Courtney took the first criticism on the chin. She even smiled as the guest told her how unhappy he was with the course they’d just been served. This was her job as the yacht chef. The people who chartered Ladyhawke paid incredible amounts of money and expected to be treated like royalty. What was more, the crew depended on tips, and unhappy guests never tipped well. So, every member of the charter crew had to make sure the guest was happy and if there was a complaint, they were to listen to it without getting defensive and do their best to make things right.
Plus, everyone had different tastes so she (almost) never took it personally.
Unless, like this particular guest, they made it personal.
Mr. Evan Kane was a loud-mouthed, entitled bully. The entire crew knew from the start he was a troublemaker. Before he even came on board, he complained loudly about having to remove his shoes. People on the dock several yards away turned to see what the yelling was about.
“I apologize, sir,” Martin, the head steward said. “We do this to protect the teak deck.”
“For the money I’m shelling out for this gig, I should be able to wear my own fucking shoes. They’re my favorite pair of Ricci loafers.”
“Again, my apologies, sir,” Martin repeated. “If you like, we can provide you with some shoes that are deck safe…”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Mrs. Kane said, “Just take your damned shoes off, Evan. Stop being a diva. It’s embarrassing.”
Clearly resentful, Kane toed off his loafers before stomping his way up the gangway. “Someone get me a mojito,” he yelled, even though the stews had poured champagne for everyone.
As the last guest filed past them, Martin said under his breath, “Lord have mercy,” then he sprang forward to get the rest of the drink orders.
Luckily, Courtney was able to avoid interacting with Mr. Kane until dinnertime. He kept himself busy harassing the stews, ordering refills on his mojito before the first one was half finished. “It’s too watered down now.” Every fifteen minutes, he wanted a deckhand to adjust his chaise to follow the sun because he had a bad back. He also kept asking Marli, the stew with the biggest boobs, to put sunscreen on him, even though his wife was right there.
Once, while picking up a charcuterie board from Courtney, Marli said, “I hope he downs enough booze to pass out before dinner.”
And the adage, be careful what you wish for came true. All the guests, ended up taking an afternoon siesta that lasted until nine. Dinner had been scheduled for seven-thirty, so she was in a holding pattern until they woke up. This wasn’t unusual, but in addition to all the other antics, highly annoying.
Finally, at ten, the wine had been served and they were ready for the first course. As was her habit on the first night, Courtney emerged from the galley to accompany the salad course and to reintroduce herself to the guests.
“Good evening,” she said. She placed the salad plate she held in front of Mr. Kane, the primary charter guest, while the stews served everyone else. “My name is Courtney and it’s my pleasure to be your chef for the duration.”
“Huh. Let’s see what we’re dealing with here,” Kane said under his breath. He ignored his napkin—and Courtney—and dug into his salad.
Nonplussed, she continued, “We’re beginning the meal with a salad of butter lettuce hearts, Cara Cara Orange supremes, niçoise olives and herbs, all dressed with a—”
“Good lord,” Kane said. “This is awful. Was the olive oil in the dressing sourced in Italy or Poughkeepsie? It tastes rancid.”
Taken by surprise, Courtney blinked. “I—”
Kane went on scathingly. “There are lots of factories that add inferior vegetable oil to extra virgin and call it extra virgin. I’d have thought you could afford legitimate olive oil. I mean how far are we from Italy, for fuck’s sake? We’re in the fucking Mediterranean. There’s also too much radicchio. A person can only stomach so much endive. Am I right?”
His wife nodded her head but some of the other guests declined to respond. Courtney refrained from pointing out that it was butter lettuce, not endive.
“I assure you the oil is fresh and of the highest quality. I can bring you the bottle if you like to inspect it.” She tried hard at a neutral tone but was afraid it came off defensive. If you showed weakness, bullies just went in for the kill.
He waved at her dismissively, so she turned on her heel to return to the galley. If she just gave it another ten minutes, the wine the stews were liberally pouring, it would have more of a chance to kick in. Sometimes guests mellowed after a glass or two.
But sometimes they got meaner.
Just as she finished plating the next course, Martin came in with the salad plates.
She and Martin shared a room and had become good friends. He was five years younger than she was and she looked at him almost her little gay British brother.
Despite all Kane’s complaints, every plate was empty.
“Did he say anything else?” Courtney asked.
Martin scoffed. “Let’s see. He hated the first wine we poured. The second tasted like dog piss that had been sitting in the sun for a week. The third was ‘passable.’”
“He is by far the biggest dick we’ve had on board this season.”
“By far,” Martin agreed. “What’s the next course?”
“These are Balon oysters with a champagne mignonette. Given that he complained about the origins of the olive oil, tell him these oysters came from Finistère, which is in France, and are some of the rarest oysters in the world. They should expect a lot of umami and a bright copper finish.”
“Excellent,” Martin said. “These should kill.”
“If only,” she said, causing Martin to bark out a laugh.
Three minutes later, Martin was back with a sour look on his face. “He literally pushed them away with his index finger. I need something else. Bread maybe?”
“He said he hates raw meat in any form and that if man were meant to eat raw meat, he wouldn’t have invented fire and that serving it that way is just an excuse not to have to actually cook. His words, not mine.”
“That’s not what he said on his preference sheet.”
Guests were required to fill out a lengthy form before their trip on which they stated their specific food requirements, such as allergies or, say, a passion for Mexican food or noodles. For instance, Courtney recalled one guest who wanted Skittles to be made available 24/7, but only the purple ones. So the interior staff had laboriously sifted through bags and bags of Skittles, picking out only the purple ones for this one particular guest.
Martin could only shrug. “Don’t you have some of those Parker House rolls from last charter in the fridge? Heat some of those up.”
“Great idea. I’ll whip up some herb butter too.”
“That should hold him for a bit. Oh, and he said he wants you to bring up the entrée.”
Her stomach sank. What she wanted most in the world right now was to not lay eyes on him until he left the boat. But if a guest requested something, unless it was dangerous, the answer was always yes.
By the time the entrée was ready to serve, Courtney was sweating—and not from the heat in the galley. She dreaded hearing what derogatory comments Kane was about to spew, but she approached their table on the aft deck with a false brightness.
“For your entrée tonight, we have a Wagyu ribeye with leeks, porcini black garlic cream and fried sage.”
Hoping to make a quick escape, she took a step back but he said, “Just a minute. I want to taste this before you disappear again.”
“Of course, Mr. Kane.”
Her smile was so rigid, she felt as if she’d never be able to get rid of it. I’m going to look like a creepy ventriloquist’s dummy for the rest of my life. But she persevered, clasping her hands behind her back tightly and doing her darndest to breathe normally.
The other guests sat quietly, as if he were a volcano that had been dormant too long. She wondered if they were all sycophants he’d surrounded himself with because he needed to be the king of all he surveyed.
“This is…greasy. The meat is greasy and the texture is gross. I’m not sure why people come all over themselves when they eat Wagyu, because this is shit on a plate. I think they serve better steak in the state pen.”
“I don’t think inmates get steak,” someone countered, proving her wrong about the sycophant thing. “And you’re wrong. This is delicious.”
Someone else said, “If they get steak, it’s probably actually horse or something.”
“I think I saw a class action lawsuit about prison mystery meat,” someone else said.
“I don’t give a shit what inmates eat,” Kane said deliberately slowly. “I care about what I eat and I’m not eating this crap.”
“You have to admit, it’s pretty,” his wife ventured. “It looks like art.”
Courtney wanted to hug her but Kane only got more incensed. He cast a cutting glare on his wife.
“Who fucking cares how it looks? My stomach doesn’t care how it looks. If I want art, I go to the museum.” Then he turned back to Courtney. “Where the fuck did you learn to cook? McDonald’s?”
She wasn’t sure he actually wanted an answer, but he was looking at her expectantly.
All right fine. He wanted her CV? He’d get it.
“After graduating with honors from the Culinary Institute of America, I was assistant pastry chef at the _____ Hotel in _______. After two years there, I went to Compass and Rye in Manhattan and became the youngest person there to be promoted to sous chef. After that, I worked under two Michelin star chefs in NY and Las Vegas—”
Sighing, as if bored, he gestured impatiently with his hand. “Names.”
“Jacques Cadieux of Calisto and Katerina Berrera, chef and owner of—”
She broke off when Kane began moving his hand as if he were a puppeteer.
“Blah blah blah. You know what? Nobody cares about that. Here’s what I’d like now. Just bring me a fucking cheeseburger. Can you do that and not screw it up? By that I mean don’t fancify it. Don’t Michelin-star it. Just make a basic fucking cheeseburger.”
“Of course, Mr. Kane,” she said, tightly. “I’ll get right on that.”
“And get me the captain. He needs to know about this travesty of a meal. You should be fired. But not until you make my burger.”
His wife was pointing out the captain was a woman as, with an iron grip on her emotions, Courtney forced herself to walk at a normal pace until she was out of sight of the guests. But in the stairwell down to the galley, she started to shake with rage.
Martin followed close behind. “Shit, Court. What a prick. Are you all right?”
“If by ‘all right” you mean, are you able to control your murderous rage, then yes, barely. I can’t tell you how close I was to going Carl Casper on him.”
Martin blinked. “Who’s Carl Casper?”
“Walk with me. I’ll explain. I have to make dick brain a cheeseburger.” She marched past him into the galley and began pulling out the ingredients she needed, including some pre-made tater tots that would cook quickly in the fryer. He wanted basic? He’d get basic.
“Carl Casper was a character in this movie, Chef. He was sick of having to cook the same old food day in and day out. The owner of the restaurant was married to his tired menu and Carl wanted to cook something new for this influential food critic.”
She formed the ground beef into four plump patties, in case someone else decided they wanted a cheeseburger too, then made a depression in each of them with her thumb.
“What did you do that for?” Martin asked.
“If you do this, the burger won’t bulge up in the center. That way the bun will sit flat on top.”
She checked the grill temperature then, satisfied, quickly seasoned the meat with salt and pepper and slapped the patties on flat top. A satisfying sizzle could be heard and almost immediately the tantalizing aroma of beef caramelizing filled the air. She opened the package of brioche buns as the first mate, Ron, came in.
“Anyway,” she said, slathering butter on both sides of the buns, “the owner of the restaurant forced Carl into making this outdated three course meal—like from the eighties—and the critic was unimpressed. So, frustrated that he wasn’t able to cook what he’d originally planned, Carl came out and made a big scene in the middle of the restaurant, yelling at the critic.”
Martin winced. “Bad move.”
After flipping the burgers which had a beautiful dark brown crust on them now, Courtney put the buns on the grill, sliding them around in a circular motion before leaving them to get a little crispy. “Agreed. People videoed it and it went viral.”
“I hope he got fired.”
She checked the buns then removed them from the grill and laid a slice of cheddar on each of the bottoms and then on each burger. “He did and the rest of the movie is about him rediscovering himself as a chef.”
“While we’re on the subject,” Ron said, “Captain wants to talk to you when you get a chance.”
“Shit,” Courtney blurted. “Is he going to fire me?”
She hadn’t really thought that was a possibility, especially in the middle of a charter, and even if they were able to find a replacement on such short notice, what was the likelihood the person would be able to please The Guest from Hell? Of course, it wouldn’t matter to her if they did or not. She’d be unemployed.
“I don’t know.”
She gave him a look as she dumped the tater tots into a bowl.
“I swear, I’d tell you if I knew something.”
Her mind racing, she slathered mayo and Dijon on the buns before placing the patties on the bottom half. She then topped them with pickles, a slice of tomato and some lettuce and held the whole tower together with a steak knife inserted vertically. After she squirted some ketchup into a small dish, she nestled it into the tater tots.
Satisfied with the presentation, she wiped the platter clean of drips and nodded at Martin. “Done. Good luck.”
Martin picked up the platter. “Back at you, honeybun.”
Fifteen minutes later, Courtney entered the bridge with a belly full of anxiety. Captain Julie Wainright was a strong woman. As one of the few female captains in the yachting industry, she had to be. Courtney respected Julie as a great leader. She’d seen her diffuse difficult situations in the past, but tonight was different. Those other situations had not been about her cooking. She knew her food was excellent, but in reality, that didn’t necessarily matter.
The scene from Crazy Rich Asians came to mind, where the rain-bedraggled family was refused a room at the ritzy English hotel. After one phone call, the family returned–as the new owners of the hotel.
The people who chartered these yachts were crazy rich too and it was possible that they could buy the yacht right out from under them. It was a long shot, but it could happen.
“I have to say,” Julie began, “that man is one of the most difficult guests I’ve ever dealt with.”
“So you talked to him.”
“He hates me and he hates my food.”
“Not exactly true. I witnessed him scarfing down that cheeseburger, licking his fingers as he did so. So it’s puzzling why he wants you fired.”
Captain Julie pressed her lips together in an obvious attempt to suppress her laughter.
“Okay, in all seriousness, I tasted everything I sent out and it was all good.”
“Of course it was,” Julie said. “I have complete confidence in your food.”
“You say he liked the cheeseburger?”
“What about the tater tots?”
“Didn’t seem to have a problem with them.”
Courtney leaned against the control panel and crossed her arms. “So here’s what I think. I think he’s one of those guys who has lots of money and thinks that means he should appreciate fine food. You get what you pay for, yadda yadda. But deep down, he prefers meat and potatoes, mac and cheese, and fast food.”
“I think I’ll try to bring things down a notch. Increase the portion size, go for comfort food with only a touch of class and see how that goes over.”
“I support you in whatever you want to do.”
The next few days passed without another food tantrum. Courtney’s suspicions about Kane’s food preferences seemed to be spot on. She basically cooked him elevated bar food and he ate it without complaint. Because she didn’t think it was fair to the other guests, she would always add one dish that catered to more refined tastes. For instance, one night she served them a typical surf and turf—lobster tails and filets—and finished the meal with a Gran Marnier souffle that was so good, even Kane said, “This isn’t bad.” High praise.
However, on the last night, just when she figured it was smooth sailing, Hurricane Kane struck again. Tonight was her finale meal—a gigantic Spanish paella in a shallow pan so wide, two people had to carry it. Because paella was basically savory rice with assorted meat and seafood, she figured Kane would be all right with it. Everyone applauded when she set it down. She’d taken great care to arrange the shrimp, mussels and chunks of chicken in the rice so it presented well. And the socarrat—the crispy rice that formed on the bottom and sides of the pan—was perfectly done.
“Chef, you’ve outdone yourself,” Mrs. Kane said. “Before I forget, can we get a picture with you?”
“Of course,” Courtney answered.
“Let’s go over here by the rail. I want that view in the background. Come on, Evan. You too,” she said to her husband.
But Kane scoffed. “You know I hate getting my picture taken.”
Mrs. Kane flicked her hand at him. “Suit yourself. When you’re old and can’t remember this trip, don’t come to me trying to look at my pictures.”
“As if, you cow.”
Courtney flinched inwardly and her palm itched from a desire to slap him across the face. How could that woman stand being married to him?
They got several pictures on everyone’s phones while the paella cooled on the table., but as everyone returned to their seats, her husband swore.
“What the fuck!” he exclaimed, pointing at the paella. “There’s a fly in the food.”
Thinking it might be alive and had just landed there, Courtney waved a hand at it.
Nope. It was dead all right.
“I’m so sorry—” she began, but Kane was already erupting.
“What the ever loving fuck! A fucking insect is in our food.”
“Sir, I assure you that fly wasn’t there when I brought the pan up.”
In fact, it was clearly laying on top of the rice, not embedded in it.
“Well, it’s there now. What are you going to do about it?”
One of the guests slid his fork under the fly and flicked it away. “You’re being ridiculous, Evan. Eat the damned rice.”
“No. It’s disgusting. If the health department was here, they’d shut you all down. I demand a refund.”
Courtney blinked in confusion. Had he forgotten he was on a chartered yacht, not in a restaurant? Issuing a refund was out of the realm of possibility.
Martin must have had the same thought because he said, “Sir, the food is included.”
“I KNOW THE FOOD IS INCLUDED, YOU MORON FAGGOT.”
There was a moment of shocked silence. The crew stood at attention as if they were at basic training and Kane was their commanding officer ready to assign them a five-mile run. All except for Martin, whose posture had deteriorated into something that looked like standing fetal position.
Martin had been bullied a lot when he was a tween. It had broken Courtney’s heart to hear how he’d been verbally and sometimes physically abused—sometimes by his own family members. On his eighteenth birthday, he left home and moved to Fort Lauderdale to begin working on yachts. Like Courtney, due to hard work and a talent for service, he’d risen to head steward quickly and he was only twenty-two.
But just now after Kane called him that ugly name, he seemed to cave in on himself, as if he was reverting to who he was before he left home.
Courtney was not about to allow that to happen. Burning with fury, she rested her hands on the table and leaned forward until she was right in Kane’s face.
And then she went Carl Casper on him after all.