An excerpt from Leaves
The River Edge Café had been open for business since the late ‘90s, when a husband-and-wife team made a killing during the tech stock boom and decided to “chuck it all” and follow their passion for fine food. Located on the water between Oldham and Essex, it was popular for its ambitious menu, its beautiful setting, and its attentive staff. However, it had recently lost two executive chefs in quick succession, leading to rumors that the owners were impossible taskmasters and maybe even a little abusive. Deborah didn’t necessarily believe these unfounded stories, but they made her wary through the entire interview process, and even now, in her third meeting with the couple, she wondered if there was something less than genuine behind Carla Bonner’s ubiquitous smile or Vince Travers’s persistence.
“We want you here, Deb,” Vince said. People didn’t really call her “Deb,” but Vince seemed to insist on it. He had been doing so since they first met half a decade ago. “There are maybe two dishes on the menu we think we need to keep. The entire rest of the menu would be yours.”
“It would be like having your own restaurant without the hassle of ownership,” Carla said. Deborah had been in precisely that situation her entire adult life, so she wasn’t sure why Carla thought this was a selling point.
“I’m completely willing to wait until the middle of November if you want to take a couple of weeks off between jobs,” Vince said. “Trina’s an excellent sous chef and she’s doing a great job of holding the fort for us. To be honest, if we weren’t so intent on recruiting you, we’d give her the job right now.”
“That’s very flattering,” Deborah said, wondering how resentful Trina would be of her if she decided to take the position.
This wasn’t the first offer Deborah had received, though it was certainly the most aggressive. She got a couple of calls as soon as word got out about the sale of the Inn. The people buying the Sugar Maple even made her an extremely attractive offer to stay precisely where she was. She never seriously considered it, though. It was hard enough cooking there now that both of her parents were gone. It would be impossible to take direction there from someone else and even harder to watch the inevitable changes they made. Deborah imagined herself collapsing into tears the first time they replaced a table lamp. She was convinced that when she walked out of the Inn at the end of the Halloween party she would never again set foot in the place just so she could remember it forever the way she wanted.
None of the offers she’d received so far had seemed very appealing. She knew that she was running the risk of seeming like a prima donna and she also knew that she should be eternally grateful for the attention, but she couldn’t allow herself to take a position unless it sang out to her. She even considered trying to find a job in a diner or a coffee shop somewhere – something completely one-dimensional with little or no room for personal investment – just to recalibrate. But of course that was ridiculous. How long could she flip burgers before she started slipping exotic ingredients into the ground beef? She had enough money saved to get by for about six months, and if it took that long to find the right spot, that was fine with her.
“I’m not trying to flatter you,” Vince said. “I’m trying to employ you. Your customers will flatter you every time the waitstaff delivers one of your inventions.”
Deborah smiled. The “Deb” thing aside, she’d always liked Vince and she wished the rumors weren’t causing her to question his sincerity. That was the pernicious thing about rumors.
“The package you’re offering is great,” she said, nodding to both Vince and Carla. “I’ve always been fond of this restaurant, and you have a great kitchen. I just need a couple of days.”
“Of course,” Carla said. “Take as long as you must.”
Vince patted her hand. “We’re here for you, Deb. Call me anytime if you have questions. I gave you our home number, right?”
“You did, yes. I just want to take a little longer to think. I’ll call you on Monday.”
Deborah stood and shook their hands. The fact was, she already made her decision, but it didn’t seem polite to turn them down flat. The River Edge Café was a fine restaurant and it did have a sensational kitchen. The more time she spent there, though, she realized there wasn’t anything about this place that felt like home.
She drove through downtown Oldham on the way back to the inn. Waiting for a couple of pedestrians to cross Hickory, she noticed the sign for Sage, the gourmet shop that had opened a couple of weeks earlier. She couldn’t believe she hadn’t visited it yet. When a car pulled out of the parking space across from the store, she decided the time was right.
The store was in a moderately large space between a music store and a bookstore. Deborah had a hard time remembering what was in the space before (there had been several shops there over the past few years), but the new owner had done a great job of remodeling it. Lots of blond wood fixtures, warm lighting, and handwritten signage. There was a refrigerator case housing artisanal cheeses and sausages in understated, small-production packages.
Deborah liked being here immediately. Maybe it was the slack-key guitar music coming from the sound system or that one of the front tables was dedicated to the small Tuscan pasta manufacturer she “discovered” a couple of years ago and had used exclusively at the inn ever since. Deborah knew this would be a place she’d visit often. She’d been to all the gourmet shops in the area, and was frustrated by the sameness of them. It was almost as though some food rep came along and set each one up based on some model. This place had a decidedly individual point of view, though. The shelf of spices was an asymmetrical jumble of bottles and tins of different sizes. Next to it was a card that read, “This might not be the prettiest display of spices you’ve ever seen, but it’s hopefully the best. I’ve compared everything on this shelf to the competition and only carry the ones I love the most.” Deborah agreed about the mustard seed, the ground coriander, and the smoked paprika, but she would have chosen a different Telicherry peppercorn.
A man walked up to her while she was standing at the display. “Find anything you like?”
She turned to look at him. He was a little over six feet and lean. And he had very expressive eyes. “Krendahl has better peppercorns,” she said.
“You’re right, but they only sell from their catalog. I tried, believe me. They also import this fabulous five spice powder, but again, I couldn’t get it. Think I should change the card in the spirit of full disclosure?”
Deborah laughed. “Your secret is safe with me. You’re the owner?”
He extended his hand and Deborah took it. “Sage Mixon.”
“Deborah Gold. So the store is named after you and not after” – she reached for a bottle – “Brookfield’s hand-rubbed Albanian.”
He smiled. “You obviously know your spices. Are you in the food business?”
“I’m the chef at the Sugar Maple Inn – at least I am until the end of the month.”
“Moving on to bigger and better things?”
Deborah rolled her eyes. “That part isn’t at all certain at the moment.” She turned toward another display. “I’ve never seen these preserves before.”
“They’re incredible. They’re all made by a single dad out of a barn in New Hampshire. He sweetens them with a ‘proprietary blend’ of fruit juices and balances each with some kind of spice or infusion. The lemon marmalade is mind-boggling.” He picked up a jar and handed it to her. “He adds a touch of Thai basil. It’s amazing what happens.”
Deborah examined the jar in her hand. If nothing else, Sage was an excellent salesman. Of course she would buy this. Before she did, though, she spent another half hour in the store walking from display to display. Sage stayed with her when he wasn’t helping other customers, and it became obvious that there was a story behind everything he carried. She hoped the visitors who flitted in and out appreciated the thought that went into this. More importantly, she hoped that – appreciative or not – the visitors were plentiful. Oldham needed more stores like this one.
By the time she’d finished shopping, Deborah had the marmalade, a salsa from Nogales, a bottle of raspberry thyme vinegar made a half hour away, and a package of stroopwafels made in Montana, of all places. She didn’t need any of it. She certainly had access to just about everything she wanted from the network of suppliers she’d developed over the years. But it was fun buying here and she definitely wanted to support the place.
“Come again soon,” Sage said as he packaged her purchases.
“I will. Definitely. Hey, come by the Inn for dinner sometime in the next month.”
“I might just do that. I mean if you know this much about food, you might actually be able to cook.”
Deborah laughed. “Yeah, it’s a possibility.”
He smiled and his eyes danced. Deborah would definitely be back soon.