The buses in Chicago were rarely ever on time. Elise looked at her watch for the seventieth time as she debated getting off and hoofing it the rest of the way to the planetarium. Pulling the cable to alert the driver, she grabbed her bag and exited through the rear doors. Crossing the street, she made her way toward the lake.
Elise dodged the runners and cyclists zipping by on the Lakefront Path, trying not to perspire too much before heading to the event that she was already late for. She made it to the grand steps of the Adler Planetarium and took a deep breath.
Through the entry doors and down the stairs to the kitchen, Elise found her familiar crew already bustling to get tonight’s event under way. The legendary Chicago catering company, Berghoff, was cooking for the annual “Celestial Ball.” Some of the most prominent voices in the science and astronomy world would be under this roof tonight. Servers dressed in all black were setting up tables and chairs, complete with formal dinner place settings and an array of glassware. It was a dizzying sight watching them work, gingerly dancing around each other in the creation of a grand evening. Just as Elise was about to slip in unnoticed, a voice harkened her into reality.
“Ms. Strand, you’re late.”
“I’m sorry. The 146–”
“Enough” interrupted her superior. “Follow me.” A tall, lanky woman led Elise to an office at the end of the hall. It was really more like a storage closet, but it made do for events such as these where a permanent office could not be accessed. Elise took a deep breath as she waited for the barrage of discipline that was coming.
“Ms. Strand, how long have you worked with us?”
“Since I was 18. So, three years this September.”
“How many positions have you filled in for in that time?”
“Server, barback, busser, Maitre D, um,—”
“I have a new position for you. Call it, a little promotion.”
“Why me? There are plenty of people who are more experienced.”
“Because I think you will excel at it. And I trust that I won’t have to babysit you.”
Elise breathed for the first time in what seemed like minutes. What had started as a terrible afternoon was quickly coming together for her. The woman across from her looked deeply at Elise, scrutinizing her choice, and added, “Don’t make me change my mind, alright?”
“You can start by introducing yourself to the head chef, sous chef, line cooks and so on. You are now my Back of House Coordinator. Your duties will be to maintain a strict schedule of food departure, keep account for any designated food allergies on the guest list, taste-test hors d’oeuvres platters, and keep the drama at bay. I will give you more responsibilities the quicker you learn these. I am grooming you. I hope you are ready to take it on.”
“Thank you” Elise stuttered in shock. She had always assumed she was invisible among all her other more boisterous and competitive coworkers.
“Oh, and wear this.” The tall, aggressive supervisor pulled out a black chef’s jacket from the cabinet behind the desk. Elise put it on over her black t-shirt, making sure the buttons lined up correctly. “Very smart. I’ll have one embroidered with your name in a week or so, but for now this will do. Go out and make this night happen, Ms. Strand.”
“I will. Thanks again.” Elise took her bag and exited the office-closet. Once she knew her supervisor wasn’t going to follow her, she headed straight to the bathroom to get a good look at her new uniform.
Elise set her bag on the counter and stepped back from the sink to get a better look. It was an empress cut with nice lines. She imagined her name, “Strand,” embroidered over her left breast, with a matching “Berghoff Catering” on the other side. She couldn’t help but smile at the new uniform. The thought of all the new responsibilities made her stomach drop to the floor; she had never managed anyone in her life! This was going to be a whole new chapter in adulthood, especially because she knew many of her coworkers would be jealous and spiteful. The food service world was always full of beauty queens and broken down artistics types that always played life as if it were a stage. Tonight it would a challenge to get out unscathed.
Elise freshened her lipstick, put away her bag, and quickly walked down the long corridor to the kitchen. The last few steps she faltered, almost tripping in anticipation. I can do this. She breathed one last deep breath of courage and opened the swinging door into the kitchen.
People were bustling around open flames, gathering supplies, organizing and warming dishware, and most of all, yelling over all the noise. It was an overwhelming first glance into her new world. There was no way she could do this without failing miserably. She wretched and thought she would actually vomit, but was stopped abruptly by a man who stepped on her foot while reaching for some mixing bowls stored next to her.
“Watch it!” The man was on a mission, grabbing two medium-sized bowls and bringing them across the room to the pastry station. Elise bolstered her courage and began to make a speech over the ruckus.
“Hello everyone, my name is Ms. Strand and I am your new Back of House Coordinator—” there was such a din of activity that no one heard her. She looked around in panic and tried to find the most important looking person to get everyone’s attention. She was looking into a sea of white jacket-clad sharks and choosing to jump in head first. She looked around desperately, found a footstool, and stepped onto the counter above all of their heads.
“Excuse me!” she shouted. Someone switched off the music that had been playing underneath all the noise and others whispered and shushed. Now she had everyone’s attention and she was terrified. “Um, hello. My name is—”
“Get off the counter!” someone shouted from the back. Elise stood her ground. Resolute she said,
“My name is Ms. Strand and I will be your new Back of House Coordinator. I would like to take the time for everyone to introduce themselves so I may know whom I am addressing throughout the evening.” A timer went off wildly as she was about to go on and everyone went about their business, not interested in being bossed around by a young college girl. She sighed and climbed down from the counter, defeated.
A man in his early twenties with a wild mane of black curls came toward her.
“Don’t worry about it. These creeps wouldn’t listen to the Pope, let alone you.”
“Thanks.” Elise said flatly, walking away.
She went out the back door of the kitchen to get some air. As she opened the door she was overwhelmed with a flood of late afternoon light. She hadn’t known that this door led to the back side of the Planetarium directly onto the lakefront. Propping the door open just a crack, so she wouldn’t get locked out, she walked out to the water’s edge. What a glorious night it would be. The sky was already a deep orange, dappled with white wispy horizontal clouds. There were still a few boats left in the harbor; optimistic sailors who were squeezing the last few days out of the season.
Elise was startled out of her panorama by the sound of the door and footsteps coming toward her. She didn’t turn around. She knew who it was.
“Take this, it’ll help.” The young man with the crazy hair held out a small glass full of a deep purple liquid.
“I’m not old enough to drink”
“What?! Impossible.” He laughed and sipped his. “You sure? It’ll relax you, trust me.” She hesitated and looked at the glass once more.
“I’d better not. Don’t want to blow it on my first night as coordinator.”
“No offense, but that kind of already happened.” Sheepishly, Leon looked at her with pleading eyes. Elise took the small glass of wine and downed it in one gulp. “That’s not really how you’re supposed to—”
“I’d better get back in there” she interrupted. She turned around and began briskly walking back to the door.
“Wait!” Leon beat her to the door. “My name is Leon. I’m subbing as a line cook tonight. Let me introduce you to a few people in there. It’ll be less scary. You’re going to need us on your side for this thing to work.” Elise looked at him for a long moment, debating on her need for his help. She knew she was in over her head, but her pride was wreaking havoc on her emotions and she couldn’t think straight.
“Fine” she said, then softened with a little embarrassment, “thank you.” She smiled and looked back into his eyes, meeting his steady, deep gaze. His intensity startled her. Something in the pit of her stomach churned, a feeling she had never experienced prior to this moment.
“Aren’t you going to tell me your first name?”
“Strand will do for now.” A glint of mischief crossed her face as she kept the intimacy of her first name to herself. She had never thought of her name as being something unique and intimate before, but the irresistible power it now held over this young man was too much to pass up.
Back in the kitchen, Leon prepped his station as quickly as he could so that he could introduce Elise to everyone as they worked in their busy hive. He carmelized onions, sauteéd various vegetables, and kept an eye on the new coordinator as she was observing the whirl of activity around her. Elise was amazed at the clockwork precision of a working kitchen. She had never experienced this side of the catering business and was excited to learn as many things as she could about this incredible, stressful world.
“Grab that timer” Leon yelled across the noise to her. She reached around the counter to the white kitchen timer and held it up to indicate to him. “Yeah. Bring it over here.” She gingerly danced around hot flames and bustling chefs to his station, nearly knocking a salad bowl over on her way.
“Careful!” an angry hispanic man said.
“That’s Pepe. He’s also a line cook, specializing in salads and veggies.” Leon pointed to each station with his spatula, between flipping items on his flaming pans. “Patrice is our pastry chef. Amazing lady. Make sure to try her meringue. The woman is a genius with egg whites.” Elise nodded with fervor and whispered each of their names under her breath to try and solidify them in her memory. “Juan, George, and Joe are all expediters. You’ll be dealing with them the most as they organize the plates for the servers. Set that timer for three minutes. I can’t let these burn while I’m chatting away.”
Leon walked away from his station and over to the back corner, where a small office housed a man in full chef’s regalia. The man was on the phone currently and paused while Leon made the introductions.
“Meet our new Back of House Coordinator.”
“What happened to Smith?” the chef asked, a little frustrated.
“I hope you are ready for tonight. Nothing can go wrong, my dear. Nothing.” Elise gulped, and secretly balked at the suggestion that she was not up for the task. She would show this man all she had.
“Call me Strand.” she said bruskly, reaching out her hand to shake. She meant business. The man on the phone paused his conversation again, stood up, towering over both her and Leon, and shook back.
“Percy Sandoval, Head chef of Berghoff Catering. Don’t disappoint me, Ms. Strand.”
“I won’t Sir. This gala is too important for any mistakes.”
“Exactly. Now, back to it.” He picked up the phone again and continued his conversation.
Leon and Elise made their exit, repressing a giggle. Leon said,
“Now, my dear, put your apron back on and keep silent.” That did it. They burst out laughing as they made their way back to Leon’s station. The timer beeped incessantly in Elise’s pocket as she fumbled to turn it off. She looked up at the clock and wagered that the first of the guests were arriving, ready to be awed by another lovely evening by Berghoff Catering.
“Thank you for everything Leon. I mean it.”
“My pleasure.” he smiled and nodded over to the door where Elise’s supervisor was standing, looking their way. Elise flattened her chef’s jacket and strode confidently over to the door.
“Everything ready?” she asked, skeptically.
“Yes. Definitely.” Elise said with confidence.
“Good. I hope this is the first of many large events for you, Ms. Strand. You’ve met Sandoval, I assume?”
“Yes, just now. He’s so, uh, tall.”
“And a bit of a misogynist, I’m afraid. Don’t let him bother you.” Elise felt a small bit of relief hearing that from an equally as intimidating person. “Alright, let’s begin with the hors d’oeuvres, shall we?” Elise snapped into go mode, channeling the bit of wine and confidence she had been given from Leon.
“Okay people, let’s show our guests just how beautiful food can be!” she shouted over the din. Smiling, she looked to Leon and then around the room. “Expos, prep those trays for the app servers. Line cooks, be ready for the final garnishes to be hot, and I mean hot! Let’s do this!” Elise was shocked at how commanding she could be. She maintained her façade like the warden of a boarding school, making the rounds and observing her wrist watch at every plot point of this dramatic evening.
Once the guests had been seated, wined, and served their first course, it was time for the main. Sandoval watched with methodical patience from his office as the rumble from the kitchen continued. Plates were being warmed, laid out, and placed. The dish was a tender strip steak topped with caramelized onions and porcini mushrooms, sided with asparagus drizzled in a horseradish aioli.
The plates were being made in rapid precision, slid down a long table with each item placed, tucked, perfected, and then sent out to the servers. Elise was watching every plate go out, keeping an eye on the time so that there would be no lapse in service. After about seventy plates, Elise stopped the production with a hault.
“Juan, George, why is there no aioli on these plates?” It had been a test. Sandoval heard the pause in production and stood in his office doorway, propped against the door jamb. He watched with interest. “Juan. What is this? Let’s go. We can’t afford one mistake, even a tiny one. I need aioli on these plates, now!” Juan quickly covered the asparagus with the sauce, shooting Elise a seething look of frustration. Sandoval saw the exchange and clapped sardonically from the corner, making everyone turn around.
“Meet your new Back of House Coordinator, people.” Elise could not tell if he was being serious or not until he added, “Perez, if I see you pull that shit again, you’re out.” Juan and the rest of the team jumped back into their rhythm and rapidly put out plates to serve to the three hundred guests waiting upstairs.
Elise continued her inspection of each plate, but occasionally found her eye wandering over to the curly-haired line cook. He was busier than ever searing steaks, not looking up once from his frenzied activity. She enjoyed watching his intensity, his absolute focus on his craft. She had never been that passionate about anything and it gave her great joy to watch him, almost an unnerving joy. That same feeling in the pit of her stomach came in small waves as she processed her growing affection for this stranger.
“Strand!” Elise’s thoughts were interrupted as she was summoned by Sandoval. “Follow me.” Over his shoulder he yelled to the sous chef, “Chris, watch the plates as they go out.”
Sandoval led Elise through the long corridor, up the stairs, and to a vantage point over the gala. “Look at all this” he pointed. She peered over the banister at all the people eating their meals, talking, drinking, laughing. “We create this world. We control people’s happiness. They will go home to their families remembering the delicious strip steak, asparagus, and believe it or not, that aioli. Every person downstairs has a job to do, an important role to play in the cogs and wheels of this operation.”
“Strand.” He paused, thoughtfully. “You have the capacity to be good at this. It takes courage and a lot of pissing people off, but it’s worth it to see all these faces smiling. I’d like you to consider where your career is going at Berghoff and be ready for some curveballs.” Elise could not help but smile at this revelation of her future.
“Thank you for your confidence. I will do my best not to disappoint.”
“I’m sure you will” he said with a slightly condescending tone as he rubbed his hands on his jacket and turned to go. “Enjoy the scene for another minute, then get back downstairs for the next course. We’re about to impress everyone with Patrice’s meringue.”
Down below, people continued their chatter between mouthfuls. The event had been gorgeously decorated with deep emerald tablecloths, small chandeliers, silver napkins; it was sheer decadence. The tables had been laid on the first floor of the planetarium, along the glass observation area. Planets hung from the ceiling, part of the permanent exhibit that the Adler was so well known for. Elise stood just above Saturn and her moons, watching the spectacle. She found it funny that she was viewing the “Celestial Gala” from among the Heavens. Another addition to an already memorable evening. She smiled and returned back to the kitchen to finish off the night.
It was almost impossible to ever see the stars in Chicago. The light pollution that emanated from the skyline made the night sky a deep purple color that seldom allowed any other form of light to poke through its dark tent. Tonight was no exception. Elise strained her neck upward in search of just one visible trace of a star. The event was finally over and it was now some wee hour of the morning. She plopped herself in the same spot where she had met the curly-haired line cook just hours before, sitting so her feet dangled just over the water, without getting wet.
Leon was busy gathering his knives and a few small supplies he always brought with him to events. He looked around the staff room for any trace of Elise, searched the kitchen one more time, then made his way to the door. As he was about to turn out the lights, he casually asked one of the servers if he had seen Ms. Strand.
“Nope, sorry.” Leon lingered one more minute in the kitchen, playing over in his mind the scenes that had transpired tonight. He was still shocked that Smith had not shown and this young, stoic young woman had been given the opportunity to take command of a careening ship. He made up his mind: he would look a bit harder for her. On his way out, he grabbed a bottle of red wine, thanking Adler for their generous donation in his wooing process, and two paper cups. He went upstairs and through the front doors, looking for her around the building. It was a gorgeous night: crisp, colorful, and full of the false promise that autumn so often brings with its vacillating weather.
Walking around the outside of the planetarium, from the south end back along the lakefront path to the north, he spotted her. He stopped and watched her quietly for a moment. She was staring at the pitch black sky, searching for something. He looked up, curious to what she had found up there, in the abyss of space. Finding nothing, he made his way toward her, hoping she would welcome his presence.
“Find anything up there?” he smirked, setting his bag down and taking care not to break the wine bottle as he sat down beside her.
“A little consolation prize for your valiant leadership tonight.”
“I just did what anyone would have done in my position.” She turned her face toward the lake and gazed out at the gently lapping waves.
“Well, Smith was an idiot. And Sandoval hates women, so that’s something.” He popped the bottle open with his pocket corkscrew and began to pour the wine. “I don’t think you realize how good you are.”
“Thanks for the compliment, but you’d better keep the wine. I don’t normally drink.”
“Not even to celebrate? Come on.” He held the cup up to her with an imploring face.
“I can’t seem to say no to you” she said, frustrated. She was beginning to feel a new sensation, like being swept away by a current that wasn’t fighting her, more guiding her. She wasn’t in control, but she didn’t mind for once. She sipped the wine, bitter and dry, and felt its warmth slide down her defenses, melting each one slowly and methodically. That feeling in her stomach began to creep into her muscles, her brain, her heart. She was experiencing a completely unknown sensation that thrilled her and also terrified her.
“How long have you been a chef?”
“Short answer: since I was seventeen.”
“And long answer?” she added, curiously.
“Culinary school at seventeen, line cook by 21, sous chef by 24. And here we are. I’m hoping to run my own restaurant soon. I have a few backers interested.”
“Do you work for Berghoff?”
“Not normally. I was filling in tonight. I work at a French place up on the North Side.”
“Yeah I guess. Food is food. Presentation is what people pay for.”
“You’re telling me that a greasy Chicago dog from Maxwell Street Market tastes as good as a fifty dollar filet mignon?” she asked, skeptically.
“Depends on the cook,” Leon chuckled, “and which street vendor you go to.” They both laughed at that. “I have it on good authority that the best Chicago dog is actually on Wrightwood and Clark.”
“Wiener circle? Nice try.”
“No, there’s another place close to there. Come to think of it, he makes an incredible steak too. You should try it sometime.”
Elise was beginning to pick up on the fact that Leon was bragging about himself, but she wanted to play the game a little longer to see how ridiculous he could get.
“What’s the place called?”
“Burke’s.” He said, very seriously. That threw her a bit off guard and she started questioning her previous assessment. She kept playing.
“Is the breakfast any good? I would kill for some goat cheese scrambled eggs right now.”
“Oh he’s not open for business until—” Leon looked at his watch, then up at the sky, then playfully back to Elise, “around nine usually. Late nights, late mornings, you know the drill.”
“Pity. I guess I’ll just have to go home then.” She stood up to go and Leon grabbed her hand.
“Let me at least walk you to the train?” She looked back down at him, trying not to stare too long.
Elise started to walk back toward Roosevelt along the lakefront path. She was a fast walker and Leon had to pick up his pace to match her. He found himself wanting to speak but knew that the moment was perfect just as it was. He thought of all the things he wanted to tell her, to share with her: his childhood, his parents, his dreams. What was happening to him? He was twenty-four and set on his path. His career was in sight and he would own his own restaurant in no time. His focus had been thrown by this beautiful blonde woman, by her aloofness and her gravity. He wanted to know every part of her, to discover her.
The walk to the train from Museum Campus was a quick one. They paid their fares and walked downstairs to the red line, lingering for a few seconds before Elise’s train came screeching into the station. The doors opened and she stepped inside, turning around to face him. Leon smiled and said,
“I had a fantastic time with you tonight.”
“Me too.” She smirked a small, sideways smile.
The doors closed and the train departed. He watched as she slipped into a smaller and smaller image down the tunnel. He walked back upstairs to the green line. As he waited for his train to come, he plotted more adventures with her. The train pulled in and he boarded, heading toward the loop. He sat down and watched out the window as the dawn was beginning to signal to the world that it was a new day. He went to rest his head against the glass for a quick catnap and realized with a sort of hilarious lurch that she had never told him her name.