SANF August 2008 : 106

Chapter 1: A vegan’s vengeance Our new serialized crime novel, set in San Francisco’s overheated food world, begins with hard-partying celebrity chef Jock Rapini running afoul of a feverish animal-rights fanatic. BY ROBERT BERINGELA ILLUSTRATIONS BY NATHAN FOX W ITH HIS CIRCUS-FREAK PHYSIQUE, yellow summer-squash complexion, and electric shock of blood orange hair, Alfie Falfa had reasons to be angry. His name, for instance, inflicted on him by hippie parents. His appearance, for another, a grotesquery he blamed on the pol luted well water at the ostrich ranch where he was raised. But what really stirred him up wasn’t personal misfortune. Alfie’s was a fury borne of indignation at rampant acts of violence against the innocent, carried out by his fellow man. He’d recorded his first grievance as a child, a silent and stricken witness to avian behead ings. And his catalog of outrages grew from there. At hog farms and chicken coops, salmon runs and slaughterhouses. In the trophy-decorated dens of Lodi duck hunters, who, crouched cowardly in their blinds, downed their quarry with enough firepower to fell F-16s. Everywhere he looked, Alfie saw atrocities, green earth to be cordoned off with yellow tape. His brain swelled with indictments of the spawn of Noah for murdering the off- spring of every other passenger on the ark. To right these wrongs, Alfie opted for a life of extravagant self-denial. An ova- pescaterian by age 10, he embraced veganism in the swells of puberty and turned to freeganism shortly after that. The scavenging practice served him well through young adulthood, when he orbited the UC Berkeley campus, subsisting on scraps from Berkeley Bowl’s Dumpsters and running with a gaggle of campus eco-radicals whose machina - tions were so underground that no one ever heard about them. Even today, after countless dead-end protests in the name of livestock rights, Alfie remained true to his silent vows. He refused to swat mosquitoes or trap rodents. He swore to seek communion with all that respired. Others bought the bumper sticker, but Alfie bought the premise: He pledged to live simply and let others simply live. Which wasn’t to say he wouldn’t kill a chef. 106 SAN FRANCISCO AUGUST 2008 FOODNOIR

Food Noir

Robert Beringela

Our new serialized crime novel, set in San Francisco’s overheated food world, begins with hard-partying celebrity chef Jock Rapini running afoul of a feverish animal-rights fanatic.<br /> WITH HIS CIRCUS-FREAK PHYSIQUE, yellow summer-squash complexion, and electric shock of blood orange hair, Alfi e Falfa had reasons to be angry.<br /> <br /> His name, for instance, infl icted on him by hippie parents.<br /> <br /> His appearance, for another, a grotesquery he blamed on the pol luted well water at the ostrich ranch where he was raised.<br /> <br /> But what really stirred him up wasn’t personal misfortune. Alfi e’s was a fury borne of indignation at rampant acts of violence against the innocent, carried out by his fellow man.<br /> <br /> He’d recorded his fi rst grievance as a child, a silent and stricken witness to avian behead ings. And his catalog of outrages grew from there. At hog farms and chicken coops, salmon runs and slaughterhouses. In the trophy-decorated dens of Lodi duck hunters, who, crouched cowardly in their blinds, downed their quarry with enough fi repower to fell F-16s.<br /> <br /> Everywhere he looked, Alfi e saw atrocities, green earth to be cordoned off with yellow tape. His brain swelled with indictments of the spawn of Noah for murdering the offspring of every other passenger on the ark.<br /> <br /> To right these wrongs, Alfi e opted for a life of extravagant self-denial. An ovapescaterian by age 10, he embraced veganism in the swells of puberty and turned to freeganism shortly after that. The scavenging practice served him well through young adulthood, when he orbited the UC Berkeley campus, subsisting on scraps from Berkeley Bowl’s Dumpsters and running with a gaggle of campus eco-radicals whose machina - tions were so underground that no one ever heard about them.<br /> <br /> Even today, after countless dead-end protests in the name of livestock rights, Alfi e remained true to his silent vows. He refused to swat mosquitoes or trap rodents. He swore to seek communion with all that respired. Others bought the bumper sticker, but Alfi e bought the premise: He pledged to live simply and let others simply live.<br /> <br /> Which wasn’t to say he wouldn’t kill a chef.<br /> SPEEDING ACROSS THE BAY BRIDGE in a midnight rainstorm, Alfi e heard the man’s muted yowling in the trunk of his vegetable oil–powered Rabbit. He gunned the engine to drown it out.<br /> <br /> Across the unsightly eastern span, freshly retrofi tted for the price of a space station, Alfi e sped through the gloomy fl ats of West Oakland, then through the stale exurbs of the East Bay. The rain fell harder, and he slowed his pace, wary of spin-outs and state troopers. When he eased up on the pedal, Jock Rapini’s wailing became audible again.<br /> <br /> For the celebrity chef, bound and gagged in the growling bowels of his assailant’s greenmobile, the predicament made a stupefying end to a day that had dawned with great promise. Up just after sunrise for poached eggs and espresso in his Valencia Street fl at. Back to bed for drowsy coupling with his amplebreasted sommelier. Then off at noon in his ’63 Camaro to downtown San Francisco to prepare for the grand opening of his newest endeavor, the highly anticipated Trough.<br /> <br /> Like the other outposts in his growing empire, Rapini’s latest restaurant abided by the chef ’s three golden rules: Keep the name to one syllable, the kitchen open, and the concept clear. What distinguished Trough from Trafe, the Marina district hotspot where Rapini reveled strictly in pork and shellfi sh, or even Tribe, his California take on Navajo cuisine, was the scope of its ambition. Trough was the chef ’s homage to the breadth and depth of the American farm. To critics who complained that this sounded like a retread of his maiden venture, Truth (“Honest food, honest people,” read the restaurant’s motto), Rapini had an answer.<br /> <br /> Trough, he informed the San Francisco Courier, would be three times the size of its rustic predecessor, and the food “a million times more kick-ass.” Arriving at the restaurant, in a vast converted warehouse south of Market Street, Rapini exchanged fi st bumps with his tattooed sous-chef, stripped down to a T-shirt, and got to work, the pulsing sounds of Whitesnake pumping from his iPod through a phalanx of Bose speakers mounted on the pot racks beside the stove. That he hated metal music as much as he detested mincing shallots was one of his small secrets, a thin layer in the chef ’s facade. Like his fauxhawk and gold hoop earrings, his feigned fondness for headbanging was part of a no-holds-barred persona that Rapini had parlayed into a midsize fortune and modest fame. Along with his restaurants, his rough-hewn brand now included a line of salumi, a trademarked backyard smoker, and a role as the lead judge on Meal of Fortune, a Food Network show in which competing chefs concocted lavish feasts from the rarest ingredients in the world.<br /> <br /> Not exactly Emeril. But not bad for an upstart born Joel Rapinowitz on Long Island, a cooking-school dropout who fl ed to California, changed his name to enhance his culinary cred, and discovered that his talent for self-promotion exceeded his skills as a chef.<br /> <br /> Only in America. Or maybe only in San Francisco, where Rapini’s dual image as a party-hearty hedonist and an eco-conscious hipster played especially well. If the chef had detractors—and he did—even they admired the raw enthusiasm and energy he brought to an exhausting trade. They also envied his brutish magnetism. Rapini was a strangely compelling fi gure, the lout you resented for his shallow pleasures even as you wanted to be more like him. He was the bacchanalian who could hold his own at a black-tie party; the frat boy gone to fi nishing school. Plus, his restaurants were pretty good.<br /> <br /> Standing in the gleam of Trough’s steel-and-chrome kitchen, Rapini gazed out at the expansive dining room, refurbished to resemble a billionaire’s barn, with exposed redwood beams, farm tables topped with crisp arrangements of orange poppies, and gold inlay in the fl oor meant to mimic scattered hay. Hanging on one wall was an oversize mosaic entitled American Goth, a Dogpatch artist’s reworking of the Grant Wood painting, with the rural couple recast as a transgendered pair.<br /> <br /> AS THE AFTERNOON PROGRESSED, preparation for the big bash picked up speed. Trough’s waitstaff arrived wearing OshKosh overalls. Rapini vaulted over the counter to greet them with high fi ves, then sprung back to the kitchen to check on the progress of his cured pork belly, already long asimmer en sous vide. A shiver of excitement scurried down his spine. This was what he lived for: not the craft of cooking, but the art of showmanship. The chance to create a spectacle, draw a crowd. He learned early in his career that being in the spotlight thrilled him even more than the lecherous process of hiring a hostess or the adrenaline rush of threatening a line cook with a sauté pan.<br /> <br /> SHORTLY AFTER SUNSET, Rapini’s cherished public began trickling in. Tarty restaurant fl aks spilled through the doorway, trailed by a motley crew of local “media” whose affi liations weren’t exactly clear.<br /> <br /> Self-appointed fooderati from the Internet era milled about the dining room, texting, nibbling, and snapping pictures with their phones. Rapini recognized the author of an online guide to legumes, and a haughty blogger from the culinary dweeb site SquealsOnMeals.com. It hardly mattered that most of the attendees weren’t headline names, merely expert moochers. All of them had been summoned to take part in a restaurant’s vital rite of passage—the life-sustaining custom of generating buzz.<br /> All of them, of course, also adored Rapini, except for those who didn’t. In the San Francisco food world, there was no avoiding the snipers and the vipers, the nasty backstabbers whose savagery was all the more intense because the stakes they played for were so small. Rapini knew this, and he knew how to play the game. Compulsive vanity Googling had taught him to distinguish friends from foes, and the fawners from the fakers who sucked up to him in person, only to poison him a minute later in a post. The chef reserved his warm embraces for his true fans. As for the haters, Rapini smiled radiantly at them, shook their hands, then blew apart their egos by intentionally calling them by the wrong names.<br /> <br /> “OK, now,” Rapini muttered to himself. He was in the walk-in doing jumping jacks, having slipped away from the prep line to psych himself up for the night’s performance, like an athlete getting limber in the locker room.<br /> <br /> After three deep breaths, he kicked open the door, charged through the kitchen, and fl ung himself into the crowd. Here was Rapini in his element.<br /> <br /> “Christie!” he cried, blowing a kiss to the scorched-blond president of a restaurant PR fi rm.<br /> <br /> “Ralph!” he exulted, slapping the shoulder of a tabloid critic who, in real life, went by Ron.<br /> <br /> Bo Mercer, the cattleman and meat purveyor who always seemed eager to complain about something, approached Rapini.<br /> <br /> “Bo, buddy. I’ve been meaning to call you back,” the chef said as he brushed by Mercer on a beeline for David Tuckwall, a food writer for the Courier. Tuckwall was at the bar, watching the proceedings with an impassive expression. No matter how many times the two men crossed paths, Tuckwall’s emotionless manner still unnerved the chef, who thrived on audience reaction. Delight or disgust—he could handle those. Calm neutrality was something else. Rapini wasn’t sure how to butter him up.<br /> <br /> “Welcome to Trough,” Rapini said with uncharacteristic understatement.<br /> <br /> “I thought this was Truth,” the reporter replied.<br /> <br /> Rapini smiled weakly and wandered off.<br /> <br /> Clear of Tuckwall’s deadpan, the chef ’s contagious energy returned. Champagne fl owed, conversation crested, and enough fatty snacks appeared on silver platters to sclerose the population of San Jose.<br /> <br /> Someone clinked a glass and clamored for a toast. Rapini hopped up onto a table, popped the cork on a magnum of Krug, watered the poppies with it, and insisted that the bottle be passed around.<br /> <br /> “Friends,” he boomed. “I just want you to know that mi Trough es su Trough, and it always will be.” Huzzahs. Applause.<br /> <br /> “This is our own little farm in the city. We planted the seeds, we nurtured it. We watered it. Now it’s time to reap everything we’ve sown.” Loud cheers. Laughter. Rapini bowed. The room returned to its buoyant clank and chatter.<br /> <br /> AND ALL THE WHILE, outside in a drizzle that would soon become a downpour, Alfi e Falfa stood in wait.<br /> <br /> He pulled up as the party kicked into swing and took his post in an alley behind the restaurant, fi ngers tingling with anticipation, head swimming with visions of revenge.<br /> <br /> His choice to target Rapini was, like most obsessions, rooted distantly in reasoned thinking, but grew mostly from his singularly extreme worldview, twisted by a tangle of current events. On the one hand, his hatred of the chef could be traced directly to Rapini’s public role as a slayer of ruminants and rodents. But since Alfi e saw a villain in anyone who so much as cracked an egg, other factors were clearly at play. In the end, it was Rapini’s error to have profi ted so proudly from his barbaric business—and his bad luck to have tweaked Alfi e’s sensibilities in print.<br /> <br /> In the baggy back pocket of his hemp pants, Alfi e carried a clipping from the Courier. Penned by Tuckwall, the piece announced the grand opening of Trough, with a quote from the chef stressing the importance of sustainable farming. “All of our produce will be local and organic,” Rapini boasted, “and we’ll rely on ranchers who raise their animals humanely, right up to the second when they slit their throats.” An ill-considered stab at humor. On any other day, Alfi e might have swallowed the fl aming dagger and let it sizzle, yet another ember in the fi re burning fi ercely in his gut. But as fate would have it, the article appeared on the foul-mood morning when a bacterial army of salmonella, ingested days before in a bad batch of wheatgrass, had reached critical mass in Alfi e’s intestines. Feverish from the microscopic invasion, fuming at the excess of a world gone wrong, Alfi e saw the article fl uttering on the ground at the farmers’ market, and something snapped.<br /> <br /> THE SKY WAS WEEPING NOW over downtown San Francisco. Alfi e ducked into a doorway. He could hear the cocooned sounds of celebration. When the wind was right, antagonizing scents settled in his nostrils: quail frying in goose fat, duck burgers blackening on an open grill. The smells stirred something primal, an instinctive urge toward mayhem so compelling that it was all Alfi e could do not to rush into the restaurant and strangle the chef with his own apron strings.<br /> “Patience,” he told himself. “Stick to the plan.” Not long after midnight, a woozy exodus began. Throngs fi lled the sidewalk. Revelers staggered into waiting limos. Long goodbyes abounded, with bogus claims of friendship and promises of follow-ups, soon to be forgotten in a hangover haze.<br /> <br /> The last limo left. Finally, stillness. Then the chef, staggering along in a champagne stupor.<br /> <br /> Alfi e trailed him to his car. Rapini was fumbling for his keys when the corner of his eye caught a striking image. He turned to face it: the stuff of horror fi lms or absinthe hallucinations. Dripping in the rain, set against the eerie glow of a street lamp, stood a giant fi gure with monstrous features. Sunken eyes peered above the hooked beak of a raptor. Mottled skin, oily and pock-marked as citrus peel, stretched across a protruding forehead that ended in a tangle of wild clown’s hair. His complexion was a pallid shade of orange. This was not a normal man, but a human crossed with a postnuclear carrot, then raised on a diet of Miracle-Gro.<br /> <br /> “What the...” Rapini said.<br /> <br /> “Hell?” Alfi e suggested.<br /> <br /> His right hand held an electric cattle prod, which he jabbed into Rapini’s belly. It delivered far from a fatal jolt, but it was enough to shock the chef, freeing Alfi e for a roundhouse to his Adam’s apple. The chef slumped to the asphalt, gasping and limp. Alfi e hog-tied him, slung him over his shoulder, and tossed him in the back of the car.<br /> <br /> TWO HOURS LATER, they were heading down a dirt road in the Central Valley. The rain had stopped, a slivered moon grinned down through a parting in the clouds, and a weathered barn came into view. Alfi e parked. He grabbed the chef from the trunk like a sack of tubers.<br /> <br /> Inside, the sweet smell of sodden hay. Chickens scattered. A tractor slumbered in the corner. In the middle of the barn sat a cage large enough to hold a primate—which it in fact had, until Alfi e acquired it during a late-night raid of a simian research laboratory at a well-regarded state-run university. Alfi e yanked off Rapini’s gag, shoved him in the cage, and clanked the metal door.<br /> <br /> The chef ’s square face, so hard-lined and handsome in publicity shots, was slack and alabaster, his eyes wide with terror, his mouth agape. He staggered to his feet.<br /> <br /> “Bo Mercer,” he said. “It was Bo Mercer who put you up to this.” Alfi e was silent.<br /> <br /> “Whatever the cocksucker’s paying you, I’ll sextuple it.” Alfi e pressed his face against the bars and sneered. His teeth were gray and snaggled, his breath heavy and putrid, like compost sprinkled on a garbage spill.<br /> <br /> “You think this is about money?” He wheeled around, walked outside, and returned carrying a funnel and a plastic tube.<br /> <br /> Enough PETA leafl ets had been shoved in his face for Rapini to experience a shudder of recognition.<br /> <br /> “Please,” he said.<br /> <br /> Alfi e crammed the funnel into the tubing, patching together a crude gavage: the tool used to force-feed birds for foie gras.<br /> <br /> “Anything!” Rapini cried. “Whatever you want.” “Duck,” said Alfi e. “What?” the chef whimpered.<br /> <br /> “Duck,” Alfi e repeated. He began to pace purposefully around the cage, tapping on the bars to emphasize each utterance.<br /> <br /> “Help!” Rapini bellowed.<br /> <br /> “Duck!” shouted Alfi e, rapping the cage. Rapini shook the bars. He screamed for mercy, but his plaintive howls echoed in an unresponsive valley.<br /> <br /> “Duck!” “Please!” Rapini begged once more.<br /> <br /> Alfi e paused and reached his hand between the bars. He pinched Rapini’s nose between his thumb and forefi nger.<br /> <br /> “Duck,” said Alfi e. Cluck, cluck went the chickens.<br /> <br /> “No,” gasped the chef.<br /> <br /> “GOOSE!” cried Alfi e, and jammed the plastic tube down Rapini’s throat. ¦

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