My mother’s recipe for tomato sauce starts with ripe plum tomatoes. To peel them, you use a sharp knife to cut a tiny X in the skin at one end. You dunk them in boiling water, just for a second—maybe ten—and run them under cold water. Then you pull back the skins, just like peeling a banana. You crush the tomatoes with your hands and stew them over low heat in their own juices with garlic, onions, and a bay leaf that have been sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil. Dash in some salt and pepper, and there you have it. The smell is nothing short of heaven.
My father says this tomato sauce was the first thing my mother mastered in the kitchen. He likes to add oregano and basil and more garlic—always more garlic. I never knew my mother, but I know this recipe by heart. I have it displayed in a five-by-seven, plastic craft store frame on the desk in my room, the desk where I’m supposed to do homework but can’t because it’s covered in books and dirty clothes. The recipe is written on an unlined index card. It’s stained with oil splatters, and one corner’s ripped. I realize framing a recipe for tomato sauce sounds strange, but it’s a reminder, not just of my mother but that every cook has to start somewhere.
* * *
It was Saturday night, and I was doing what I’d done every Saturday night since I was ten: rolling silverware in the empty dining room of my family’s restaurant (Taverna Ristorante, est. 1997). I raced through it—napkin, fork, knife, spoon … roll … napkin, fork, knife, spoon … roll—the rhythm so deeply ingrained I could do it with my eyes closed. My rush was only partially motivated by boredom. I also wanted to get where I really belonged—in the kitchen. Napkin, fork, knife, spoon … roll. Done. Finally. Eighty red linen eggrolls sat stacked in two neat pyramids on the white tablecloth in front of me.
“Dad!” I shouted at the water-stained ceiling festooned with fake grapevines. I knew he could hear me in the office upstairs. “I’m going to help Luís in the back!”
Only when I swung through the double doors into the brightly lit, bustling kitchen could I remember why I actually loved working at the restaurant. The kitchen was alive.
“Hot pan, comin’ through!” someone yelled. Quickly, I sidestepped a potentially disastrous encounter with a sheet pan of steaming moussaka.
“Sophie,” Carlos said, high-fiving me. “How are you this evening, chiquita? ¿Qué pasa?”
I sighed. “Nada, Carlos. Mi vida es totalmente aburrida.” I loved the word for “bored” in Spanish because it sounded like “a burrito.”
My family opened Taverna Ristorante in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, when I was three. The name was a nod to my father’s Greek-Italian heritage. My grandmother is Italian, from Orvieto, and my grandfather is Greek, from Thíra. The year after they opened the restaurant, my mother died of a sudden and unexplained brain aneurysm while folding clothes on an otherwise ordinary day in the northern Virginia suburb where we live. I don’t remember this, of course—I was four.
I have few memories of my mother, mostly just vague images of playing at her feet on our kitchen floor. My older brother, Raffi (short for Raffaello and, yes, pronounced the same as the children’s singer), was the one who told me the details of my mother’s death years later. I wasn’t sure how much I could trust him, though, because he also told me I was adopted. I had cried until my father brought down a photo album from the bookshelf above our television. He turned its yellowed pages until he came to a faded snapshot of a beautiful blond woman looking not at the camera but at the pink-hatted baby cradled in her arms. An olive-skinned young man beamed at the camera beside her, as if to say, “Look, Ma! I made a baby!”
“How do I know that’s me?” I’d asked with a still trembling lip. “Or that you didn’t stage it after you adopted me?” My dad muttered something in Greek and took Raffi’s Xbox away for three days.
With the help of my grandparents, Taverna Ristorante survived. It was my home. I’d been working legally there since I was thirteen. Only when I turned sixteen did my dad agree to hire a hostess and let me go where the real action was—on the line.
Anyone who enjoyed Taverna Ristorante’s traditional Mediterranean cuisine might have been surprised to find that the kitchen staff was overwhelmingly Hispanic. Our head chef, Luís, was Portuguese, but he spoke Spanish too. It exasperated my father that I couldn’t speak enough Greek to find a bathroom and only enough Italian to order a pizza Margherita, yet I was proficient en español, with a pretty decent grasp of the language’s culinary terms (to broil = asar a la parilla).
After washing my hands at the small sink in the corner of the kitchen, which ran water that was invariably scalding or ice cold, I grabbed my apron off the hook by the door. It was a birthday gift from Alex. It said STAND BACK! GRANDPA IS GRILLIN’, an inside joke from the time Alex tried to cook dinner for me for once. We’d ended up eating chips and burger toppings. Ketchup on top of a Dorito, while not especially palate-challenging, is surprisingly good.
The apron was stupid, but it made me laugh. Alex could always make me laugh. He was my best friend. He was also a boy. Until recently, I hadn’t seen a conflict between those two attributes. Until recently, I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to kiss him. It was becoming increasingly inconvenient.
“What can I do, Luís?” I asked. Carlos was Luís’s sous-chef, but I was his right-hand girl. I was in charge of prepping ingredients for the daily specials.
Thwack—the flat side of Luís’s knife crushed a clove of garlic against the cutting board. “Tonight,” he announced with a flourish, “we are featuring a lasagne primavera with yellow squash, portobello mushroom, and ricotta.”
I liked how Luís rolled words around in his mouth as if he was tasting them. He always made a big production out of his specials—maybe because they were the only thing he controlled on the menu. The rest of it was composed of Greek and Italian classics, mostly recipes my father inherited from Nonna and Pappou, who had owned a restaurant back in Thíra. Taverna Ristorante was more spaghetti carbonara than wasabi and panko–crusted skate with lime chervil salsa. My dad liked to say, “Not fine dining—great dining!” Painful.
“Mmmmm.” I stuck a spoon into a pot of marinara bubbling on the six-burner stove and tasted. “Needs more garlic.” Carlos playfully batted my hand away with a charred oven mitt.
I liked working with Luís. He knew I wanted to be a chef when I grew up, and not just a chef, but a top chef. He didn’t laugh when I talked about “flavor profiles” and “balance.” Sometimes he even took my advice, dashing in a little more salt or coriander when he thought my back was turned.
“Where can I start?” I asked, running my hands down the sides of my apron.
“Onions,” said Luís, only it sounded like own-yuns.
“Aye-aye, cap’n.” It was cry time.
* * *
By six, the dining room was nearly full with early birds—old people and families with small children, who left almost nonexistent tips and a sprinkling of bread crumbs around their tables like Hansel and Gretel scattering a trail out of the forest. The waitstaff hated the early birds, but my father loved them. He loved every customer, but particularly those who, like him, saw meals as a ritual. For Antonio Nicolaides, food was about family and community as much as it was about taste and nourishment. Which was why you could find him every night circling the dining room like a nervous socialite, chatting with customers, asking how their meals were or, if they were regulars, inquiring about their hip replacement surgeries and recent Disney vacations.
“Order up!” yelled Luís.
The doors to the kitchen thwapped open and closed for Nikki, a waitress who’d been with us as long as I could remember. She was from Greece, which made her family. She whisked two hot plates of moussaka from the window. I wondered how she hadn’t burned all the skin off her fingers yet, but she refused to use a tray.
“And eighty-six the bucatini!” Luís yelled after her, meaning we were out of it.
Nikki cursed. “Okay. Hold my order on table ten till I can see what Mr. Meinhardt wants instead.”
As she backed through the door, I glimpsed my father in the dining room. He was talking to table eight, where the Tuccis’ four boys were polishing off a mountain of spaghetti and meatballs. The door swung open again, and I caught his baritone voice, still stubbornly accented after all these years. He was mid-story.
“Oh, geez.” I wiped the seeds of the tomato I was chopping into a food scraps bin.
“Cómo?” asked Pablo. He was one of the line chefs tearing lettuce for salads beside me.
“He’s telling it again.”
Pablo and Carlos chortled, and Carlos launched into his near-perfect imitation of my father. “Sophia, my daughter, she’s the real cook in the family. When she was three years old—just a baby!—she baked a chocolate soufflé in her Easy-Bake Oven. Her mother was reading Julia Child—”
I had to cut Carlos off. I’d heard my father tell the story of my preadolescent culinary genius a thousand times. I knew our customers had also; they were just too polite to stop him.
* * *
The flow on Saturday evenings was always the same. The six-o’clock crowd was replaced gradually by the eight-o’clock crowd—young professionals and couples on dates, who liked to linger over their meals. They ordered desserts to share and bottles of wine as the grumbling servers loitered by the cash register tucked behind a lattice decorated with more fake grapevines. My father didn’t like our diners to see their orders being put into the computer or their bills being printed. He preferred things to just appear on the table, as if willed into being by Zeus himself.
I did the math once. In four hours, we would put out approximately 172 entrees, 57 appetizers, 193 baskets of bread, and 36 desserts—or 0.716 meals per minute. In other words, don’t think, just cook. And so my Saturday nights sped by in a marathon of chopping, peeling, plating, and—the best part—tasting.
By nine forty-five, my feet were aching in my clogs and my head was buzzing with the heat and energy of the kitchen, but the tickets on the line had dwindled to five. We were almost there.
Carlos, a kitchen rag slung over the shoulder of his marinara-splattered chef’s jacket, stood on his tiptoes, peering out the porthole-shaped window in the door to the dining room. “Your boyfriend’s here!” he yelled across the kitchen.
The eyes of a dishwasher named Ramón darted to me. I could often feel them on the back of my head. It was a running joke in the kitchen that Ramón was madly, Mexican-soap-opera-style, in love with me. Lucky for Ramón, he didn’t speak enough English to know his tortured love kept the entire kitchen entertained through dinner service.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said quickly, but I could feel myself blushing. “He’s my friend who happens to be a boy.” I hated that the teasing in the kitchen about Alex had suddenly started to embarrass me. Worse, I hated that I couldn’t hide that it did.
“Maybe you should tell him that, because he’s hanging around like un perro,” said Carlos, making puppy-dog eyes.
I had been artfully topping a tiramisù with whipped cream. I pushed it to Pablo, wiped my hands on my apron, and peered out the window, narrowly escaping a concussion as a waiter flew through the door. Alex was standing at the hostess stand, but he looked nothing like a lovesick puppy to me. He was chatting with Amber, our new hostess, a grad student working her way through Georgetown Law. I wasn’t sure yet if I liked her. Considering the way she was playing with her hair as she talked to Alex, the forecast was a ninety percent chance of no.
Alex leaned over the hostess stand and pointed at something on a piece of paper. His blond bangs flopped over one eye. Despite my repeated objections that he looked like a certain tween pop star, Alex refused to cut his hair. It was too long and always fell in his eyes, which in my opinion were his best feature. They were a bright, almost jade green, like cat eyes, with a ring of brown around the edges.… Not that I spent a lot of time gazing into them or anything. His surfer hair worked for at least one girl, though—a freshman named Lindy who kept finding far-fetched reasons to hang out by Alex’s locker. I did not care for Lindy.
I pulled my apron over my head, adjusted the baseball cap I had to wear for health codes, and exited the fluorescent kitchen into the relative murkiness of the dining room.
“Soph!” Alex’s eyes lit up the way they did when he wanted something from me.
I narrowed mine suspiciously in return. “Hey. Kind of in the middle of something. What’s up?”
“It couldn’t wait.”
“What couldn’t wait?”
“What contest, Alex?”
Alex held some kind of application up to my face. “Teen Test Kitchen Qualifying Competition,” I read at the top.
I took the paper and squinted down at the small print. Glasses would just not look right perched on my big, fat Greek nose, and I couldn’t even begin to think about touching my eyeballs every day. “What is this?” I asked.
Alex had a big, sloppy grin on his face that happened to show off his annoyingly cute dimples, and he was shifting his weight from foot to foot. “It’s your Golden Ticket.” He tapped the top of the page. “You’re welcome.”
I gave him a look that said, “I have four tiramisùs and what are probably now two bowls of gelato soup waiting for me in the kitchen.”
Alex snatched the paper from my hands, waving it in frustration. “It’s a reality show cooking competition thing. And you’re going to win it.”
I laughed as if Alex had just announced my nomination for homecoming queen—a fun fantasy but entirely implausible. “I’m going to win it?”
“Yep.” His eyes sparkled with an intensity I had no power against.
That was the sparkle that had been getting me into trouble since third grade, when Alex’s mom, then just a random neighbor, invited me to the Underhills’ house. She wanted me to give my chicken pox to her son. On the phone with my dad, she called it a “chicken pox party.” My dad called it “strange” but allowed me to go anyway. It was after lunch when Alex convinced innocent, young, calamine-covered me that we were going to run away together, preferably to the circus, but not the kind where they were mean to animals. We had stolen his mom’s keys and gotten as far as the end of the driveway with the gearshift in neutral before Mrs. Underhill ran out of the house screaming.
I cocked an eyebrow and spoke in a mockingly soothing voice. “Hey, Alex, have we made an unscheduled stop in Absurdistan? Because I didn’t see it on the itinerary.”
Alex and I had had sixth-grade geography together and found it nearly impossible to recite the “-stan” countries in front of the class without cracking up. It thereafter wormed its way into our private lexicon. Rather than Uzbekistan, people in our world lived in Freakistan and Creepistan. If they were particularly insufferable, they carried passports from Turdistan.
A sudden clang of metal followed by the sound of china shattering on a tile floor exploded from behind the kitchen doors. Our few remaining patrons swiveled their heads toward the sound.
“I gotta go,” I said. “You’re staying for dinner, right?”
“Of course, principessa.” I suspect he said it with a dorky flourish, but I wasn’t sure, as I was already halfway to the kitchen with my dad on my heels.
* * *
When the OPEN sign on the front door was flipped to CLOSED, the Nicolaides family and whatever staff had stuck around would sit down for a meal in the Taverna Ristorante dining room. If your last name was Nicolaides and you resided at 1802 Springfield Drive in Fairfax, Virginia, you had to be at family dinner. It was not a choice; it was a duty. And not just on Saturdays either, but Fridays too. I blamed my complete lack of a social life on these dinners.
Raffi had somehow convinced Dad to give him the night off work for a “school concert” I suspected was anything but. He rolled in at half past ten. The chairs were already up on the tables. He helped Nikki and another waiter named Dave pull together some four-tops to make one long table in the center of the restaurant. Alex and I set out platters of spaghetti, salad, and what was left of Luís’s very popular lasagne primavera. My dad was in the office entering credit card receipts and locking the night’s cash in the safe. We finally heard his heavy footsteps on the old, creaky stairs.
“Baba, buenas noche!” Alex cried as my father appeared. He threw his arms open in an exaggerated, Mafia-family–style hug.
“I am not your baba, Alex,” said my father, forgoing the hug for a rough tousle of Alex’s shaggy blond hair instead. The scene was well rehearsed. Dad had never totally gotten over his suspicion of the boy his daughter vehemently claimed was just a friend (he still wasn’t allowed in my room), but I knew he loved Alex.
My father took his usual seat at the head of the table. The rest of us, a dozen or so, filled in, and before long, the conversation and wine were flowing. These dinners often lasted two, once even three, hours, until line cooks had to get home to wives and children and waitresses had to meet their boyfriends. After his dramatic entrance earlier, I was amazed that Alex made it almost thirty minutes before bringing up the application again. I tried to distract him with seconds and thirds, but at some point, a boy gets full.
“So,” he said, and I knew it was coming. He leaned back on the legs of his chair and threw an arm around Raffi’s seat next to him. “How do you guys feel about reality TV?”
I sent an expeditious elbow to his ribs. “Ooof.” He winced.
Raffi gave us a look that said, “Remind me again why I converse with you,” and I was suddenly glad my brother didn’t care to pay me too much attention. “You mean those shows where twenty hot girls fight over one douchey guy?” he asked.
“Douchey?” my father echoed from the end of the table. He was deep in conversation with Luís, probably about something really fascinating like ramekins or Saran wrap, but he had a superhuman ability to listen to multiple conversations at once.
“Sorry,” said Raffi. He rolled his eyes and popped a briny brown olive into his mouth, then spit the hard pit into his hand. “Dorky.”
“I mean the competition ones … like the ones with cooking.” Alex was ignoring the incendiary laser beams I was directing at him with my eyes like Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. I had a huge girl crush on Drew Barrymore—not the romantic kind, but the I-want-to-be-you kind.
Raffi shrugged a half-interested shoulder and expelled another olive pit.
“He doesn’t care,” I replied for him.
Amber said something about a new bar in the neighborhood, or maybe the bar exam, and Raffi turned his attention to her.
“Why are you being so weird?” Alex whispered.
“I’m not being weird. I just don’t need you to bring it up in front of them.” I nodded toward my overprotective father and supremely annoying brother. “I don’t even know what it is yet!”
“It’s a reality show for teen chefs, and it’s your chance, Soph. Your once-in-a-lifetime chance.” We were still whispering.
“Alex, there is no way I’m going to win a game show, or get on a game show for that matter.”
“It’s not a game show; it’s a reality competition.”
“Excuse me. Whatever.… Can we just talk about it tomorrow?”
“Sophie—” Alex started, but, thankfully, my dad interrupted from the other end of the table. He was asking me to fetch the world-famous Nicolaides family recipe book from the office. It was a tattered, homemade cookbook that Nonna handed down to my father, just as her mother had handed it down to her. Most of it was in Italian. I jumped to get it.
My grandparents used to attend these family dinners but were coming to the restaurant less and less now, which seemed only to make my brother’s and my attendance more mandatory. I knew I’d come home to find Pappou asleep in the wing chair in the living room, the TV turned up to a squawk. My father would wake him and help him to his room, where my grandmother was already sleeping.
By the time we cleared and cleaned up and my father locked the door behind us, it was past midnight.
“Good night,” I called to Alex’s silhouette retreating toward his car in the glow of the Georgetown streetlamps. A twinge of guilt was growing in my chest for shooting down his idea. He seemed so genuinely excited about the prospect of this Teen Test Kitchen. How did he have such confidence in me? I wondered.
“Good night, Alex!” my father called.
“Good night, Mr. Nicolaides!” Alex raised a hand in a backward wave. “Thanks for dinner. Thavma as always!”
My dad chuckled at Alex’s butchered Greek. Thavma means “marvelous,” but more closely, “miraculous.” My father had never corrected him.
I was being lulled into a pleasant food coma in the passenger seat of my father’s car when my cell phone beeped. I already knew who the text was from. Think about it. Of course I would. I just didn’t want to get my hopes up. I loved to cook—I wanted to show the world I could cook—but I thought I’d have a little more time before I got my shot. A reality show launching me into culinary stardom sounded like something of a miracle, but up till now, Sophie Nicolaides’s life hadn’t been so thavma.
* * *
“Seriously?” The phone was pressed to my ear, but my eyes were still closed. Alex, the early riser, knew I had a strict no-calls-before-noon rule on weekends.
“It’s the voice of reason calling. We have some matters to discuss. Matter one: getting you on television.”
I groaned and rolled over to look at the clock. It was nine thirty. My dad had been awake for four hours. “I don’t want to be on TV, Alex.”
“But you do want to be a world-famous chef, and I don’t see the New York Times restaurant critic banging down the door of Taverna Ristorante. No offense.”
“You need a platform, a springboard if you will.”
“Here’s the plan: You get on Teen Test Kitchen. You showcase your sparkling wit, general fabulosity, and near-genius abilities with food. You win over America. You open your own restaurant in New York, and you hire yours truly as general manager.”
“Fabulosity? Are you sure you’re not gay?”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.”
I pushed the heels of my palms against my eyelids. “Fine. Let’s pretend for a split second that my dad is not the strictest father inside and outside the Beltway, and that I decide to take this little trip to Ridiculously-Out-of-My-Leagueistan. What exactly does this competition entail?”
Alex read from the casting call. “From the producers of Chop Shop and Catwalk comes a new Food TV reality show to find America’s next generation of culinary talent. Teen Test Kitchen will bring eight of America’s most promising young chefs to Napa Valley”—Alex paused for that detail to soak in—“for seven weeks of classes and competition at the country’s premier culinary institute, the National Culinary Academy.” Another pause for effect. “The winner will receive a full scholarship to the NCA and a coveted apprenticeship with judge-producer, top chef, and restaurateur Tommy Chang.”
“Tommy Chang?” I tried not to sound excited by the prospect of meeting one of the world’s most accomplished chefs. It was like telling a kid she’d meet Santa Claus at the Easter Bunny’s house—if she could pull a rabbit out of her hat.
“The Tommy Chang,” Alex said.
I bit my lip. It did sound too good to be true. But seven weeks? That was almost the whole summer. I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that Alex seemed to have no problem shipping me off to California. I’d been looking forward to our summer together; we’d already planned a road trip to the Chesapeake Bay. “Are you trying to get rid of me?” I teased.
“Sophie,” Alex said, getting as serious as I’d ever heard him. “You have a real talent—I’ve tasted it. Here’s your chance to be discovered. You just have to cook one great dish. What do you have to lose?”
“You’re not letting go of this, are you?”
“Nope. I’m stuck like white on rice, baby.”
I was scared, but there was also a tiny voice in my head getting louder by the second screaming, “What are you waiting for?”
I stared at the water stain shaped like a duck on my ceiling. Besides being home to the NCA, Napa Valley was where my aunt Mary owned a restaurant. My mom’s sister had been a fixture in our lives for a while after my mom died, bringing over food and taking Raffi and me to the zoo, but she moved to California when I was nine to start her own restaurant. Even as a kid, I could tell my dad was angry she left us. Family was everything to him. I hadn’t seen her since then, but she sent me postcards and birthday gifts from the crazy places she traveled: a handmade bowl from the Yucatán Peninsula, a necklace from Morocco, a dashiki from West Africa. As far as I could tell, my aunt was a globe-trotting hippie.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll do it. But you have to agree to be my taste tester.”
“As your friend, I accept that burden,” said Alex.
“How do you feel about lamb?”
“I feel good about it.”
“When are the tryouts?”
“That’s not much time.”
“It’s enough. You’re ready for this, Soph.”
Already I was mentally rifling through the two-foot stack of my mother’s old cookbooks, which served double duty as both bedtime reading and nightstand. I would never win, I knew, but I would make a damn good meal trying.
My Mother’s Tomato Sauce
This simple sauce was my mother’s recipe—the one I keep framed on my desk. It’s best with summer-ripe tomatoes, but you can use whole canned tomatoes too. I’ve added the oregano and basil my father likes to include. He’s also been known to sneak in an extra garlic clove—or three. It’s great served with any kind of pasta or even poured over roasted or grilled zucchini and eggplant.
MAKES 3 CUPS (enough for 4 people over pasta)
2 pounds ripe plum tomatoes, peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small white or yellow onions, finely chopped
1 bay leaf
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
1 teaspoon fresh basil, finely chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. Heat olive oil in a large pot over low heat. Add onions and bay leaf and cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, or until onions are soft and translucent. Add garlic to the pot and stir well.
2. Crush the peeled tomatoes in your hands over a bowl (you want the tomato pieces to be uneven and chunky). Add tomatoes to the pot, stir, and let simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaf. Stir in oregano and basil, then season with salt and pepper. Always taste to see if it could use more salt or spices (remember, you can add more, but you can’t take it out).
Copyright © 2012 by Kathryn Williams