WHERE I FOUND THE NIGHTLIFE
By Sarah Zettel
You know the eternal question, right? “Where do you get your ideas from?” Authors get asked this constantly. We have a range of answers from the snarky to the serious. Sometimes we might even actually know. But I’m finding it a little strange to have to admit turns the root idea for one of the most fun projects of my writing career wasn’t actually mine.
A TASTE OF THE NIGHTLIFE started with a phone call from my friend, the author and humorist Esther Friesner. She said to me, “Sarah, two words; Vampire Chef.”
I said to her; “I’m in.”
Then I found out the idea wasn’t Esther’s, either. The late-great publisher and editor Martin H. Greenberg had walked into the office one day and said “Vampire Chef. Why has nobody done this?” And the inhabitants of the office all looked up at him and said. “YES! Why has nobody done this!” They then started looking for an author. First, they offered the job to Esther, but she was busy on her Princesses of Myth series. Esther brought up my name. You see, at the time, I was between projects. This is writer-speak for I was out of work.
In the interests of full disclosure, this almost never happens. Ideas go from the author to the editor, not editor to author. As a beginning, this was Not Normal.
But it happened, and I took the challenge, which left me with those two words. Vampire Chef. Now what? The setting, I decided, would be fairly simple, from an urban fantasy standpoint. The heroine, Charlotte Caine would not herself a vampire, she’d just cook for them. I’d place her in what is arguably the Foodie capitol of the US, New York, and make her restaurant into a place where humans and paranormals, such as vampires, can eat together without…unnerving each other. Hijinks could then ensue.
Now, to date, I’ve been a science fiction and fantasy author. This means I have mostly written about places no one can get to. That means I’m free to make up a great deal. But for Nightlife, I had a rock hard setting; New York City, and restaurant kitchens. My connection with professional kitchens is tenuous, but it is there. I worked “cold prep” at the student union kitchen when I was in college. In fact, my cheese trays have graced affairs given for then VP, George H.W. Bush. I have fed football prospects, and let me tell you THAT’s an adventure in excess. I’ve also still got a scar on my arm from when I banged the wrong part of the oven from the summer I worked at Pizza Hut. But all that’s a long way from a major kitchen during dinner hours. Research was clearly required.
Thanks to my friend Lisa, who is a local food writer and critic, I was able to snag a prime research opportunity. Chef Alex Young of Zingerman’s Roadhouse very kindly agreed to let me come observe the kitchen during Friday dinner rush. Armed with my, um, wealth of experience, I put on a light shirt (nothing flowing), black trousers, and comfortable shoes. I pulled my hair back and just in case, tucked my Tigers cap in my purse and headed out.
For the record, that night I spent 4 1/2 hours observing the line. During this time, my concept of a hard day’s work underwent some serious readjustment.
A working kitchen is not the clean, polite controlled sort of space you see on The Food Network. Fortunately, the Roadhouse kitchen is also not one of the dens of sin and iniquity that Anthony Bourdain delights in describing in KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL. It’s a serious, cramped, crowded environment with everybody moving at top speed. With knives. And fire.
I mostly stood next to Javier, who worked the wood-fired grill (I will admit, of all the things I expected to experience, a trip to the woodshed was not one of them). It was Friday, so early on, Javier predicted it was going to be a burger heavy night. And he was right. It was burger after burger, with breaks for ribs, chicken and multiple types of fish, oh, and oysters. I didn’t know you could grill oysters. Javier had burns on his arms and asbestos fingers. He could also keep track of ten different orders put on the grill at ten different times while managing a wood fire.
At the beginning of the night, he had 8 tickets on his station. By the time 8 pm rolled around, 8 was clearly a low-water mark.
Next to Javier was the flat top where, from what I could see, was mostly used for toasting bread, but that could just be because there were so many of those burgers.
Near that, Chef Keirnon was hard at work, doing about a dozen different jobs at once. Between four and five he had enough time to show me around, and show me things like the board where they keep their projections and expenditures, so everyone knows what’s happening with the bottom line, and let me meet the farmer who was bringing in buckets of REALLY fresh really gorgeous ingredients like fresh potatoes, carrots, and heirloom tomatoes. Once rush really hit, at about 6pm, Keirnon got on the line and stayed there. Mainly, he was expediting, that is calling out the various orders, and getting the finished plates to the servers. He was also handling a lot of the plating and keeping track of what was going on up and down the line.
The cook top, what we at home call the “stove,” was Maria’s domain. Maria was amazing to watch. I didn’t get a chance to do more than say hi to her, she was too busy to chat with the audience. But what Javier did with the grill, she was doing with pans. She is said to be able to manage a dozen sauté pans at a time. I watched her get at least seven going at once, with greens, pasta, meats, all manner of sides, all begun at different times, all needed NOW. Oh, and did I mention the occasional four foot gouts of flame?
Then there was the man who was introduced to me as Charlie, but whom by the end of the night I began to think of as Mr. Charles. I didn’t get an exact job title for Mr. Charles. As near as I could tell his job was to do whatever it was that needed doing. If a container was empty, he was the guy who got it filled, so he spent a lot of time in the back. But when things got hairy, Mr. Charles was on the line too, assembling burgers, cleaning stations, organizing tickets, scooping, filling, plating, finding, fixing and generally making sure the job got done, whatever the job was.
Chef Alex, who did me the great favor of letting me into his kitchen and who runs the show, mostly was in the back, but every so often he would come out to the line, and stand there, watching. Just checking in, just making sure everything was okay. And he’d do whatever it was that needed doing. He’d pick up empty containers, he’d bring in fresh plates, he’d check the stations to make sure they were well stocked and check in with Chef Keirnon to make sure he had what he needed. No shouting or rock n’ roll. No immaculate white coat heading out to press the flesh or any of that celebrity schtick. Just a calm manager, confident and in control enough to let his people do their jobs.
I went home tired, smelling of grease and smoke and entirely happy. It was the best kind of learning experience. It showed me a world I’d never seen, introduced me to nifty people I’d never otherwise meet, and helped me find the words to create the new characters for A TASTE OF THE NIGHTLIFE.
I hope you enjoy.
A TASTE OF THE NIGHTLIFE
(A Vampire Chef Mystery)
Charlotte Caine isn't called "the Vampire Chef" because she's a member of New York's undead community-she just cooks for them. Her restaurant, Nightlife, is poised to take the top slot in the world of "haute noir" cuisine.But when a drunk customer causes a scene, a glowing review from the city's top food critic doesn't seem likely-especially when that customer winds up dead on Nightlife's doorstep. Now, with her brother under suspicion for the murder, Charlotte has to re-open her restaurant and clear her brother's name-before they both become dinner.
Sarah will be stopping by throughout the day to respond to questions/comments from readers!
Thanks to Penguin Group, I have one copy of A TASTE OF THE NIGHTLIFE to give away. Per the publisher's request, the book can be shipped to a US address only.
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The contest is open until Friday, 7/15/2011, at 11:59 pm CST. Good luck!