Tempt Me excerpt: Natalie's culinary school fail
Larry’s beady eyes were like my mother’s black pearl earrings, round, lustrous, and judgmental.
“Don’t look at me like that,” I whispered, turning my attention back to Chef Guillaume.
With a genius for multitasking honed in the finest restaurants in France, the instructor flashed me a threatening stare without interrupting the flow of his lesson on shellfish.
Larry blinked, which was weird because I was pretty sure lobsters didn’t have eyelids. If they did, Chef Guillaume would’ve taught us to filet them.
I shifted on my feet. They were sore from standing in the miserable clogs that mercilessly rubbed the top of my foot. Pulling the kitchen towel from the belt of my apron, I tossed it over Larry where he rested on the cutting board at my workstation. Now I could focus on Chef Guillaume, who’d started a sidebar on shellfish allergies.
The towel twitched, and one banded claw waved feebly at me. My chest panged. Chef explained that our local California spiny lobsters were shipped to China at exorbitant prices.
A couple of days ago, he’d been hanging out with his lobster buddies in the North Atlantic. Today, he slowly suffocated here in my cooking class at a community college in San Francisco, paling under the unflattering fluorescents, waiting to plunge into the pot of water that had almost reached a boil.
I stared at his immobilized claw. That makes two of us, buddy.
Tugging the towel off his head, I tucked it under his reddish-brown body so he wasn’t lying on the slippery cutting board. It had to smell like the other poor creatures I’d dispatched in my butchery class.
Did lobsters have noses?
Probably not, thank god. If he did, he’d smell my fear.
We’d started the semester with poultry. They’d come to us deceased with their heads detached, unlike Larry. I’d almost puked at the sight of the pale, featherless bodies, but instead, I imagined what Mother would say if I dropped out of this school too. I’d swallowed and carried on, splitting the parts well enough for a pass from Chef Guillaume.
The next unit had been beef, but that had also come to us faceless. I’d learned to separate the ribs from the loin, and I’d created a standing rolled rib roast Chef hadn’t snarled at. He’d called it “not bad,” which was as good as an A in any other class. Though I didn’t have much experience with As in school, culinary or otherwise.
We’d moved on to fish, and although they had faces, at least they were dead on arrival.
“Miss Natalie Jones, are you paying attention?” How had Chef Guillaume snuck up on me like that? He scowled at me from the other side of my worktable with his hands on his hips.
“Yes, Chef,” I squeaked. I didn’t dare look at Larry.
“Then why is your lobster swaddled like un bébé and not cooking in the pot?”
Uh-oh. I glanced to my right, where my neighbor Gregory was wiping down his station. Steam wafted from the cover of his stockpot.
“Waiting for a full boil, Chef,” I said, glancing at my pot, where bubbles were starting to break the surface.
“Show me.” His lip curled as he stared down at the lobster. “Remove that towel.”
“Sorry.” Gently, I disentangled my towel from Larry. Poor guy didn’t look so good.
Chef’s nostrils flared. “Demonstrate for the class how to humanely kill the lobster.”
“I…uh.” Humanely kill sounded like an oxymoron to me. “Could you show me the technique again?”
He reached for Larry.
I leaped to cover the crustacean with my body. “Not him!” I froze. “I mean, I’ll do it.” It was the least I owed Larry.
Chef raised an eyebrow. “Bon. I will demonstrate, then you repeat.”
He whirled and snatched the lobster from Chantal’s table. He slapped it onto the cutting board next to Larry. In one smooth movement, he grabbed my knife and buried the tip in the lobster’s brain. When it twitched, Larry scrabbled weakly on the cutting board.
“See? Quick and humane.” He dropped the dead lobster into Chantal’s pot. She murmured her thanks and set the lid on the pot.
“Now you.” He held out my knife to me, handle first.
I glanced at my pot. Damn those efficient gas burners. It was at a full boil. I accepted the handle and turned my attention to Larry. Resigned to his fate, he allowed his antennae to droop.
He’d end up mingled with his friends in a lobster bisque to be served in the school cafeteria or in a lobster roll wrapped to go.
Why should he have to die for some soggy, over-sauced sandwich?
All he wanted to do was live his best lobster life. So what if he hadn’t determined what that might be? He deserved another chance to figure out his life.
Wait. Was that Larry or me?
“Miss Jones. May I remind you that we have only thirty minutes left in class?”
Thirty minutes. Chef Guillaume didn’t accept late assignments. I’d have to murder poor Larry now if I had any hope of disassembling his carcass in time. The silver lobster pick flashed in the fluorescent lights. The one Chef expected me to use to pull Larry’s flesh from his shell.
Larry lifted his claw in farewell, showing me the blue band. Blue like the ocean. Blue like the delicate edges of the shell covering his slender knees, which I’d be expected to tug out with the fork.
I swallowed. Not today, Larry.
Dropping my knife, I tossed the towel back over Larry and lifted him. He wasn’t heavy, only a couple pounds, but his oversized claws flopped.
“What are you doing, Miss Jones?”
I kept my head down. “I’m leaving, Chef.”
The classroom had gone deadly quiet.
“If you walk out that door, you fail my class. It will be difficult to graduate without it.”
It would’ve been difficult to graduate even with a passing grade in his class—which I didn’t have. Shoving Larry under my arm, I dragged my Louboutin tote from its cubby under my workstation and slung it over my shoulder. “I understand, Chef.”
“Do you, Miss Jones?” His gray eyebrow lifted. He must have sensed the pressure that made me return day after day to a class I was failing.
I glanced at my knife roll. I liked the heft of the large chef’s knife and the way the handles fit into my hand. It was a shame to leave them here. But to grab them, I’d have to put down Larry, and if I did that, my short-tempered instructor might chuck him into my pot and boil him alive.
Better to leave it. I nodded at Gregory. He had skills. He deserved them more than I did. Culinary school was wasted on me, just like college, fashion school, the event-planning internship, and even the flower shop my stepfather bought me.
“Sorry, Chef,” I repeated, and with a firm grip on Larry, I turned on my clogs.
I wish I could say I sailed out, but my damn clog caught on the floor and wrenched itself off my foot. I’d always hated them anyway. I stepped out of the other and, in my socks, scuffed out of the classroom.
The Uber driver peeled away from the curb at Rincon Park. I’d gotten used to the fishy odor in the two hours we’d spent in the classroom, but having Larry in the little Mazda was a lot, especially after he’d gotten a little carsick.
Despite the low clouds, the air was fresher at the park, and I strode straight for the pier.
“Don’t worry, Larry. I got you. The spiny lobsters might look different, but I’m sure they’re nice. You’re going to make so many new friends.”
He rolled his eyestalks back toward me.
“Seriously, guy. I don’t think you’d make it if I shipped you back to Maine or wherever. This is way better than being served in the cafeteria. If you don’t like the bay, you can swim right around the peninsula to the ocean.”
On second thought, I probably should have taken him to the ocean side of the city, but it was too late for that now. The water was deep here, and there was no commercial fishing in the bay.
When I reached the rail, I propped Larry on it, still swaddled in my kitchen towel. His eyestalks swiveled between me and the water below.
“Look, Larry. I know this is a new place, and you’re scared. I’ve started plenty of new things, and here’s what’s always worked for me: find a way to help others. That way they need you, whether they like you or not.”
Larry wasn’t buying it. He rapped the railing with his claw.
“You don’t have to take my advice. What do I know, anyway? None of my schools or jobs have stuck, and I’m going to have a heck of a time explaining what happened today to Mother and Charles. But the right thing for me is out there, and the right thing for you is down there.”
We both peered into the water. It was deep and blue.
“Find a nice rock and lay low until you get your strength back. Chow down on… What do you guys eat, anyway? Plankton? Seaweed? Little fish? I’m sure it’s down there. Maybe you’ll meet a nice lady lobster—or a dude, whatever makes you happy—and settle down in a nice, deep part of the ocean, raise some babies together. Okay?” I wiped a bit of ocean spray from my cheek.
He twitched his claws feebly.
“Right. Gotta get those off.” I reached into my bag and found the pink Swiss Army knife my brother Jackson gave me when I was twelve. I flicked open the long blade and sliced through the rubber band on his right claw, then his left. Tentatively, he opened and closed his claws.
“Better? Okay, I’m going to drop you in.”
But I didn’t. I stared into his cloudy eyes.
“This is your second chance, dude. Don’t waste it.” Who was I to advise him? How many second, third, or fourth chances had I wasted? How many times had Mother given me her narrow-eyed, compressed-lip stare that told me how much I’d disappointed her? How many times had she actually said the words, Natalie, when are you going to settle down? Why can’t you be more like your brothers or your sister?
I’d never be as successful as my siblings. I should do what Mother had done and marry a guy with potential. She’d introduced me to enough sons of her rich friends that I should’ve found one I liked by now.
Larry tapped my hand with his claw.
“Right, sorry. This isn’t about me. It’s about you. Okay, one…two…three.” I upended him and dropped him head-first into the water, ten feet below. He sliced in, splashless, like an Olympic diver. He hovered for a second under the water, rocking with the waves that slapped against the pier. It almost looked like he waved at me. Then, with a swish of his tail, he submerged, his brown shell disappearing into the dark water. I waited for a minute, gripping the stinky kitchen towel. Then I let another minute pass. But Larry didn’t reappear.
I hoped he’d do better with his second chance than I’d done with mine.
I turned back toward the city. I could get another Uber home, clean up, and figure out how to explain to my parents that I’d dropped out of culinary school two weeks before the end of the term. Or…
I caught sight of the tall building that shaded my brother’s shorter building.
He’d gotten his share of second chances. Maybe he could offer me some advice. Or at least more sympathy than I’d get from our mother.