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Gumshoe

Going undercover to catch a kitchen between courses.

I would make a terrible private investigator.

This is a hard thing for me to admit, because as a kid, I was somewhat obsessed with the old Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson noir detective novels. I watched the black-and-white movies made from the best of them (Maltese Falconand The Big Sleep, in particular) and, in my own more black-and-white moments, occasionally thought of chucking my knives, turning in my whites for a rain-damp trenchcoat and fedora, and becoming a gumshoe myself. Granted, my fantasy also would have required my going back in time to the 1940s, growing a face like Bogart's, looking better in a hat than I actually do and moving to a place where it was always pissing down gray rain, but that is neither here nor there. A fantasy second life is a fantasy second life. When you're daydreaming, little things like climatology and the space-time continuum don't exist. And not for nothing, but I also entertained the occasional fantasy of a life as a food writer (which came with its own unique set of impossibilities), and I somehow made that work.

Anyway, I actually made one weak attempt at becoming a private investigator many years ago. It was during one of my banquet jobs — working at a place that had a whole warren of ballrooms and meeting rooms and conference spaces. In the kitchen, the majority of our work day was taken up by assembling cookie trays for the Asian-American Accountants Association in B-6, sandwich platters for the Eastern States Wingnut Manufacturing Coalition meeting on the mezzanine, and awful towers of gritty spelt brownies and off-brand canned diet sodas for the Lose Weight Now! Ask Me How! shysters conning the fatties in the main events room. In the evening, there'd be the occasional wedding, corporate meet-and-greet or whatever, but the night I'm remembering was one when a career fair had rolled in, taking up two full rooms and demanding nothing more of us than twenty cases of generic bottled water.

Which was fine, since we got paid whether we were carrying water or carving steamship rounds, but with the career fair hogging so much square footage and not much else on the books, the cooks got pretty bored. At one point, I just changed out of my chef's coat and into a sweater and walked around the career fair myself — curious about what sort of employment might be out there for people who, unlike me, had actually finished college or owned a tie.

Unfortunately, most of the booths were populated by doughy older women passing out informational packets on the joys of envelope-stuffing, or smooth-talking jerkoffs in horrific poly-blend jackets trying to convince brain-dead dropouts and single moms that they could turn their lives around by studying welding, small engine repair or broadcast journalism through the mail. But then I found a guy looking to train and hire private investigators. I was intrigued — primarily because of my interest in the field, but also because he was wearing a tiny silver tie tack in the shape of a Chief's model .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver, the preferred firearm of private dicks everywhere for its ability to fit comfortably in a trenchcoat pocket without leaving an unsightly bulge and blow small holes in Peter Lorrewithout leaving a mess on the carpet.

I quickly discovered that the company the guy ran (or was pretending to run) investigated bogus insurance and workers' comp claims. It wasn't nearly as glamorous as trying to figure out who'd killed the beautiful blond heiress or what happened to the congressman's missing wife. But it was still worthwhile, the guy said, and, more important, quite lucrative. Besides, the game was all the same. Most of being a private investigator was about sitting around and waiting in a car, in an alley, day and night, in the sun and the rain. In fact, 90 percent of the job, he explained, was about putting yourself in the right place and then watching, waiting for something interesting (and hopefully illegal) to happen.

At this point in our conversation, the guy with the tie tack asked if I wanted to go out in the parking lot and check out his sweet crime-fighting van. I demurred politely and went back to the kitchen, another fantasy wrecked.

Good thing, too, because I would have made a terrible private investigator, as evidenced by my work for my Aqua review (see review).

While I knew from the start that something about this "restaurant" was squirrelly, it wasn't until later that I figured out for sure how things were being done. While there, I'd seen the cooks working with no ventilation inside the center bar and knew from my understanding of building and health codes that there was no way they could actually be cooking anything without hoods and screens and grease traps. So finally, I decided to watch Aqua stock up for the night — hence my idea for a stakeout. I knew (or at least assumed — correctly, as it turned out) that all the deep prep and, in many cases, production work was being done at Chadrom's other restaurant, Opal, across the street. Therefore, all I needed to do was find a place where I could sit, wait and watch to see exactly how much of the actual cooking was being done off-site.

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