Souffles at Sunrise: Just Desserts Book One, page 1
Soufflés at Sunrise
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Soufflés at Sunrise © 2019 by M.J. O’Shea and Anna Martin
Cover Art by M.J. O’Shea
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the written permission of the Publisher, except where permitted by law.
Trial By Fire — The Elimination Round
Welcome to a new season of Burned, where we find fresh new cooking talent… and a few culinary disasters! Every season we do something a little different and this time it’s all about the sweet things in life. That’s right. We’re doing an entire season of desserts! Get ready for week one as twenty hopeful pastry chefs and dessert connoisseurs compete for the thirteen coveted workspaces in our Burned studio.
This season we’ll have all-new themes and challenges our thirteen finalists can use to show us their chops. And the prizes are huge! Our winner gets a year of specialized pastry training in Paris, a whole kitchen’s worth of top-of-the-line commercial tools and appliances, and a hundred thousand dollars to open his or her own shop or build their current business!
With stakes this big, we ask the one question on everyone’s mind: Do these chefs have what it takes to rise to the top? Or will they get Burned?
Chase Christiansen was screwed. Utterly, totally, and completely screwed. Beyond screwed. Whatever was the biggest and worst word for screwed possible. He knew it too. He’d known it for close to three minutes. Three heart-pounding minutes that could easily kill all the pipe dreams he’d been building in his head for the past two months.
The kitchen had exploded with movement the moment the moderator announced the challenge. Nineteen bodies flying to the supply table, nineteen stations filled with the sounds of chopping, blending, beating… and then him. Frozen. Or in other words … screwed.
Make a dessert that best represents you as a dessert chef and the region you come from.
God, it was textbook. He’d even expected something like it. For good reason too. Every damn competition show in the universe started with the contestants making something that showed who they were, and this was just like that.
Then what’s my damn problem?
He’d never felt anything like it before. Pure panic, like if someone asked him what his mother’s name was, he’d be at a loss. Maybe even his own name too. Hell. He stared at the continuous flow of frantic energy dancing around him, and then he squeezed his eyes shut. He was frozen. Everyone was moving, moving, moving, fast and efficient and full of confidence, and he was stuck. Chase wondered if he should just walk right off the set, quit, go home, go back to his shop where there were everyday pressures but nothing like the sweat-dripping, hot-lights, everyone-is-staring-at-you pressure of trying to prove himself in front of a room full of strangers.
Something that represents me. Something that represents where I’m from. What do I do? What do I do? Beer and brats? Cheese? I am from Wisconsin.
Chase was sweating profusely; uncomfortable, hot drips slid down his back. His heart pounded faster and faster, and he still just froze. He nearly got the nervous giggles at the thought of plunking a huge block of cheddar down on the judges’ table with some sausages around it. Giggling wouldn’t do him any good. Nothing would if he didn’t come up with something really damn soon.
Think, Chase, Think.
Once he calmed the gripping panic that had nearly taken him down, he knew what to do. The answer was ice cream, of course. Ice cream was what Chase did best. It’s what he did every day of the week, all year long. Chase was the ice cream guy. It’s why they’d picked him, after all. If ice cream could get him to the elimination round, then hopefully it could get him to the final thirteen as well.
Chase jogged over to the supply table, which looked like a scavenged battlefield compared to the perfectly piled stores of fruits, baking goods, creams, milks, and more exotic ingredients that had been there before the buzzer rang. There wasn’t a lot to work with, but he knew he’d need cream, and a lot of it. He tried to think of how he could bring Wisconsin into his ice cream. Just the fact that it was dairy wasn’t good enough. It had to be fun. Ironic. Interesting.
Cheese would be fun and ironic. Nobody expected cheese ice cream. It still had to taste good, so cheddar was out. Just the thought of chunks of Wisconsin cheddar in a vanilla base made him want to heave. Chase had his answer when he spied a few containers of cream cheese and one of goat cheese as well. He grabbed them and put them in his basket. The mascarpone was too fancy for his tiny hometown. Better stick to what city people imagined the country folk knew.
Then he went back to the huge refrigerators and searched for something else he thought might fit with his theme. Cheese… and yes. Beer. He was onto something. Finally. Not there yet, but he had an idea.
Usually his crazy ice cream chemistry took all night to come together in the silence of his back kitchen, tasting and dancing around to late-night radio. Usually it was fun. It couldn’t happen like that. Not with the cameras and the clock ticking down. No tests. No second chances. Definitely no singing. It had to be perfect, and it had to be perfect now.
Chase took his plunder and scuttled back to his workstation. He had a hell of a lot of work to do and not enough time to do it. He had to work faster than he’d ever worked before.
You can do it. Just concentrate….
The panic had subsided a little bit. At least it wasn’t immobilizing him anymore.
Get to work.
* * *
He was into it deep, cradling his precious sweet creamy cheese cargo in a bowl when a voice right near his shoulder shocked the hell out of him.
“This is Chase Christiansen from Madison, Wisconsin. Tell us about what you’re over here madly concocting, Chase.”
He nearly dropped the huge container of cream he was about to slide into the ice cream maker all over the floor and someone’s custom-made, obviously expensive leather shoes. Why was the host right in his face?
Diego Monter was the host of Burned, and had been since the very first season. He was old enough to have some salt in his slicked back dark-pepper hair, his skin was a somewhat golden-orange color of perma-tanned, and he somehow always managed to look expensive rather than like some cheap lounge impersonator in Vegas. He smelled like some sort of expensive cologne, and his suit probably cost more than Chase’s shop and apartment. Chase didn’t have the patience for him. Not when he was already behind.
Jesus. I seriously don’t have time for this. Talk to someone who has their shit together.
Chase’s face was covered with flour from the pretzel dough he’d decided was necessary to finish off the ice cream, and he was sure to smell like beer from making his beer caramel. Great first impression. Welcome to Hollywood, Chase. Answer the damn question.
“In Madison, I own an organic artisanal ice cream company and shop. I wanted to make an ice cream like I’d do at home, with flavors that represent Wisconsin.” Chase looked at the camera and smiled. He hoped he didn’t look too flustered. “Nothing says Wisconsin like cheese.”
“Is that all you’re going to give us?” Diego chuckled. He motioned for the cameras to focus on Chase’s workspace.
“That’s all for now,” Chase said.
“Such a tease.” Diego winked at the camera.
Chase felt like heaving for the second time in ten minutes. Diego was everything he didn’t like about what he was doing, everything he had to ignore to get the boost his career and shop needed. Ignore. Work. Those were the words that kept him going. Hopefully they were enough to get him onto America’s television screens.
Chase noticed the guy next door coming back from where he’d been taking a short breather. He tried not to be annoyed that Mr. Perfect had time for a short breather. The guy was nearly done, and his dessert looked amazing. It was colorful and intricate and everything that Chase’s down-to-earth ice cream was not.
Stop watching him. It’s not going to help you.
Chase tried not to concentrate on anyone else, even if the guy with the perfect dessert was seriously beautiful and could easily blow him out of the water in every way. Stop it now. He slid his pretzels into the oven and kept watch on his caramel. It could all blow up on him, but he nearly felt like he had some control. He just had to keep his head down and on his own work.
* * *
Finished. No sweat.
Kai looked down at his dessert, a complicated display of tropical fruits, cleverly shaped thin cookies, and delicate passion fruit custard arranged into an abstract diorama of his namesake Kailua Bay and Chinaman’s Hat perched in the water. The whole thing was surrounded by a frame of pink and red hibiscus flowers, which didn’t break the “everything edible” rule. It might have been a tiny bit literal of an interpretation of home, but the flavors were impeccable, if he did say so, and it was a beautiful piece. A part of him, complex desserts worthy of the five-star restaurants he usually worked in, and a part of the island home he missed every day.
Surely one of the thirteen spots was his. Surely. He looked around at the other nineteen contestants, most of whom were still struggling to finish on time. There was some sort of fire in the corner, and actual tears. He figured that chick was toast. One guy’s lava cake—what did he think this was, Friday night at the local chain restaurant?—had turned into Crater Lake in the middle. That dude was pretty much fucked unless he pulled something amazing and a bit more sophisticated out of his ass in the little time they had left. Another guy, older and Latino, was nearly finished, but he’d made flan. Flan. What did that say for him as a chef, other than he could make something everyone with a box of custard mix and a few eggs could master? That flan had better taste like the breath of angels, or he was just as screwed as TGI Friday over there with his lava cake. Kai didn’t want to be a dick, but from what he’d seen, there wasn’t a drop of competition for him. Not even one.
Of course, not everyone was one foot into the incinerator. One lady with a prissy sweater and a prim headband seemed to be doing pretty well with a tray full of cupcakes that were past their expiration date, trend-wise, but still perfectly executed. A girl with dreads and clothes that screamed vegan had some pile of fruit and cream and, like, pastry pasta or something that looked weird as hell but might pass for avant-garde if the producers were looking for a nut case for entertainment value.
The guy next to him, Chase, he thought his name was, had been a disaster from the get-go. He’d frozen for long minutes and seemed to be playing catchup ever since. Kai kind of thought he was cute, though, so it would be bad to see him go. He had that milk-and-apples glow to his skin, blond, healthy, and pink-cheeked, probably from a farm somewhere. Cows. He bet the guy had cows.
If he didn’t get it together, he’d be back with those cows in about two heartbeats.
The kitchen was a mass of noise and scents, fruit and chocolate, desperation mixed with burning sugar. Kai almost felt sorry for them. But they were his competition, even if they weren’t really. So he didn’t judge them too harshly. And he felt empathy toward a few of them. Almost.
Maybe it would look good if I help out.
They’d never once said that was against the rules, and he figured the viewers would like a team player, even if the show was everyone for themselves most of the time. He decided he’d help Chase. Milk-and-apples boy deserved to stay, if only for Kai’s viewing pleasure.
“Hey, man. I’m done over here. Can I do anything to help you?”
Chase looked supremely startled, and then slowly a pleased look dawned on his pretty face. “Um, yeah, that would be great, actually. Would you mind chopping those pretzels into bite-sized pieces?”
“No worries. I’m on it.” Kai grabbed the right knife from his station and went to work on the fresh-baked pretzels. They smelled yeasty and salty, which honestly would be a great foil for the sweet ice cream he hoped Chase was making. If he ever got his shit together long enough to finish it, he might have a chance of impressing the judges.
Chase wiped his brow with his sleeved forearm and gave Kai a sheepish grin. The guy really was pretty. Kai wasn’t typically into white-bread too wholesome to be real kind. It wasn’t his thing. But Chase? He wouldn’t mind holding him down and taking a few bites. Kai wanted to see if his skin tasted as good as it looked. He wouldn’t mind if Chase took a bite or two of him either.
“What’s your ice cream flavor?”
“Sweet cream cheese with a beer-based caramel ribbon, and then the pretzels.” Which actually sounded unique. And possibly quite amazing. “I’m from Wisconsin, and I own an ice creamery.” Chase shrugged. His panic levels seemed a little lower. Kai felt like he’d done his good deed for the day.
“Good luck, man.”
Chase nodded and loaded the tiny chunks of crunchy pretzels into his ice cream maker. If the machine was finished by the time he had to present, then he’d make it. Kai was weirdly relieved.
The buzzer went off at the end of the competition, and everyone had to step away from their stations. Chase’s ice cream was finished, Kai’s dessert just had to be enough to get him through, if the universe had any fairness, and they were finished. They just had to present their offerings to the judges, explain their choices, and hope that very soon they’d be getting a call saying they were one of the baker’s dozen, or top thirteen. Kai wouldn’t accept a no. He had to get in.
* * *
“Hey. That was intense in there, wasn’t it?” came a voice from behind Chase when he’d finally escaped to the freedom of the parking lot.
Chase’s throat stuck. Like, awkwardly imploded on itself until he was incapable of speech. He coughed. Since he wasn’t in full-on panic mode any longer, he could finally look at the guy next to him for real. He was so pretty it hurt. He had these sexy almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, warm golden skin, inky, wavy hair that was tied back but looked about shoulder length, lush lips, and freckles. He was broad-shouldered and tall, which was saying something since Chase had topped out at six three back in high school and wasn’t used to looking very many people right in the eye. And he was. Looking.
That was the moment Chase realized he was staring, silent and more awkward than he’d ever felt before. He wasn’t used to being tongue-tied. He didn’t have the most experience in the world—he’d grown up on a farm outside of a small town—but he wasn’t a twenty-eight-year-old virgin either.
Say something. Now.
“Yeah,” he mumbled. “That was terrifying. You saved me from disaster. Thank you. That meant…. It really helped.”
Smooth. Seriously smooth. Pretty soon they’ll be asking you to take James Bond’s place, that’s how cool you are.
“I really only chopped the pretzels.”
Chase let himself chuckle. Better. Casual. “I know, but it helped a lot. I think I got over a mental block where I was sure I wasn’t going to finish.”
“You did fine. You’ll get in.”
“Hey, listen.” Chase felt awkward. Again. “I didn’t catch your name back there. I’m sorry. I think the panic mode wiped my memory.”
“Kailua.” He smiled again and it was magic. “Call me Kai, though.”
“Hi, um, Kai. I’m Chase.”
Kai chuckled then and nudged Chase with his shoulder. “I know. My memory didn’t get wiped. Wisconsin. Ice Cream.”
“Yep. So Kai…. Hawaii?”
“At least you remembered that part.” Kai raised an eyebrow. “Care to see if you can remember the the third?”
They all had a tag, something for the viewers to remember them by. Chase’s was artisanal hometown ice cream. Kai’s was… “Island-Asian five-star fusion?”
Kai punched him gently. “See, you did much better than you thought. Where are you parked?”
Chase shrugged. “I don’t have a car. I was just going to take the shuttle back to our hotel. I need to get my things packed up.”
The show had put the contenders up in a decent hotel near the studio. He knew if he reached the final thirteen, they were going to be in some swanky condo in West Hollywood. He really, really hoped he made the finals. He wanted to come back to California. He wanted to make a name for himself and his shop.
“I can drive you if you don’t want to wait for the shuttle.” Kai shrugged. “I don’t have any plans for the rest of the day.”
“That’s really nice.” Chase hadn’t expected people to be very friendly in Los Angeles. Not compared to the neighborhood around his parents’ farm, where everyone knew him and waved when he parked on Main Street, or even Madison, where his little ice cream shop had built up enough loyal fans that he was a bit of a neighborhood hero. It felt nice to connect to someone in the middle of the huge sprawl of L.A. “If you don’t mind.”