Comfort food, p.7
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       Comfort Food, p.7

           Kate Jacobs

  And the show was going to air on her birthday, no less. Gus couldn’t have come up with a more perfect excuse not to throw a party—she simply didn’t have room in her schedule to plan, did she? Because all she had time for now was the upcoming live show. Troy had proved invaluable, fielding her calls about free throws and three-pointers. The private surprise of it all was that getting ready for the shoot felt much more like fun than work.

  It was energizing to have a new challenge. Tantalizing.

  Sure, Gus Simpson had never shied away from difficulty. She didn’t crumple (for long) when Christopher passed, and she didn’t let a few early hiccups derail The Luncheonette, and she stood by Sabrina’s centerpiece when Alan Holt came to dinner in 1994. Although she never would have guessed that Alan would become so cutthroat, with seemingly no regard for loyalty. For example, he could have given her another season to boost ratings. Right? But no: it was the one live episode to prove her worth to the CookingChannel. After twelve years! And the network president wasn’t the only person who wouldn’t stick with Gus: her culinary producer, Maggie Dennis, had up and quit when she heard the show was having problems.

  Even though Porter handled the big picture as exec producer, a top cookingshow could not exist without a culinary producer. It was the culinary producer’s role to make sure the pantry was well stocked, the kitchen was ready, and to generally be Gus’s right hand. Not that she could blame Maggie,a talented chef with bills and a family of her own. Still, thanks to her years on Gusto! the woman had lined up another job almost immediately for a cooking-with-kids show. And it would have been no easy task to hire a replacement when all she had to offer was work on one—and possibly the final—episode of Cooking with Gusto! But she didn’t even have to try: Portertold her the show had been assigned a culinary producer. Just like that. Some guy named Oliver Cooper, who’d graduated a few years earlier from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and had been working as a sous chef at Eleven Madison Park.

  “But I’ve always chosen who works in the kitchen with me,” Gus protested.

  “This came down from Alan Holt himself,” replied Porter. “And with the budget cuts, he’s got to juggle being a combination sous chef, culinary producer, and all-around guy Friday.”

  And so there it was: a new format, a new culinary producer who lacked television experience, and a new level of pressure.

  Hardly surprising, then, that Gus hadn’t been able to sleep much lately. But it wasn’t just fear that was keeping her awake. Every night she lay on her smooth crimson sateen sheets, her hair brushed out and fanned around her, and stared at the ceiling as she cooked through all the upcoming dishes in her mind. She racked her brain for quirky slogans and cutesy tag-lines.Even the hours spent in front of the television watching sports were exciting, getting caught up in the energy of it all. It made sense, too, because suddenly everything around her was about winning and losing. And make no mistake—Gus Simpson was a competitor at heart. Fifty or not.

  Please God, she thought now, as she watched yet another team dribble that orange ball up and down the court on her television, zap all the Nielson boxes in America when I’m on the air. Zap them until my ratings go through the roof.

  She Stayed up late watching ESPN and began polling everyone she knew about their favorite basketball players.

  “Quick—ever heard of LeBron James?” Gus asked the bagger at the grocerystore when she ran in for some heavy cream, a quiet dinner of gnocchi Gorgonzola in the offing.

  The bagger, a sixteen-year-old who hadn’t quite grown into his arms and legs, laughed.

  “Duh,” he responded. “But I prefer Steve Nash.”

  "Who?” said Gus, making a mental note to write that name down.

  She talked b-ball (what little she knew about it!) with everyone from her paperboy to her cleaning lady to her neighbor Hannah (who hadn’t been much help) to Troy and her daughters until finally Gus felt she had a handle on who she thought would make charming, gracious guests.

  She’d paid careful attention to after-game interviews and profiles in Sports Illustrated, of course. The date she’d been given by the CookingChannel coincided with the out-of-town games for the Knicks and the Nets, much to her frustration. Instead, she’d had to go further afield, inviting players from the Trail Blazers and the Rockets and the Pistons.

  At her request, the CookingChannel PR team got in touch with sports agents and publicity managers until Gus had herself a willing list of b-ball heroes: Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, and Rasheed Wallace.

  She consulted on the show with Porter and her new culinary producer, Oliver, a strikingly tall man with a shaved head. Oliver was, she’d said privatelyto Porter, a bit intimidating on first glance. He wasn’t the newbie she’d feared—he was clearly in his late thirties—but that also changed the equilibrium,in a way. Still, he had good ideas—such as having viewers upload their own March Madness parties via the CookingChannel Web site. In the last few minutes of the live Gusto!, Gus would introduce some of the clips picked out by Porter and his team.

  Together they settled on a March Madness menu perfect for hosting a party to watch the finals of the NCAA championships: salmon cakes (rounded, like mini basketballs), sliced Kobe beef sliders on mini biscuits, and red pepper-garlic fries. Plus they’d promote a selection of handcrafted root beers from around the country.

  She’d also invited Troy to come up to the house to meet the players, and he’d agreed enthusiastically, not thinking she’d make a point to get Sabrina there, as well. (Gus was never one to overlook an opportunity.) It was crucial to her that she assemble an “audience”—and she promised Hannah, her girls, and Troy that they would remain off-screen. Remaining off-camera was tremendouslyimportant to Hannah, of course, and Gus wouldn’t dream of making her uncomfortable. Still, she wanted her best friend to be there for support.

  “It’s all a ratings game right now,” she had explained to Hannah over another 7 AM coffee tête-à-tête. There’d been another snowfall and, from their perch in the bay window, the garden looked a peaceful winter wonderland.“One week they’re trying out that surfer chef, another week some Japanese knockoff, then it’s our turn.”

  “At least you’ve got some breaks in there,” Hannah pointed out.

  “My frustration is that it’s all just temporary—a reprieve from the inevitable.But we’re still marching down the same road to cancellation,” said Gus. “Porter says whichever show does the best is going to get the Sunday evening time slot all to themselves. Dear Alan, apparently, is even thinking about having viewers call a one-eight-hundred number to make the final selection. Like that celebrity dance show.”

  “So don’t hold back, then. Let the world see the crazy coffee-drinking Gus Simpson I know,” said Hannah.

  Gus threw her a sharp look.

  “That’s the problem,” she said. “We’ve been running a few tests. The food makes sense, the guests make sense. The only thing that doesn’t work so naturally is the host. Too formal, according to Porter.”

  “You’ve gotten a little serious lately,” agreed Hannah. “You need to release your inner goofball.”

  Gus looked doubtful.

  “Okay, maybe just a new look.” Hannah reached over to pat Gus’s hair, one of the only people on the planet, really, who would be so familiar with her. “Why don’t you grow out your bob?”

  “That much more to color, that’s why!”

  Gus cracked a grin as Hannah laughed. At thirty-six, Hannah was technically closer in age to Sabrina and Aimee but she seemed worlds older than those two. Part of it, no doubt, was the fact that Hannah had grown up a lot faster than her daughters; Hannah seemed to belong much more to Gus’s generation. She had a certain gravitas, a crinkle of sadness about the eyes. Hannah and Gus shared a mutual respect for each other’s experiences, and a certain independence, forged from often being alone, from spending so much time in their own thoughts.

  “No, the hair stays,” Gus said definitively, tossing her h
air for effect. “I want to prove to Alan Holt and everyone else that I’m good enough just as I am.”

  She was more than ready by the morning of the historic live Cooking with Gusto! Her outfit—black silk pants, a deep pink shell, and a sheer black shirt jacket—was quintessential Gus and waited, clean and pressed just so, in her closet. With a whoop she bounded out of bed; it was still dark at such an early hour and she padded downstairs to make some hazelnut coffee. The kitchen in Gus’s pristine manor house practically radiated cleanliness, ready for the onslaught of producers and guests. Without reaching for a shawl to shield her against the cold, Gus opened the door to her patio and stepped outside, her feet bare, inhaling the air until her lungs hurt. A fresh coat of snow covered the outdoor furniture, the planters, and the trees: the white stuff had clearly fallen all night. Gus looked up at the early morning sky and admired the beauty of the late March snowfall, which seemed to be washingeverything clean. It was like a message: she could do it. She was going to revive her show, her career, her life. Anything was possible.

  Hours later Gus was cursing the snow and snapping at everyone. Porter, Oliver, and the food stylist had arrived many hours behind schedule, rushingaround to set up the show. The ingredients were mostly chopped and sliced and off to the side. Oliver and the food stylist had rearranged the inside of the fridge so it looked perfectly believable and yet undeniably perfect,ready for an interior shot or two as Gus reached for cream or butter. The cameras were all ready, the kitchen having been cleverly renovated to simplify setup, and the off-screen audience was on hand, with Aimee and Sabrina and Hannah in one corner, Troy fuming in another.

  “Surely you can’t be all that surprised that Sabrina’s here?” Gus had said to him soon after he arrived, wet and grumpy after a snow-delayed Metro-Northtrain.

  But none of that compared to Gus’s biggest problem: all of the city’s airportshad shut down and the city’s streets were a soup of slush and ice and taxicabs slipping every which way. Kids throughout the tristate area were glued to their televisions, awaiting confirmations of school cancellations: all of New York was gearing up to savor a snow day. Except for Gus Simpson, that is. She had ninety-seven minutes until she was live on television with her much-hyped show of NBA basketball stars and scrumptious party food.

  Only the snow had prevented all her sports celebs from getting there.

  Cooking with Gusto! was guest-free. And it was going to go out with a whimper.

  "Here’s where we’re at,” said Porter, in a hastily assembled war room in Gus’s two-story library. He’d just taken another call on his cell. “Alan Holt has left his country house and is being driven here now. And he’s bringing his current girlfriend.”

  Gus was barely paying attention, shocked to have her career melting due to some unexpected precipitation.

  “Why don’t they just run an old tape at the studio?” she asked with a sigh, her head in her hands.

  “Gus? Listen up!” Porter’s voice was shrill. “I’m going to draw you a picture.Alan’s date is coming with him. Alan has been dating Carmen Vega. And they’re on their way over here to do a live program in your kitchen.”

  “What?! In my house? I won’t let that woman in the door,” shouted Gus.

  “Doesn’t work like that, kid; you signed a contract that the CookingChannelcould film here.”

  Gus was set to protest or call her lawyer or something—anything—when Oliver poked his bald head in the door.

  “It’s fifteen minutes to airtime,” he reminded Porter. “The camera guys are freaking out.”

  In an instant Gus was barking orders at Oliver: “Are the platters set out? What about the saucepans? The wine?”

  He nodded.

  “Porter, I won’t sit here and watch that girl lay claim to everything I’ve worked for simply because she’s young and she’s sleeping with Alan.” Gus was, for the first time in over an hour, completely calm. “We’re going live, I am going to host, and I am going to throw a party with my wonderful guests.”

  “You don’t have any guests, kid.”

  “I have Sabrina, Aimee, Troy, and Hannah,” insisted Gus. “And Oliver! And if I can make a party with that motley crew, then any dear viewer can do it.”

  Porter’s phone rang again. “Alan’s driver needs directions,” he said to Gus.

  “Of course, let me write them down,” she said loudly enough for the personon the other line to hear. On a sheet of paper she wrote: Get them lost!

  Her exec producer nodded, then took the pencil from her hand. Go! he wrote in reply.

  In a flash, Gus ran to her bedroom for a brush and some lipstick, then dashed down the stairs to demand, coax, and beg her friends and family to go on air.

  Sabrina was eager, Aimee was reluctant, Hannah was nearly in tears, and Troy was heading for the door.

  “You,” Gus said to Sabrina, “put on some lipstick and brush your hair. Then do your sister’s.”

  “You,” she said to Aimee. “I’m your mother and I put you through college.’Nuff said.”

  “You,” she said to Hannah. “You can do whatever you want but do I ever need you now.”

  “And you,” she said to Troy, “know exactly why you need to turn around and get on air. And even if you don’t, I know all the shareholders of FarmFreshwould appreciate the free advertising.” Gus turned to Oliver. “Can we add some fresh fruit kebabs to the menu?”

  “The pantry is well stocked.”

  “Then we’re set.”

  “Five minutes,” shouted a staffer.

  Porter came rushing in. “We’ve got at least a half hour until you-know-whoarrives. The Web is already receiving downloads of people sending images of their parties, and I haven’t a clue how we’re going to pull this off.”

  “It’s simple,” said Gus. “I’m going to do what I’ve always done. Show my viewers how to entertain with ease. And, just to help them relate, I’ll have a few folks here who don’t know a damn thing about cooking.”

  The countdown began and Gus plastered a huge smile on her face.

  “Hello and welcome to Cooking with Gusto!” she said. “Tonight is an evening of firsts. It’s our first live program, the first time we’re interacting in real time via our Web site, the first time I’m going to cook on air with my daughters, and the first time ever that my scheduled guests have been delayed by the weather. But don’t worry because we’re going to try and get our NBA stars on the phone, and I’m going to teach you how to keep a party going even when it seems as though everything is going wrong.”

  Porter cued to commercial and then gave a thumbs-up to Gus. “You amaze me, kid.”

  “Tell me that in fifty-seven minutes,” she responded, before instructing Oliver how she wanted to set up Troy, Hannah, Sabrina, and Aimee around the island.

  “One of the most challenging things about being a host,” Gus said to the camera as the show returned to air, “is that guests typically want to feel as though they’re being useful when they’re really just—let’s admit it—in the way. So the trick is to give them something easy to put together....”

  There were snafus, to be sure; Hannah kept looking away every time the camera got too close, and Aimee nearly chopped off her thumb. Troy made snide remarks about Sabrina’s boyfriend, and Sabrina flirted with Oliver, who seemed oblivious to everything but the food.

  “For years now,” Gus was saying to the camera, “I’ve been on television showing how to throw a perfect party. But in reality my life is filled with this group of folks.” She opened her arms wide to point out her guests.

  “And since, as usual, they’re not listening to me, I can tell you that they’re far from perfect—but they sure keep things moving.” She kept talking, even as she drizzled the beef with marinade and as Troy dropped a handful of uncooked salmon on the floor and then shouted, “Five-second rule!”

  It was absurd, a ridiculous concept for a show: two professional chefs and four neophytes trying to make a party. But the truth was that
Gus was havingthe best time of her life. She couldn’t stop smiling.

  The snow that Carmen could See outside the car window was spectacular, whitewashing the world.

  “Better buckle up—I don’t want my new star to get hurt.” Alan reached over and patted Carmen’s knee. She peeled back her wrap just enough to reveal her seat belt. She was still dressed for dinner, in a turquoise silk shantungsuit and lavender cashmere wrap. No time to change, Alan had said, we’ve got to get over to Gus Simpson’s house and save the show! And they’d left in an instant, her feet freezing in ridiculous metallic slingbacks.

  It had been a sudden invitation, a weekend at Alan Holt’s country house, but her publicist assured her it was important. The president of the CookingChannelliked to get to know his team on a personal level. And Alan had been a gracious host, accommodating all her various concerns. Still. It was awkward.

  Carmen’s stomach was a mess of butterflies—she knew her moment on television was going to come but she didn’t expect it was going to happen before they even got through the canapés.

  Alan looked at his watch and then spoke to his driver. “You got the directions, right?”

  Although Gus’s house was hardly as wired as the studio, Porter had managedto receive call-ins from the NBA stars, stuck at airports in the Midwest. And, thanks to the Web site, Gus was able to ask viewers’ questions directly to the stars, which provided some levity—and, at the very least, meant the show would live up to the hype. (Sort of.) But what amazed Porter was how this seeming train wreck of a cooking program was so eminently watchable. He had never, in twelve years of working with Gus, seen her so relaxed on air. Not just seeming amused, but it was literally like being at a private party with Gus and her goofy family. Gus was, for the first time ever, truly cooking with gusto.

  He’d never realized how much better the show could have been until now.

  And then Alan arrived, frustrated and cold, with a scared-looking CarmenVega in tow. Porter almost felt sorry for her.

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