|St. Petersburg, Florida, June 26: I’m as greasy as a pig from cooking dinner all night in the sweltering Florida heat. Just like a real toaster, my larger-than-life version is red hot on the inside. With the oven cranked to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the gas range fired up and no air conditioning, it’s hot enough in here to roast me alive, right along with the purple potatoes and sea bass baked in a brown paper bag I just finished serving to 18 guests. With the meal safely over, I excuse myself from the party and climb cautiously into the tiny shower stall on the RV that tows my rolling kitchen from town to town. During the day, the shower’s used as a permanent storage space for my bike. Idyllic dreams of daily cycling excursions now seem naive to the point of lunacy. The brutal schedule has made sleep my body’s only recreation. Any free hours I’m able to snatch are spent on my celery phone, doing interviews, pinning down scheduling details, juggling sponsor requests, finalizing details of media appearances, arranging drop shipments of supplies and saving America – one palate at a time – from the evils of mediocre food. I’ll nap when I’m dead, that is, if this tour doesn’t kill me first.It’s not like I don’t have help. There are a total of ten people intimately involved in the organization of this culinary odyssey: a three-person road crew (driver, sous chef and tour manager); four publicists; my business manager; a sponsorship liaison; and the home-base tour coordinator. PR people for various sponsors parachute in along the way and add to the mayhem. On average I do five events a day, mostly a mix of interviews, random drive-by shrimp feedings, book signings, cocktail parties and TV appearances. Every other night, like tonight, the crew and I become a Mobile Dinner Party Commando Squad. We roll up to a house, unfold two long tables onto the front lawn, pop the pass-through window on the Toastermobile, offload my Weber grill and start serving appetizers faster than most people can microwave a burrito. The controlled frenzy of chopping, slicing, grating, grilling, whisking, cooking, plating and serving that follows has the intensity of an emergency room during a full moon.
After my shower, I go out to check on Mary, my sous chef (baptized Mary Sous for the tour) as she cleans up the Toastermobile. A friend and fellow food fanatic from New York, Mary agreed to join the tour after the first sous chef (nicknamed Angry Man) was voted off the Toastermobile after only one week in a real life game of Survivor. In fact, the tour’s making Survivor look like a Club Med vacation.
This was Mary Sous’ first dinner party, though we’d been cooking for book signings and other events for a few days. Dinners are different. Timing, details and organization all need to be precision-perfect for everything to come off right. Forget one pan in the oven, one step in a recipe and the meal (and possibly my career, depending on the guests) could be toast.
We’re parked on the quiet, palm-tree-lined street with a vintage Bowie CD spilling out into the warm summer air. Mary Sous is grooving to the music, feet tapping on the diamond-patterned steel floor. All four courses rocked and the remaining guests are in a food-and-wine-induced trance. I step inside the Toastermobile and we high-five mutual congratulations on a job well done. A wave of pure relief floods over me. The day, which started in the distant mists of a 6 a.m. TV appearance, is almost done. Mary Sous catches the vibe and suddenly we’re infected by the music and start bouncing around the Toastermobile to the beat – all the manic intensity of the day pouring out as pure motion energy. Guests trickling out from the party pause and gaze in astonishment at the sight of two sweat-drenched, food-stained chefs in a Toastermobile, rockin’ to the music, oblivious to the solitude of their suburban surroundings.
We finish washing dishes and scrubbing down the Toastermobile somewhere around midnight. We haul out the trash, put away the pots and pans, scrub the sinks, wipe down and polish the counters and walls, sweep the floor, secure any objects that might spill or roll, latch the drawers, extinguish the lights and jump into the RV. We should hose the floor too, but we need to get on the road. Phil, the Texan driver, has already backed the RV front of the Toastermobile and hitched it up, so as soon as we slam the door behind us, he pulls out. It feels kind of like a hit and run job from a wacky 70s comedy: a bank heist or a terrorist plot with the Winnebago-Toastermobile as the unlikely getaway vehicle. “GO GO GO!!” yells Suzi, the tour manager, as we pull into the street and head for the interstate.
|We have a book signing tomorrow at noon in Atlanta, 500 miles away. In a motor home towing 5,000 pounds of stainless steel, that takes about 11 hours, which means we’re hitting the highway right now, direct from the party with virtually no time buffer. What slave-driving nut agreed to book these two events so damn close together?! Shit, that was me. Sigh. My eyelids keep trying to close, even though I haven’t sat down yet and my body feels like it’s been used for kick boxing practice all day. Phil drives, the radio softly blaring country tunes to keep him awake, while Suzi reclines in the front seat and Mary stretches out on the dinette table, which converts to a flat bed. In two minutes she’s fast asleep despite the vehicle’s lurching. I don’t know how she does it. The Toastermobile also doubles as a rolling wine cellar. I survey the cache and select a bottle of Barton & Guestier Chateauneuf-du-Pape, one of the fringe benefits of having a wine company as a sponsor.As King of my rolling fiefdom, I get the real bed in the back of the RV. But with each bump in the Florida asphalt, the mattress bounces wildly. Every pothole and crack in the pavement seems to magnify exponentially in the springs, jouncing and tossing me around like a sack of beans. It’s like lying flat on the back of a bucking bronco, if that were possible. Sometime around 6 a.m. Phil pulls off to a motel to catch a few hours sleep.
At last, the vehicle stopped, I slumber soundly. Even the rush of interstate traffic whooshing by fails to disturb me. Suddenly the shrill, familiar bleat of my phone cuts through the fog of sleep and I stumble toward the sound. It’s Kathy, my Canadian publicist, saying something about guest spots on competing morning TV shows. Where the hell are we I wonder as I try to shake the heaviness from my brain and makes sense of the words at the other end of the line. Fifteen phone calls, four hours and three cups of Earl Gray tea later, Suzi calls out a five-minute warning from the shotgun seat. Damn. I haven’t even checked my e-mail yet.
Standing up, I try to stretch the stiffness out of my body as I continue sharing war stories with Norman, my friend and business manager. Balancing awkwardly on one leg as the vehicle sways, I slide the other into a clean pair of Chefware pants, grabbing my electric razor with my left hand and cupping the celery phone between my right ear and shoulder. Norman, I gotta go, I’ll call you later, I tell him, trading the cell phone for my chef’s knife.
Emerging onto the parking lot of the bookstore, I blink in the bright noon sunlight bouncing off the asphalt, smile as I’m introduced to the store manager and bound into to the Toastermobile. It’s show time again, and if you can’t stand the heat . . .