Pairs With Life - Chapter One
I found Chef Dan at a table with his sous chef, Stacy, looking over some notes.
“Corbett Thomas!” he bellowed. “I’m doing a monkfish for the prix fixe tonight that’ll go beautifully with this Albarino you picked up.”
A near-empty bottle of 2016 Pazo Senorans sat on the table. “Yeah, Chef. Sounds great,” I said hurriedly. “Hey, can I talk to you for a moment?”
“Sure.” Chef Dan handed his stack of papers to Stacy. “Take these,” he said to her, adding, “and if you want Geoffrey to be more forceful on the line, then tell him to stop being such a pussy.”
Stacy rolled her eyes. “Oh, that’s right,” Chef sighed. “We can’t say ‘pussy’ anymore.”
At sixty, Chef Dan was at least twice as old as everyone else at the restaurant. I was only twelve years behind him, which made us both anachronisms in the eyes of the staff—cautionary tales from a lost generation, something to be tolerated at best.
“All right, rock star,” Chef motioned me to sit down. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s Dornin,” I replied, taking Stacy’s seat. “There’s a party of major VIPs tonight and he’s giving it to Andrew.”
“That’s his job. He manages the staff. We’ve been over this.”
“I know, but you manage him and he’s doing a shitty job.” I grabbed the bottle of Albarino and poured the last of it in Stacy’s glass. It was gorgeous, the color of spring in Barcelona.
“God, you’re worse than Stacy.” He leaned back in his chair and ran his fingers through his asphalt hair. “Don’t take it so personal.”
“I’m not taking it personally.” I was. “It’s bad for the restaurant. It’s bad for the brand.”
Chef took the last swig of his wine and let out some ghastly noise that sounded like he’d been punched in the throat. “Look, you should know this by now, but every day a restaurant stays open is a miracle—a goddamn blessing. Rick’s doing something right, so let him do it. Revenue is up, the place is booked, everything’s working. Besides, Andrew needs the experience. What if you get gorged by a deer or something?”
“I’m sorry,” I stuttered. “What if I get gored by a deer?”
“Yeah, you know, if you die,” he explained. “Randomly. But horribly.”
I got the feeling that he might enjoy that. “I just need to know if you’re considering my replacement.”
Chef Dan grabbed the wine glass from my hand and drank its contents in one gulp. “I’m not considering anything except a monkfish entrée for tonight. And that’s why Rick is here, so I don’t have to consider you or Stacy or deal with any of the fucking drama in this place.” He stared down the neck of the empty bottle like a telescope. “God, this stuff is good. Did you save me a case like I asked?”
“Yes. And you drank it all.”
“Save me another.”
I got up and walked away from the table. “You got it, Chef.”
“Corbett,” he called after me. “It’s the worst kept secret that if you pass your sit next week, you’re out of here.”
I swear to God, the rumor mill at a restaurant was like playing a game of Telephone with a dozen drunk, horny sixteen-year-olds. “Look, I’ve always been honest with you, Chef. This is the best job I’ve ever had. Why in the hell would I leave?”
Chef Dan lumbered off towards the kitchen. “Why indeed, Rock Star?”
The whole Dornin and The Whales Episode was officially under my skin, so I decided to go out on the terrace and get some fresh air.
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Appellation was built into the side of the foothills of the Vaca Range, about a half-mile up a winding road in Rutherford. Our terrace was one of the most stunning places to dine in all of Napa, as it looked out across a 180-degree panorama of the valley floor and was framed by the Mayacamas Mountains to the west.
I leaned against the waist-high railing atop the stone wall lining the terrace and soaked in the view. The vineyards below weaved a delicate tapestry of early fall colors. Waves of vibrant green segued into pale yellow, which then collided with vibrant crimson and an orange so burnt it threatened to steal the glory from the autumn sun.
Twenty years earlier I drove into Napa on my way down to L.A., stopped for the afternoon, and never got back in my car. Now this place was a part of me. Looking out across the acreage of Cabernet and Chardonnay, I could set my watch by the changing of the vines. These colors told me it was the third week in October, the end of harvest.
This sunset told me I was home.
The bucolic scene may have actually calmed my shit for a moment, until I felt a disturbing presence beside me. A peripheral glance confirmed it, and my grip unconsciously tightened around the railing as Andrew Ridgley moved up quietly next to me, seemingly taking in the view, but mostly standing there just to piss me off.
Andrew was preternaturally thin, to the point where his midsection curved in slightly, giving him the appearance of a flat Pillsbury Crescent roll. A man bun popped from the top of his tiny head like a lonely radish in a barren field, and his face was framed by a freakish red beard, in which every single hair was of uniform length and curvature. If he was going for the King of the Very Polite Vikings look, he nailed it.
“So,” I started, still gazing at the majestic scene before me, “might one call those pistachio-colored Capri pants?”
“One might,” he replied, faux-ignoring me as well. “Might one call that the world’s most heteronormative blue blazer?”
I nodded. “One might, if one knew what the word ‘heteronormative’ meant.”
“I rest my case.”
I turned to face him. At six-foot-four, I was a foot taller and had at least seventy-five pounds on him. I wasn’t going for intimidation, though. Ok, not a lot of intimidation. “You getting the Harrison party only proves that there’s no such thing as a just and benevolent God.”
Andrew scratched his beard mockingly. Not a single hair was displaced. “Harrison? Oh, you mean Harrison-Lowell Partners? The massive private equity firm whose board is having their party here tonight? Those guys?”
I wanted to rip my face off. The truth was, Andrew was half my age, but only a few steps behind me. He was an Advanced Somm, a WSET-3, CSW, and a whole bunch of other mostly useless acronyms. But he had mad tasting skills, which while also hating, I grudgingly respected too.
“Just…get them to do different bottles with each course,” I said, trying to mask my aggravation. “No by-the-glass stuff and none of those imports I got on special—”
“Gee, thanks, Corbett,” he interrupted. “I’ll do my best to remember all of that complex and really insightful information.” He walked backwards towards the door, a smug little smirk spreading across his face. “In the meantime, you have an absolutely awesome evening with your bachelorette party.”
On my eighth birthday, my mom woke me up at 3:00 a.m., dragged me out of bed and into the cold backseat of her Datsun hatchback and said, “We’re going to Disneyland.” I’d never been, but leave it to say I could sing all five verses of “Yo Ho, Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life For Me).” She didn’t pack anything except a bologna and American cheese sandwich for me, and a thermos filled with “Mommy’s Orange Juice” for her. We drove seven hours from Tucson to Los Angeles, got out, and discovered the park was closed.
“Oh,” she had said with a frown. She shoved me back in the car and we drove home to Tucson without saying a word.
When I heard that Jansen was a bachelorette party, it felt a lot like that.
I already knew in agonizing detail how the whole night would unfold. Jansen was a party of fifteen, but only thirteen would show up, because the group had been out wine tasting the entire day, and two girls would have already passed out at the hotel, their heads balanced delicately over the edge of the bed to avoid vomit asphyxiation.
Festivities would start with a round of Lemon Drops, followed by selfies, followed by a round of Himalayan Blow Jobs (the shot, not the Sherpa-based sex act), and more selfies. There’d be a polite but stern noise complaint from a nearby diner, which would be met with vitriol and retribution from the maid of honor, and eventually every single customer on the terrace would have to be re-seated with a comped entrée.
By the start of the second course, two more bridesmaids would be “Man down!” and loaded into the limo to be whisked away. This would cause the Bride to launch into Tearful and Wailing Speech Number One: Don’t You Understand This Is My Wedding? The remedy for this drama would be another round of shots, followed by the meat course, which everyone would secretly want to eat but no one will eat.
I would then be asked if dancing is allowed. I would say no. This would be met with Tearful and Wailing Speech Number Two: Don’t You Fucking Understand This Is My Wedding?
At the end of the evening, three of the four remaining conscious bridesmaids would attempt to split the check, and they would get it wrong three times. It would be my fault, obviously, and then Drunk Math would result in a three-hundred-dollar underpayment, coming out of the service charge.
“I’ll bet you a hundred bucks I sell the most expensive bottle tonight,” I blurted. I’m not exactly sure why I said it: Anger at a manager who didn’t respect who I was or what I’d been through; or jealousy of a kid who accomplished in six years what took me twenty.
Andrew froze at the door. “Wait, what? Are you serious?”
“Dead serious,” I said.
Andrew folded his arms across his chest and stared at me as if I asked him to solve a quadratic equation. “So, you’ll bet me a hundred dollars that you can sell a more expensive wine to the Mike’s Hard Lemonade Crew than I can to the Board of Directors of the nation’s third-largest private equity firm?”
Well, when you put it that way… No matter. I was betting on my ability to optimize potential. I mean, it’s not like the Jansens had booked their party at Applebee’s.
“You got it.”
“You’re on.” Andrew stuck out his hand and I shook it. He had that kind of non-committal handshake that feels like you’re clutching a wet hunk of pork loin. I dropped his hand and brushed past him.
I’ll never say out loud that I doubted my potential to win the bet, but it crossed my mind to add Franzia to the system and charge $1,000 per box for it.