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A MATTER OF TASTE CHAPTER ONE: Dark Ale Birthday Cake With Citrus Cream-cheese Frosting Waking up the next

morning, Max Balfour sat up in bed and sighed. Thirty, he thought miserably, hugging his blanketed knees. Thirty and nothing to show for it. It was September 27th, his thirtieth birthday. It was six in the morning. Normally, hed be up and running by now. Bed made, breakfast done, coffee brewed and all that. But today was different: he didnt have the energy to move. You should stop working for a year, perhaps even longer The doctors words broke Maxs heart. Stop working Stop working It was a waking nightmare, truth be told. Max had been working in kitchens or butchers shops since he was fifteen when he volunteered to help out at the tiny shop in Drumchapel where his mother, grandmothers, and aunts bought meat. Hed spent every summer during university at that shop or clerking over in the family business. Even during those rare times he went on vacation, he would ask to help over at his cousin-in-laws patisserie in Manila where he willingly worked as a confectioner. With all that said, the idea of not working was enough to scare him to death. What am I going to tell my mother and dad? he thought worriedly, resting his chin on his knees, teal-green eyes widening in fear and dread. As if on cue, the doorbell rang. Pulling on his dressing-robe and smoothing back his tousled hair, Max scrambled out to see who it was. Surprise! He opened the door to find his parents there. Yelping in horror, Max slammed the door and put his back to it, trembling in every nerve. Oh, God Oh, God Oh, God! He drew a deep breath to steady himself, then turned to open the door. He smiled rather shakily and hugged his parents. Sorry about that, he apologized meekly. I just woke up. His mother smiled and smoothed back his hair as she stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Happy birthday, Max, she greeted him.

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Thanks, Maman, he replied gratefully. Graham Balfour grabbed his son in a bear hug and beamed proudly down at him, being quite taller than the young man. Happy birthday, lad. Thanks, Dad. He ushered them into the flat, mentally thanking God that hed taken the time to clean it up the day before. Have you had breakfast? he asked his parents, scrambling nervously to the small but well-appointed kitchen. I can whip something up Nae need for that, Max, his father assured him as he settled on the sofa, grinning at his son. Though tea would be nice. Im on it. Mams got you something, by the way. Max turned and saw his mother place a large white box on the kitchen island. He threw her a hopeful look. She couldnt have! he thought, heart racing in anticipation. She didnt Lydie Balfour opened the box to reveal a large, magnificent chocolate cake topped with a massive cloud of pale yellow frosting that smelled deliciously of fresh lemon. Maman, you shouldnt have! Max exclaimed. Dont I always bake you one for your birthday? Lydie reminded him. This is big enough for you to share with your mates at work, you know. Uh-oh Max went pale and sat down on the nearest stool. Um, Im not going to work today, Maman, he replied in a tense, quiet voice. Lydie turned to him, surprised. Thats a first! she exclaimed. Um God, Max thought, how am I going to tell them? He drew a deep breath and the words just spilled out. The doctor wants me to stop working for a year. Both his parents stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then his mother pulled up a chair close to him and sat down. His father came up and stood behind her, one hand resting on her left shoulder. What happened? his father asked worriedly. Im burned out, Max replied in a tremulous voice. He ran all sorts of tests yesterday after I fainted at work. Im okay just tired and anemic is all, the doctor says. Oh, Max! his father exclaimed, crouching next to him.

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Max turned to him, eyes brimming with tears. Dad, Im scared, he admitted, tears beginning to roll down his pale face. Im not used to not working. I wouldnt know what to do. I think Ill die if I stop working! Hush, his father said, holding him close as if he were a small child and, frankly, Max did feel like a small child at that point. Ye should no worry, lad. Yell only make things worse. Max began to cry in earnest. The idea of doing nothing frightened him to the very core of his being. The thought of being idle for a year! His mother got up and took him in her arms, murmuring wordless comfort into his ear. I dont know how to tell my boss, he told them between sobs. Youre going to have to tell him soon, his mother said. But youd better tell him frankly. Her lips pressed into a thin, tight line. Hes worked you too hard. Oh, Maman! Its not Chef Ville-Valmonts fault well, not entirely, but Non! his mother declared, green eyes flashing angrily. That That loubard, that salope, that batard does not treat his people well! Look at you, look at poor Melaine! I dont blame that dear girl for leaving. Neither do I, Max admitted to himself. Though youll never catch me saying it aloud! Maman, Valeriano left because her folks needed her home in the Philippines, he corrected his mother. But, yeah: she was tired. She was always fighting it out with the chef and An so do ye, his father reminded him bluntly. Dinna ye think that Ive not taken note o the times youd write me bout how you and Ville-Valmont clashed oer one thing or another, Max. He eyed the young man sternly. Ye and Melaine were the real forces in that kitchen not that perfumed prancer who makes the round of the talk-show circuit. All hes ever lent to that establishment is his name; remember that. Max sighed and frowned at the prospect of facing his boss, of bearding the lion in his den. You deserve the break, son, his mother murmured soothingly as she rubbed his back. But what if he says no? Then ye turn an walk away, his father replied wisely. I know yere not short on money far from it as a matter o fact! And, even then, your mither and I are here to back ye up. He clasped his sons hands and looked him candidly in the eye. Sometimes, ye hae to just drop everythin an move on wi your life, lad.

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But what do I do in the meantime, Dad? Cross the bridge when ye get there and not a second before. Just tell Ville-Valmont ye need to take a break for a while; if the doctor gave ye anythin in writin, show it to him. Max pursed his lips shut and nodded. He knew what he had to do.

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Wotcher! Matt Sheldon exclaimed when he spied Max coming into the kitchen. Happy birthday, you undergrown wanker you! He gripped his best friend in a brotherly embrace and eyed his outfit somewhat critically: Max was dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt topped by a denim jacket and a black trenchcoat. His feet were in biker boots as opposed to kitchen clogs. Vincent will go ballistic if he sees you, though. Bollocks to what Vincent thinks! Max sneered as he and Max went down the line of stations. He nodded as the crew greeted him with chorused calls of Good morning, chef and Happy Birthday, chef. He handed a large plastic container to Matt. Maman baked a cake for today, he informed his friend. Folks flew in from Glasgow? Matt grinned when he saw what sort of cake it was. Yeah, this morning. Matt paused and gripped Maxs arm, eyeing him worriedly. Whatd you tell them, Max? Everything, Max sighed. Theyve a right to know, after all. I didnt want to tell them, but it all sort of spilled out. Matt gripped his shoulder reassuringly. You did the right thing, mate, he said. They would have worried more if you didnt tell them and something happened to you. Guess so. So, where to now? To tell Vincent Im off for a year, Max replied sternly. Oh, shit, mate! That doesnt sound promising. You remember what happened when Chef Valeriano quit, dont you?

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Max could see it all in the back of his mind: that shouting match that ensued when Valeriano quit two years ago. It got pretty violent, as he recalled; he had to restrain his predecessor physically when she tried to lunge at the snotty Frenchman with a freshlysharpened cleaver! He shuddered at that particular memory. I couldnt blame her, though, Max admitted as he and Matt walked down the line. Vincent really pissed her off I mean, the names he called her and her family! If I were in her shoes, I would have done the exact same thing. You might get your chance, Matt warned him, pointing at a figure who seemed to be storming their way. Here comes Vincent! Chef Balfour! Vincent Ville-Valmont declared in ringing tones as he drew closer. He pointed at Maxs outfit. Why are you not dressed for work? It is eight-thirty! Why have you not opened le charcuterie? Im not supposed to be working today, chef, Max replied, drawing himself to his rather diminutive full height of five feet and six inches. Doctors orders. What docteur? Vincent demanded, florid face growing redder as he confronted his chef de cuisine. What is this? What is this? Max handed him the letter the doctor told him to give his boss. Im suffering from physical burnout, he explained as calmly as he could. He wants me to rest for about a year before I do anything To Matts growing horror, Vincent gave a bellow of rage and tore the letter up. He tossed the pieces right into Maxs face. I do not care about docteurs, I do not care about this, this burnout you say! he roared at Max. I hire you to cook and that is what you do! You do not get sick like this! What are you trying to do, Balfour? Ruin me? Max looked up sharply at that. Matts heart quailed when he saw a flash of anger in his friends teal eyes. Here we go again, he thought worriedly. Ruin you?! Max exclaimed incredulously. How can I ruin you when Ive spent the past two years protecting your sorry arse?! Excusez-moi? Youre never here when we need you! Max shouted, causing the kitchen crew to suddenly stop and watch the drama unfold. Even when Valeriano was here, you never gave a flying fuck as to what happened in this kitchen! You made us fend for ourselves!

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The whole kitchen grew quiet at that point. Matt noted that the prep-cooks and linechefs were inching carefully to stand behind Max. He could not blame them: theyd already lost one incredibly capable leader. They did not want to lose another. Every executive decision in this restaurant was done either by me or Valeriano, Max continued, pointing an accusing finger at Vincent. While we were worrying over food costs and sourcing, where were you? Partying it up with the phonies like the phony you are! You couldnt care less about whether or not we were all right all you cared about was whether or not you got a new Michelin star or if the Times put you on the front page of the lifestyle section! All you care about is the fame and the money! Youre no chef fuck it all, you wouldnt even make a wee fingernails worth of a cook! Youre a bleeding fake! Vincent roared angrily and lunged at Max. But the young man deftly dodged him, taunting him with the truth that he tried to avoid for many years. We all come in here godawful early and we leave godawful late! Max declared, arms sweeping to refer to the cooks, prep staff, and floor staff gathered around them. We work like goddamned Trojans, like freaking slaves to give the public the very best but what do we get? Just our salaries, weekends off, and the occasional bonus Valeriano and I had to cadge from you every single freaking Christmas! Who gets the fame? You. Who gets the money? You! All Im asking for is a year off after nearly a goddamned decade of working for you and you have the gall to tell me I cant have it? You think Im trying to ruin you when every single person in this room can attest to the fact that I blacked out yesterday?! Well, fuck you! Im not going to work myself to death just so some phony can go on conning the public! That did it. An enraged Vincent flew at Max, hands eager to snap the young mans neck. But Max had grabbed two chefs knives from a nearby mise and, with the practiced grace of a man who knew his way with knives, smoothly tossed them at Vincent, pinning him to a nearby wall by the shoulders of his whites. Cool move, Matt remarked clinically to Kevin OGrady. Well Kevin narrowed his eyes at Max who now marched menacingly towards Vincent. Lets see. I dont think Chefs done just yet. Vous gosse ingrat! Vincent shrieked at Max, his eyes wild with mingled hatred and fear. Vous tes sans valeur! Vous tes condamn pour chouer! C'est comment vous me remboursez aprs toute ma bont vous? Sortez de ma vue!

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Matts French wasnt very good. Judging from Vincents tone, however, he knew that the cornered chef was taunting Max. He caught the words worthless and failure. He did not, however, count on the tirade continuing to include rather coarse insults towards his best friends mother! Retournez la ferme que vous avez grandie dedans! Vincent screamed, foam flecking his lips. Rentrez la maison cette putain qui t'a donn naissance. J'espre vos ventes de mre de putain vous un certain harceleur homosexuel! Oh, fuck! Matt murmured, eyes widening in sheer horror at those poisonous words. Rage was written all over Maxs face which had changed color from pasty-pale to a vivid, brilliant pink. He grabbed a table-blowtorch from the dessert chefs mise and fired it up. With an angry cry, he set fire to the three star patches on the front of Vincents whites. Now that was a brilliant touch! Kevin murmured clinically. Yanking out the knives, Max knocked his now frightened employer to the floor and brandished one knife menacingly close to the mans nose. La prochaine fois que vous dites qu'au sujet de ma mre, he began in a grave, menacing tone in a perfect Bretagne accent, je dchirerai dehors vos entrailles avec un couteau mouss! You You Trembling, Vincent tried to scramble to his feet even as he tried patting out the flames with a handkerchief. You cant fire me, Max declared acidly, handing the knives over to Matt. I quit. He nodded curtly to his staff, the team hed worked with for nearly a decade. Im leaving Matt in charge, he informed them. It was, gentlemen, a real pleasure and a privilege to have worked with you all. He managed a wry smile. Im proud of what weve done. With that, he made to leave. As he walked to the door, Matt began clapping his hands. Those few claps were joined by other clapping hands. Finally, the whole kitchen was applauding Max. Max stopped just as he reached the door. acknowledgement. He turned and bowed gracefully in

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Matt and Kevin sped out of LEtoile de Angleterre almost as soon as the kitchen clock struck noon. They found Max at their local chippie, dialing up someone on his mobile phone. Youve ordered? Matt asked as he and Kevin slid into the booth. Yeah, Max replied. He waved over the proprietor and spoke to him in the Scots burr he rarely used since he went to England for college. Callum, would ye please get a platter o fish and chips each for ma mates an a king-rib apiece? Shall I throw in an Irn-Bru, lad? old Callum Macauley asked him. No, just a pair of Belhavens will be fine, Cal, Matt called back. And a couple deep-fried Mars Bars, Kevin added. Easy on the snow on one of em, though. Thanks, Cal. Who are you calling? Matt asked Max. Gemma, he sighed. Oh, shell be bloody happy to hear youve quit the restaurant, Matt remarked somewhat sarcastically. Max held up his hand as he put the phone on speaker-mode. The other line rang twice before a rather reedy-sounding girls voice came on. Hello? it said. Hi, Gem, Max greeted his girlfriend. Hi, Max. Whats up, sweetie? Just wanted to tell you the news. What news? Hes quit the restaurant, Matt intoned snarkily. Wait what? Gemma exclaimed. Seriously, Max? Youve quit? Yes, Ive quit, Max sighed, glaring at Matt. Gemma squealed delightedly. Oh, thats wonderful, Max! Yeah, the doctor says I have to You can join the family business! Oh, better yet, Id better tell my dad! Wait, Gem Dad is going to be so psyched! Im sure hell be glad to have you on as a junior partner! Gemma

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Max! This is so Angrily, Max switched off the phone. She never listens! he declared in disgust. Yeah and now she fancies youll be joining her dads accounting firm, Matt remarked dryly. Fuck off! Max snapped. Im no bleeding accountant. Im a fucking political science major! What the hell would I do there? Give her old man an entre into the well-heeled set, Kevin chimed in as he cracked open one of the bottles of ale that arrived at the table. Bite your tongue! Max shot back. My dad loathes Gemmas dad to say nothing of how everyone else in the family reacts to them! He sat back and sipped his Irn-Bru. Pack of godawful social climbers, the lot of them. Shrugging, he added that Gemma wasnt as bad. Matt snorted rather ironically at that. Keep telling yourself that, mate, he said, and you might believe it someday. Max was about to retort to that when his phone began to ring. Probably Gemma, Kevin remarked with a smirk. Shell tell you shes talked to her dad. Its not Gemma, Max said, staring at the phone with a puzzled look. He thumbed the green call icon and answered the call. Hello? His eyes widened and he quickly thumbed on the speaker. Valeriano?! A womans voice spoke up, this one a honey-smooth alto with an American accent. Balfour, she said. Happy birthday. Er, thanks! Max replied, still a bit surprised. Howd you get my cellphone number? Your mother threw it at me a couple hours ago, was the rather ironic-sounding reply. She emailed to tell me youre due for a year off. Whats up? Max sighed and explained what happened at the doctors office the day before. Burnout plain and simple, he told her. Vincent sure wasnt happy about it. Ill bet he wasnt! You told him off? And then some, chef! Matt chimed in, grinning cheekily. Hola, Sheldon who else is there? OGrady? Present and accounted for, chef, Kevin laughed. Where the hell are you guys? Macaulays?

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Aye, the lads are here, lassie, Callum called from the counter. I hate you bastards! Chef Valeriano cried. I take it youre having the usuals? Mars bars and all, Max snickered as baskets of fish, chips, and king ribs arrived at the table. He liberally splashed malt vinegar over the food in his basket. Bet youre wishing you were here. I ought to gut you with a blunt knife, Balfour. Thats what he told Vincent, chef, Kevin added. What? What?! Balfour, you threatened Vincent?! Shit! Chef Valeriano whistled admiringly. You have serious balls, boy! So, where to now? I dont know yet, Max admitted as he crunched down a chip. Well, dont rush it, Chef Valeriano advised him. Take a breather before you do anything. I will, he assured her. Matt studied his friend as he bantered with their former boss. He looked supremely pissed when Gemma was on the phone. With Chef Valeriano, however Despite the snarky nature of the comments, the loads of sarcasm involved, Max looked more relaxed. Matt thought about it, narrowing his eyes as he silently observed the trans-continental conversation, and wondered about the possibilities.

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He and his parents had a good laugh over what happened at the restaurant earlier that day as he drove them to the airport for their flight home to Glasgow in the evening. Max promised his parents that he would let them know soon as he decided where to go and what to do next. It was, at the moment, the least he could do. When he arrived home, he turned on his laptop and went to rummage through the fridge. He still had about a third of his chocolate birthday cake, so he whacked off a generous slice for supper. He broke it up into chunks and tossed them into a large, deep bowl. Checking the fridge and freezer, he added a generous swirl of chocolate sauce to the cake chunks, a splash of chocolate milk, and two large scoops of the Cornish clotted-cream ice cream he was so fond of.

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Bowl in hand, he carried his laptop to the couch and curled up, looking much younger than his thirty years in his black pajamas despite his stubble. Logging into his IM engine, he noted that Valeriano was online and looked up at the clock on the wall. It was currently seven PM; it was three in the morning in Manila. Putting his sweet supper on a side table, he typed in: What are you doing up so early? She replied at once: Im up late. Couldnt sleep; kinda wired at the moment. Book launch is next week. She added: Had dinner? His reply: Supper cake and milk is all. He frowned and added: Id kill for a scoop of your caramel ice cream, though. She replied with a laughing emoticon and the words Come to Manila if you want some; featuring it at the launch. Max paused before replying, stuffing a generous spoonful of soaked cake into his mouth. He hadnt been to Manila in a while; last time he went was a couple years before when his favorite cousins wife gave birth to their second set of twins. He wondered to himself, What if Putting down his bowl, sat back and thought about it and thought about it very seriously.

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Dark Ale Chocolate Birthday Cake with Citrus Cream-cheese Frosting For the Cake: 1 cup dark beer 1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons butter 3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa 2 cups sugar 3/4 cup sour cream 2 eggs 1 tablespoon vanilla extract 2 cups flour 2-1/2 teaspoons baking soda For the Frosting: 225 250 grams cream cheese, softened 2/3 cup all-purpose cream 1/4 cup granulated white sugar or granulated Splenda 1 teaspoon lemon flavoring or 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon peel - 11 -

Preheat oven to 350 degrees/Gas Mark 4. Butter a 9-inch springform pan or line a 9-inch round cake pan with heavily greased and floured wax paper.

Heat the beer in a heavy saucepan, adding the butter in slices until it melts. Whisk in the cocoa and sugar. Beat together the sour cream, eggs, and vanilla; add this to the cocoa mixture. Whisk in the flour and baking soda until well-combined.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes. Allow to cool for a few minutes. Remove from pan and allow to cool completely on a rack.

Whip together the cream cheese, cream, sugar, and lemon flavoring until smooth and billowy (cloud-like) in appearance. Pour/spoon into a bowl, cover, and chill.

Frost only the top of the cake to give the impression of a mug of dark ale with creamy foam on top.

Serves 8.

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