in the darkness.

It was hard to say whether man or rat was food.

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Photo by Dean Pasch