The lights were so much hotter than she’d expected. Tiffany could see her domed dessert listing to one side. Would Chef Grit notice? Of course she would. Tiffany resisted the impulse to push it to the left or to straighten her apron, or to make sure her blond pony tail was tidy. Instead she held her fidgety hands tightly behind her back.
Eleanor Grit was a large woman, more manly than fat. She towered over Tiffany and didn’t mind the height difference.“I’m not a judgmental person,” Eleanor said, looking down at her prey. “But I do know what I like, and frankly I know what’s good and what’s not.”
Tiffany stared up at her.
“This, my dear, is terrible. Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” She smiled broadly at her culinary joke.
Tiffany did not smile back. Truth be told, she was close to tears, but she would not cry.
“This was an overly ambitious entry for such an inexperienced baker. Baked Alaska? Too much. Too old fashioned.”
“It’s Baked Louisiana,” Tiffany said quietly. “A take-off on the older dessert. I thought it might be a bit . . . whimsical.”
“Whimsical? Whatever made you think this contest was meant to be whimsical? The winner travels to Paris for a week with the greatest pastry chefs in the world.”
Tiffany stared at the ground. I will not cry she told herself.
“You have nothing to say?” Eleanor asked. “A competent chef can always explain his choices and his rationale.”
Before Tiffany could think of a response, Eleanor had moved on. “Next,” she shouted, “Ronald Bartrow.”
A young man scurried up with a pie decorated with bits of candied mango on top. A little too much anxiety sent the pie skidding off the plate and landing at Eleanor’s feet. She stepped over it and yelled for the next contestant, Simone duChamp”.
“You”re French?” Eleanor asked. “You have that dark coloring and emaciated body French women seem to covet.”
“Ah, oui,”Simone said without a trace of irritation. She knew she was beautiful—everyone told her so. “But I speak excellent English.”
Eleanor took a bite of her gateau Gallois.
“I’m afraid you speak better than you bake.” She spit out the bite the way a wine connoisseur might spit out a sip of wine. The difference was that Eleanor did it with dramatic disgust. “Truly inedible my dear.”
Unlike Tiffany, Simone had no intention of crying. “People warned me about you,” she said. “A woman who was never that good as a pastry chef, intent on making everyone else look bad. I didn’t believe them, but I should have.”
“Stop filming now!” Eleanor yelled. “You will remove that comment and this contestant from the show.” She marched off the stage. “I”ll be back when I’m back.”
The set went dark. The crew seemed unfazed by the outburst. They grabbed a cup of coffee and asked Simone and Tiffany if they might have some of their creations.
“What’s in this Baked Louisiana?” the boom operator asked. “It’s fantastic. Hey, Joe, get some of this while it lasts.”
“The secret is Meyer’s lemons,” Tiffany said.”I might as well tell you as I’m not about to win the contest.”
The gaffer was stuffing his mouth with the gateau Gallois. “Oh my God, this is amazing.”
“Merci, monsieur,” Simone said.
The contestants who had already been shafted gathered around the table with their rejected efforts. The other contestants kept their distance the way you might stay away from someone with the plague.
“It isn’t catching,” Tiffany said. “We aren’t a leper colony.”
“You’ll be joining us soon enough,” Simone said. She turned to Tiffany. “The whole thing is rigged, that’s what my friend said. But I figured all publicity was good publicity. People watch Eleanor Grit, the chef they love to hate. Now I won’t even be in the segment. Sometimes, my temper gets the best of me.”
“Oh, I loved what you said.” Tiffany smiled broadly. “I wished I’d had the nerve to speak up to her.”
“You did fine. Saying it was meant to be whimsical was a perfect way to show what a pompous drudge she is.”
“If it is rigged,” Tiffany asked, “who do you think is the winner?”
“Look at them.” She pointed to the five contestants waiting to be reviewed. “Notice anything?”
“They all look petrified.”
“All of them?” asked Simone. “Look again.”
One contestant was seated by herself, doing her nails. She noticed the two women staring at her and frowned at them.
“You mean her?” Tiffany asked.
“Who does their nails during a bake-off? The smell alone would drive a judge crazy. A real judge I mean.”
There was no more time for speculation. Eleanor had returned to the set. Lights went back on as if nothing had happened.
“You did clear that last segment,” she said to the director.
“Good as done,” he replied.
‘Very well, who’s next?” She looked at her roster and called Ambrose Pendergrast. She tasted his offering of a flaky cherry pie.
“Hmm,” she said. “Mediocre at best. Such an imposing name and such a disappointing offering.” That didn’t stop her from taking several more bites.
Next she called the girl with the newly-painted nails. “Ashley Arora.”
Eleanor studied the young woman before tasting her seven-layer cake. “Lovely,” she said. “Both you and the cake. A wonderful presentation, your nails the shade of the frosting. Stunning.”
Ashley beamed. “Thank you.”
Eleanor took a rather large bite of the cake. It seemed as if she might have bitten into something not quite edible. She turned her back to the camera and removed a piece of tin foil. When she returned her smile was in place. “This is exquisite. Where did you get the recipe, my dear?”
“My grandmother gave it to me days before she died. Her last wish was to have me learn how to bake her seven-layer cake. She helped me in the kitchen that last day. Sadly she didn’t live to taste it.”
“Perhaps not so sad,” Eleanor said and then seemed to catch herself. “I mean she got to pass on a wonderful recipe to you. That is all that would have mattered to her.”
Tiffany and Simone nodded knowingly at one another. They made a beeline to the serving table to get their own taste of this exquisite dessert once Ashley left the stage.
Simone took the first bite.“It’s disgusting,” she said. “I think she must have substituted salt for sugar. It’s horrible.”
Tiffany took a much smaller taste. Kinder by nature, she couldn’t find words for her experience.
Ashley walked up as they were about to throw their plates away. “Oh my God, you’re not eating that are you? It’s liable to make you sick. Don’t do that.”
She ran off with the rest of the cake before either one of them could respond. Ashley dumped all seven layers in a nearby trash can.
“What was that?” Simone asked.
“Quiet on the set,” the director shouted. “We have more contestants.”
Tiffany and Simone took a seat. “I probably don’t have to stay,” Simone said, “since they took me out of the whole show. I know they like to see how disappointed all the losers are. I’ll stay with you if you like.”
“Please,” Tiffany said.
Together they watched as the last three contestants brought their desserts to the tasting table. Eleanor was in good form. Each of them got a unique dressing down.
“How does she come up with all those comments?” Tiffany asked.
“I’m sure she has a writer giving her the one-liners.”
The last contestant left the stage. Eleanor stood, ready to make the announcement of the winner. She got as far as “Ashley,” but couldn’t seem to get “Arora” out of her mouth. Instead she lurched forward and then keeled over, the camera catching her every movement.
“Oh my God,” Tiffany said. She and Simone were on their feet. “This can’t be happening.”
A crowd gathered around Eleanor. Shouts came. “Is she breathing? Get a doctor.”
“Is there a doctor in the house?”
A handsome Indian man rose from his seat. “I’m a doctor.” The crowd parted and the young man knelt beside Eleanor. He pulled out a stethoscope he apparently had in his pocket and listened to her heart. He opened one eyelid.
“Gone, I’m afraid.”
The camera crew hadn’t stopped filming. They swept the audience and the contestants for their signs of grief and fear.
A security guard stepped forward. “No one can leave until the police arrive. We have to know if this was an accidental death or murder?”
“Murder? Murder?” The word ricocheted around the room.
“Like poison?” Simone asked. And then she looked at Tiffany. “Are you feeling all right? I’m a little queasy. You don’t think that cake—”
“But Ashley won the contest,” Tiffany replied.
“Yes, but not on her merits. The cake tasted, you know, metallic.”
Simone was looking a little green.
Tiffany helped her sit down. “I don’t feel sick at all,” Tiffany said.
“Yes, but you barely had a bite. I warned you off.”
Tiffany nodded. “It’s true. I owe my life to you. We have to get that doctor over here.”
Tiffany ran in search of the Indian physician. He was off stage getting made-up.
“What? What’s going on?” Tiffany screamed. “My friend thinks she may be dying from that cake that Eleanor ate and said she loved.”
“What are you rambling on about? Look, I have a show to do next. What’s your problem?”
“What’s my problem? A woman is dead and you have a show to do?”
The young man paused and asked the make-up artist to leave for just a moment.
He took both of Tiffany’s hands in his own. “You do know you’re on a reality TV show, don’t you?”
“Of course,” Tiffany said.
“Well then you should not be alarmed. The ratings for Eleanor’s show were falling. She needed to do something. We’ll bring her back in the next episode.”
At that moment, Eleanor stopped by. “Thanks, Jeff, you were perfect."
“I guess you didn’t tell your contestants what was going on?”
“How could we and get their honest reactions? Really Jeff, you know fake news has to be very dramatic and convincing. It was, don’t you think?”
If Tiffany had had a frying pan at that moment or a good paring knife, Eleanor’s death might not have remained fake news. Instead she stormed off to let Simone know she wasn’t dying.
After a moment of hysterical relief, Simone looked at Tiffany. “The world thinks Eleanor is dead, n’est pas?”
“What if something happens before the next show and Eleanor really is dead?”
Tiffany blanched. “You don’t mean that.”
Simone studied Tiffany’s shocked expression. “Of course not,” she said with an enigmatic expression. “But I do think I may bring her a few new desserts to help her in her recovery. Anonymously of course.
Tiffany hesitated and then nodded. “I think I can help with that. I suppose if something were to happen to Chef Grit, the network might be looking for a replacement, perhaps a dynamic duo—one Southern and one French.”
“You’re a genius, Tiffany.” Simone kissed her on each cheek. “I love your concept of reality TV—when one’s fantasies become the truth.”