The Orinoco Mille-Feuille Trials
by Guillaume Boisset
Part 1 appears in this issue.
Once home, Pia knocked at the landlord’s door. His daughter answered. “Here’s the rent cheque for your dad. It’ll clear tomorrow,” Pia said.
“Say, do you have a minute? I need an honest culinary opinion.”
“Sure. After all, you helped me with my strawberry jam. And honest reviews are so hard to get,” Sarah said as she walked out with Pia. “Those books I received this morning had five stars ratings on Orinoco, but the reviews must have been fake. They’re useless. Terrible investment.”
Sarah followed Pia into the basement and sat at the kitchen-work-study table. “In this box I have two mille-feuilles. I would like your opinion on them.”
Pia opened the box. Alas, the mille-feuilles had suffered during the ninety minute crowded bus and Skytrain ride back home. The two mille-feuilles had melded into an unhealthy-looking combined mush of cream and flakes that filled the bottom half of the box.
“It’s all right,” Sarah said to a disconsolate Pia. “I’m sure they were both good.”
* * *
The next day André addressed Pia as she was washing dishes. “Those two executives are back, including the Mr. Rostov you bumped.”
“I apologized on your behalf to the General Manager about the incident,” he said, picking up a plate from the drying rack and inspecting it.
“What did she say, sir?”
“The GM says she appreciates the bakery. Typical. She’s a fool. I serve pâtisserie. It’s not a bakery.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Most of my customers are ingrates and ignoramuses. And I’m just breaking even here. Only a few like Rostov and Niedo appreciate my work; they’re the only ones keeping me from selling the shop. And I probably wouldn’t be able to sell it for much anyway.” He put down the plate and took a second one.
“It’s wonderful that they appreciate your work,” Pia said, keeping her eyes on her dishwashing.
“You missed a spot.”
“Certainly, sir.” She took the plate and searched for the blemish.
“So anyway, the GM’s willing to overlook your shove this time. And she says we should thank Orinoco for letting us work here,” André said.
“I see, sir,” Pia said, scrubbing the plate.
“I’ll serve the executives. Just stay out of sight for now,” he said, going out.
Pia peeked through a crack in the wall separating the kitchen from the public area.
“New girl not serving us today?” Rostov asked.
“She’s in the back. Washing dishes. I will serve and cook for you today,” André said.
“I’ll eat anything you have, but I have a sweet tooth today. I’ll take your mille-feuille for starters,” Rostov said.
“And I, the croque-madame. Assuming you have eggs today,” Niedo said.
Pia hustled back to her dishes as André came back in.
“I must inspect the delivery that just came in,” he said. “The last time they gave me whole wheat flour. Back in ten. Prepare the order and I will serve it.” He headed out the back door.
That was just enough time. Pia leapt to the nook and set the food printer program for recipe ninety-three, then fed in the ingredients. She watched the print head stroke back and forth for a minute then hurried to the grill for the croque-madame.
Rushing back to the nook she opened her notebook and wrote the date on the top right corner in crisp letters. “Opportunity for double-blind test with non-biased subject on recipe #93. Ethical question: how to get subject’s consent?”
Getting informed consent from the subjects with André around would be nearly impossible, but the mille-feuille exfiltration fiasco showed there was no other easy way. What to do? She stared at the ceiling, despondent. She’d miss her project submission deadline, stay another term in Berke’s basement, and never accomplish anything.
Anything. Where had she heard that? That was it. Hadn’t she just overheard Rostov say, ‘I’ll eat anything you have’?
She bit her lip and drew a line through the last sentence in her notebook.
“Subject gave blanket consent to trial,” she wrote in wobbly lettering beside the crossed out text.
The mille-feuille was ready. She placed it on a plate on the serving counter just as André came back.
“How long has the croque-madame been waiting for me?” he asked, breathless.
“A few seconds, sir. I just finished it. It’s still very hot, under the cloche.”
He took the croque-madame and mille-feuille plates, one in each hand. Pia held her breath. André didn’t notice any difference on the mille-feuille and strode out to the customer area. She let out her breath and turned back to her dishes.
“I got two more orders for croque-madames from table seven, and a mille-feuille for table nine. I’ll take them.” He headed to the mille-feuille rack. “And you wouldn’t believe the state of the flour they tried to deliver today. Half the bags were pierced. I refused to sign, we argued, and” — he stopped in front of the rack — “Pia, come here.”
“The mille-feuille I served the executives of table four. You took it from where?”
“From the rack, sir.”
“There were thirty-three mille-feuilles when I left and there are still thirty-three.”
Pia looked at the rack. “Perhaps you miscounted, sir. That’s a lot of mille-feuilles.”
“There were six rows with six in each row. And we had served three already.”
“I don’t know, sir...”
He went to the nook. “There are crumbs on your machine. They look fresh. Did you print that mille-feuille?”
He put his index and middle fingers under Pia’s chin and lifted it. “Answer me, Pia.”
“Yes, sir. It was printed.”
He shook his head. “I was in a rush and didn’t look too closely. Frankly, I thought you would never do this.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“You realize I must now go apologize. What will I say?” he said. Bags were under his eyes; his face was gaunt. His fingers let go of her chin.
“Sir, I’m sorry. But has he complained?”
“That is not the point.”
From an experimental rigour perspective, that is the point, she thought. “Do you want me to apologize, sir? It was my fault. I could—”
“Let me finish. This act could destroy my reputation, and everything I have left. I do this only for the recognition, not for the money. This is my pride, the only thing I have that keeps me going. You compromised the quality of this establishment,” he said, holding his head high, his right hand clutching the mille-feuille rack. “But I am the manager. I will apologize.”
“Sir, will you bring him a real mille-feuille?” she asked.
His face took on a conciliatory appearance, almost one of pity. “There is no ‘real’ mille-feuille. It is simply a mille-feuille. Everything else is an abomination. But yes, that is the least I can do. Get me a plate.” He took a mille-feuille from the rack of thirty-three and placed it with care onto the plate that Pia proffered.
As soon as he stepped into the dining area, she pressed her eye to the crack in the wall.
“Oh,” André said, “I see you finished your mille-feuille already, sir.”
“Yes, it was excellent. My compliments,” Rostov said.
André made a sound, then gathered himself and with forced charm said, “Very well. I’ve brought you a second one, on the house.”
Pia hurried back to her dishes. The subject would now eat a real mille-feuille, which was an excellent control variable for the experiment.
André came back, his face of stone.
“Clean this plate. Thoroughly,” he said, handing her Rostov’s empty plate before rushing back out to serve other customers.
He was running himself ragged as he did the job of those he had fired or scared away, she thought. He could not fire her now. Her job was safe for at least a few days, maybe a few weeks; she would cover her final tuition instalment.
Holding the plate with care, she went to the nook and opened her notebook.
Observation: only one large (over 3 mm diameter) crumb after subject finished mille-feuille from recipe #93. Discussion: less than the typical seven large crumbs. Assumption: residue crumb count inversely proportional to appeal. Hypothesis: subject enjoyed mille-feuille #93 and licked plate clean.
Pia returned to her dishwashing. She had cleaned five more plates and swept the floor in the kitchen when André came to her.
“The executive has finished the mille-feuille. I am sure that he is in a better mood now. I will now apologize to him,” he said to Pia, then went back to the public area.
Pia hurried to the crack.
“Sir, I have something to tell you,” André said.
“Yes, certainly. I just want to tell you that both mille-feuilles were excellent, although the first was better. Were they from different batches?” Rostov said.
“Oh ho, the connoisseur,” said Niedo.
André uttered another incomprehensible sound. He took the plate with a silent robotic courtesy and returned to the kitchen. When the door closed, he threw the plate full force at the back wall. Pia lunged and caught the missile. Without a word, André strode out of sight. She looked at the plate. There were no crumbs on it. Her heart sank.
But perhaps when André had thrown the plate at her, the crumbs had flown off. She looked at the floor and counted. Since she’d just swept, any crumbs there had to have come from the flying plate.
Observation: 7 large residue crumbs from expert hand-made mille-feuille, eaten by same subject as above. Discussion: second half of trial not double-blind since person administering mille-feuille knew, but administrator bias would favour second mille-feuille. Conclusion: on sample size of one, recipe #93 better than hand-made mille-feuille. Future projects could be considered to gather more data.
Another student next term could provide more cheap labour. She understood the business now.
Her shift ended.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, Pia,” André said to her, his eyes downcast, the first words he had spoken to her since the first plate handoff. “Unless I sell the shop first. You know anyone wanting to work for imbecilic customers?”
* * *
Pia knocked at the landlord’s door. Sarah answered.
“I have a solid investment opportunity for an entrepreneurial project,” Pia said. “Product has been positively reviewed, with authentic reviewing,”
“Tell me more.”
Copyright © 2021 by Guillaume Boisset