The shriek of the fire alarm was the final straw. I’d just stepped out of the kitchen for a minute, but that was all it took for calamity to strike. Opening the oven door in a panic, billows of smoke engulfed me before I slammed it shut again.
“Shit. Shitshitshit. Shit!”
Waving a damp dish towel back and forth like a flag of surrender above my head caused the head-splitting siren to finally desist. I blew a rogue curl off my sweaty brow and gave myself a pep talk.
“Time to woman up,” I sighed before donning the oven gloves and cautiously cracking the door once again. More smoke escaped, smelling of burnt pastry and ruined hopes. Once it cleared I could see the charred carcasses of what were supposed to be vol au vent shells. I carefully extracted the cooking sheet from the oven and dropped it with a clatter onto the quartz countertop.
“Dinner is D.O.A, Doctor Beauchamp. Now what the fuck are you going to do?”
Thirty minutes were spent cleaning the evidence of yet another cooking fiasco and ventilating our flat by opening every available window to let in the moist Edinburgh breeze. I now had less than four hours before Frank and three other members of the university faculty would be descending, expecting a home-cooked meal and polite chitchat. I was in no position to offer either.
In a last-ditch effort to salvage the evening, I googled “sophisticated home catering in Edinburgh” and started dialing. The first four numbers yielded either an answering machine or the news (unsurprising) that at least two days’ advanced notice were required to book their services. Nearly resigned to ordering in Italian and facing Frank’s wrath, I startled when a woman’s thick Scottish brogue flooded my ear.
“Ye’ve reached Ginger Snap, this is Jenny speaking. How may I help ye t’day?”
I poured out my tale of culinary woe, laying it on a bit thick, but I was truly desperate by this point.
“Aye, we’ve a chef available this afternoon. What sort of menu were ye planning?” she asked.
“Really? Oh my god, you’re a lifesaver!”
I gave Jenny the number of guests and a broad idea of what I’d hoped to serve, although I was in no position to be choosy.
“Never ye fear, Ms. Beauchamp. We’ll pick up the necessary items and our chef will be at yer flat by four. Tha’ should leave jus’ enough time tae have everything ready fer your guests.”
Thanking her profusely and not even inquiring about the charge, I stood triumphant in the middle of my immaculate yet useless kitchen. Why hadn’t I thought of this sooner?
The buzzer rang as I was re-arranging the decorative objects atop our sideboard. I was aiming for the artless sophistication featured in Frank’s favourite design magazines, but instead I defaulted to lining each item up in order of descending size, or grouping them by historical era. A second buzz had me trotting to the intercom where a male voice crackled.
“This is James Fraser from Ginger Snap Catering. Can ye let me in?”
Moments later I stuck my head into the hallway to find four organic cotton tote bags bursting with produce at my doorstep. Footsteps echoed down the stairs, where I assumed the chef had retreated to collect more supplies. I set the first load on the kitchen counter where I began to unpack foodstuffs the likes of which I’d never seen. Not knowing what else to do to be helpful, I began sorting them; green leafy things here, round crispy things there.
“Hallo?” the same voice called from where I’d left the door ajar. Wiping my hands nervously against my slacks, I went to greet him.
Standing in the doorframe, almost filling it with his immense size, was a young man who seemed more suited to a rugby pitch than haute cuisine. He had loose tawny curls, two days’ worth of stubble and wore a faded grey henley, dark wash jeans that clung to his muscular legs and utilitarian workman’s boots.
“Claire Beauchamp?” he interrupted my visual inventory.
“Hmm? Oh, yes. Sorry. Pleased to meet you.”
Something funny happened when our hands met in a firm shake. A tachycardic blip, my internal medicine professor would have called it. There was no time to analyze this response, however, as he was already on the move.
“James Fraser, at yer service. I’d normally spend more time getting to know ye and yer style of entertaining, but we’re short on time, so let’s get straight to it, aye?”
I gave the chef a hasty tour of our kitchen, stumbling over the names of various implements and opening the wrong cupboard when looking for my saucepans. I blushed as he raised an expressive eyebrow, but shook it off. I was paying for his cooking proficiency, not his opinion on my lack of domestic competence.
“I ken ye spoke tae Jenny about yer menu, but I took a few liberties at the market, based on what looked freshest. I recommend starting with a simple salad o’ nettle and radish, garnished with a wee round of goat cheese and rye crumbs. Loin o’ lamb with new potatoes and pancetta fer yer main. An’ a simple rhubarb custard fer dessert. There’s none with food allergies, aye?”
“Aye,” I replied, then corrected “umm, no, rather,” at his concerned look. “Are you sure you can manage all that in only,” I glanced at my wristwatch “ninety minutes? It seems like an awful lot of work.”
“Och, tis no’ much. Lamb cooks swiftly, ye ken. Tis why I chose it over pork or poultry.”
My saviour rolled up his sleeves, preparing to wash his hands and get down to work. There was probably something I should be doing elsewhere in the flat to prepare, but I didn’t want to appear completely useless to this unflappable man.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
He looked dubious and seemed prepared to politely decline, but then his expression softened.
“Aye. Ye can wash the tatties an’ chop the rhubarb while I dress the lamb, if ye dinna mind,” he suggested.
“Scrubbing in and wielding a knife happen to be two of the only transferrable job skills I bring to cooking,” I joked, taking my turn in front of the massive Belfast sink.
He emitted a low Scottish grunt of amusement before we each settled into companionable silence, focusing on our respective duties. I glanced over at him surreptitiously, envying the ease with which he moved from task to task, lean and nimble hands working alchemy where I only succeeded in producing dross.
“Ye’re a doctor, then?” he asked after my chopped rhubarb had been set on the stovetop to stew and the lamb was marinating in a bath of lemon and fresh herbs.
“Umm, well, I was. My partner and I moved here from Boston, where I trained as a surgeon. I haven’t yet obtained my license to practice in the UK, so I’m afraid I’m just a culinary liability for the moment.”
It was a current source of strife in my relationship with Frank. He liked the idea of me keeping house, entertaining and eventually settling down to raise a family. I chaffed at this narrowing of my horizons. But until I passed my licensing exams, it was rather a moot point.
“I’m sure ye’re far more than that,” he replied kindly, before breaking into a sneaky grin. “I’ve ne’er seen stalks of rhubarb cut quite sae... uniform. Ye’d have a fine career in quality control, if ye wished.”
I faked throwing a dish towel at him while we both laughed.
“What about you, Mr. Fraser? How did you get into the catering business?” It wasn’t polite conversation. I was really quite curious to know more about him.
“I’ll tell ye, but only if ye call me Jamie.” At my nod, he continued. “Twas my Mam. She was always a great cook. Then my Da passed suddenly and she with three bairns under the age of ten tae raise. She needed tae work. We moved tae Edinburgh an’ she laboured day and night tae save enough tae start her own catering business. Since I was a lad, whene'er I wasna in school I was in her kitchen, watching her and eventually helping out.”
His striking face took on a faraway expression, and I knew he was remembering those days with a mixture of wistfulness and love. I recognized the look from my own reflection, when I thought about my dead parents. Without realizing it, I lay my palm over his muscular forearm where it had stilled above my butcher’s block. His eyes were the same hue as midsummer blueberries, and they regarded me with silent inquiry.
A timer made us both jump, my hand falling to my side. What was I thinking, caressing this stranger who I was paying to cook dinner for my boyfriend’s guests? I really needed to find a hobby, so my mind didn’t latch onto any feeble excuse for stimulation.
Brushing my hands against my thighs, I quickly excused myself and left to get properly dressed for dinner. Only thirty minutes remained before Frank and his colleagues were due to arrive.
I spent more time than was strictly necessary away from the kitchen, afraid I’d made things awkward with Jamie. By the time I returned, he was plating the lamb and putting the custard in the refrigerator to set. I tried to think of something to say that would re-establish the easy rapport from earlier on.
“I’ve opened the wine tae let it breathe,” Jamie said without looking at me. I wished there was a similar process for blundering Englishwomen.
“Jamie, I really don’t know how to...”
The sound of the front door opening interrupted me and Frank’s nasal voice rang out from the front room.
“Claire, we’re here!”
“Fuck!” I exclaimed. Jamie tipped his head sideways in question. “I never explained to my partner that I hired your services. That’s the dean of his faculty out there, and...” I broke off, looking frantically around the room as though a trap door would suddenly materialize.
Jamie understood the situation immediately. The kitchen windows were still wide open to the evening breeze. With surprising grace for one so large, he slid through the opening and onto the fire escape.
“Bon appetit, Doctor Beauchamp,” the ginger chef intoned, a mischievous smirk lighting his whole countenance. I stood, mouth open in shock, as he gave an abbreviated bow and then scampered down the metal ladder just as Frank entered the kitchen behind me.
“This smells delicious, darling. We're going to make a gourmet cook out of you yet.”