What happens when a reclusive chocolatier has to look beyond his own walls? Will a woman brave his flights of fancy or crash and burn?
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Food Network Confectionary Challenge, I’m your host, Alton Brown.”
The camera moves over the multi-colored lights and eccentric architecture of downtown Las Vegas – a slow zoom into the entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel focuses in on a figure in dark brown, wire-rimmed glasses glint in the spotlight.
“ We have quite the lineup tonight with world’s best confectionary artist in teams from six countries competing here in magical Las Vegas, Nevada. The challenge – create a spun sugar sculpture and three confectionary creations in the 8 hours allotted for the competition.”
There are multiple shots of past competitions, figures in white moving like dancers to bend light and color in magical ways and the fantastical creations they spawn.
“The sculpture has to be at least 5 feet high and able to be transported to the judgment table without breaking.”
Pictures of mythical creatures and abstract sculptures breaking and shattering at the feet of kitchen workers fill the multiple screens behind the competition area.
“The confectionary creations – one chocolate, one fruit, and one original creation, has to be delivered to the judges at 2 hour intervals. Some of the best and the brightest are represented here tonight so let’s meet the teams!
“Team France – Jacques LeBeau and his team have competed in the past three competitions winning two golds and a silver respectively…”
Veronica rubbed her hands together nervously; flop sweat was making her hands slippery. She swallowed the dry lump in her throat with effort and tried center her thoughts and focus on the upcoming work. Victor shot her an impatient glance, “Just focus on the prep work. Stay out from under my feet and we’ll get along fine.”
Victor Brahm, head of Team UK allowed Veronica there on sufferance alone – her work with spun sugar was without peer and he wanted to win. He wanted the limelight, the fame and the recognition that came with winning such a prestigious event. Never mind that his ambitions outreached his talent – he’d surround himself with those who could garner him the recognition he felt he so richly deserved.
The countdown was in seconds now and Veronica tensed at her station, trying to relax – this was an endurance race, like a marathon. It would do no good to start out like a shot only to peter out after a few hours. The buzzer sounded and suddenly the cool mantle of competence dropped over her shoulders – she grabbed the 5 lb bag of sugar and dumped it into the pot. She quickly calculated the right amount of water to the mixture and slid it onto the stove. Without pausing she turned and began to prepare the forms needed to mold the molten sugar into art.
The noise from the competition faded, as did her awareness from the two others bustling around her. Veronica was in her zone – her art. Victor and his assistant knew where her gifts lay and set to making the confectionary candy creations to be judged in little less than 2 hours.
In a darkened room, hundreds of miles from the bright glitter of Las Vegas, a dark figure watched Food Network. It was late at night and he was the only one around – just as he’d planned. The long lanky body was curled into itself cautioned by the white beanbag chair in front to the large flat screen. His violet eyes followed the action, not just watching the ones talking on camera, but the ones scurrying in the background as well. It was his experience that the ones doing the talking were far less talented than the ones actually doing the work. It was one of these silent minority that he was searching for.
The rest of the day had been rough – high humidity and a heat wave moved through the area and caused problems for the competition. The candy confections were finished, although Veronica had to bit her tongue until it bled as Victor continually minced through her work area, arranged her pots and equipment and - the greatest blasphemy - diddled with the temperature of her molten candy. He was playing to the camera – as soon as the crews came through he’d shove her to another part of the small competition kitchen, or snarl for her to get supplies and then turn to the camera with a grin and playful banter. God, she was beginning to despise the man even more.
The sweat made her hair stick uncomfortably to the back of her neck and face, she had to ignore it though, training prevented her from reaching to wipe it away and contaminate her hands or tools with human perspiration. She was concerned about her material – the temperature fluctuations due to Victor’s meddling and the additional humidity significantly destabilized the spun sugar – making it even more fragile. Rightfully so it turned out as she heard the gasp and crash from the booth next door. Their sculpture – of a Jackson Pollock-like figure in a swirl of colors, had broken under the strain and was even now under assault of the three sugar-spinners next door in the frantic attempts to salvage something for judgment.
Victor chuckled with malicious glee at the misfortune of the team next door. Veronica murmured to him “Don’t get too cocky – we could be next.” Victor whirled on her with fury, “Get back to work – we’ve 10 minutes to judgment and you’re lagging.” Their sculpture was almost complete, but there was a major problem, any more weight and her work would be joining the three others that had shattered.
She calmly took the fragile petals of their flower sculpture and with the steady hands of a surgeon leaned in with the blowtorch to fasten the last of the ornamentation. Suddenly there was a bump to her side and Victor was there grabbing the torch and the forceps from her hand and turning to smile at the camera crew that was coming toward them.
Veronica snapped, “Damn it Victor – not now…” But Victor was already in motion – his movements too quick and jerky for the delicate work. He was too busy hamming it up for the camera and speaking with Alton Brown.
“Just a minor touch-up and we’re…” Victor grinned and applied the torch at a critical weight support point.
“Victor wait!” her eyes widened in fury and horror.
The piece snapped in his hand, and in slow motion she could see the crumbling of hours of hard labor. The gasp of the crowd and the almost musical chiming of crumbling sugar almost drowned out the flood of blood through her ears. She could only stand in horror beside the colorful shard mountain. The camera crew, having recorded the reactions of team UK moved on and Victor stared at the mess for a moment.
His dreams of winning the competition were shattered like the sculpture before him. His dreams of rubbing elbows with celebrities, of his own TV show, of groupies reaching to grab his hands for blessings swirled through his mind, only to vanish like the dreams they were. His rage, rising like the tide dimmed his eyesight in a blood-tinged haze as he turned to face the source of his humiliation.
“You are fired. No not just fired - banished! You will never work in this industry again – I’ll see to it personally that you never find a job except as a fast-food fry cook. Get the hell out of my kitchen. I never want to see you again!”
Veronica stared at the man before her – her own blood thundering through her veins, face flushed with heat and humiliation. Tears threatened to rise, but she’d be damned if she’d give this bastard the satisfaction. She quickly whipped off the team jacket, leaving her in cargo pants and olive tee-shirt and threw it at his head. “Reap what you sow, asshole!” She turned to grab her bag and quickly slipped out of the room as the buzzer sounded, the competition was over.
“Interesting,” said the man watching the slow crumble of the sculpture. Unknown to the Team Leader Victor Brahm, the camera had recorded his little temper tantrum. His eyes followed the exiled figure as it slipped out of the competition hall. He’d been watching this one – her movements smooth and fluid, no hesitation. She’d made the correct adjustments for the environment and he had noted the only moments of discord had been when the Victor had interfered. It was the few moments of true innovation that really caught his eye – bending and twisting the hot liquid sugar more like making elaborate glasswork than candy. Too bad the camera missed most of her work – bouncing from team to team didn’t really give him a feel for what she was doing.
Using the remote control he rewound the video until he found a clear view of her face – the moment when the sculpture shattered. She was very pale –gray almost, hair somewhere between light brown and red, hazel eyes burning – all clashing with the horrible pink of the team uniform. Her lips were pinched, but anger, not horror, was the prominent expression. So, she’d know what Victor’s bungling was about to bring - knowledgeable.
The man with the violet eyes nodded – a strong contender. With some background checks, he may have to pay a visit to this one.
Victor glided up and down the sparkling stainless steel tables, calmly studying the efforts of the culinary students. Each student had paid $2,500 for the honor of studying with the man who dazzled audiences and catered to the stars - peddling his eatable confectionary creations. It was rumored that he’d made transparent sugar angels for TomKat’s wedding. Dolce La Vita was the elite catering center for the Los Angeles area.
“Very good,” he murmured to one, glancing down her top. Very nice he thought to himself.
He walked around, carefully inspecting each effort – offering the occasional word or comment for improvement. Little did these students know that their creations would be offered up to his customers as his own work a few hours after they had departed.
A real-world learning experience Victor told himself.
He’d done this for more than two years, the few that had confronted him with threats of going to the police or media soon found themselves out of a job, rumors of scandal following them wherever they attempted to go. Once or twice, he mentioned a particularly tenacious complainant to some close friends who happen to find said complainant in alone in a dark alley and “took care” of things for their friend Victor.
Victor Brahm was not a forgiving man – when his spite was invoked, he would stop at nothing to see that his target was completely and utterly destroyed. Unfortunately, he was also a charming man who hid his ire well. Things just seemed to happen to those who’ve crossed him and Victor what the first to offer up a horrified exclamations and sympathy to the injured party.
Victor sat at his rarely used desk in the back of his bakery. He glanced through his e-mails and was pleased to note that requests for his creation spanned at least the next six months, with more flowing in for the next year. He’d worked hard to ensure that the blame for the fiasco that was the confectionary competition landed on the responsible party – the lowest on the totem pole. Victor smirked to himself while typing out a message to a catering acquaintance. A few words here, a free sample of work for someone’s exclusive cocktail party, and a suggestion there – and like magic no one wanted anything to do with Veronica Carmichael.
He amused himself with thoughts of her subjugation as he filled out supply request forms, reviewed inventory and the other minutia that went with the running of a business. He was puzzling over a sticky note from his supplier with something that said either “caramel” or “can melt” or even the outside possibility of “camel” when the phone rang.
“Dolce la Vita, this is Victor” he muttered into the phone as he attempted to get the bloody thing off his fingers.
“I beg your pardon? Were you mumbling?” asked the rich tenor voice on the other end of the line.
“May I help you?” enunciated Victor, rolling his eyes and finally divesting himself of the sticky note.
“I’m trying to reach a Mr. Victor Brahm.”
“This is he.” Will this guy get to the point anytime soon?
“Mr. Brahm, I’m trying to track down a colleague of yours who competed with you at the Food Network Confectionary Challenge in Las Vegas in August.”
Victor frowned at the mention of the competition. “There were a lot of people there. Depends on who you might be looking for Mr…”
Ignoring the question the voice smoothly continued, “A young woman, perhaps late 20’s to early 30’s, reddish brown hair – worked almost exclusively on the spun sugar...”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know who you’re talking about. We had someone who fit that description a few years ago, but they’ve moved on to New Mexico.” Victor wasn’t about to talk about to talk about Veronica to anyone unless it was a creditor.
“Really? My own sources tracked one Ms. Veronica Carmichael to your business as late as August of this year.”
Victor froze. Whoever this was had managed to slip the net of references he relied on to refer business to him.
He sighed heavily and decided to spin this inquiry to his favor, “I’m sorry, I really didn’t want to do this – Yes, I do know of a Veronica Carmichael, but she was let go under unfavorable circumstances.”
“What kind of unfavorable circumstances?”
“No, Nakow – it’s…um…Russian.”
“Mr. Nakow – Ms. Carmichael was let go for several reasons, she had a horrible work ethic – never showing up on time or completing her projects on schedule; she refused to follow basic unsanitary guidelines, and she let her personal life interfere with work.” Victor grinned to himself – taking malicious glee in dragging Veronica’s name through the mud.
“Really? What kind of personal problems?” asked Mr. Nakow
She wouldn’t sleep with me, Victor thought to himself. “She was constantly leaving work without notice – we all assumed it had something to do with her boyfriend.”
“Interesting. Still, I would like to speak with her. Would you happen to have a number?”
Victor frowned at this. No one up to this point has persisted in looking for the pest. “Sorry – I don’t. If you have business for her, we might be able to assist…”
“No thank you.” And with that, Mr. Nakow hung up.
“Loser,” Victor muttered and slammed the phone back into the cradle. His former good mood was gone – reminded once again of the humiliating defeat two months prior.
On the other end of the line – the headset was set once again into the antique mahogany and brass phone that sat on the lavish desk. The phone itself was almost lost in the shuffle of various desk toys, one-a-day calendars and post-it notes. A purple latex clad hand absently reached out to the pencil holder that inexplicably was jammed with candy canes and selected one.
His violet eyes narrowed in thought as he unwrapped the treat and nibbled on the end. This was hardly an unexpected response – the man’s pride had been wounded and the footage of his response during the competition was proof enough that he harbored ill-intent toward Ms. Carmichael.
He studied his ceiling with the peppermint candy swirl as he spun in his chair. Tracking her down had been difficult, and finding someone who wanted to talk about her without crossing Mr. Brahm was even tougher.
He spun faster.
A few had spoken up in her favor though, and the other workers he had singled out during the competition all agreed that she was the most skilled subject expert…
…besides himself of course.
Unfortunately, time was finite and his even more so. It would be impossible for him to dedicate the time and effort for this delicate project – and tasking it to his workers would be the height of rudeness. No, finding someone else outside the factory to maintain secrecy was critical.
He set the candy down and stood up with new determination – and immediately grabbed the desk as the world spun around him. It looks like it was time to gird his loins for going out into the world for a visit.
Then he wondered how one girded one’s loins without injury.
… and unhygienic.