“Hey Lady, wash your windshield for a fiver,” the man said, gesturing at my fifty thousand dollar Mercedes roadster with a dirty rag.
“I’ll pay you ten if you just watch my car and tell me how to get to the Madison Avenue Mission,” I said.
“You must be here for Zhang,” he said. A broken toothed grin followed this.
I pulled a ten from my jacket pocket, holding it in plain view. “Madison Avenue Mission?”
“’Round the corner, but you’ll have to wait in line like everybody else.”
Balling the ten against my palm, I tossed it to him.
“Remember, hands off my car.” I could hear him cackling as I walked away.
A line of mostly men and a few women snaked from a nondescript doorway in the middle of the block. Ignoring the mostly curious and occasionally hostile looks, I took a place in line behind the last person, a woman surrounded by a barricade of worn Nordstrom shopping bags, reinforced with duct tape and filled with clothing and outdated copies of Better Homes and Gardens. Something about her looked familiar, like I’d met her before. She turned her tired brown gaze on me.
“You know they’ll ask you for a donation if you look too good.”
I glanced down at my plain windbreaker and worn jeans and then at the line around me.
“I can loan you a jacket or something that don’t look quite so nice,” the woman said and began digging through her bags.
“Thanks, but I can give them a donation.”
She nodded. “I used to be able to give a little something, until my unemployment ran out. You must be here for Zhang.”
“Is he the cook?”
“The best cook this place ever had. Never thought I liked that Chinese food stuff before.”
“He sounds interesting.”
She laughed softly. “Interesting doesn’t even begin to sum it up. Wait til you see him.”
People shuffled forward a couple of steps. She herded the bags with her foot.
“Since he showed up, it’s getting tough to get in here for a meal. You’re lucky tonight. Most nights, even the second seating line goes around the block and down the street.”
I heard a door open inside and the line started moving in earnest. She scrambled to pick up her bags. I reached down to pick one up for her.
“I got it!” she snapped, looping her fingers through the tape handles.
As we neared the doorway, I went to remove my sunglasses and then decided against it. It wasn’t that I was afraid of being recognized because I doubted anyone here kept a dossier or had reward posters up on me. Besides it was unlikely I could be recognized after the last two weeks of broken sleep and the strange vivid dreams that led me here, I pretty much looked like crap.
Next to the entry, a man wearing a faded jean jacket with black shirt and starched white priest collar sat behind a beat up card table. On the table next to him was a 5 gallon water jug with a rough cut hole cut in the side. A few crumpled ones and fives littered the bottom.
He looked pointedly at me and then at the jug. “We do accept donations.”
“Yes, of course.” I pulled another ten from my jacket, dropping it into the jug opening.
“Thank you,” the priest said. Then he stared hard at my face.
An uncomfortable trickle of sweat rolled down into my collar. I’d been reviewing restaurants for four years now. Getting recognized by someone before you had the chance to review the food and service tainted the process. I knew for a fact that my picture and dossier graced the walls of most the upscale restaurants in the Seattle.
Having been a chef, I also knew the kitchen and wait staff kicks into high gear and nothing is spared or missed in getting the food to that person who could make or break your life’s work with a few well-chosen words.
I doubted that the Madison Avenue Mission worried much about reviews. They would probably be more concerned about a visit from the health inspector than a restaurant critic. So why was the priest still staring?
“You’re not high are you?” he snapped.
“Most folks that come in here wearing dark glasses are trying to hide the fact their loaded and we don’t allow that.” He bobbed his head. “So if you want to eat, take them off.”
Embarrassed, I dragged the glasses from my face, tucking them into the pocket of my jacket. He stared at me a moment longer before finally handing me a slip of paper with today’s date and the words second seating dinner meal ticket, printed on it.
The line edged forward through a brightly lit hallway to another open doorway. Here a man in overalls exchanged my ticket for a tray with a paper plate and plastic knife, fork and spoon. We snaked forward.
Inside the main room, the delicious aromas spicy ginger, cooked beef, sesame and pungent garlic surprisingly overpowered the smells of unwashed humanity. I could feel my mouth actually begin to water, as I inhaled the wonderful aromas. Suddenly I was filled with an intense longing, for what I wasn’t sure. My stomach rumbled and I wiped away the bit of drool that collected on my bottom lip.
Until this moment I’d actually doubted the rumors that some mysterious, phenomenal pan-Asian chef had taken up cooking at a soup kitchen. I drew in another deep breath of delicious smells and became more anxious to sample, whatever this guy was cooking. I’d eaten and cooked in the best restaurants in the world. Yet nowhere had my visceral self-responded so strongly.
After torturous minutes of smelling but not being able to taste the meal that awaited me, I reached the window. I slid my tray along the worn metal counter. A man wearing a white plastic apron over a plaid shirt, ladled soup into a paper bowl which he set on my tray. Delicious steam rose up making me want to dive, nose first, into the bowl of celadon colored broth dotted with lively green cuts of asparagus. Rich smells of ginger, lemongrass, and several things it couldn’t identify filled my head. This was definitely not the kind of soup one pictured coming out of a soup kitchen.
“Asparagus and lemongrass,” the man said gruffly.
“Umm. It smells wonderful,” I said.
“Move along, you’re holding up the line,” someone behind me grumbled.
I moved the soup to the edge of the tray, careful to not spill a drop. The shopping bag woman passed her paper plate to the person standing behind a huge pot, who deposited a large scoop of brown rice onto it. I followed along, doing as she did.
He backed through the swinging doors, from the kitchen. Broad shoulders, in a starched white jacket, tapered down to a narrow waist that disappeared into checkered chef pants. A braid wrapped in black leather hung half down way his muscular back. From this angle, he looked more like the classic hero from a late night Kung Fu movie, than a chef. His full throaty laugh boomed through the hall and sent a tingle through me. Although I had no idea what the joke was, I found myself smiling in response. Balanced on each kitchen towel covered hand he carried steaming trays of grilled beef mixed with vegetables. This new aroma restarted the mouthwatering.
When he turned, the sight of his handsome face nearly took my breath away. Deep laugh lines etched the corners of his almond eyes above remarkably high cheekbones and a wicked smile curved full lips. Zhang was clearly not a thirty-something or probably not even forty-something. This was a mature man who radiated an intoxicating energy.
Intense black eyes swept over me and one eyebrow rose with mocking amusement. A jolt went through my body, my breath caught in my throat for a second time. Wow!
The aromas filling the room seemed to intensify, sweeping over me in a wave of heat and to my utter amazement, horniness.
“Enjoy,” he said looking directly at me.
Had I been recognized? Before I reply, he’d set down his trays, grabbed the empties from the steam table, and returned to the kitchen. Flabbergasted, I stood staring and yes, hoping he would come back, soon.
“Move it lady, other folks want to eat too,” a man snarled. Then he mumbled “what do you think this is, the Ritz?”
Not knowing where to sit I searched the crowded dining room for my line friend. She smiled and lifted a hand waving me over to the end of a long wooden picnic table. I set down my tray across from hers and slid onto the bench.
“Told you, Zhang’s something, isn’t he?”
I nodded. “If this food is only half as good as it smells.”
“Oh it is. And even better, it’s as good as he looks.”
She dipped the plastic spoon into the warm soup, and began slurping it into her mouth quickly; as if she were afraid someone would swoop in and take it from her. I looked around and noticed she wasn’t the only one. Everyone seemed to be eating as if they were engaged in some kind of race.
The woman stopped eating to stare at my puzzled expression.
“Gotta hurry up. I’m going to try for a bed at the Light House, but they fill up early,” she explained.
She used her paper napkin to wrap up her dinner roll before sliding it into one of the bags.
“Breakfast,” she said.
Under the circumstances it seemed unlikely I’d be able to interview any of the folks eating about their thoughts on this amazing chef, since they all seemed to be concentrating on nothing but speed eating.
I scooped some of the lemon grass asparagus soup into my mouth. Spicy, piquant, rich, savory, the adjectives I used to describe food all the time suddenly felt woefully inadequate. Luckily I wasn’t here to review the food. I needed to talk to the chef.
I’d barely finished the soup by the time my new acquaintance began gathering her bags and heading out.
“I think we may have met before. My name’s Lucy.”
For an instant embarrassment filled her eyes, then it was gone, replaced by wariness.
“I don’t think so she said. Name’s Grace.”
“Well it was nice meeting you Grace,” I told her.
“You too. Lucy ”
Grace grabbed up another roll and a plastic bowl of chocolate pudding packing it into the top of one of her bags.
“Maybe I’ll see you around, but I doubt it.” She popped up to join the throng heading out the door. As she shuffled out, I couldn’t’ shake the certainty that I knew her.
I started in on the main course of tender beef, with delicate slivers of Nappa cabbage and julienned carrots in a sauce of orange, ginger and the perfect spark of jalapeno.
As I was finishing up, a young man came in from the back pushing a broom through the dining hall. I was the only one left sitting at a table still. A couple of men were talking with the priest in the corner. The sweeper circled through the room until he worked his way over to the table, managing to bang my ankles twice with the end of the broom before mumbling,
“Is Zhang, the cook still here?” I asked.
“Yeah, in the kitchen.”
The broom made painful contact with my ankle bone again. Picking up my tray I hurried out the line of fire.
“Would anyone mind if I went back to talk to him?” I called to the sweeper.
He shrugged and continued sweeping.
All they could do is throw me out. I dropped the paper dishes in the trash can and stacked the tray on top of the pile. Just as I reached over the swinging gate to unlatch it, Zhang came through the door from the kitchen.
“You know we don’t allow people back here,” he said smiling.
A wave of heat flooded my pussy and my heart leaped into my throat. I smiled back at him I think.
“I thought if you had a minute, we might talk. I’m a writer.”
“I know who you are.” His eyes travelled from mine down over my body in a slow speculative sweep. “Lucy Caswell, food writer, restaurant reviewer and extraordinary chef.” His look turned serious. “Although I’m a little surprised that you’d want to review this place.”
I looked past him through the window to the crowded kitchen space. “Probably not, but I would like to do a story on you.”
His affectionate gaze took in the dingy beige walls, painted concrete floor and battered picnic tables before settling back on me and once again, I felt a surge of sexuality wash over me.
Abruptly, Zhang turned and headed back toward the kitchen. I followed him, telling myself I wanted the story. But the truth was I’d have followed him anywhere, just to stay in contact with that sensual energy he exuded.
“Why?” Zhang said.
“I’m sure you already know that you’re a phenomenal chef. Juxtapose that with the fact you’re working in a soup kitchen and there’s got to be a fascinating story here. I just want to be the one who writes it.”
He chuckled, while his eyes narrowed. “Probably not nearly as fascinating as you hope.”
“So why are you here? Doing court ordered community service?
“Something like that.”
Maybe it was heat left over from the spicy food, or an errant hot flash, but suddenly sweat drenched my body. Zhang lips stretched into a shrewd smile, like he knew. My pussy twitched in response. No, this could not be happening. I shrugged adjusting my bra against the tingle in my nipples.
“How about it Mr. Zhang?”
“It’s just Zhang.” He pushed open the door to the kitchen and held it for me. As I passed him a pungent earthy odor filled my head, a mixture of pineapple, fine port, mushrooms, and chocolate. Breathing in the delicious smell my mind searched for a correlation.
Truffles? Black truffles, at over eight hundred dollars an ounce, they were hardly an ingredient one expected to smell in a soup kitchen.
Zhang stood close behind me, so close I felt the warmth of his body through my shirt and windbreaker. Another wave of heat and horniness engulfed me.
“I noticed you didn’t take dessert, Lucy,” Zhang said. “Don’t you like chocolate pudding?”
“I usually skip deserts, unless I’m reviewing them.” I shuddered as his warm exhale tickled the hairs on the back of my neck.
“Then I’m glad I saved you some.”
He went to the refrigerator and returned carrying a clear plastic dish with a picture perfect swirl of dark chocolate pudding peeking above the rim. I reached for it, but instead of handing me the dish Zhang popped off the lid and dipped one long middle finger into the chocolaty mixture, capturing a dollop on the end. Then he lifted the pudding drenched finger to my lips, while those black eyes locked onto mine.
Outrageous and extremely hot, surely he didn’t expect me to lick his finger, I thought as I leaned toward him, lips parting. He smiled as the tip of my tongue snaked out to capture a blob of pudding before it dripped.
I licked anticipating the usual too sweet, too bland mixture that gave pudding a bad name. What touched my lips literally sang with lusciousness. Oh my gods, this sure in hell wasn’t what I’d expected.
My trained palette sorted through the flavors compiling a basic recipe. The rich taste of 80 percent cacao chocolate mixed with sweet cream, and a complex blend of raspberries, vanilla and citrus exploded across my tongue, Chambord, my memory supplied the liqueur’s name. The combination of flavors set off a cascade of pleasurable impulses throughout my body.
Closing my eyes I explored the perfect blending of flavors. A shudder went through me tightening by gut and making my pussy grow even wetter. Unable to resist, I leaned forward pulling Zhang’s pudding covered finger into my mouth, sucking on it gently until I finished off the rest.
Zhang growled under his breath. My eyes flew open and they went immediately to the large mound pushing against the checkered fly of his chef’s pants. Slowly, he extracted his finger from between my lips and moved closer replacing it with his tongue.
Okay, the pudding had been a sparkler compared to the Roman candle that shot through my body, lighting me up.
Zhang’s tongue wandered slowly through the recesses of my mouth. When I responded, leaning into the firm planes of his chest, he slid his hips forward pressing against mine. That’s when my brain went Fourth of July meets, Van Halen light show. His hands dropped low gripping my ass, kneading it like a loaf of challah. Suddenly it felt as if we were in the middle of a really great fuck.
I gasped at this thought knowing I had to stop or this would get even more out of hand.
Zhang’s tongue withdrew and he laughed softly against my mouth.
I backed away and moved quickly to stand next to the ancient refrigerator. Zhang did not follow and did not speak. He stood, fabulous body braced against the edge of a large metal work table, watching me.
“I’m sorry I don’t know what got into me. I don’t usually kiss men I’ve just met.” Even ones as hot as you; the thought finished itself inside my head. “I mean your pudding is really is delightful.” I floundered.
He didn’t respond, but the amusement behind those black eyes gave me the disconcerting feeling that he knew exactly what I was thinking.
“I would still like to do a story about you, if you wouldn’t mind.”
His shift from one foot to the other drew my gaze again to the now enormous bulge between his legs. Desire stronger than any I’d ever experienced before burned through me.
“I’ll tell you my story, if you’ll cook with me,” Zhang said.
“What, no. I mean don’t do that anymore.”
He went over to the grill and pulled the cleaner from the hook on the wall. Turning his back to me he began scraping.
Fascinated I watched the flex of his back muscles beneath the chef’s jacket as he pushed against the scraper. Reaching behind him, Zhang grabbed a metal pitcher of water. This he dumped over the hot surface sending a cloud of steam wafting upward into the vent hood.
I had already pitched this story to Jim, my editor and he had flipped for it. Now I’d have to go back and tell him that Zhang wouldn’t talk to me and hustle down another story in the meantime.
“Come on, I promise I won’t make you look bad or anything like that. It would only take a couple of hours of your time.”
“I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” He paused turning around to face me again. “If you cook with me, here, for one week.”
“I told you I no longer cook, professionally.”
The sound of Zhang’s laughter created another cloud of steam, this time inside my brain.
“Besides, I’ve never done any of this kind of cooking,” I waved my hand over the shabby kitchen.
“You mean you’ve never cooked for the less fortunate. Ever think you might need to?” Zhang turned back to the grill.
I felt myself bristling at his assumption. I may not have cooked in a soup kitchen but I’d donated my skills and my restaurant many times for charity events including raising money for the homeless.
“No, I meant I have no training in Asian cooking techniques.”
“Not a problem. I’m a great teacher and that’s the deal.”
“When would I have to start?”
“If you want to make deadline, we should probably get started tomorrow at 2,” Zhang said.
“And I’d only have to cook for a week?” I asked.
“Yes, and only for dinner, after a week you can leave.” He paused. “That is, if you still want to go.”
I had no doubt I would still want to go. The mere thought of going back into the kitchen after the way I’d left my own restaurant, four years ago terrified me.
Zhang stopped his scraping and carried over the half full pudding cup, with a spoon this time.
“Finish your pudding Lucy. We’ll talk tomorrow.” He handed it to me and walked out through the swinging doors. “At two, sharp.”
Almost as if I had no will of my own, I dove into the pudding, scooping up the velvety smooth confection. Even without the sensual feel of his finger inside my mouth, the silky pudding had my eyes rolling back into my head in ecstasy. How in the world had he managed to make chocolate pudding taste this sexy? Maybe along with his story, I could talk him out of this recipe.