Hungry Heart: Konigsburg, Texas, Book 8

BOOK: Hungry Heart: Konigsburg, Texas, Book 8
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Dedication

As usual to my family: Bill, Ben, Josh and Molly, to my wonderful editor Lindsey Faber, and to my agent Maureen Walters. And to all the wonderful Texas barbecue cooks whose creations I’ve enjoyed over the years: Bill Miller’s, Barbecue Station, Cooper’s, Grady’s, Salt Lick, etc., etc., etc.

Chapter One

“So what’s the big deal around here with freakin’ barbecue?”

Darcy Cunningham was taking a brief break from dishing up the Rose’s signature potato salad for the hordes of conventioneers streaming across the lawn of the Woodrose Inn. She’d made up about three gallons of the stuff that morning and it was moving briskly, even though she had to admit it was a little heavy on the lemon juice.

She frowned. She needed to work on the dressing. Make it less Niçoise and more down home.

Joe LeBlanc gave her a brief smile that was more like a lip twitch. “Keep your voice down when you say that, darlin’. If anybody hears you bad mouthing ’cue, they’re likely to take away your temporary Texas citizenship card.” As head chef of the Rose restaurant, Joe had more years as a Texan than she did, although he still had his Louisiana drawl.

Darcy managed not to grimace. She didn’t really think of herself as a temporary Texan. She was a cook who was currently plying her trade in Texas. Cooks didn’t exactly have homes—not if they wanted to keep moving up. Moving up usually meant moving on, although she was happy enough in her current job as the Rose’s sous chef. Very happy, truth be told. But
happy
wasn’t necessarily what chefs were supposed to want.
Chef de cuisine
jobs were what chefs were supposed to want.

And she did want that. Honestly. She did.

“Everybody in the Hill Country acts like barbecue has some freakin’ mystical quality.” She frowned again, rubbing the back of her hand across her damp forehead, which didn’t do much since she was wearing plastic gloves. “Like it cures palpitations or something.”

“How do you know it doesn’t?” Joe’s grin was more pronounced this time. “Good ’cue has been known to cure a lot of life’s ills.”

Darcy grimaced. “So has good tomato soup, but I don’t notice anybody suggesting it’s another version of holy water.”

Joe shook his head. “You’re just mad because we don’t cook our own.”

“Damn right I am.” Darcy’s jaw firmed. “Since when does the Rose outsource its cooking? It’s not like we can’t do a brisket. Or a pork loin. Or a few racks of ribs. Hell, Joe, we could do one smokin’ grilled turkey.”

He shook his head again. “You’re already off base, Darce. Grilling isn’t the same as barbecue. At least not Texas style barbecue.”

Darcy opened her mouth to reply, but he raised a hand. “You want the truth, it’s easier to let somebody else do it. I’d love to cook ’cue myself, but we don’t have the space or the time. So we pass it to the King, and he does us proud.”

She glanced across the gentle slope of the river bank outside the Woodrose Inn Event Center, currently dotted with picnic tables. The diners all seemed to be having a good time, she’d give them that. Most of the conventions got their choice of barbecue or a fajita bar for their final meal at the Rose, and she had to admit most of them chose the barbecue, even though the fajita bar really rocked.

She would have thought a bunch of high-dollar types would prefer something a little more upscale than brisket and potato salad, but this crowd was chowing down on their barbecue with gusto. They didn’t even seem to mind that they were drinking beer instead of the wine that usually went with the Rose’s banquet menu. Hell, some of them were drinking iced tea. With sugar.

At least serving the outdoor barbecue meant she got a chance to dress down a little. Normally, she wore her chef’s whites and black beanie. They were her working clothes, after all. But for this she wore jeans and a black Rose T-shirt, along with her running shoes. The dress code might be western casual, but she spent way too much time on her feet to wear boots.

The other cooks and assistants were all in jeans and Rose tees too, although Jorge, the line cook, wore a black cowboy hat that made him look a little like he was planning on robbing some of the guests at gunpoint.

Joe, of course, wore his chef’s whites and black beanie. As
chef de cuisine
at the Rose, he never appeared in anything less that his full uniform. Of course, he wasn’t actually running the barbecue, just checking in to make sure Darcy was doing okay. In a few more minutes he’d head back to his kitchen.

She checked the line again and paused. The figure at the far end, currently sliding a hotel pan full of sliced brisket into place on the table, was maybe as far removed from Joe LeBlanc as she herself was from Julia Child.

He wore the standard jeans and boots with a black western shirt that had seen better days. His black hat was a lot more battered than Jorge’s, even though it sported a pheasant feather in the band. His brown hair was on the longish side, curling over the edge of his collar. His mirrored sunglasses caught the sunlight as he glanced her way.

She turned back to her potato salad, gritting her teeth. The Barbecue King. What male over the age of ten would call himself the Barbecue King, for god’s sake? It wasn’t even Fred, The Barbecue King. He had no name attached, other than King.

The Barbecue King appeared to be aware that she’d been staring at him. He strolled her way easily. Darcy felt like growling. She didn’t have time for this.

He stood in front of her service line, frowning slightly as he removed his sunglasses. “Now what exactly do you call this?”

She looked up into dark eyes. Laughing, dark eyes. She managed to unclench her jaw enough to answer him. “Potato salad.”

He glanced down at the container in front of her, then back up again. “Potato salad?”

She nodded, her jaw clenching again.

He folded his arms across his chest. His surprisingly broad chest. “So just what exactly does this potato salad have in it?”

“Potatoes,” she ground out.

He nodded, forehead furrowing in thought, then leaned against the side of the table. “Good start. And?”

She blew out a breath, folding her own arms to mirror him. “Feta cheese, kalamata olives, chopped scallions, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, lemon juice, a little of this, a little of that.”

He nodded slowly, the corners of his mouth inching up. “Feta cheese? DayJohn mustard? Olives? No, not just olives,
kalamata
olives?”

Darcy sniffed. “You have something against kalamata olives?”

He shrugged. “Not sure. So far as I know, these olives never made any aggressive moves in my direction. On the other hand…”

“On the other hand?”

He blew out a breath. “They wouldn’t find a place in my potato salad.”

Darcy’s jaw stayed clenched. “Too bad. They seem right at home in mine.”

He shook his head sorrowfully. “Oh my, my, my—I can see from this short conversation that you’re Not From Around These Parts.” It sounded to Darcy as if his drawl had just gotten heavier.

She placed her hands on her hips. “You’re saying I have to be from around these parts to make potato salad?”

He nodded. “It helps. It definitely helps.”

Darcy gritted her teeth again. She could tell him she’d graduated from culinary school. She could tell him she’d worked in kitchens all around the country, and a couple outside the country. She could tell him she was the sous chef at one of the premier restaurants in the Hill Country.

She could tell him to go fuck himself.

Instead, she picked up a paper plate and plopped a spoonful of her potato salad in the middle of it. “Try it.”

“I’ll like it?”

She shrugged. “You won’t dislike it.” She handed him a fork.

He took a tentative bite of salad, narrowing his eyes and screwing up his mouth as he chewed. Then he set the plate down again carefully. “Interesting.”

She placed her hands on her hips. “Does that mean good?”

“It means interesting. Lots of flavors.” He shrugged. “Kind of tasty.”

Her chin went up mutinously. “
Tasty
means good.”

“It is good. Only…”

Her jaw began to ache from tension. “Only?”

He shrugged again. “Only it’s not potato salad. It’s a salad that has potatoes in it. Also feta cheese. And kalema olives.”

“Kalamata.”

She should just let it go. She really should. She had things to do, damn it. But when had she ever backed down from a fight? “A salad that has potatoes as its main ingredient, which this salad does, is automatically potato salad. Therefore, QED, this is potato salad.”

He gave a long, somewhat sorrowful sigh. “Nope. I regret it. I truly do. But you’re wrong. Potato salad is more than potatoes.”

“As I pointed out,” Darcy said silkily, “this salad does, in fact, include more than potatoes.”

“Yep. It does. On the other hand, it’s missing some essentials.”

“Such as?”

He held up his hand, counting off on his fingers. “No pickles. No hard-boiled eggs. No celery. No celery seed. And DayJohn mustard is definitely not what you put in potato salad. French’s. That’s what you put in potato salad. That’s if you’re doing mustard potato salad. If you’re doing mayonnaise, you got yourself a different set of essentials. Howsomever, no matter what kind you’re doing, potato salad doesn’t include cheese. Any kind.”

One part of Darcy wanted to tear the Barbecue King a new one. The other part, the female part, was noting the way his lips curved up when he smiled, showing a hint of white teeth and the way his dark eyes tipped up at the corners, almost almond-shaped but not exactly. The Barbecue King was, in fact, hot.

Darcy wasn’t sure why she found that fact annoying but she did. She told her female part to take a hike. “Right,” she snapped. “A purist. Got it. So you don’t believe in experimenting? Trying new ideas?”

He shrugged. “You can experiment your heart out, long as you don’t experiment with barbecue.”

She let one eyebrow arch up. “Potato salad isn’t barbecue. It’s a side.”

He shrugged again. “It’s not the main event, true. But it’s part of the mix. And as such, it shouldn’t be tampered with.”

“Why not? What makes barbecue above change? All cooking changes over time.”

“Maybe. If things need changing. But you don’t mess with perfection, sweetheart.” He gave her another one of those grins.

She decided to ignore it. “What’s perfect about it? You got meat cooked over a fire. That’s just a foundation.”

“Foundation for what?”

This time she shrugged. “What do you want? Cut it up, you’ve got soup or stew or stir fry. Leave it whole, you can add sauces from béarnaise to au jus. Sauté it, you’ve got pan juices. Add some butter and shallots, plus showmanship, and you’ve got steak Diane. Cooks have been messing around with meat for generations.”

He shook his head. “And all of that makes it taste like something it isn’t. Barbecue makes it taste like meat. That’s why you see all these people lined up for third helpings.”

Darcy glanced back at the line snaking around the nearest live oak. There were indeed a lot of people headed back for more brisket and ribs.

“Hey, King.” Joe stepped beside her, folding his arms across his wide chest.

The King grinned at him, pushing his hat back on his forehead. “Evening, chef.”

“Looks like we’re running low on ribs. Got more?”

The King nodded. “Yep. More of everything. Let me get it off the smoker.” He turned back toward Darcy, eyes still bright. “Nice talking to you, ma’am. Maybe we’ll do it again sometime.”

She thought about saying something cutting, but Joe was standing next to her and the King was a Rose contractor. Plus, she didn’t really feel like it anymore. Even though the King was clearly full of it.

“Maybe,” she muttered.

Joe raised his eyebrows as the King ambled back across the grass. “Making nice with the help?”

She shook her head. “Guy’s an asshole.”

“Guy’s a wizard,” Joe corrected. “That brisket of his is pretty close to Best of Breed.”

Darcy raised her gaze briefly, watching the King saunter toward his van, emblazoned across the side with the words “The Barbecue King,” along with a logo that involved a crown, a smiling cow, and a cooking fork. Three smokers sat on the drive next to it although Darcy couldn’t see smoke issuing from any of them.

BOOK: Hungry Heart: Konigsburg, Texas, Book 8
9.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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