I’m going to have to be careful with everything I say. Play the new girl. With the amount of jobs I’ve had, that’s one thing I can do.
We pull up at the entrance to the kitchen, and as the heavy modern door is pushed open, the light and noise spill out onto the courtyard, and suddenly a new set of senses comes fiercely alive.
The back kitchen is buzzing. There are three chefs in whites preparing for the evening service. Piles of small new potatoes are being scrubbed, and another chef has a great sheet of tiny herbs, which are being forensically picked through with what look like tweezers. There is a kind of rhythmical chorus as knives hit wood, pans slam on granite and my block-heels clip-clop across the stone floor.
‘Hi, Chef,’ says the youngest-looking of them. He’s covered in blood splatters and holding a comically large butchering knife. James nods in approval at the young lad, who blushes and smiles shyly back at him. It’s a cute exchange, and I warm a little to James.
Smells of lemon zest and rich, dark chocolate fill my nose as we pass the pastry counter. Then the sting of onions hits my eyes as we duck under a low doorway into the preparation area. There are two rows of stainless-steel cooking surfaces and large ovens, and another serious-looking young chef, her dark hair stuffed into a hairnet, is standing over a huge pot, carefully spooning in what seems to be an enormous ladle full of tiny lobsters.
‘Oh my God, baby lobsters,’ I whisper, aghast, but Bill has suddenly disappeared out through the swinging door into the restaurant. There’s a glimpse of a dark, candle-lit room with accents of deep red and tartan.
‘Langoustines, three minutes, fifteen seconds. Rolling boil,’ the chef says to herself, as she starts a small timer. Langoustines. I blush at my stupidity and take a deep breath. I won’t last five minutes if I don’t keep my mouth shut.
‘Heather?’ James calls to me from the service area, where he is sorting through scribbled sheets of paper.
‘Hey. Jamie for short, is it?’
‘James actually,’ he says abruptly, before glancing at the floor. ‘Are you ready?’
‘Sure,’ I reply, painting on a face full of efficiency and confidence. He waves a piece of paper at me. ‘We’ve matches for the langoustine and hot-smoked salmon, but not the beetroot and pickled cabbage. We also need a pairing for the blade steak. I would have gone for a Cabernet, but there’s the spring greens and turnip foam to consider in the balance. What do you think?'
James puts the paper down and looks up at me, and for the first time I see his full face in the light. He’s definitely a looker, if you like that kind of accidentally handsome, full-lipped, furrowed-brow, forgot-to-shave-for-a-week kind of thing, which I most certainly do. Dark hair, chestnut eyes and cheeks flushed from the heat of the kitchen. And in those starched chef ’s whites too. I try hard not to stare.
Okay. I’m definitely staring.
I shake myself out of my daze and back to the job at hand.
‘Do you have any ideas what we could pair them with?’
‘What do you usually pair them with?’ I ask, hoping for a shortcut.
‘The menu changes all the time, with the season, so this is a new dish, I’m afraid. There’s normally something new needs pairing every day. As I said, we often pair the blade steak with the Cabernet, but I think the turnip . . .’
‘The menu changes all the time?’ I gulp.
James takes a breath. ‘Sorry. I know this is a lot to take in. Before each service we sit and discuss the pairings for the degustation menu. The sommelier and me. Then I run it past Chef.’
‘Chef? I thought you were the chef?’
‘No,’ he says, with a shy smile. ‘Russell Brooks, our new executive chef, will check over everything tonight. It has to be right first time,’ he says, somewhat apologetically.
‘Russell Brooks,’ I smile. ‘Sounds like an electrical appliance.’
My gag hangs in the air for a moment, then withers and dies.
‘He’s got two Michelin stars,’ James says, his eyes wide.
‘Oh yes,’ I say quickly.
Two Michelin stars? That doesn’t make sense. I thought this place was meant to be stuck in the Dark Ages. I glance around the kitchen and realize the whole set-up does look rather too grand. ‘Of course I know who he is. Everyone knows Russell Brook.’
‘Brooks,’ he corrects.
‘Yes,’ I nod quickly. ‘Two Michelin stars.’
‘Do you want a little time to familiarize yourself? I can give you thirty minutes, and then we have to get the draft ready for Chef.’ He offers me the menu.
I study James’s face for a moment. I can’t tell if he is desperately begging for my help or angry that I’m not helping already. One thing is for sure: he is waiting for me to take control, and up until this point I’ve been trying to delay the inevitable. Time to bite the bullet.
‘Where do you keep the wine list? And the wine? I’ll need to see the cellar and maybe do some sampling,’ I say, reaching for the food menu. Christ, it’s complicated! This place is fancy as fuck. What the hell is smoked sea bacon? ‘What did you say I need to match again?’
‘The guinea fowl, the crab, the beetroot and fermented barley and the blade steak,’ replies James, the raised vein on the side of his neck dissipating somewhat. ‘The new wine list is here,’ he says, dumping a large black leather folder into my arms. ‘And the cellar is out back, the way you came in, and down the stone stairs by the deep freeze. I can show you?’
‘No need. I’ll be half an hour,’ I say, nodding in determination, deciding the quiet of the wine cellar will be the safest place to panic.
New wine list?
‘One sec. Anis?’ he calls to the baby-lobster boiler, who frowns at the disruption. She is carefully pouring deep-green oil into a blender with all the steady seriousness of an open-heart surgeon. ‘Once you’ve finished the dill emulsion, make a tasting plate for Heather,’ James commands.
‘Yes, Chef,’ she scowls and heads to the refrigerator.
And with that, James nods and almost smiles, before going back through to the kitchen. I breathe out for a moment, before remembering the clock is ticking and I have very little time to spare.
I walk quickly back through the preparation area and make my way down the gloriously romantic stone stairs to the cellar. I fish around for a light switch just as another bloody sensor-light flicks on, but this time it’s a warm, dull yellow glow. My eyes adjust and, for a moment, I marvel at the space before me.
The cellar stretches out into the darkness, but it isn’t only wine down here. Large rounds of cheese are stacked on modern steel shelving, and huge legs of cured hams and bacons hang from stainless-steel hooks in the ceiling. And beyond that, more cheese. God, I love cheese.
But there’s no time to dither. I pull out my phone and lay the enormous wine list and the menu out on the shelf in front of me. Shit! This was certainly not the wine list I’d printed out from the website. The one I had stuffed in my bag back at the cottage had a dozen or so reds and whites, in varying degrees of cheap and less cheap.
The plan up until now – if you could call it a plan – was a crash course with my brand-new copy of Wine for Newbies, and Sir Google, as my tutors later this evening. Surface knowledge. A bluffable amount. Enough to blag my way through the summer at a crappy hotel in the middle of nowhere. Only the crusty, ramshackle, shithole Scottish hotel has not materialized, and instead I find myself in a fine-dining, luxury boutique property. This place is in need of a world-class sommelier to decipher the brand-new twenty-page wine list. Which I am definitely not.
It’s time to call for help.
It’s time to call the real Heather.