“Rusty, where does this spatula go?” I held up a heat-weathered and browning object of undetermined age, perfect for flipping ham in a skillet.
Rusty, a heat-weathered and browning object himself, unbent himself from lifting a rack of steaming dishes from the dishwasher with a groan. “What Hannah?”
“Where does this go?” I repeated, waving Rusty’s magic ham-wand and trying to look the picture of patience—a virtue I was sadly lacking at the moment.
“Right there. In that drawer just yonder.” Rusty pointed with his chin, nodded with his head, and directed with the whites of his eyes while I stood still, completely bewildered.
“No, over a little more.” Rusty settled his load of clean dishes on the counter and reached for the spatula in my hand. “Here, I’ll show you.”
He hauled open a drawer and nestled his spatula in with a whole settlement of other spatulas, none of them looking as worn or well-loved as his own. Then he pushed the drawer shut on its rollers and gave me a nod.
“You’ll get there, Hannah. There’s just a lot to learn.” He drawled the words in thick southern expression while the wrinkles under his eyes gave him the sad-eyed appearance of a hound dog. “It’s all simple, but there’s a lot to learn.”
I sighed. I had been working at the elegant ten-room B&B with its panoramic view of the Great Smoky Mountains for the better part of the month. My co-workers had worked at the place for years, even decades. My former experience working at a dude ranch in Colorado had snapped up the job in an over-the-phone interview with the inn’s owner, but that didn’t seem to count with Rusty, the breakfast cook who moved slower than rising bread dough on a cold day. According to him I still had a lot to learn. I frowned at the spatula drawer, grabbed a pot of coffee from the coffee maker, and let the door to the breakfast room swing shut behind me—shutting the kitchen, and Rusty, from view.
Working in the kitchen of a premier dude ranch in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado had accustomed me to a brisk, if not breakneck, work environment. I could still see my former boss moving about her kitchen like she was performing footwork in a choreographed Broadway.
I could picture the steaming pancakes, the French toast that gloried in their cinnamon soaked crust, the omelets stuffed to the bursting point with good things—and Eggs Benedict prepared just for me after all of our guests had been served. My boss’s voice, just beside me in the kitchen, had taught me how to use my chef’s knife, saying “Slow is smooth, Hannah. Smooth is fast.”
Now, over the soft music in the breakfast room and on the opposite side of the door, I could hear Rusty banging his way through the plating process. Unfortunately, there was nothing smooth about Rusty’s slow. For a split second I tried to imagine Rusty and my previous breakfast chef at work in the same kitchen, but the daydream didn’t last beyond a mental vision of strife, chaos, and maybe an explosion or two. My former chef would have about as much tolerance for Rusty’s take-it-slow philosophy as he would have for her cookie-dough scooping competitions. I said a silent prayer of thanks that the two breakfast chefs were separated by approximately fifteen hundred miles of American soil, each taking residence on opposite sides of the Great Mississippi River.
“Sorry about the wait,” I said to a middle-aged couple seated by the window that overlooked the garden as I filled their mugs with steaming coffee. “Breakfast will be out shortly.” At least, I hoped so.
I could hear the weatherman droning about scattered showers in the afternoon as soon as I pushed back through the door into the kitchen. Rusty stood with a ladle dripping Parmesan Bolognese over a sizable portion of Eggs Benedict with his eyes fixed on the television.
I blinked, surprised, as he finished the plate with a sprinkle of cayenne and a dash of chives on top of the poached eggs. He garnished two heaping plates with slices of tomato and handed them to me to be served.
“Wow, Rusty.” The smell of sautéed garlic in the frothy cream sauce teased my senses and set my mouth to watering. “That looks good.”
Rusty shrugged and waved a hand toward the breakfast room door with the waiting guests beyond it. “Tell ‘em I don’t do autographs.”
I laughed despite myself and carried the plates away, breathing more easily now that hot food was in route for hungry bellies. When I returned, a lone plate of Eggs Benedict waited on the counter, complete with garnish. I frowned, puzzled.
“But everyone’s already been serv—”
Rusty handed me the plate and pointed at the silverware drawer. “That is for you. Now you just take a little break and eat that. No one goes hungry in my kitchen.”
I ate the Eggs Benedict and stayed quiet. The Bolognese was creamy and rich, the eggs, soft and perfect. The English muffin was toasted and buttery.
To my surprise, Eggs Benedict tasted the same served up on either side of the Mississippi. I still hoped my two breakfast chefs would never have the misfortune of meeting, but, strangely enough, they had similarities. Both of my chefs held the conviction that breakfast was a cause worth rising early to achieve and that feeding people was a way to serve up home-cooked care with each plate that headed out to the breakfast room. For them, food was a common ground—a way to treat people as people—a way to see past differences and show care.
I cut past the sauce, beyond the gentle wobble of egg and rich yolk, down through the Canadian bacon and through a happy crust of English muffin before taking another bite. It seemed that no matter where I was—and whatever kitchen I happened to inhabit—there was going to be a lot to learn.