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Quarantine Kitchen by J. Caldwell Book

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Quarantine Kitchen by J. Caldwell Read Book Online And Download

Overview: Take two celebrity chefs, sprinkle in a spicy rivalry, and add one inconvenient quarantine. Will a kitchen romance be a recipe for disaster?

Olivia is at the top of her game. Chef and owner of a two Michelin-starred restaurant, she also hosts the highest-rated show on the American Home Network. She’s determined to keep it that way no matter how often Nate flirts with guests or smiles at the camera on his show.


Nate Hargrove graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and trained at the best restaurants in the world. With a disdain for fine dining, he’s opened three successful fast-casual chains where the quality brings in customers and critical acclaim. His show alternates with hers for the best rated on the network and Nate tries to convince himself that he doesn’t care.


He’s convinced that ratings and Michelin stars are for dilettantes who care more about appearance than food.


How will they manage to get along when a pandemic forces them to work together in Quarantine Kitchen?


Quarantine Kitchen by J. Caldwell Book Read Online And Download Epub Digital Ebooks Buy Store Website Provide You.
Quarantine Kitchen by J. Caldwell Book





Quarantine Kitchen by J. Caldwell Book Read Online Chapter One




On The Road




NATE

“Adam, get in here!”

My assistant walked in, staring at his phone. He was everything I wasn’t. With wireless glasses, slicked-back hair, black fitted jeans, and a gray turtleneck, he had an aesthetic that would have worked in any art gallery in Manhattan. That worked for me. He was casual-presentable while I was a whatever-jeans-are-clean sort of guy. I let him handle all the media contacts and as many interviews as possible.

He peeled his eyes from the phone. “Problem?”

“No. Not a problem at all. Not anymore. We’re never dealing with Tribune Media again. Ever. No interviews, no advertising. Nothing. Get the word out.”

“That’s, um, probably not a great idea. They own the third-largest paper in the country and lots of other media. What did they do?”

I threw the newspaper down on the desk. “That.”

The headline for the lifestyle section read, “The Chef That Wants To Be A Cook”.

Adam picked it up. “Okay, so you say that all the time. That’s your thing. You’re not a chef, you’re a cook. What’s the problem?”

“Turn it over.”

He did and saw a photo that had been taken without my knowledge. It was me with my shirt off, staring sternly into space. I looked like a damn model for a romance book. The truth was that I’d spent seven hours in the kitchen and had to change to get to a charity gig. My office door was open, and they snuck a photo that played into an image I loathed.

They made it look like I walked around my kitchens posing with my shirt off, in case anyone back there was in the mood to swoon. It was an insult to me and my employees. This wasn’t the nineties when a professional kitchen was half about food and half about debauchery. We were professionals who worked our asses off to put out a quality product, and that should be respected.

Adam let out a slow breath. “Okay, not good. It’s… You know, it’s the image. You’re the deep, brooding, heartthrob ‘cook’. It sucks, but it’s great for PR.”

He was still looking at the article with a half-frown when I continued. “It’s fucking ridiculous. Just take care of it. Get the word out to the directors and our marketing people. They knew we had final approval of all photos. I’m a cook from Ohio. That’s all I want to be. Ask your mom to put it one of the mailings.”

Adam’s mother handled my relationship with my fans. She was like a second mom to me. Seeing that it wasn’t being done and that fanmail was stacking up, she just started taking care of it. I didn’t even know for the first nine months. She never asked for pay or even money to cover stamps and shipping. 

“Alright. I concede your point. What if we made a public statement and put a clock on it? Say something about not speaking to anyone from Tribune for twelve months in protest over their lack of journalistic ethics? That way we make our point, but still have them available for the next big opening?”

I sighed, then nodded. “Do it. How long until I have to be back up there?”

He checked his watch. “I’m not your producer, but forty-five minutes. Listen, if you want me to handle this Tribune thing, I’ll do it, but it’s going to hit us in the wallet. Your chains get a lot of free press from them.”

His trepidation was understandable. I knew about my reputation for being obsessed with money, but it was more about a singular goal. My accountants and I sat down once and figured out exactly how much I would need to ensure that I could get off the road, move back to Ohio, open a restaurant and make sure that I wouldn’t have to worry about money for the rest of my life. 

If I was taking care of my parents, that amount and a comfortable margin was twenty million. I could live well, see them through any catastrophic illness and open any restaurant I wanted. Was I so obsessed that I’d allow the media to play up this ‘shirtless chef’ bullshit? Not at all.

“Handle it. I want the banned for a year. The woman from today’s show, she’s doing okay?”

“Seems to be.”

“Alright. I’m going to go over the details for the school and then head up. I’d rather quit and have them sue me than let what happened last week happen again. We’re supposed to be celebrating these people, not making them look bad.”

I hosted Grandma’s Kitchen, the top-rated show on the American Home Network. Every episode had me cooking with a grandma in her kitchen, talking about her family and favorite recipes. Last week we had a woman who was fine until the camera went on. Then she was so nervous she had difficulties speaking. It also turned out that she wasn’t a very good cook.

Failing the people that were gracious enough to have me in their homes just couldn’t be allowed to happen. It was repulsive. And yet, that’s what occurred. I should have been nimbler, spoke more, gave her questions she could answer with a yes or no, covered up her cooking issues and given her a safe landing.

It was the last time I’d fail one of these ladies.

As Adam was leaving, I called out. “Maybe we should switch salaries. I’ll bet what you’re wearing costs more than my entire wardrobe.”

He laughed. “Nah, I just make it look good.”

Twenty minutes later, I was out of the trailer and heading into the building. A middle-aged man with a red apron came rushing towards me. He had a bag in his left hand and held his hat down with his right.

“Nate! Nate!”

Smiling, I waited. He thrust the paper bag in my hand.

“Capeccelli’s Bakery. One block over. I heard you were here and had to bring something by. Some bread and cookies. We love your show. Me and the wife. We watch every week.”

“That’s great. I appreciate it.” Tearing a chunk off the bread, I felt the grit against my fingertips, smelled the telltale signs of a wood-fired stove, and took a bite. My tastebuds danced. The crust had bite, but yielded to the warm, soft interior with hints of the wood, olive oil and yeast skipping along my tongue. “This is fantastic. Can you get me four more loaves? Capeccelli’s? We’ll use it on the show, and I’ll try to work in a mention or two. That guy over there? That’s Adam, my assistant. Get him your details and he’ll make sure it’s taken care of. At the very least we can include something in the credits.”

He shook my hand, thanked me, and ran back the way he came. I texted Adam as I made my way to the elevator. When I got to the sixth floor, I could see our people filling up the hallway. I pulled over the production assistant.

“Do we need to do anything with the neighbors?”

“I have Joan making them some food and we promised a few of them autographs, but it’s pretty quiet.”

“Okay, thanks.”

Walking into the apartment, I spied Nona Cozzanno. She was a tiny woman with white hair with a personality as colorful as a sunrise. Wearing a white shirt with large red polka dots, she couldn’t have stood more than an inch or two above five foot. Her yellow slacks and oversized pearls were visible from blocks away.

Nona turned my way, a bright smile on her face. “Nathaniel! Welcome to Brooklyn.”

It was Nate or Nathan, but I could be Nathaniel for the day. The woman had presence and I had a feeling that everything was going to be just fine.

After commandeering a small side room, I grabbed Nona for a conversation. “So, your neighbors seemed nice.”

Her apartment was a series of echoes of a life well-lived. There were photos of children and grandchildren everywhere, comfortable furniture and kitchen equipment passed down for generations. Nona had brought out the good china for the day, and I wondered how many loved ones had used those utensils during the holidays over the years.

We didn’t talk food, the show, or the production. There were people on staff for that and I trusted them. I wanted to get to know her and let her get to know me. If we weren’t comfortable together, the camera would pick it up. 

She was a delight. The time flew by. As we stood up to head to her kitchen, she gently grabbed my arm and leaned in.

“If I were thirty years younger, I’d go for you myself. My sister’s girl? Annette? Oh, such a beauty. And single. Are you with anyone?”

Laughing, I gave her a quick side hug. “I am, but I’ll keep Annette in mind.”

I was dating Carolyn, the director of marketing for the second largest condiments company in the US. It worked for us. She could schedule her regional visits around my shooting, so we’d visit the same cities at the same time. We had fun, but we weren’t fated for a life-time romance.

Nona was very much alone, and her best times were behind her. The afternoon’s shooting could have been tinged with sadness and nostalgia for who we really were, the people actually living and breathing in the apartment instead of the plastic, smiling figures that show up on the TV with their patter and surety. It wasn’t. It was clear that the memories bolstered Nona and brought her joy, holding and supporting her with comforting arms until the next time her family was at her side.

She had anecdotes for everyone in the pictures, those that came before her and those that she helped to raise. Finding a way to drop a name or two into every segment, I knew that was her wink and a nod to her loved ones who would be watching. She delighted in family traditions, recipes and sharing what she’d been taught.

Nona’s place smelled of fried onion and garlic, of long-simmering Italian gravy, of meatballs she’d learned to make at her grandmother’s side and had taught her own grandchildren to make, and of the chicken cutlets she fried up for the crew because she was a grandma and wanted to feed everyone.

A small refuge from the cacophony of life in New York City, her home smelled of love. I wanted that. My soul ached for it. When I stripped everything down to its core, what Nona and her life embodied is what I aspired to. As soon as my contract was up with the network, I was going to get to work on that.

Sighing, I stepped into the kitchen. Adam had gotten the bread and brought it up. Nona was a natural, and her meatballs were sublime. It turned out to be a good day. Brooklyn was unseasonably warm that day and we even cracked open a window in her apartment. There was a park across the street, and I could see kids playing. They were about the same age as the children at the school I’d be visiting the next day.

“Everything okay, boss?”

I turned to see Joan, the woman who did most of the heavy lifting when it came to the cooking ‘magic’ on the show. When the audience saw me or Nona pulling out some ziti five minutes after we put it in the oven, it was because Joan had been busting her ass all morning long and had five back-ups ready.

“Yeah, just thinking about tomorrow. I wanted to get into Chinatown while we’re in New York.”

“Is that a good idea? With the virus and everything?”

“It’ll be fine. It’s probably more click-bait than anything else. This whole thing will be forgotten in a couple of weeks.”

She shrugged. “You know, they have a better Chinatown in Flushing than in Manhattan. We can get a car and get over there tonight. Would that work?”

“Perfect. You’re the best.”

“Great. I’ll have someone call Adam and get him in the loop.”

“What’s with you two? You really don’t like him?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s just something there. That vague creepy feeling.”

While I was filming with Nona, we had a second production unit at Brooklyn Arbor Elementary interviewing teachers and cafeteria staff. If things went well, I could be in and out of there within three hours tomorrow and we could get to New Jersey to film with Grandma McAllister by early afternoon.

I spent the last ten minutes of every episode cooking with kids, usually in a school. What they served in those kitchens didn’t deserve to be called food. Changing how our schools fed our children had been my passion project since I’d opened my first restaurant.

The network included the segment and made it part of their outreach and marketing to get me to sign on the dotted line. It worked, but I still felt like I’d sold my soul. We owned three chains that were a step up from fast-casual, but not much. The employees were stakeholders, and I rolled my profits back into the business while living off the cookbooks and TV money.

Bud’s Burgers, Uncle Bubba’s BBQ and Jack’s Fishery were all priced about fifteen percent higher than the best fast-casual competitor, but we served better food. Our philosophy was simple. We offered a very limited menu, used quality ingredients, and mastered what we were cooking. Want four types of salads, a breakfast menu and burgers that taste like cardboard? Go to a crappy diner.

My TV staff was great, and I loved meeting the people, but the job could be a drag. I couldn’t complain. Being treated like royalty was a hell of a lot better than doing real work, but I longed to be back in my kitchens.

It turned out that the school was on the way to Flushing, so we planned to stop in and get some exterior shots before hitting Chinatown. I was helping the crew load up a dolly when Nona slipped a Tupperware bowl under my arm.

“A little biscotti.” She pulled me down and kissed me, making a big scene of it. Joan laughed and had her phone out, taking a picture. “Remember, you call me, and I’ll set you up with my niece. You’re a pleasure, doll. Take 278 to the L.I.E. Call me the next time you’re in Brooklyn.”

Laughing, I kissed the top of her head. “You bet. Thanks for the hospitality. Great food and great company, that’s what it’s all about. Give your niece my best.”

The neighbors had given up their hallway for most of the day, and us hogging the elevator had to be a pain in the ass. I passed out some signed cookbooks, shook hands, and made some small talk as we packed up. Our crew was tiny, so everyone lent a hand.

We were in the van and heading towards the Long Island Expressway when my phone rang. Conversation ground to a halt when people saw my face.

“Hi, Mom.”

“I need you to use the computer thing and do a video call with Christopher.”

“What’s going on?”

“What’s going on is that you’re his godfather and you missed his birthday. No phone call, you didn’t stop by, nothing.”

“I sent a present, Mom. That new game system.”

“He may want a game, but what he’d really like is to see his uncle once in a while. And you can pretend all you want, but you need it too. It’s not right, Nathan, you working all the time.”

Sighing, I closed my eyes and turned towards the window. “The beginning of next month I have some time. I can fly in for a few days. I’ll call Chris.”

“Why don’t you just find some old lady around here and do one of your grandma shows near family?”

“It’s not that easy, Mom. We schedule them near each other so we can bang out a bunch in a week. Then we have to find schools we can work with. Next month. I promise. I’ll stay with you and Dad. No hotel.”

“You know we love you, right?”

“I love you too, Mom. I’ve got to go. Tell Chris I’ll call.”

When I hung up, I called Adam.

“What do you think about doing an episode with my mom?”

He paused before answering. “Your TV stuff isn’t my thing, but I think it would be tremendous if you can get her to do it. That’s probably a question for your publicist. As your admin, it would be great. Unfortunately for both of us, she hates the shows.”

“Yeah. I think we might be able to swing it if it gives me some time with family.”

“Is this something you want to do?”

“No, but how else am I going to carve out some hours? I fucking hate this, man. I never should have signed the contract. I’m just counting down the days until I can go back to being me.”

“Yeah, but they were willing to pay some serious money to have the cook with the smoldering eyes.” He laughed. “Okay, let me talk to the production people and see what we can do.”

I watched the gray sky as we drove. We eventually pulled up in front of the elementary school and I got out and stretched my legs.

I turned to the PA. “What’s going on? We all good?”

“We still have some decent light. I thought we could get some pick-up shots in front of the school, maybe get our exterior intro done and get out quicker tomorrow.”

The grind was endless. “Okay, run me through my lines.”

Our second unit had been there most of the day and had attracted some local attention. I had to sign some autographs and chat with administrators before we could get to work. I’m not an actor, so I’m not hampered by someone in love with the script they wrote. Most of what I say is extemporaneous, even though I have lines and a general outline.

Two local women had me sign a copy of my photo in the paper and an excited father of two students asked me to sign a dog-eared copy of one of my cookbooks. We finished up the filming, got back in the van and headed to Flushing. I needed strong alcohol and endless dim sum.

Chinatown was near CitiField and LaGuardia Airport. As we merged into a lane bypassing everyone heading to drop off, pick up or fly out, the driver called back to me.

“I heard they’re closing down more countries. No flying in or out. You guys gonna do more domestic shows?”

Putting down my phone, I looked out the window. I regretted not bringing a jacket. A warm February day in New York was still damned cold.

“Nah, this is going to be a thing until something else pops up to distract the 24-hour news channels. It’ll blow over in a couple of weeks.”

OLIVIA

“A man in New York has the disease.”

I was scrambling for my purse and barely heard her.

“What?”

“They’re saying a man in New York has this… The virus.”

Finding the purse, I walked back into the kitchen.

“In the city?”

She looked up from her iPad, glasses on the tip of her nose. “No, upstate I think.”

“It’s nothing to worry about, Mom. I have to go. Want me to bring you home anything?”

“No, I’ll harass your brother and have him send over something from the kitchen. Guilt food always tastes better. No offense.”

I laughed. “None taken.”

My brother took over my mother’s restaurant when she retired. She sold it to him for a song, which was only right. She kept a minority position. He’d worked there since he was a teenager. We’d both earned our positions the hard way, working at every job, both front of house and back. I was insanely proud of him. From busboy to dishwasher, to chef de cuisine, he stayed at Mom’s place while I ventured out and was staging at every prestigious restaurant that would take me.

Hermosa Noche was considered the grand dame of New York’s Spanish restaurants. Mom put it on the map and Eddie kept it there. You’re not going to find it discussed in the same breath as Per Se, Le Bernardin or Daniel. You will, however, often see the best chefs in the city eating together in the private room after hours or the NY Times food critic dining with his family.

After kissing mom on the cheek, I headed out. Mr. Sprinkles rushed to meet me outside the door to our building. I pulled the small plastic container from my purse and bent over to pet her. 

“You know better than that. The doormen will ignore you as much as they can, but you can’t be obvious.” 

She purred and rubbed against my leg as I dished out the cold grilled chicken and then filled the container from my bottled water. Mr. Sprinkles, who should have been named Mrs. Sprinkles, was my daily reminder that the simple things in life were the most important. I waited for her to finish eating and drinking before walking to the subway station. 

The driver for the studio would have hung out and driven me to my restaurant, but counterintuitively, I thought best when I could feel the city around me. While I still got my hands dirty and spent my time on the line, I had to fully embrace the role of Executive Chef and think big-picture. So, I sat on the subway and made notes, reviewed customer service calls, checked on emails with purveyors and, if I was lucky, came up with a germ of an idea for something to add to our tasting menus.

There were only thirteen other restaurants in the city with two Michelin stars. I always promised myself that the day we lost our stars was the day I’d walk away from my show. It would break my heart, but the restaurant was everything.

As I walked through the doors, I saw our sommelier speaking to our front-of-house manager. Quickly ducking into the walk-in, I avoided him and his inevitable request for money to go buy us more wine in France. He was the best sommelier in the business, but he spent more time on the road than in the restaurant.

Part of me regretted that the staff all came to attention when I walked in the kitchen and assumed that I was inspecting the walk-in. It came with the territory, but I wasn’t even close to being as draconian as some of the legends of the previous generation. To kill some time, I checked the labeling of the bus tubs.

The door opened and Maggie popped her head in. “Hiding?”

“Maybe. Is he gone? Can I get to my office?”

“Oui, chef.”

“That’s not funny, Mags. If you don’t work front or back of house, don’t mimic those that do.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Touchy. Yeah, he’s moved on to sniff some corks or something.”

We hustled over to my office, and Maggie closed the door behind her. She’d been my assistant for six years and my best friend since kindergarten. Looking at her notepad, she tapped her temple with a pen, the same habit she’d had for as long as I’ve known her.

“Okay, I have meetings for you at Hunts Point at six, six-thirty and seven. Produce, fish and meat. You have to be at the studio by nine. We’ll pick you up at 4:30. Blanket and pillow in the car.”

“We? Are you coming?”

“Yup. We need to map out the next eight families we’re visiting. I have twenty-four candidates from the channel. We’ll narrow them down and try to work out a schedule. How’s Mom?”

“Worried. Someone in New York has the virus.”

“She watches too much TV. She retired to travel. Get her out of the house.”

“Yeah, but maybe this isn’t the best of times for traveling.”

“Coming from a woman who has a show based on traveling.”

I was about to reply when I realized I had nothing to say. She was right. “Okay, next topic. What do the ratings look like?”

Maggie smiled and raised an eyebrow.

“What does that mean, Mags? Is silence good?”

“Top on the channel and beating dickhead.”

I sighed and had my own smile. I’d be lucky to get four hours of sleep tonight, like most of my nights, but that made it all worth it.

“Good. Let the man of the people enjoy being in second place.”

Nate Hargrove had the other show that was a bona fide success for the network. If he had a production crew of eight people, five of them were probably for hair, makeup, and clothing. I had to give it to him. A brooding cook with more looks than talent schmoozing grandmas was a hit.

It would be fine if it wasn’t for his weird, inverse condescension. Nate was a snob when the discussion turned to fine dining. Not in favor, but against. He somehow thought he was above restaurants and chefs of distinction and made no excuses for his beliefs. It was as transparent as his nice-guy-with-the-grandmas schtick.

Nate, champion of the every-man who’d rather have a burger than a Kobe petite filet. It was calculated, obvious and insulting. Worse, it worked. The press just ate it up. You can’t open the culinary section of a newspaper without seeing a picture of him with his sleeves rolled up to show his chef’s knife and scale tattoo.

Well, enjoy second place, Nate.

The night was uneventful, and I used the opportunity to remind the staff that while for them it was another day at the office, for many of our guests it was a meal they’d remember for the rest of their lives and a night they’d been planning for months. I didn’t care who they were or what their background was. If someone walked through our door, we ensured they knew we valued their time and choice to dine with us.

When I got home, I checked in on Mom. She was sleeping and seemed fine. I don’t know why I worried about her so much. Her health was fine, and she had the energy of three people. Grabbing a yogurt from the fridge, I saw my brother had left me some food when he dropped off Mom’s dinner.

He taped a sign saying “EAT!” on top of the container. Okay, for someone who worked with food every day of my life, I didn’t have the best of eating habits. I’d often nibble on some pretzels or forget to eat entirely.

I sat at the kitchen table and picked at the pollo campurriano he’d made. As exhausted as I was, I wound up eating every bite. The man could cook. Four hours later, I was in the lobby of the building, barely functioning and sitting on the leather bench waiting for my car.

“You okay, Ms. Garway?”

I nodded at our doorman with a tired smile. “Just need some coffee, Tom.”

Eyes closed behind my sunglasses, I leaned my head against the wall. When something bumped my leg, I almost jumped out of my skin. Tom stood there with a Styrofoam cup.

“I bring my own in the thermos. It’s pretty good, better than that Starbucks stuff.”

“Bless you, Tom.” He was right. It was great coffee.

“Listen, there’s no pets allowed here, so I absolutely don’t know about any favorite cats that linger out front, but if maybe, just by chance, you happen to have something for a cat, I could make sure the imaginary cat gets it.” He checked his watch. “I have a break coming up in forty-five minutes.”

Raising an eyebrow, I looked up at him. “Tom, what the heck are you talking about?” Pulling the container with the diced salmon from my bag, I handed it to him.

“Nothing, ma’am. Just joking around. You know me.”

He took the container and put it in the minifridge behind his desk.

When the car arrived, I dragged myself outside, climbed in, took the blanket and pillow from Maggie and went to sleep until we got to the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. It was sixty acres of culinary wonderland. You could find some of the best ingredients in the world there and that was exactly my goal. The products coming through the market fed twenty-two million people. The quantities were mind-boggling, and it was my job to ensure that we got the best of the best.

It didn’t matter how tired I was. As soon as my feet hit the concrete of the market, my eyes grew wide and my nerves sang. I sniffed microgreens from specialty farms on Long Island, checked the eyes of hon-maguro that had been on a Japanese boat twelve hours earlier and tasted some raw American wagyu from a cattle ranch in Wyoming.

I wasn’t oblivious. I knew the purveyors used me and the restaurant as much as we used them. I got the first choice of what they sold, and they often held stuff to the side for me and in return, they were able to say that the executive chef used their wares at a restaurant with two Michelin stars. We both benefited.

After placing some orders and chatting with purveyors, we headed back to Manhattan. As early as we’d been at the market, it was late for them. Most of their sales were complete before six and many men and women there were getting ready to head home. By contrast, my day was just starting. 

For some reason, the driver was taking us over the 59th Street Bridge. I had no idea why. It was cheaper than the tunnel, but I’d rather pay the toll than waste time in traffic. Slumped over on my side, I clutched the pillow and was half asleep when Maggie spoke loudly.

“Hey, can you turn that up?”

The driver obliged.

“Governor Cuomo just declared New Rochelle a Containment Center and Mayor de Blasio announced that there were 16 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New York City. Ten-Ten WINS News. Give us ten minutes, and we’ll give you the world.”

What the hell was going on?

Not able to sleep after that, I sat up and started going over upcoming visits with Maggie. My show was based on visiting someone’s home and helping to elevate their Sunday family meal. The homeowner would plan to have six to ten people over and a general idea of what they wanted to serve. We had our Top Five Touch-Ups gimmick where we’d discuss some basic concepts that took their cooking to the next level.

We geared the show towards introductory or intermediate cooks, but we included a few more advanced techniques to keep the die-hard foodies coming back. Due to the magic of TV, we knew what we were walking into before we arrived, even if we pretended to be finding everything out as we looked through their refrigerator and freezer.

The show received far more applications than we could possibly accommodate and had staff at the network dedicated to going through requests and deciding who would work and who wouldn’t on camera. The final choices were always mine, but I trusted our people in the office. They were professionals and knew what worked and what didn’t when it came to personalities.

When we arrived at the building, I sat in the car for a few minutes. Staring at the giant billboards for the shows on the American Home Network and the signs for apartments for rent, I tried to figure out what was bothering me. I finally picked up my phone and called my brother.

“How was Hunt’s Point? See anything I could use?”

“Good morning to you, too. No, not today. I need a favor.”

“Okay, what do you need?”

“Just… Just check on Mom. Stop by and see how she’s doing.”

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah, I guess. I’m just weirded out by everything going on.”

“Alright, I’ll head over. I’ll text you when I leave.”

“Thanks. Love you, Eddie.”

“Love you too.”

NATE

Carolyn met me in Washington and sold an astronomical amount of mustard and mayo to the people running the commissaries at the Pentagon. We were crossing the street, her arm around me.

“How did you find this place?”

Looking at the facade of Founding Farmers, it was surprising the restaurant was so close to the White House. I shrugged.

“Friends in the industry. Looks to be my sort of place.”

“Think we’ll get tables?”

Sadly, I nodded. “Yeah. Looks empty.”

Wherever we went, I took my crew out for one nice meal and charged it to the network. This time it was Founding Farmers, a place where we could relax and dress down. They were one of the best and most lauded restaurants in DC, yet we had no issues getting two tables. The chefs took our orders, but also sent out an endless supply of small plates for us to share.

We chatted to the staff and talked about the impact the hysteria about the disease was having on the hospitality industry. Sales were down everywhere. The cooks stopped by and insisted that I drank with them, which wasn’t much of a hardship.

Joanne was gung-ho about continuing the show. She leaned over the table, “So, Nate, she’s insisting she wants to do the show.”

“How old is she?”

“Fifty-eight.”

I sighed. “Good health and everything?”

“Seems so.”

The rumors of the virus kept getting worse and with it came a feeling of helplessness.

“I don’t know. I’m no doctor. How am I deciding if we should continue doing the show?”

My PA smiled, took a drink, and looked me in the eye. “I’ll do it.”

“What?”

“I’ll make the decision. Here’s what we do. We get her a hotel room, and we all go in and prep her apartment. We bring her back, but the only people that stay in are you, her and a cameraman. Limit exposure as much as possible.”

Shaking my head, I took a bite of my burger. Juicy and delicious, it was pure American perfection.

“No, I appreciate it, but this is on me. I like your idea, though. Okay, we’ll finish this road trip with her and then head back up to New York.”

“Driving?”

“Yeah, I’m not too keen on flying right now. An airport and then being stuck in a metal tube with a couple of hundred people.” I shivered. “No thanks.”

Carolyn and I headed to a hotel room paid for by relish packets and industrial sized jars of mustard.

“It’s going to kill you if something happens to one of these grandmas.”

She was right. “Yeah. something's going to have to change.”

The filming went as well as could be expected, Grandma Gerlein was happy, her sauerbraten was amazing and we got footage of her making plum dumplings that we used instead of our usual trip to a school. I thought it would be a strong episode, but it felt like I was walking a tightrope. All of the production aspects of creating a show were running through my head as we filmed, and that sucked every bit of the joy from the day.

I had no idea what people considered me to be. From my perspective, I was a cook that helped people celebrate home cooking. I didn’t want to be a celebrity and, honestly, I wasn’t. Some people knew who I was, and I was in the papers once in a while. If I kept out of restaurants, I could walk through New York unrecognized.

That’s the way I liked it.

Still, it was unnerving not being approached by anyone in our nation’s capital. Not good, not bad… Just different. People were starting to retreat, to stay home and avoid each other. There was no way that could end well.

Carolyn was headed to Pennsylvania. We stood on the sidewalk next to her car in silence that felt oppressive. I tried to pierce the stifling quiet. 

“I, um, I’m sure this’ll blow over soon. When it does, why don’t you come up to New York for a week? We can hit all the best dives.”

She smiled sadly. “Sure. We’ll play it by ear, but that sounds nice. Nate… You take care of yourself, okay?”

“Sure. I’ll be fine.”

She kissed me and I tried to savor every impression, the touch, how she made me feel, what Carolyn smelled like. She hadn’t even left yet and there was a part of me that was mourning our relationship.

I was with the crew, and we took I-95 and drove back to Manhattan. The tension in the van was palpable. Everyone was quiet and seemed lost in their own thoughts. There was no mystery as to why. They’d closed the schools in the city and the infection rate was five times greater in New York than anywhere else in the country. Still, it was home.

“Hey, everybody, give me a minute, okay? We’re all thinking the same thing. We’re gone so often, what’s it going to be like being back home? How safe is it? We’ve all heard the rumors and spoken to friends and family. I know as much as you guys, which means next to nothing. If you have family in other parts of the country and you want to wait this out with them, I understand. Your job will be waiting for you when we get back to normal and I’ll get the network to pay for you to get where you need to be.”

I waited for a moment, but nobody spoke up. I went on.

“Most of you share apartments with friends and roommates, right? Which means you’re going to be living with other people. We know the building with the studio has those apartments on the second and third floors. If you need a place to stay, if you don’t feel comfortable where you are, let me know. We’ll work it out. Okay? As much as anybody, you’re family. None of us is in this alone. Now can we please turn on the fucking radio? This somber shit is freaking me out.”

They set the radio to the news and everyone booed simultaneously. We laughed, got some music going, and spent the rest of the drive in a better mood. An hour later, I got a call from Adam.

“Hey, boss. Good news and bad news. What do you want first?”

“Good, I guess.”

“Your show is the second highest in ratings on the network and first in eighteen to thirty-four.”

“Okay, what’s the bad news?”

“Olivia’s show is number one.”

“Well, it’ll be hard for her to sit on her throne with that stick up her ass. Give me the breakdowns.”

I couldn’t stand Olivia. We staged at many of the same restaurants, knew the same chefs and worked with the same purveyors, but for some reason she thought she was a blessing to the unenlightened culinary plebeians and walked on water. The truth was that she was talented, but so were a lot of people.

Want to have a chance at a Michelin star? You can’t toil in obscurity. Having a strong marketing team is almost as important as the food you produce. As much as anything else, she was a product of public relations. Being drop-dead gorgeous didn’t hurt.

I hadn’t watched many of her shows, but I couldn’t remember a single time she was impressed by what someone else made on one of her episodes. Instead of learning, she was determined to show how lucky people were to learn from her.

She walked into someone elses home on her show and acted like the lady of the manor. It was repugnant. A little humility would go a long way.

We went over the numbers. Adam was more concerned than I was. He thought our being second overall was an insult. I didn’t know why, but he really disliked Olivia. The biggest takeaways for me were that people were happy with our show and that we were one more ratings period closer to the end of my contract.

When we got back to the studio, we parked in the private lot, said our goodbyes, and poured into our private cars. Everyone was exhausted. I told them to take the next day off and come in at noon the following day. I usually let my producer handle all of that, but with everything happening, I was feeling off somehow.

The people I worked with mattered more to me than the network. If the bosses thought I was overstepping, they could let me know. Hopping on the subway, I was near my apartment within fifteen minutes. It was in my contract that the network rent me a place. Livable apartments in Manhattan weren’t cheap. 

Stopping at my favorite taqueria that doubled as a bodega, I walked to the back and saw Barry. I had no idea what his real name was, but I somehow doubted it was Barry. He was sitting on an ancient folding chair and reading a well-used paperback.

“Hey, the grill open?”

Barry was wearing a hairnet over black hair that should have started turning gray years ago. His slow, deliberate movements fit his heavy-lidded eyes.

“Hola, chef. What you like? Nachos? I have Velveeta queso hoy dia.”

I shook my head and smiled. His English was better than mine. “Velveeta? What the hell is wrong with you? Whatever you have would be great, but I wouldn’t say no to a pupuasa or four. And don’t call me chef.”

“Oui, Chef.”

He got up, grabbed some stuff from his tiny walk-in, and started cooking.

“Where’d you go this time, Nate?”

“Just came from DC. Things were weird, but I heard it’s worse here.”

“It’s not good. They’re stacking up bodies and have no place to put them. The streets are empty. Nobody’s coming in here. I had to start delivering. Leaving food outside doors. Customers, they’ve been asking for other stuff. Milk, bread, peanut butter and jelly for kids. This can’t last, right? Other parts of the country, they’re doing better?”

“Yeah. Yeah, nowhere near that bad. They’re really stacking bodies?”

“Like I said, my friend. Not good.”

Nodding, I grabbed the handle to the walk-in. “You mind?”

“Help yourself.”

I grabbed a Cervecería pilsner, and we moved onto happier topics. His granddaughter’s First Holy Communion was around the corner and he planned on visiting them for a few days. His brother Eduardo had been planning on moving to New York and was still going to, after everything died down with the covid madness.

When I got home with my food, I sat down in front of the TV and made some notes about what Barry was missing in his walk-in. I hadn’t heard anything about problems getting food, but the people I spoke to had better contacts than most people. I’d get him stocked and take payment in midnight meals.

Feet up on the coffee table, I ate my dinner, drank my beer, and thought about what tomorrow would bring and the tomorrow after that and all the tomorrows until we found a solution to covid.

Picking up my phone, I called Adam.

“‘Lo?”

“Sorry, did I wake you?”

“Nate? It’s… Hold on. It’s a quarter after two.”

“Sorry. I was just thinking and lost track of time. Call me when you get up.”

I heard him sigh. “No, I’m up. What’s going on?”

“I know we’ve taken a hit across the boards. I want you to figure out how bad it’s going to get if the rest of the country follows New York, and this gets worse.”

“You want numbers, or can I just tell you?”

“Tell me.”

“It will destroy us.”

Stunned, I finally took a swig of my beer. “Well, aren’t you a ray of sunshine? That bad?”

“Unless they find a vaccination quickly, yeah. The New York numbers are horrific. Thankfully, we only have two outlets in the city and most of our business is in the midwest. If things take a turn for the worst, we’ll be closing our doors in most stores in each chain.”

“Okay. That’s worse than I thought. I need details. Get me worst-case projections as soon as possible. Thursday at the latest. Both personal and for the business. How many people would we have to let go, what we can do for them and how we can keep their insurance going as long as possible. I’m going to call my accountant and find out how liquid I am and move some stuff around.”

“Why don’t you call him later and let the poor guy get some sleep?”

I smiled. “Yeah, sorry. Get back to bed. Call me when you can.”

The smile quickly evaporated as I thought of our employees.

Crunching on a handful of frozen grapes, I made my way to my bedroom and took mental notes with every step. I was pretty hands-off with the chains. We had good people in charge, and I let them do their thing. I only stepped in when they asked me to, if earnings were down, at the quarterly meetings or if food quality slipped.

That was going to have to change. We were early adopters of the Fight for $15 and knew that we wouldn’t be where we were if it wasn’t for the people in our restaurants. Valuing them wasn’t a slogan, it was a core belief. I wasn’t sure what we could do, but I was determined to find out.

After a restless sleep, I got up, stumbled to the bathroom, and stared in the mirror while I brushed my teeth. I looked like hell.

“Alexa, what time is it?”

“It’s 1:16 PM.”

I thought I heard her wrong.

“Alexa, what time is it?”

“It’s 1:17 PM.”

I’d slept for over ten hours. Fuck. After taking the world’s fastest shower, I threw on some clothes, grabbed my mask, ran out the door and got on the subway. The studio’s building looked obscenely bright and clean as I walked there from the station. It was a gleaming lie, just as most of TV was.

Usually, I’d go through the back doors and the freight elevator so I wouldn’t have to deal with the executives, but I didn’t have time. As I went careening past the boss’s Executive Assistant, she called out.

“Nate! Nate!”

I turned back her way.

“Did you check your messages? Joanne heard you got in late and pushed your meeting until tomorrow.”

“I… Huh. Okay. Well, that makes it a little easier. Actually, I needed to take care of some other stuff, but I appreciate it. I’m going to head back to my office. Can you let her know that I’m here in case she wants to squeeze the meeting in?”

“Um, okay, but you know what? The atrium is open, and they put some new plants in there. Sounds nicer than some stuffy office.”

“That’s a great idea, but I’ve got all my stuff in my office. I’ll check it out later, though.”

“We could have someone bring your laptop and a phone down to you.”

I stopped. “Nadine, is there a reason I shouldn’t be going to my office?”

“No, it’s just—”

A voice from behind me called my name. “Nathan.”

I knew who it was. Of course, I knew who it was. “Hello, Olivia.”

Turning around, I was reminded again of why half the chefs coming out of culinary school wanted to work for her. With her black hair, dark eyes and dusky complexion, she was definitely attractive. It was too bad she was such a vain waste of space. The most expensive thing I was wearing were my sneakers, and it looked like her outfit cost more than my entire wardrobe.

She looked me up and down as if I was some creature they’d dredged from the East River. Not wanting to say anything I shouldn’t, I moved past her.

“Good to see you. Tell your brother I said hi.”

Once in my office, I called around and found out who the onsite super was for the building. It turned out that six apartments were available and open right now and five more would be ready for tenants in a week. That would be more than enough for my crew. I was about to start making calls to see if they would be interested when Joanne walked in.

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite Grandma Whisperer. As long as you’re here, we have some things to discuss.”

I put down the phone. “Okay. Grab a seat. What’s up first?’

“A new show. Quarantine Kitchen.”

OLIVIA

Sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee from Mom, I pored over the numbers. We’d already cut back everyone’s hours and closed two days a week. It wasn’t enough. Fine dining was an extreme luxury and was one of the first things to be hit when covid grew from an anomaly to a concern to a pandemic.

The restaurant became less and less tenable as the days went by. It wasn’t a question of maximizing profits, it was a question of how do we keep the doors open. When Maggie called, I almost ignored the phone. Finally picking up after four rings, I braced myself.

“Okay, what does it look like today?”

“Good morning. Four more called out.”

“Covid?”

“Probably. How weird is it that people are praying that they have the flu?”

“What’s the total?”

“Eighteen.”

That was more than a third of our staff. “Okay. Let me think. Anyone we can’t replace with someone else?”

“No. And if Alyce gets it, we’re screwed.”

Maggie was right. Alyce had one person working under her and they produced all of our desserts and breads.

“This is a nightmare. I’m going to head in at around two. I have to be in the studio this morning. I’ll have whoever is making the family meal make extra and we’ll send some to the people that are sick.”

“I’ll meet you at the restaurant. We really need to make some decisions. We can’t continue like this.”

“I know. I’ll see you there.”

Placing the phone on the table, I closed my eyes. Opening them again, I saw Mom filling my cup and placing a warm hibiscus-orange muffin in front of me. Bending over, she kissed the top of my head.

“You know, I have a few dollars saved up.”

I kissed the back of her hand. “Thanks, Mom. I’ll be okay.”

“What are you going to do, my olive? You already run yourself ragged. Are you going to do everything there? Create the menus, order the food, chef de cuisine, scheduling. It’s too much. Talk to the studio and take a leave of absence or close the restaurant until this blows over. You’re burning the candle at both ends. You can’t keep this up.”

“I’ll be fine.” I took a bite of the muffin. “If anything happens to Alyce, I’m bringing you in to work with me.”

She laughed. “Those days are behind me. Listen, I want you to do something for me. If things get worse, I want you to set up a meeting for me with your partners.”

“Mom, they’re not… They’re not us. They aren’t food people. It’s not going to help.”

“I know who they are. You forget who started all of this. I’ve dealt with their type before. They’re going to be hurting and looking to become liquid. Like I said, I have a few dollars. They’ll sell cheap and I’ll buy them out. You buy out half my stake when you can and, like with your brother, I’ll be a minority owner.”

“I can’t ask you to do that.”

“You’re not the one asking, I am. It’s a good investment and I’ll be getting in cheap. Once I’m in, I’ll float the restaurant a loan and we’ll stay open, and the staff will keep their jobs.”

“Let me think about it.”

Sitting down, she grabbed her tea and opened the paper. “Of course. Let’s talk about something else. How much money do you send to the animal shelters?”

“Monthly?”

“Yes.”

I gave her the number. 

“Let me start taking care of that until this is over. You put your money back into the restaurant.”

Mom patted my shoulder when I leaned over to hug her. 

The car was waiting when I got off the elevator and walked out the door. Getting in, I opened my purse to grab a mint and saw another muffin, wrapped in linen. My mother was the best woman I knew. I broke it in half and leaned forward.

I leaned towards my driver. “Hungry?”

“No, I’m good. Thanks.”

“Mom made it.”

“Well, okay. If you insist. I mean, you could have led with that.”

I gently laughed. If you were a regular in my life, her life or my brother’s life, Mom delighted in making you treats. It was never anything outrageous, just a little something to say she was thinking about you and that it was made with love. Family, neighbors, friends, and yes, my driver all received her gifts.

Sunglasses, Visine, and make-up had been keys to my looking human in the morning for the past couple of years. I needed a vacation where I could find an isolation tank and sleep for a week straight. I didn’t have to be on TV or do any media, so it was a sunglasses day. We pulled into the parking lot, and I leaned forward.

“Can I just sit here for a minute?”

“Absolutely. As long as you’d like. Want me to get you some coffee or something?”

“No. I just want to… sit.”

“You take your time. Let me know if you want the radio or anything. I’m going to check my emails. The studio doesn’t have me scheduled until noon.”

“Thanks.”

I loved my show, and I lived and breathed for the restaurant. It was like having two full-time jobs that each required more dedication and time than a normal gig. What the hell, who needed relationships? And sleep was overrated. After five minutes, I thanked my driver and made my way in.

Her title was VP of Programming, but everyone knew Joanne ran our little section of the network. I was in my office going over the feedback from focus groups when she knocked on the door and walked in.

“We need to talk.”

I closed my laptop. “That doesn’t sound good. I thought the ratings would bring with it at least a couple of days of peace and… I don’t know. No stress.”

“Sorry.” She wore a black pantsuit and carried a cup of coffee. “We need to put the show on hiatus.”

“Joanne, we–”

She held up her hand and continued. “It’s the last thing we want to do. We don’t have a choice. Your show is based on traveling and cooking in strangers’ homes. How is that going to work during a pandemic? I mean, did you look around here? Half of the staff are working from home and fifteen percent are sick. You will be able to do remote visits with families from episodes with the highest ratings. We’ll call them update specials or something. We’ll do two a month, but the old format is out.”

People were dying. I wasn’t going to get precious about a TV show. “Okay. How often do I need to come in for these revisit episodes?”

“We’re working on scheduling now. But… Yeah, um, we have a new idea for you. A couple, actually. We want to do something informal. A new show, almost filmed on the fly. Anytime Breakfast with Olivia. More and more people are either getting laid off or are working from home. Things are more informal. We’re going to put you in one of our kitchens, get you whatever ingredients you want, and you can go crazy. Trust me, it’s going to work. People love you, but they see you as the Michelin Chef, not the regular person. This will let them see you as a friend and neighbor. I’ve seen the numbers. It’ll be a hit.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad. I’ll think about it. What’s the other idea?”

“Well, it’s another new show. Quarantine Kitchen. It’s going to be a lot like what you’re doing now, elevating what’s in people’s freezers, but we’ll be filming everything here. And, um, there might be a few differences.”

“Such as?”

She sighed. “You won’t have the homeowner to play off of, so you’ll have a co-host.”

“A co-host. Since I’m dragging this out of you, I’m not overly confident. What’s the bad news?”

“Okay, I’m not going to beat around the bush. It’s Nate.”

I stared at her, mouth agape. “I could have sworn you just said I was going to co-host a show with Nate.”

“I did, Olivia. He’s in the same position you are. The two of you are our highest rated stars. We need this. We’re going to lose thirty percent of our programming. The two of you together is a slam dunk.”

“I thought you were going to say some retired athlete or local meteorologist or something. That would have been horrible. Nate? No way. Absolutely not.”

She sat there, slowly nodding her head. Finally, she spoke. “I could go the hard route and start talking about contracts, but I’m not going to do that. What I’m going to do instead is remind you of the people that work here who depend on us for a paycheck. I’m going to let you know that you’ll be making some serious money off the second show, which is going to be almost extemporaneous and as easy as a show can be. Then I’m going to offer a couple of inducements.”

“Such as?”

“New York is shutting down, Olivia. I’m confident that the country is going to follow suit. Allowances are going to be made for people who work in essential fields. We’re starting a news division specifically to be part of that essential bullshit. That means that our employees will be exempt from any lockdowns.”

“I run a restaurant. That will absolutely be considered an essential business.”

“That’s not guaranteed. What if they put a means test on restaurants? You have to serve so many people per day to qualify. How many do you serve? You’re not exactly McDonald’s. But let’s not even get into that. Two more things that might be of interest. One, I have PPEs and access to more. A lot more.”

“What the hell are PPEs?”

“Personal Protective Equipment. Enough for your employees. Enough for you and your mom. I also have contractually obligated purveyors for food. It comes off the boat, it comes off the train and is brought right here. Enough for your restaurant and your brothers’. Have you seen the lines at Restaurant Depot? How soon until they are out, or people are fighting for scraps? When that happens, do you want a guaranteed source?”

“How on Earth did you arrange that?”

She shrugged. “I get paid to read the tea leaves. I locked things up when I saw what was on the horizon.”

“Alright, you’re pushing me into the corner, but fine. Get me some retired football player or smiling meteorologist and I’m in.”

“It’s Nate. It has to be Nate.”

No, it certainly didn’t have to be Nate. I could pull off a show with anyone that was genial. They were boxing me into a corner, and I was getting pissed off.

“Absolutely not. Joanne, it’s not going to work. I loathe that man. My audience loathes him. He takes pride in ignorance. No one buys his sweet grandson act.”

“You’re wrong. First off, your audience loves him. I’ll get you the data if you want it. And people do buy into his persona. And here’s the ugly bit of reality that they pay me to exploit. You’re both great on TV and you’re both way too good-looking to be chefs. We need this. We need an anchor show to see us through. We have two stars that people will tune in to watch. We’re going with it.”

“So, you’re reducing me to a smiling face? I have two fucking Michelin stars! Do you have any idea how impossible that is? What I had to sacrifice to make that happen? I have the highest rated show on the network, and I have to work with that jackass because some idiot focus group thinks I’m hot?”

“It’s a visual medium, Olivia. Take the rest of the day and think about what I’m offering you. Once this covid thing has run its course, everything goes back to normal. You’ll be helping everyone at the network, but it’s not some selfless endeavor. I’m not a beggar coming hat in hand. We have a contract and I’ve gone out of my way to ensure that you are more than compensated. When you think about what I’m offering dispassionately, you’ll see that I’m right.”

“I need some time.”

“Of course. Can I get you anything?”

“Just some privacy. I need to call my lawyer.”

Joanne stood and sighed. “Don’t make this more than it is. You’d have to tolerate him for a few hours three times a week. Make whatever calls you need to. I’ve already run this through our lawyers. We’re solid.”

Part of me knew as she walked out the door that I was going to do it. The reality was that I needed the money. Everything else was icing on the world’s grimmest cake. I had obligations to my employees and if my partners wouldn’t stand up, I’d have to shoulder that on my own. Maybe Mom had enough money to buy them out. She’d owned five restaurants when she retired. Could she swing that deal and have enough left to do what we needed for the staff? I doubted it.

Still, I called my lawyer and had her go through everything. I was guaranteed a show, but they had creative control. There was some nuance, but not enough for me to make wide-spanning demands or to just walk. I sent Joanne an email with a bunch of outrageous demands just to be salty and headed out.

There he was, flirting with Joanne’s executive assistant. I could have turned around and left via a different exit, but the heck with that.

“Nathan.”

He didn’t bother to turn around before speaking. “Olivia.”

The man’s dark eyes smoldered as he looked angrily from me to Joanne’s assistant, as if he was upset that I was even in the building. Walking by me, he gave a curt nod.

“Good to see you. Tell your brother I said hi.”

How did he know my brother? And why did he smell so damned good?

NATE

Sitting in my plush chair, I stared at Joanne. “What the hell is a Quarantine Kitchen? Are we starting up a food pantry?”

Her smile seemed forced as she replied. “No, but that’s not a bad idea. Quarantine Kitchen is going to be your new show. We’re going back to our roots and bringing everything in-house. The world is getting crazy out there, Nate. We want to keep you and your staff safe.”

“And keep us pumping out shows so you can make a profit.”

Joanne shrugged. “That too.”

“How will this work? We’ll get families sending in videos and sort of riff on their recipes in the kitchens here?”

“No. Maybe. We don’t have it all hammered out yet, but that’s something we can introduce. We want three shows a week and—”

“Three shows a week? That’s crazy.”

“It’s not. Most stationary cooking shows are five days a week. There won’t be any travel, no prepping non-performers, no staging in unfamiliar homes. Everything will be professional and stable. And maybe this isn’t the right time for it, but we also want a casual daily show from you.”

I went back to the staring. When did she start losing her mind? How did I not notice the start of the madness?

“You’re totally crazy. You want two shows, one three days a week, one daily? You understand that my contract says one weekly show, right?”

“I do. That’s why we’re willing to make some concessions. Corporate believes that the pandemic is providing us with an opportunity. Scripted shows are going to grind to a halt. The ones that need live audiences are going to go on hiatus or just air reruns. You have one of our highest-rated programs and we can do everything in near-isolation. Can I explain the second one? I think you might be interested.”

Shrugging, I leaned back into my chair. “Sure. I’ve got the time. Make the most of it though, because this is sounding a whole hell of a lot like a you problem instead of a me problem.”

“Right. Well, one of the benefits of investors seeing opportunity is their willingness to throw money at it. You’ll be very well compensated. If your chains take a hit, that will keep your bank account full. The show is going to be called Nate Hargrove’s Pantry Raid. It’s going to be single-camera, filmed guerilla-style and it will be almost totally unscripted. Say whatever you want. We’ll bleep out what we have to. It’ll add to the off-the-cuff feel. Basically, you are going to show people new ways to think about what they have in their pantry.

“We’ll stock ours with what we think the average person might have in theirs and you go in, grab some stuff, do some culinary wizardry and voila, we have an episode. It’s going to be quick and easy, rough and tumble and get ‘er done. And for that, we’re going to pay you. A lot.”

Shaking my head, I fiddled with a pen. “Quick and easy, rough and tumble, off-the-cuff, and what was the other one? Forget it. I don’t care. And it’s called Pantry Raid? Is that a riff on panty raid? You know I hate that crap. I’m a cook, not some… I don’t know. Some jackass that wants to get on the covers of magazines and date models. And now you have me hosting two shows?”

“Well, about that…”

“What?”

“You’re not exactly hosting Quarantine Kitchen. At least not alone.”

“Who are you bringing in?”

“Okay. You need to keep an open mind here. You’re doing the show with Olivia.”

“That’s fine.”

“Look, I know that the two of you… Wait, that’s fine? You’re good with that?” Joanne’s eyes were enormous as she stared at me.

“Yeah, it totally works. I’m not saying yes to either of these shows yet, but if I do Quarantine Kitchen, have us each riff on the same dish. I’ll go first and take up half an hour, she’ll go second and take up half an hour. Bam, an hour-long show, and we never have to be in the same kitchen together.”

“That’s, um, that’s not exactly what we had in mind.”

“Well, I’m happy to help. I just solved that problem for you in what, two minutes? Get me the numbers for filming, rights and money and let me think about it. I’ll try to have an answer for you by the end of the week.”

“Right. Huh. Okay. So, we were sort of thinking that we need to make a big splash and have our two stars working on the show together. You know, actually interacting. We need to come into this with something monumental, and that will do it. You’re almost proposing two related shows.”

“Yeah, but my idea solves the real problems. I don’t want to work with her, and she probably doesn’t want to work with me. Without us, you have no show.”

Joanne nodded slowly, as if buying time. “I’m going to be perfectly honest with you and you aren’t going to like it. At all. Part of the reason we want you both on the show and interacting is the sex appeal. Neither of you looks like a chef. I get you hate that, but it’s a reality. I was telling someone earlier today that TV is a visual medium. Having the two of you together at a time when other shows are going off the air will be a coup. It’s going to be an hour-long show where you’ll interact.”

I rolled my eyes. “Okay, fuck this. It’s not going to be anything, because I’m out. You want this Panty Raid show, fine. I’ll do it under my terms. This other show? Hell no. Find some other Ken to flirt with your Barbie.”

Raising her eyebrows, Joanne nodded. “I’m sorry you feel that way. Don’t worry about your staff. I’m sure HR will speak to them and their packages will be generous. Probably.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing. Just… You’re not responsible or anything. If you want to take them out to a bar to say your goodbyes, expense it. I’ll get it approved. HR will take care of everything else.”

“So, now you’re threatening me?”

“Not at all. We were going to move them over to Quarantine Kitchen. If that show isn’t going to exist, what do you expect us to do? Look, why don’t you think it over? I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

I didn’t dislike Joanne, and I certainly didn’t have any lack of respect for her. I merely accepted her for the person she was, a very successful advocate for the network, its ratings, and its bottom line. Humanity rarely entered the conversation. If she was going to be all about the bottom line, so was I.

By the end of the day, I had a list of how many people from my show were living in compromised housing with sketchy roommates. I wasn’t surprised to learn that most of them could use some help. Few were married or were in long-term relationships. Spending half the year on the road made that difficult. If I could get seven of the apartments in the building for them, they’d be set. No worrying about who your roommate was sneaking out to see and what unwanted viral visitors they were bringing back to you.

Just as importantly, the apartment rental was going to be free. If Joanne wanted to push, she was going to find out that I could push back. I called her.

“I have a few conditions. First and foremost, she can’t do that stupid dance thing she does with her hands when she finishes a dish. It’s ridiculous.”

“No dancing. Got it. She had her own conditions. No flirting and no touching for any reason.”

I don’t know why I was offended. If I had thought of it, I would have included them as well. That fake morning show flirting crap was annoying, and no touching was fine. Still, it irked me. No touching? Like I was a peasant, and she was royalty?

“Yeah, that’s fine. I have a few other things. I have a friend that runs a small taquería near my apartment. He needs access to food. And the studio needs to rent some apartments.”

The network and Joanne eventually capitulated. My staff had their quarantine bubble, free rent in state-of-the-art apartments and access to all the food they’d need. Barry would have access to ingredients that I would’t have to pay for for the taquería, and I was getting paid an obscene amount of money.

Once things were ironed out, I sat in meetings with the show’s bloated staff, which was an amalgamation of my people and Olivia’s people. One of hers was named showrunner and one of mine, Donna, was executive producer. Donna was quickly becoming combative. All of our suggestions were being overridden and they were turning it into the Olivia show.

We were in the back of the large meeting room when I leaned over towards Donna. “Let it go.”

“What?”

“Let it go. It doesn’t matter. As soon as this runs its course, we’re going back on the road. It’s meaningless fluff. Let them do what they want while we concentrate on Pantry Raid. We’re getting paid crazy money to do nothing. Take it and smile.”

Whenever the showrunner pushed, Olivia would look my way. I’d smile and shrug. She seemed to think I was working on some scheme and was becoming increasingly frustrated. That was an unintended bonus. My people continued to listen with half an ear while we worked on Pantry Raid during meetings for Quarantine Kitchen.

We were going to make Pantry Raid as rock and roll as possible.

Casual, dressed down and unscripted were what we were going for. Donna set up a Facebook group for fans and we were going to have members watch the taping live and interact with us via Zoom. I wanted to do the whole show live, but we couldn’t get backing on that out of the gate. We did get a promise to revisit the concept a week after the first episode.

Donna and I had our heads together, going through song lists and trying to figure out what we could afford to use for the show’s opening, when I heard my name. Looking up, I saw the Quarantine Kitchen showrunner staring at me.

“I’m sorry, I missed that.”

“My question or the entire conversation?”

“Both. Let’s start with your question.”

She sucked in her upper lip and narrowed her eyes. “Fine. Are you going to need any special equipment?”

What the hell were we making? It came to me at the last second. “For meatloaf? No. Whatever we have lying around will be fine.”

“Alright, any—”

“Wait, actually, I do. I need a twenty-two-inch Weber kettle, four firebricks, three bags of lump charcoal and a dozen or so disposable half pans.”

“What?”

“I’m making mine in the parking lot on a grill. Olivia has the oven covered, right?”

“We can’t go film in the parking lot. There’s an entire set being built so you can cook side by side. You—”

“Oh, and a meat grinder, but something old school and manual. And yeah, I’m doing mine outside. You’re the showrunner, make it work.”

“Listen, you don’t dictate terms. The show is—”

I raised an eyebrow and leaned forward. “Did you think I was asking permission? I’m telling you, not asking you. Do your job and make it happen.”

Olivia also leaned forward and looked down the long table at me. “You can’t talk to her like that. She’s running Quarantine Kitchen, Nate. Just hit your mark and do what you’re told.”

“Did someone whisper in your ear and tell you that you were in charge, Olivia? If so, they were lying. Don’t ever try to tell me what I can or cannot do again.”

I could almost hear her grinding her teeth. “Fine. Cook on the street. It’ll keep you out of my kitchen.”

Laughing, I stood up. “Your kitchen. Sure. Anyway, good meeting. See you tomorrow.”

My people started to stand to follow me, but I waved them back. Donna did walk with me to my office. She wore a little smirk, totally pleased with my standing up to the showrunner.

“You’re a lovely man, Nathan.”

“Thanks. She just… She gets on my last nerve.”

“Absolutely. This is your show. The showrunner doesn’t tell you what you can and can’t do, especially for something that easy to make work.”

“The showrunner? No, I meant Olivia.”

“Oh. Yeah, her too. This is a partnership, not a dictatorship.”

When Donna left, I called Adam and had him get all the numbers for the new business we were starting when all of this covid insanity began. After getting his email, I called my erstwhile partner on the new chain. It had started out as a fast-casual Asian soup and noodle concept. It changed over time to basic Italian and pasta.

At one time, Gabby had owned my favorite pasta joint in Manhattan. When she retired, she did some consulting and was an angel investor for some culinary start-ups. She was exactly what I wanted. Gabby had real-world experience, knowledge, money and passion. Sadly, we chose the worst time possible to get started.

“Hello, Gabby. Have a minute?”

“Of course. How are you?”

“Fine. I want to throw an idea your way and get your thoughts. The writing’s on the wall for fast food and fast-casual. If I have two types of stores in the same town, I’m combining them, keeping the staff from both, closing the doors to the public and we’re going to pivot heavily to drive-through and delivery. My people are already hiring taxi drivers and delivery people.”

“Okay. It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into this.”

“I don’t know who is going to survive this in the fast-casual world, but I’m not going to leave my people out there to hang. I want their jobs secured, so we’re taking a risk and putting serious money into this pivot. If it pays off, we’ll be stronger than anyone else in our field.”

“How does that impact us?”

“I want to start spending some of our money and putting a second kitchen in my Florida restaurants. We’ll sell pasta, BBQ, fish and burgers out of the same location, do dual branding, have separate phone numbers and when this is all over, we’ll move the new equipment into the storefronts for the pasta places.”

“You really think that delivery is going to take off?”

“I do.”

“Okay, let me put some thought into this and get back to you. I was thinking we’d hold onto the capital, wait this out and make our move post-covid. I need to wrap my head around this delivery emphasis.”

“Get back to me when you can. How’s everything else? What have you been up to?”

“Oh, you know me. Relaxing. Enjoying life. Spending time in the kitchen on muffins and scones. I’ve been on a crazy hibiscus kick lately. I’ll let you go, Nate. Thanks for calling.”

A few days later I was out in the parking lot, grill going, grinder on the table next to me.

“Remember, fat is flavor. Don’t go for those ninety-five percent fat-free grinds. If you have the accessory or one of these antiques…” I put my hand on the heavy as hell grinder. “Grind your own. Here’s a tip, eighty-twenty beef to fat ratio becomes a lot more flavorful when you add in a half-pound of bacon.”

We had three tables with wheels near the grill, and ten feet from the grill was another set of three tables, each separated by a reasonable distance. At the first table sat the incredibly hot meteorologist from the news station the network had created. The second table had a lead singer from a band I was vaguely familiar with. The third table had a retired third baseman for the Mets.

All three of them were heading to an event to support front-line health workers. They were going to package up meals and bring them to local hospitals, all while observing social distancing. We were close to the hospital and makeshift kitchen, so we started filming two hours before they were supposed to be there and got them to join us.

“Remember, meatloaf absorbs a lot of smoke and does it quickly. Keep it on the grill at around three-fifty for half an hour and then either wrap it in foil or bring it inside and throw it in the oven.”

The meteorologist called out. “Nate, what about the potatoes? What else can you put in there?”

I had potato bombs going next to the meatloaf. Core lengthwise about three-quarters of the way through, stuff something in there, replace part of the core to seal it up, wrap it in bacon and let it sit.

Speaking to the camera, I answered her. “Anything you’d like, Caley. We have chorizo and Manchego cheese, but we could just as easily use salami and provolone. Use your imagination. If you’re a bit adventurous, throw in some peppers. I’m going to be using some of the leftovers tomorrow on Pantry Raid, so be sure to tune in!”

She laughed. “Panty raid? I’ll text you my address.”

Sighing, I kept the smile on my face. “Pantry Raid. We’ll be airing at four-thirty and then again at midnight for you night owls. I’d like to thank my guests for joining us before heading to the hospitals to drop off meals. Please say a prayer for our healthcare workers. I’m going to go inside and try some of Olivia’s amazing-looking meatloaf. From all of us here, thanks for joining us in Quarantine Kitchen.”

After they panned out to the celebrity guests, I walked over to the showrunner. “See, that wasn’t so bad.”

“She’s going to hate it. I’m so dead.”

“Joanne or Olivia?”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head in disgust. “You just totally upstaged her and I’m going to take the hit. Thanks.”

I shrugged. “Tell her to grow up. It was a good idea, and I went with it.”

Shaking her head again, she turned and walked away.


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