In 1990 some critics believe that America’s most celebrated chef, Joseph Soderini di Avenzano, sold his soul to the Devil to achieve culinary greatness. Whether he is actually Bocuse or Beelzebub, Avenzano is approaching the 25th anniversary of his glittering Palm Beach restaurant, Chateau de la Mer, patterned after the Michelin-starred palaces of Europe.
Journalist David Fox arrives in Palm Beach to interview the chef for a story on the restaurant’s silver jubilee. He quickly becomes involved with Chateau de la Mer’s hostess, unwittingly transforming himself into a romantic rival of Avenzano. The chef invites Fox to winter in Florida and write his authorized biography. David gradually becomes sucked into the restaurant’s vortex: shipments of cocaine coming up from the Caribbean; the Mafia connections and unexplained murder of the chef’s original partner; the chef’s ravenous ex-wives, swirling in the background like a hidden coven. As his lover plots the demise of the chef, Fox tries to sort out hallucination and reality while Avenzano treats him like a feline’s catnip-stuffed toy.
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“The man’s here.”
The old Black woman delivered her pronouncement into the darkness of a back room—half in amusement, half in disgust. She then walked back across the front room of the cabin, her feet creaking on the wooden floor, to the place where the young man sat. A pot-bellied stove, streaked with soot, crackled in the opposite corner.
“He be wit you in a minute.”
The white youth seemed strangely comfortable in this shack outside Clarksdale in rural Mississippi. The year was 1947, at the height of Jim Crow, at a time when the races never mingled.
The young man had concocted an elaborate cover story and, with the confidence of his age, he believed he could explain himself if the wrong people found him here.
“What you say your name is?” the woman asked.
The woman laughed. “You a crazy-assed white boy, Joseph.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied in a deep baritone, guttural and booming. “That may well be.”
The old Black man shuffled out of the back room, moving slowly and deliberately. He was clad in overalls, and his silver hair framed a deeply lined and creased face. He glanced at Joseph and shook his head.
“Let’s go out on the porch, boy.”
They walked outside to the dilapidated wooden deck surrounding the front of the shack, and the old man settled in a rocking chair. He motioned for Joseph to sit beside him and regarded him with the same amusement his wife had displayed.
“You a long way from home, ain’t you?”
“I don’t really have a home, sir.”
“Everybody got a home.” The old man chuckled. “Some folks just don’t know where it is.”
“Maybe so.” Joseph shifted in his chair as he listened to the night sounds coming from the distance: crickets, the far-off howl of wolves, wind rustling the trees. Highway 61 and Highway 49 were out there, intersecting at the Crossroads. “So tell me, did you know Robert Johnson?”
“Heard him sing once or twice, but that was a long time ago.”
“What was he like?”
“Crazy-assed, like you.” The old man chuckled again. “Knew his time was short, and couldn’t be bothered.”
“Played the gittar pretty good. But it was that voice.” The old man paused. “It stuck witchoo. Couldn’t git it outta your head. It wasn’t pretty.” He shook his head. “Naw. Wasn’t pretty. Not at all.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
Joseph had heard the voice, listening to scratchy old records on a friend’s Victrola. They were the only known recordings of Robert Johnson, the studio sessions done a few years before his death. The old man was right. The voice was plaintive and haunting, something you would always remember once you heard it. “That must have been amazing—hearing him in person.”
“Wasn’t no fun, to tell you true. After the first couple times, I never went back.” He shook his head again. “Seems to me that life is hard enough sometimes without lookin’ for his kinda problems.”
The old man looked at Joseph closely. “What you need that kinda trouble for, boy?”
“I want to be a success. I want to leave my mark on the world.”
“Where’s your gittar?”
“I don’t play, sir. That’s not what this is about. I want to be somebody.” Joseph paused. “I’m not sure what I want to do. I’ve done some kitchen work, and I like it. I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll open a restaurant someday.”
“Shoot!” The old man exploded in laughter. “You want to open a restaurant, boy, you don’t need to be goin’ out there in the dead of night, lookin’ for trouble. Just fry yourself up a mess of chicken and be done with it.”
“Sure,” said Joseph, laughing in spite of himself.
There was a long silence, and the old man looked at him expectantly. Joseph reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a small manila envelope, and handed it over.
“Well, I’ll be,” the old man said as he counted the money. His eyes widened and his eyebrows arched. “There’s four hunnerd here. I done told you two hunnerd.”
“I want you to have it. I think it’s fair.”
“That’s a lot of money, boy. You don’t need to be doin’ that.”
“I’m not here as a tourist, sir.” It was Joseph’s turn to stare at the old man. “It took me a long time to find you. I don’t want the movie set or the amusement park. I want the real thing.”
“Careful what you wish for, now.”
“Will you be going out with me?”
“Shoot, no.” The old man shook his head. “These old legs couldn’t take me out there and back. And you wouldn’t want me, anyway. You don’t want some old man who got spooked at the sound of Johnson’s voice. It’s my son that’s goin’ with you.”
“Are you sure?”
“It got to be him, ’cause it got to be somebody who don’t take this stuff seriously. Somebody who ain’t gonna wake up in the middle of the night thirty years from now, thinkin’ ’bout it.” He reached over and patted Joseph on the shoulder. “Gotta be somebody with a pure heart. Somebody the man can’t touch.”
“I’ll git him for you.” The man paused and looked at Joseph. “You know, Johnson was no more than thirty when he died.”
“He was twenty-seven, actually.”
“How old you be?”
“I just turned twenty-two.”
“And that don’t spook you none?”
“You know what you should be spooked ’bout? If you had any sense, that is?”
“What’s that, sir?”
“How you gonna feel if you live to be as old as me? What you think gonna be in your head then?”
“I guess I’ll have to take that chance.”
“It’s your funeral either way, I ’spose.” He rose unsteadily and walked to the edge of the porch. “Willy,” he called. “William Earl, you git out here. It be showtime.”
After a moment, a young Black man emerged from behind the shack, grinning broadly. He wore overalls like his father and radiated an aura of good humor that put Joseph immediately at ease. He looked no older than Joseph, but seemed to engulf everyone around him in boyish enthusiasm.
“You wanna open yourself a restaurant,” the old man told Joseph, “this here is the boy you want. He can cook up anythin’, anytime, just the way you like it. He’ll make you a success.” He turned to his son. “You ready, boy?”
“Yes, sir, born ready.”
“All right then. You be careful out there.” He looked carefully at Joseph. “Good luck to you. I hope you git what you came for.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Let’s go, baby.” Willy grinned, motioning for Joseph to follow him. “We got business.”