Betting on Bailey(5)

By: Tara Crescent


Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are.

Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin


Neither of my two New York restaurants are open for lunch during the week, so it’s not often that I see my staff during the day. This sunny Friday morning in May is the exception.

We are gathered in the bar area of Seb New York, tense and waiting. All eyes are on my cell phone, which rests on top of the polished mahogany bar. Bottles of champagne dot the counter, but no one pops the cork yet. We aren’t a superstitious bunch, but to open the bottle before we receive the call? We won’t tempt fate that way.

The Michelin staff calls at noon on Friday. Five minutes to go.

Seb New York has one Michelin star, an honor shared by only twenty-three other restaurants in New York. In a few minutes, we’ll find out if we’ve earned the coveted second star. If we have? Then, I can write my own ticket. Not bad for a kid from Mississippi who didn’t even finish high school.

I look around the room. Helen, my sous-chef at Seb New York, is pacing back and forth. Ben, the sous-chef of my second restaurant, Seb II is watching her, absently chewing on a nail. The expression on his face is a mixture of anticipation and envy. Seb New York gets all the accolades, and Seb II is the new kid on the block. Ben’s an ambitious chef, and I’m sure he’d love to be in Helen’s place right now.

Next to me, Juliette’s playing with her phone. She’s the outsider in this gathering. The rest of us cook together, night after night. There’s a rhythm that comes with that, and a shared sense of camaraderie that can be exclusionary.

Juliette, on the other hand, doesn’t belong in the kitchen. She’s cheerfully confessed that she can’t even make toast without burning it. She doesn’t need to. She’s my business manager, smart, ambitious and driven. I hired her six months ago, and already, she’s got me my own show on the Food Network and arranged a book deal with a top New York publisher.

There’s only one person missing. Daniel Hartman, my partner in both restaurants, and my best friend. He’s in Kansas City today on an unavoidable business trip. It feels odd to face this moment without him. Daniel has been my biggest supporter throughout my career. If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably still be cooking in the diner I worked in when I first moved to New York.

The phone rings and silence falls over the room. I take a deep breath and answer. “Sebastian Ardalan?” the disembodied voice on the other end of the line asks.

“Yes.” Helen crosses her fingers, and my restaurant manager Katya is chewing on her nails.

“Congratulations, Chef Ardalan,” the voice continues. “I’m happy to inform you that we’ve decided to award Seb New York a second Michelin star.”

Yes! I give the room a thumbs-up and everyone erupts in cheers. Without waiting for me to hang up, Helen pops the cork open on one of the champagne bottles. The staff are cheering, laughing and congratulating each other. Juliette jumps up and down in excitement, dancing a duet with one of the line cooks. I utter some words of thanks and hang up, grinning at the scenes of celebration in the room. Everyone in this room has toiled for this moment, and they deserve every bit of attention they’ll get when the word gets out about the second star.

My phone beeps. It’s a text message from Daniel. ‘Congratulations.’

I laugh out aloud. I have no idea how Daniel already knows. I likely never will. If I ask, he’ll merely look mysterious and tell me it’s his job to know. I’ll never be able to tell if it is a lucky guess, or if he does have a source at Michelin.

That’s okay. The second star is mine. All the work has been worth it. The long hours, the personal sacrifices… it’s all paid off in this moment. If only my parents could see…

I smother that thought. My parents never cared. I was too much of a dreamer for them. Too interested in women’s work, as my father put it once. My teachers thought I’d end up broke and washed up, worse than useless. All my life, failure has been expected of me, and I had lived up to that potential, until the day I ran away from home, hoping for a fresh start.

Juliette ropes me into her dance, and I shake my head to wipe away thoughts of the past. Helen hands me a flute of champagne. “We thought about emptying a bottle over your head, Chef,” she grins. “But Colin wouldn’t let us.”

Colin, the wine sommelier, sniffs disapprovingly. “It’s Krug Grande Cuvée,” he says with a grimace. “It’s bloody expensive.”

I laugh. Juliette’s distracted by her phone again. I drink my champagne and circulate the room, shaking hands and exchanging high-fives. I’m chatting with Katya about the spike in reservations that’s going to result when the news becomes public knowledge when Juliette finds me again. “Sebastian,” she says, pulling me aside. “I’m already getting texts and emails. Now is the time to talk to investors who are pushing for a nationwide franchise. Think about it. A Sebastian Ardalan restaurant in every city in the country.”