The Orinoco Mille-Feuille Trials
by Guillaume Boisset
Pia was running out of time. Her bus to work was expected in two minutes, her final term project in two days, and her final tuition payment in two weeks. She ran out of her one-room basement apartment but, as befalls the hurried, tripped over an Orinoco parcel on her doorstep. The smiley arrow on the box taunted her bruised dignity as she returned to her feet.
The landlord, tending his garden, looked up from his strawberries. “Pia, you’re late on rent. Again,” he said.
“Tomorrow’s my payday, Mr. Berke. I’ll pay you then.” She looked at the box. It was addressed to Sarah Berke, the landlord’s daughter. Pia handed over the box.
He glanced at the label. “Like she needs to spend more on entrepreneurship books. Her greatest success so far is selling twenty jars of strawberry jam. Is that what her university degree is for?” he asked, dumping the box beside him. “Pay tomorrow, Pia, or I’ll have to evict you.” He turned back to his berries.
* * *
An hour and a half later, the bus dropped off Pia at the Orinoco, Inc. facility. She cleared security, skirted humming conveyor belts crawling with smiling packages taunting her, and continued to the Café Parisien d’Orinoco.
André wasn’t in yet. Pia hastened to the nook in the back of the kitchen and pulled shut the curtain to her small sanctuary.
Two printers stood on a bench. Between them lay a notebook with FINAL TERM PROJECT printed on the cover.
Above the printer on the right were small jars of flour, sugar, and other ingredients. She added fresh milk from the kitchen fridge. “Food printer clean. All systems in order,” she wrote in her notebook.
There was time for a trial. “Recipe #93: same parameters as recipe #92 but 20 ml less milk.” She tapped the start button and watched, enthralled.
André entered the café a few minutes later. Pia rushed out to meet him, closing the curtain behind her.
“Pia, I noticed yesterday that the handle on the coffee pot is cracked. You made a new one?” André asked by way of saying good morning.
She hurried to her nook and instructed the left-side printer to produce a handle, then turned to the right-side printer. The result of recipe ninety-three beckoned: “Mass 150 g. Stripe pitch 10 mm. All within specifications.” After taking its picture, she flipped it on its side onto a plate and cut with a fork. “Pastry did not collapse when cut,” she wrote with a firm hand.
The first bite was sublime. The mille-feuille crust flaked to perfection. The crème pâtissière enraptured her taste buds and melted down her throat. “Subjective evaluation: sweetness, crust flakiness, cream unctuosity all appropriate, but must perform controlled taste experiment,” she wrote, licking her lips. She finished the pastry and started another print run with recipe ninety-three on the right-side printer.
Wetting her index, she picked up from the bench a crumb and savoured her triumph.
The left-side printer beeped. She seized the still warm handle and ran back to the coffeemaker to install it.
“Now go serve the guests,” André said.
She had taken only three steps when André called out. “Sal, what are you doing? How much butter do you think a croissant needs?” There was a crashing sound.
Pia turned around and saw the assistant cook cringing. André was standing under his Cordon Bleu cooking school certificate on the wall, holding a croissant between the fingernail tips of thumb and index.
“No ‘But sir.’ Throw the whole batch out. I hope you didn’t ruin the éclairs as well. Tell me how much butter you used.”
Pia didn’t stay to find out. She pushed open the door and stepped into the public eating area.
Two middle-aged men wearing suit and tie and sporting short-cropped hair were seated at table four, legs splayed out and talking loud. Nearby were a couple of twenty-somethings, both wearing ratty “Love Your Database Analyst” T-shirts, starting the first of two éclairs each.
“Good morning, gentlemen. How are you today?” Pia asked.
They stopped their conversation and looked her up and down. “You new around here?” the taller customer asked. “I hear the other waiter was fired two weeks ago.” The name on his executive ID badge said Niedo.
“I usually work in the back, but now André says I can serve also. For main course, gentlemen, I would recommend the croque-monsieur.”
“Menu says croque-madame on Wednesdays.”
“We would have offered them, sir, but our fresh egg delivery didn’t make it today.”
“Of course. It wasn’t an Orinoco delivery.”
They laughed. Pia laughed as well, in hope of a better tip.
“Very well. I’ll take the croque-monsieur,” Niedo said, serious again.
“Same here,” said Rostov.
Nieto and Rostov’s phone both chimed at the same time.
“Damn. Staff meeting. We’re late. It got moved up,” Niedo said.
“Outta the way,” said Rostov. He charged out, shoving Pia aside. Pia crashed into the neighbouring table. Éclairs flew.
The execs disappeared. Sal and André rushed over to her.
“Pia, get the towels,” André said.
By the time she came back with the towels, the database analysts had paid and left also. A trail of éclair chocolate leading to the exit showed that they had not emerged unscathed.
“Sal, to the kitchen with me. Pia, clean up.”
She was on her third towel wiping up the éclair impact zone when André came to her and looked at the towel. “Too soft, as I thought. I fired Sal. Too many mistakes.”
She dumped the brown towels in the bin. She was his last employee. The waiter was gone. Sal was gone. André couldn’t fire everyone and find replacements soon at the wages he paid. Even the entry-level parcel handlers in the facility made more. He looked tired.
Balance of power was shifting in her favour. Opportunity beckoned.
“Sir, I would like to give you an update on my project now, if you have a few minutes,” she said, bringing him a cup of coffee.
He looked out at the seating area. Breakfast rush was over. All was clean. “Sure,” he said.
They went to the nook. Pia flung open the curtain and swept her arm back as much as space allowed.
“Look, sir. I can print pâtisserie now,” she said, pointing at the right-side printer.
André took a step back and shielded his face with his right hand. “I agree that printing spare parts, like the coffeepot handle, works well, even though Orinoco frowns on printing,” he said. He looked behind his shoulder, and saw no one. “Orinoco wants people to buy stuff, not print it,” he whispered.
“I know, sir. But I checked, and it’s not banned in the facility. I’ve seen them print spare parts. It’s okay for Orinoco, just not for others.”
“True. And your decorations look nice,” he said, gesturing with his other hand at a box of her plastic flowers. “But never pâtisserie.”
“Sir, I’m not mixing the pâtisserie with the plastics printer. Left is plastics. Right is pâtisserie. We could save on labour costs and free your time for more strategic—”
“That’s not the point. I encourage innovation in business. Your salvaging those printers from the rubbish pile was clever. But we don’t mechanize what we serve to customers. That’s artistry.”
Pia placed her recipe ninety-three mille-feuille in front of André.
“Sir, look at the pâte feuilletée. Please, taste it.”
André fixed her with his piercing stare and sighed. “Very well. I’ll try.” He sat down. She gave him a fork. He took one bite and closed his eyes.
“Too hard. Too sweet. No character. Pâte feuillettée like an Ohio truck-stop bargain bin castaway. Crème pâtissière like the last curdled cream tart from a Manchester train station sandwich trolley. Not New Hampshire Manchester, the England one. The industrial backwater.” He paused an instant and grimaced, as if recalling a troubling episode.
“And, Pia, the infeed tubing at the back of your machine: I could not see it, but I can tell it is plastic.”
“Yes, it is, sir.”
“That was not a question. Appalling. Hot milk through plastic tubing.” He shook his head.
Pia staggered back a step from the force of the blow.
André opened his eyes and put down the fork. “That is enough,” he said.
At least specific criticism was better than blanket rejection. She could buy glass tubing. There was a glassworker near her place, and she could get a small glass tube through security. Her spirits rose and she took a step forward. “Thank you, sir. What other improvements could I make?”
“Pia, forget it. However, I do wish to recognize your initiative. I can allow one thing,” André said. “As you know, in the office area the employees are allowed to bring their dogs to work. You may place your product on a little plate beside the water dishes in the dog area.”
“For the dogs, sir?”
“Yes. Just make sure the treats don’t look like what we serve to customers. Make them bone-shaped or something.”
After he left, Pia started printing another one using recipe ninety-three and opened her notebook. “Second opinion marginally negative, but may be due to subject bias. Must repeat with different subject,” she wrote. When the new mille-feuille was finished printing, she put it into a takeout box. She went to the display case, rang up a takeout sale, paid out of her pocket, and put an André mille-feuille beside the printed one. She took care to note which was which, since they looked very much alike.
* * *
Copyright © 2021 by Guillaume Boisset