RITA Award Winner
The Lost Recipe for Happiness
In this sumptuous new novel, Barbara O’Neal offers readers a celebration of food, family, and love as a woman searches for the elusive ingredient we’re all hoping to find…
THE LOST RECIPE FOR HAPPINESS
It’s the opportunity Elena Alvarez has been waiting for–the challenge of running her own kitchen in a world-class restaurant. Haunted by an accident of which she was the lone survivor, Elena knows better than anyone how to defy the odds. With her faithful dog Alvin and her grandmother’s recipes, Elena arrives in Colorado to fine a restaurant in as desperate need of a fresh start as she is–and a man whose passionate approach to food and life rivals her own. Owner Julian Liswood is a name many people know, but a man few do. He’s come to Aspen with a troubled teenage daughter and a dream of the kind of stability and love only a family can provide. But for Elena, ghosts don’t die quietly, yet a chance to find happiness at last is worth the risk.
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Elena had been expecting Dmitri for more than an hour when he finally stormed through the back door of The Blue Turtle, the Vancouver restaurant where they both worked.
She’d come in early, as was her habit, to cook in the agreeable quiet of the Sunday morning kitchen, when the young apprentices and line cooks and dishwashers were all still abed after their Saturday night revelries. Her only companion was Luis, the forty-something El Salvadorian commis, who stirred his stock pots with a hand so brown and squat it looked like a hand balloon. He sung cheerfully under his breath, a bloody old Spanish folk song about a conquistadore taking revenge on his enemy. It made Elena think of nights at the VFW when she was eleven or twelve, drinking cokes while everyone danced the two-step. No doubt it made Luis think of bodegas back home.
Humming tunelessly along with him, Elena stood at the stove, stirring pale pink shallots and yellow onions with a long wooden spoon, thinking of the things she needed to check for service today. She thought of conquistadores and the plate armor they’d worn wore to protect them from arrows.
Mainly, she thought of Dmitri, who had betrayed her.
Her whole body ached this morning, back and hips from the old injuries, shoulders and neck from trying to erect the armor she had to assemble afresh each and every day, finely honed plates of sharp arrogance and bad language beneath which she—the secret and guarded Elena–could hide. She rolled her shoulder blades down her back, reminded herself to stand tall.
Shake it off.
When the onions were nearly done, she crushed garlic with the flat of her knife, and was about to scrape it into the mix when Dmitri burst through the back door.
Hearing his fury in the slam of the door, she pulled the pan off the fire and turned to meet his anger.
Long and lean, with severe planes in his beautiful, Russian face, he strode through the kitchen and flung a newspaper down on the counter. She turned off the burner and wiped her hands.
The paper was turned to the front page of the Lifestyle section, and featured a photo taken two weeks before. Of Elena, dressed in chef whites at the end of a shift, long blond hair pulled back from her face beneath the bright scarves she had adopted as her trademark. She lifted a glass of wine to the camera with a crooked smile and a saucy cock of a brow. It was a good photo, she thought again. It made her look younger than her 38 years, sexier, charming. The headline read:
STANDING UP TO THE HEAT
Blue Turtle Chef Says Life As A Female In the Kitchen Is Not Easy, But Worth It.
“I saw it,” she said mildly.
“You are fired.”
“What?” Her head jerked up. “Come on, Dmitri. It’s not my fault she liked me better than you. And you’re right there in the first paragraph, anyway!”
“It is my kitchen. Your focus should have been on the restaurant, on the menu. Not on yourself.”
“It is not your kitchen!” she said, slamming her knife down on the counter. “You have the title of chef, but you know as well as I do that we built this menu and this kitchen together. It’s as much mine as it is yours.”
“Is it?” He raised his index finger. “One question, hmm?” When he got angry or excited or passionate, his speech slipped into the Russian accent he’d labored over many years to lose. “Whose name is on that door?”
She wiped her hands, heat in her throat. “Yours.”
He grabbed the paper, slapped it with the fingers of his other hand. It sounded like a gunshot. “And where is the chef of The Blue Turtle in the article? Hmm?” His eyes, the color of cognac, burned with a yellow heat. “Not until page three! The end.”
“Isn’t it supposed to be about the restaurant?”
He gave her a withering look. The restaurant did not belong to him. The kitchen did.
“You told me to talk to her.” Elena shrugged. “I talked.”
A long, simmering silence hung between them, filled with the scent of onions and bruised garlic and the New Mexican chiles she asked to be imported. Feigning disdain for his tantrum, she pulled the pan back to the fire and scraped the garlic into it. The back of her neck burned with satisfaction, with worry and loss, with desire. She could smell him over the food, a heady mix of sweat and spices, cigarettes and sex, which he’d not had with her. Beneath her armor, her flesh wept.
“It was revenge, Elena.”
Methodically, she swirled the garlic into the butter, and put the spoon down. Met his eyes.
The minute the reporter had come through the doors with her old-school feminist hair – steely, frizzled salt and pepper – Elena had known she had a chance to get back at Dmitri.
And more, she’d earned it. Not only had he seized the glory from their joint effort to create the menu and the environment of The Blue Turtle, but two months ago, he’d moved out of their shared apartment to live with a girl with breasts like fried eggs and the guileless hero worship only a twenty-three year old CIA graduate could afford.
That would be the Culinary Institute of America, not the Central Intelligence Agency.
The garlic could not be neglected. Elena stirred in fire-roasted Anaheim chiles, letting them warm slowly. The scent had zest, dampness, appetite to it. Even Dmitri could not resist bending toward it, inhaling it. She looked at the top of his head, the thick hair.
The interview might have started as revenge, but it had become something more as Elena let herself open up to the reporter, her sharp eyes, her sympathy. “She was a feminist, Dmitri,” she said in the calm voice she had cultivated, “a woman who wanted to do a story about a woman in a man’s world.” She adjusted the flame the tiniest bit. “I gave it to her. And it worked–the restaurant is on the front page of the Lifestyle section.”
“You’re fired,” he said, punching the air with a finger.
She rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Oh, I assure you, I am not. When I come back here in an hour, I want you gone, not a trace.”
He turned, crisp as a Cossack, and marched out of the kitchen.
Automatically, Elena pulled the skillet from the burner and stared after him, pursing her lips. He’d fired her in the past, when they’d had one of their spectacular fights, only to call an hour or a day later to beg forgiveness. He needed her, Elena knew. More than he had sense to realize.
And he would likely calm down this time, too. Call later and beg her to come back.
Luis, who had pretended not to watch the scene unfolding, tsked.
Elena, embarrassed, shook her head. “He’ll get over it.”
But there was, suddenly, weariness in her. Too many fights, too many late nights spent trying to fix whatever it was that had gone wrong. She felt the exhaustion at the base of her neck, along the backs of her eyes. She lacked the energy to go another round with him. As much as she hated to start over – again! – this was broken. It was time to admit it.
She should never have begun. From the moment of their first meeting, she’d known that he was dangerous to her, a woman in a man’s world. For well over a year, she had resisted him, sticking to her unbroken rule to never sleep with a man who had power over her, and Dmitri was even more dangerous than most, a chef with a Russian accent and the mouth of rock star, a man with that intelligent, amoral twinkle in his eye.
But he pursued her, relentlessly, and Elena had fallen. Fallen to his genius as much as his beauty, fallen to his supposed, undying adoration of her, the mark of a man who lived on his charm.
Now she would pay the price. This silent Sunday morning, she folded her apron and put it on the pass-out bar, then went to the staffroom, changed from her chef’s whites and clogs into jeans and a long sleeved shirt tie-died in soft pink and orange, with tiny dancing skeletons on it. A gift from one of her sisters last Christmas, to remind her of home. Packing everything from her locker into the duffel she carried to and fro, and finally went out to the dining room for one last look.
The Blue Turtle had been her home for three years, the menu a loving creation between Dmitri’s old school French methods combined with Elena’s Santa Fe roots. Vancouverites, adventurous eaters that they were, adored the exotic fusion. The restaurant was a success in a very crowded market, and was attracting international press attention.
This was her home, not some far away town. A blister of fury zapped from the base of her spine through the top of her head. Bastard. How dare he banish her like this?
Luis raised his chin. “Vaya con Dios.”
Elena nodded. Hiking the duffel over her shoulder, she swallowed the hollow sense of loss and headed out to the softness of an early Vancouver morning. For a long moment, she stood there on the sidewalk with a hole in her chest, trying to think what to do.
How depressing to lose yet another home. Another and another and another. She had grown fond of this one, had thought perhaps it might be the one place. Her place.
Across the street, English Bay lay like a mirror in the fresh opalescence of morning. A storm gathered in the distant west, sending a gust of rain-scented wind over her face. She pulled on a pair of light cotton gloves, shook loose the hair on her shoulders, and tried to bring her mind to something practical. What could she have for breakfast? There was some fresh spinach, perhaps a hunk of cheese, some pear salad left from the night before.
A man suddenly stepped out of the doorway, and startled, Elena took a step backward to let him pass. There was an air of confidence about him, something both severe and sensual. Very dark glasses hid his eyes. A thin, hip goatee circled his mouth. She admired the spotlessness of his black jacket, the jeans he wore casually beneath it. Strong thighs, she noticed, relieved to discover Dmitri had not entirely killed her pleasure in the opposite sex.
The man gave her a nod. “Good morning.”
She inclined her head. A silk scarf, ribboned with faint orange and pink stripes, looped around his neck. Elegant. Smart. Maybe he was French. “Bon jour,” she said with a faint smile.
To her surprise, he paused. “Are you Elena Alvarez?”
“Who wants to know?”
“Sorry,” he said, tugging off his hat and sunglasses in a single fluid gesture. He had the uncanny grace and coloring of something supernatural–a vampire, perhaps. Tumbles of black hair fell down on a pale, finely-boned face. “I’m Julian Liswood.”
“Ah.” The owner of the restaurant. He carried a newspaper under his arm – he must have seen the article. Elena brushed her hands together–finished. “Dmitri already fired me, so don’t bother.”
His lips, that only pool of color in his face, quirked. “On the contrary. I came to Vancouver to speak with you. The commis in there told me you had just left. Do you have a few minutes?”
He studied her face. “You’re quite blonde,” he commented. “For someone named Alvarez.”
“Does that figure into the discussion?”
A flash of a smile crossed his mouth. “No.”
Elena waited. He wasn’t what she’d always imagined, either. The face was not beautiful – that high bridged nose and sharp cheekbones – but the hair was good. His eyes were steady and very dark and intelligent. It was hard to tell how old he was, but she knew he’d made his first movie when she was in high school. A decade older than she? He didn’t look it. Behind them a wind swept closer, bringing with it the sound of rain.
“Will you let me buy you breakfast?” he asked. “We’ll talk.”
“I’m a chef, as it happens, and my apartment is not far away.” She hoped there was a job in the offering. “Why don’t I cook instead?”
“Sadly, I do not have enough time. I have to fly to LA this morning to pick up my daughter.”
“Then by all means, let’s go to the Sylvia.”
They walked there beneath a sky that grew darker by the moment, heavy with rain. He moved with such effortless, long strides that Elena looked at his feet to see if he was actually touching the sidewalk. She felt a little dizzy, overwhelmed, and tried to think of something to say. “Don’t you have a movie out right now?”
“It’s just gone to DVD.” He looked sideways at her. “Are you a horror fan?”
“Not really. I like ghost stories, but the slasher flicks are too violent for me, honestly.”
“I prefer ghost stories,” he said, pulling open the door.
She looked at him. “Why don’t you make more of them, then?”
“The others are in fashion.” He tucked his hat in his pockets “They finance my smaller projects.”
A man in a white shirt and white tie came hustling forward, and seated them at a table by the windows. Elena ordered tea and milk, Mr. Liswood, coffee. In the corner, she saw a cluster of uniformed staff whispering, looking their way. She nodded toward them. “You’ve caused a stir.”
He skimmed the jacket from his shoulders. “I don’t think it’s me.”
A woman held up the newspaper and pointed to the picture. She waved, smiling. “Oh,” Elena said, pleased. She waved back.
“Your first taste of fame?”
She thought of long ago, the New Mexico newspapers. But that had been more notoriety than fame, so dark and heavy she’d had to flee to escape it. “In a way,” she said, then shifted attention back to him. “But you’re no stranger to it, are you?”
“I am not usually recognized for myself,” he said, “but for the wives I have unwisely collected.”
His rueful straightforwardness disarmed her, and Elena laughed, the sound shaking loose from some rusty place in her chest. His wives were tabloid fodder, starlets who began their careers in the teen slasher flicks that had made him his fortune. Restaurants were a sideline. Celebrity owners were not always the most adept, but Julian Liswood had earned the respect of the press—and harder to capture–his workforce. The Blue Turtle was the fourth he’d opened to spectacular success.
Elena said, “They have been rather beautiful wives, as I recall.”
“Well, you know what they say: never marry a girl prettier than you.”
She thought, with a pang, of Dmitri. “Been there.”
“Hard to imagine.”
“Oh, believe me—“ she started to say, there have been so many men, but that would have been too frank. Outside, rain began to splat against the window. She shivered slightly. Pulling her cup toward her, she said, “Now, tell me, Mr. Liswood, what do you have in mind?”
“Please call me Julian.”
“I’ll try. Julian.”
He took his time, stirring a lump of rough brown sugar into his coffee with a tiny spoon. His oval nails were manicured, and she wondered what kind of man had time for something like that. But of course, in his world, the veneer of such details would be required. She envisioned a cocktail party sparkling with beautiful people, manned by obsequious servers. It made her nervous.
Finally, he put down the spoon and tapped the newspaper on the table beside him. “You have strong views of the restaurant business.”
“Are you waiting for me to apologize for it?” she asked.
“I’ve been in kitchens for nearly twenty years. I’m tired of holding my tongue.”
Amusement flickered over his mouth. “Not at all. I’m intrigued.”
She took a breath. “Sorry. I might be a little testy just this minute. It’s never fun to be fired.”
“No.” He leaned back as the server, a young woman in a tan oxford shirt and black pants, approached. She was dewy and lean, with a smile that could bring in a lot in tips. She was also slightly messy and Elena wanted to brush her off, tell her to tuck her shirt in, iron her blouse next time.
Instead, she listened as the girl explained the buffet, and exchanged a slight smile with Julian. No one in the restaurant business ate at a buffet if it could be avoided. “I’d like the asparagus omelet,” Elena said. “Fruit instead of potatoes, please, and a glass of grapefruit juice.”
“I’ll have the mushroom omelet,” he said, handing her the menu. “Potatoes with mine, and a glass of milk instead of grapefruit juice.”
As she departed, Julian said, “You may know that The Blue Turtle is not my only restaurant.”
“Of course.” There were three in a line down the west coast. Vancouver, San Francisco, and San Diego. “I worked as a line cook, then was promoted to sous chef at The Yellow Dolphin.”
“Yes. I know.”
There was a soft fall, a short pause. “Expensive hobby, restaurants,” Elena said into it.
“It’s more than a hobby, actually.” The words were mild, but Elena reminded herself that he was a man with considerable power and influence. Who was probably going to offer her a job if she could keep the chip off her shoulder. Or at least hidden.
“Sorry. That was rude.”
One side of his mouth lifted in a half-smile. “Don’t apologize. It’s true that I don’t have the background you do, but I didn’t choose restaurants by accident. I love the business—bringing together a chef and a location and a direction and a staff and seeing what happens.”
“You’ve been very successful.”
“By trial and error. The Purple Tuna–are you familiar with it? In San Diego?”
“It failed twice.” He grinned. “Luckily, enough cash will hide a multitude of sins.
Elena was surprised into a laugh. “Is it successful now?”
“Yes. I kept changing the dynamic until it worked.”
“Staff. Menu.” He met her eyes. “Chef. The location is brilliant, and the building is beautiful. It took three years to get the rest of it right.”
Letting go of a long whistle, she said, “That’s a long time to keep a restaurant afloat. Why bother?”
“It’s a puzzle. I don’t like to give up until it fits together.”
She thought of the many, many elements that went into the success of a restaurant—menu, food, ordering, cash flow, décor and presentation, and most important, staff, front and back, all those personalities, often very high strung. “Very complicated puzzle.”
Leaning forward, he shook his hair off his brow and said, “Tell me, Elena, what are your five favorite foods?”
She tamped down a sense of anxiety. Was this a test? “Hmm. Favorite every day? Or favorite restaurant dishes? Or what?”
“Five best things you’ve ever eaten, anywhere. ”
She considered. In the service area, someone loaded hot glasses into a rack. Outside, a breeze coaxed ripples into the satiny surface of the ripening bay. She narrowed her eyes and chose honesty. “My grandmother’s homemade tamales, fresh out of the steamer. A cup of hot chocolate I drank in a restaurant by the Louvre in Paris. A plate of blue corn cheese enchiladas with green chile in Santa Fe.” That was three. She paused, letting others bubble up. “A bowl of buttered squashes at a museum restaurant. And—“ she sucked in a breath and snatched one of the hundreds swirling up “—a roasted garlic soup, in New Orleans.” She brought her focus back to Julian’s face. “I’ve been trying for years to reproduce that soup and still don’t know why it was so spectacular.”
She sipped her tea. “Now you.”
“Of course.” His eyes, she noticed, were not just brown, they were blackest black. It made him seem wise. “A plate of roasted lamb in New Zealand, made by a housewife who put us up when our car broke down.”
“Oh, I forgot lamb! I love lamb.”
“That was one. Two was a strudel our next door neighbor used to make, back when I was a kid.” He held up a third finger. “A bowl of green chile in a greasy spoon in New Mexico. Espanola, as it happens.”
She raised her eyebrows—she’d mentioned Espanola in the article. “My uncle probably made it.”
Julian chuckled. “A steak pie in Aspen, and—“ he gestured toward her, “–a zucchini blossom with blue cornbread and piñon stuffing.”
She pressed her hands into namaste position. “Thank you, kind sir.”
“The last three are why we’re here.”
A ripple of nerves shot through her gut. “Okay.”
“The steak pie was in a failing restaurant. The chef is a drunk, the owner was a ski bum who had no business sense, and the building is challenged, though in a very good location.”
Elena hazarded a guess. “And you bought it.”
He smiled. “Yes.”
The food came, steaming hot, served on heavy white porcelain plates the server set down with no attention whatsoever to presentation. The parsley on Elena’s was to the top—as it should have been—Julian’s at the bottom. She couldn’t be silent. It would have been like letting someone leave the restroom with toilet paper stuck to her shoe. “Miss?”
She turned. “Did I forget something?”
“No, it looks beautiful—but can I ask you a question?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Are you new to this job?”
“Yeah. Only three weeks.” She winced. “Does it show? They’re pretty short-handed and I didn’t get trained that good.”
Elena gently touched her wrist. In her smoothest, least threatening voice, she said, “The food here is beautiful. The setting is spectacular. You can make a lot of money if you pay attention to little details.”
She blinked, fearful as a rabbit. “Yeah? Like what?”
“Tuck your shirt in better. Stand up straight. Serve the food as if the diner is in for a giant treat.”
She bit her lip, confused. “Okay.”
“Parsley at the top, right?”
“Oh!” She smiled. “Right. I forgot. Anything else?”
“Grapefruit juice and milk.”
“Be right back.”
Julian picked up his fork. “You say exactly what’s on your mind, don’t you?”
“Did I embarrass you?”
“Not at all. It was compassionate.”
“Good.” She picked up her fork, admired the omelet, and took a bite. “Mmm. Very nice. You were saying?”
He took a moment to turn his plate slightly, choose a spot, cut a small triangle and sampled it, then a cube of potato, and another small bite of omelet. Paying attention. “I was about to say, those three things came together. The Aspen restaurant. The bowl of green chile in Espanola, and your zucchini blossom appetizer.”
He lifted a brow. “I would like you to come to Aspen and be my executive chef.”
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
PICK OF THE WEEK
“The writing is both subtle and colourful. Elena, in particular, is an engaging, complex character, direct and driven like all gifted chefs but also empathetic and haunted as she puts in train the transformation of the restaurant, strives to consolidate and settle her team of staff and struggles toward a happy ending. — Kerryn Goldsworthy
St. Petersburg Times
“The two begin a romance, but the story has more to offer: a rival who does his best to derail the new chef in town, a surprisingly political take on the situation of undocumented workers, and, of course, Elena’s reaction when the changes in her life affect her relationship with her beloved, inconvenient ghosts. ….Will appeal to women’s fiction fans and foodies, who will enjoy the intriguing recipes…laced through the book”—Holly Fults
Courier Mail, Australia
“Plunges the reader into a world of gastronomic celebration that rings with authenticity.” –Gillian Bramley-Moore
“Strong characters and a savory plot make for an emotional read that had me turning the pages late into the night–and reaching for the box of Kleenex more than once. The descriptive food passages are both mouth-watering and sensual, and are complemented throughout by various recipes….five stars!”
Melanie Bates , ROMANTIC TIMES said…
“Beautiful writing, good storytelling and an endearing heroine set against the backdrop of Aspen, Colo., are highlights of O’Neal’s novel. A tale that intertwines food, friendship, passion and love in such a delectable mix is one to truly savor until the very last page.
Rocky Mountain News
The food descriptions will be fun for foodies. When the protagonist makes notes for a menu, the descriptions are juicy. …Honest to goodness recipes, like the one for “Banana and Chocolate Chip Pancakes” … focus a reader’s interest in O’Neal’s true-life culinary cache…. A light read for food lovers.
Sarah Addison Allen
“As dark and deep and sweet as chocolate…I wanted to live in this book.”