The first time Belle French heard the name Mr. Gold she'd been the new head chef at La Ratatouille for three days. The week previous she'd shadowed Colette Gusteau, but now the woman, her husband who everyone affectionately called Linguini, and their seven year old son Remy were off for Europe and a year long sabbatical, leaving the kitchens in Belle's hands.
Colette had not warned her about Mr. Gold.
That first day it was the soup that he sent back, for being too cold. Belle tried not to have a problem with that, but there was steam still coming off the bowl. Abigail, gentle soul that she was, just shrugged when she brought it back in. "It's Gold. you never can tell with him."
The following week the leg of lamb was sent back for being overcooked and not seasoned to his liking. A week after that it was the steak tartare aller-retour being underdone, a ridiculous claim considering that it was steak tartare. After a month Belle took to preparing Gold's meals personally; her staff didn't need the stress of worrying what the man would complain about next.
In four months of once weekly visits there were exactly two times in which nothing was returned. The whole kitchen seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief on those days. Belle was the exception; she hated to have her space so dominated by a man she hadn't even met, one who had no right to exert so much control. She was damn proud of the food that she served, and the people who worked under her were quickly becoming an adopted family. For a woman who had a father and no one else that meant something.
The ratatouille was the last straw. No one, in the entire nine years La Ratatouille had been opened, had complained about their house dish. The ratatouille was perfect. The ratatouille was a dish that people drove two hours and stood in line for the chance to taste. Most importantly the ratatouille was Remy Gusteau's favorite dish, and if he heard that someone had complained about meal that his parents had re-created for him the darling boy would be heartbroken.
It was the last straw.
"I'll take that." David, the head waiter, stood just inside the kitchen door. He hadn't even said anything yet but she knew. Oh, she knew.
"He's in a foul mood tonight, Chef," David cautioned. He and his wife, pastry chef Mary Margaret, were the oldest of the staff. Though too young to actually be her parents they liked to play the part. Their daughter Emma helped out washing dishes and taking out the trash on weekends, and was something of a little sister. Belle was staying at the Gusteau's house while they were gone, but one or two of the Nolan clan came by a few times during the week with poor excuses that really just meant they were keeping an eye on her.
"Good, then I won't feel guilty for pouring this all over his head." She held up the plate she'd taken from him.
"Belle," he said in a tone that was much more like the one he used when Emma was about to act out, and nothing like a waiter speaking to a head chef. Belle laughed.
"You can ground me later, dad, and take money from my allowance to pay for his dry cleaning." She was through the swinging doors before he had a chance to respond, and headed straight for Gold's table. She'd never met the man, but Ruby had pointed him out through the window the third time he'd sent food back; he was a hard man to forget.
"There's nothing wrong with this." She dropped the plate in front of him, on the table where it belonged even if she'd been a little rougher than the needed to be. The fact that a drop or two splattered his tie didn't bother her; she could have done far worse.
"That's where we disagree, dearie. I find it unpalatable." He held a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cuvée Barderini in his hand; the man more than likely spent more money annually on wine then she earned in a year. She did have to admit, to herself at least, that the one thing she couldn't fault the man with was being stingy with his money. Despite his tendency to snap and send food back to the kitchens, and sometimes even make waitresses cry, he tipped well. With the exception of Ashley, who refused to go near him, no one refused to be his server.
"You have ordered the ratatouille before. You've never complained about it, or refused to eat it. No one's ever complained about, as a matter of fact, and that's not going to change under my watch. You'll eat this and be happy about it, Mr. Gold, or you can eat somewhere else." She was trying very hard to keep her voice low and her temper in check, but it was hard. He, unredemptive man that he seemed to be, was smirking at her.
"There's no such thing as perfection, especially over such a long time period. Records fail, and this streak of your seems to be one of them. I will not eat, and refuse to pay for, a sub-par meal." There was, surprisingly, no scorn in his voice. No hostility. He simply spoke as if the quality of the meal was a fact, and he was pointing out the obvious. Belle refused to accept it.
Gold always ate alone, but of course there was no such thing as a table set for one. Restaurants, and life, were designed for people who were social creatures. Belle picked up the fork from the second place setting and used it to scoop up a bite of the barely touched entree, careful to get zucchini, tomato, eggplant and sauce alike in order to judge every component of the meal. She chewed slowly, allowing the food to rest against her tongue before swallowing. There was not a single thing wrong with it; in fact there was no way of telling that she'd made it rather than Colette herself. Though Belle had added some of her own special dishes to the menu this was a Gusteau speciality and remained untouched. "If that is sub-par, Mr. Gold, then McDonald's is gourmet. Perhaps you'd prefer to eat there?"
"Perhaps you should learn a thing or two about humility, if you wish to retain any customers." He leaned back in his chair and took a sip of his wine. Belle almost took a step back from the intensity of his stare. "You're the girl Chef Colette took under her wing, aren't you?"
"I am Chef French, the woman hired as Chef de cuisine for the duration of the Gusteau's sabbatical. I am Le Cordon Bleu trained and have the complete faith of not only the family but also the staff and, with the exception of yourself, the patrons of La Ratatouille." This might be the first restaurant that she'd run, but she'd been working towards this moment for years. No cocky, insulting, arrogant man was going to ruin it for her. "While I am here this is my kitchen and my restaurant. You can either eat the food you have ordered or you can find the door. Your server will be out shortly to show you the dessert menu or clear your table, and frankly it doesn't matter to me which one you chose. Have a nice evening, Mr. Gold."
It wasn't until she was walking back to the kitchen that she noticed half the restaurant was looking at her. Thank the gods it was only a Tuesday night, late enough that only half the tables were full and there were no critics in the room. She'd never forgive herself if her temper resulted in negative reviews for the restaurant that had been left in her charge.
"Good going Chef." Ruby, thankfully, kept her voice low but there was no hiding the megawatt grin.
"There was nothing good about that." Never in her time working in the kitchens, starting as a dishwasher ten years ago, had she spoken to a customer like that. There was nothing to do about it now, though. She nodded at the tray the waitress was carrying, once again marveling at the balance the woman had. Not only was the tray full but she was dressed in her usual spiked heels. "I think you have a table to take care of."
"Yes, Chef." She headed for her table at a pace that would have had Belle, had she tried the same thing, tripping over her own feet.
"Are you alright?" Belle, resisting the urge to sag against the wall, smiled wanly at Mary Margaret.
"I really fucked up, didn't I?" She knew the other woman didn't approve of her tendency towards foul language any more than she allowed Emma to use it, but Belle was too tired to care.
"I'm sure you were provoked, sweetie. But maybe next time you should let David deal with him?" Mary Margaret pulled her towards the office, where a plate of scallops and a glass of wine was waiting.
"I'm not so sure there is going to be a next time, not with Mr. Gold. That's easily one-fifty a week I've lost us, if you count his wine." The smell of the butter on the scallops was making her mouth water; it had been a long time since lunch.
"One customer is not going to break us, Chef. We're doing fine." Mary Margaret, ever the parent, picked up the fork and handed it to her. "Fifteen minutes at least. You need a break, and you need food. We've got the kitchen and the front of house covered."
Belle, seeing the wisdom in her orders, did not protest.
He ate the ratatouille, which might not have been perfect but was far more than the sub-par he'd labeled it. He finished his wine which was, as usual, perfect. Hopper, the sommelier at La Ratatouille, had a true gift when it came to both pairing food with wine and for understanding his patron's palate. He even ordered pot de crème for dessert. When he left there was a twenty percent tip on the table, as always. He didn't stop to speak to anyone, and certainly didn't smile at anyone, as he picked up his cane and limped towards the front door.
"Pleasant meal, Mr. Gold?" Antares, his chauffeur, occasional bodyguard and jack of all trades held open the back door of his town car.
"Is was, rather. You can take me home now, Antares. I'll be staying in for the rest of the evening." He let the man do his usual sweep of the house before setting the alarm; his employee lived above the garage, close by if he or his crack shooting were called for. Most people who knew him were wise enough not to try and mess with him, but there were a few who had yet to learn the lesson.
Gold settled in his chair with a book, but it couldn't hold his interest. His mind kept wandering back to the restaurant and a pair of startling blue eyes that blazed with temper. It had taken four long months of patience, but finally he had met her. Unlike Colette Gusteau who made a turn of the dining room at least once an evening, Belle French was one hundred and ten percent focused on the kitchen. According to his friend Anton Ego she all but lived there when she wasn't at the market in the wee hours of the morning gathering ingredients or at her temporary home sleeping.
Gold himself had only seen her once before this evening, but it was enough to know that he needed to see her again. He'd accompanied Ego to an exclusive invitation only dinner welcoming the chef that was going to be taking over La Ratatouille coming year. Belle French had been wearing a dress the same blue as her eyes, which sparkled as much with excitement as they had with anger.
He wondered what they'd look like ignited with passion.
He hadn't even talked with her that night, but he'd listened. He'd watched. He'd become infatuated.
There's been too much flurry, during the Gusteau's finale week in the States, but the first night Belle had taken over the kitchens he'd tried to invite her to his table to offer his compliments to the Chef. She was, Nolan had informed him, too busy to see anyone. The same happened the second night, and the third. It was then that he'd come up with the plan that had finally come to fruition tonight.
He'd sent back the soup.