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Sixteen-year-old Sophie Nicolaides was practically raised in the kitchen of her family's Italian-Greek restaurant, Taverna Ristorante. When her best friend, Alex, tries to persuade her to audition for a new reality show, Teen Test Kitchen, Sophie is reluctant. But the prize includes a full scholarship to one of America's finest culinary schools and a summer in Napa, California, not to mention fame.
Once on set, Sophie immediately finds herself in the thick of the drama―including a secret burn book, cutthroat celebrity judges, and a very cute French chef. Sophie must figure out a way to survive all the heat and still stay true to herself. A terrific YA offering―fresh, fun, and sprinkled with romance.
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Kathryn Williams has written several young adult novels, including a New York Times bestseller. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
My mother’s recipe for tomato sauce starts with ripe plum tomatoes. To peel them, you use a sharp knife to cut a tiny X in the skin at one end. You dunk them in boiling water, just for a second—maybe ten—and run them under cold water. Then you pull back the skins, just like peeling a banana. You crush the tomatoes with your hands and stew them over low heat in their own juices with garlic, onions, and a bay leaf that have been sautéed in extra-virgin olive oil. Dash in some salt and pepper, and there you have it. The smell is nothing short of heaven.
My father says this tomato sauce was the first thing my mother mastered in the kitchen. He likes to add oregano and basil and more garlic—always more garlic. I never knew my mother, but I know this recipe by heart. I have it displayed in a five-by-seven, plastic craft store frame on the desk in my room, the desk where I’m supposed to do homework but can’t because it’s covered in books and dirty clothes. The recipe is written on an unlined index card. It’s stained with oil splatters, and one corner’s ripped. I realize framing a recipe for tomato sauce sounds strange, but it’s a reminder, not just of my mother but that every cook has to start somewhere.
* * *
It was Saturday night, and I was doing what I’d done every Saturday night since I was ten: rolling silverware in the empty dining room of my family’s restaurant (Taverna Ristorante, est. 1997). I raced through it—napkin, fork, knife, spoon … roll … napkin, fork, knife, spoon … roll—the rhythm so deeply ingrained I could do it with my eyes closed. My rush was only partially motivated by boredom. I also wanted to get where I really belonged—in the kitchen. Napkin, fork, knife, spoon … roll. Done. Finally. Eighty red linen eggrolls sat stacked in two neat pyramids on the white tablecloth in front of me.
“Dad!” I shouted at the water-stained ceiling festooned with fake grapevines. I knew he could hear me in the office upstairs. “I’m going to help Luís in the back!”
Only when I swung through the double doors into the brightly lit, bustling kitchen could I remember why I actually loved working at the restaurant. The kitchen was alive.
“Hot pan, comin’ through!” someone yelled. Quickly, I sidestepped a potentially disastrous encounter with a sheet pan of steaming moussaka.
“Sophie,” Carlos said, high-fiving me. “How are you this evening, chiquita? ¿Qué pasa?”
I sighed. “ Nada, Carlos. Mi vida es totalmente aburrida.” I loved the word for “bored” in Spanish because it sounded like “a burrito.”
My family opened Taverna Ristorante in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, when I was three. The name was a nod to my father’s Greek-Italian heritage. My grandmother is Italian, from Orvieto, and my grandfather is Greek, from Thíra. The year after they opened the restaurant, my mother died of a sudden and unexplained brain aneurysm while folding clothes on an otherwise ordinary day in the northern Virginia suburb where we live. I don’t remember this, of course—I was four.
I have few memories of my mother, mostly just vague images of playing at her feet on our kitchen floor. My older brother, Raffi (short for Raffaello and, yes, pronounced the same as the children’s singer), was the one who told me the details of my mother’s death years later. I wasn’t sure how much I could trust him, though, because he also told me I was adopted. I had cried until my father brought down a photo album from the bookshelf above our television. He turned its yellowed pages until he came to a faded snapshot of a beautiful blond woman looking not at the camera but at the pink-hatted baby cradled in her arms. An olive-skinned young man beamed at the camera beside her, as if to say, “Look, Ma! I made a baby!”
“How do I know that’s me?” I’d asked with a still trembling lip. “Or that you didn’t stage it after you adopted me?” My dad muttered something in Greek and took Raffi’s Xbox away for three days.
With the help of my grandparents, Taverna Ristorante survived. It was my home. I’d been working legally there since I was thirteen. Only when I turned sixteen did my dad agree to hire a hostess and let me go where the real action was—on the line.
Anyone who enjoyed Taverna Ristorante’s traditional Mediterranean cuisine might have been surprised to find that the kitchen staff was overwhelmingly Hispanic. Our head chef, Luís, was Portuguese, but he spoke Spanish too. It exasperated my father that I couldn’t speak enough Greek to find a bathroom and only enough Italian to order a pizza Margherita, yet I was proficient en español, with a pretty decent grasp of the language’s culinary terms (to broil = asar a la parilla).
After washing my hands at the small sink in the corner of the kitchen, which ran water that was invariably scalding or ice cold, I grabbed my apron off the hook by the door. It was a birthday gift from Alex. It said STAND BACK! GRANDPA IS GRILLIN’, an inside joke from the time Alex tried to cook dinner for me for once. We’d ended up eating chips and burger toppings. Ketchup on top of a Dorito, while not especially palate-challenging, is surprisingly good.
The apron was stupid, but it made me laugh. Alex could always make me laugh. He was my best friend. He was also a boy. Until recently, I hadn’t seen a conflict between those two attributes. Until recently, I hadn’t imagined what it would be like to kiss him. It was becoming increasingly inconvenient.
“What can I do, Luís?” I asked. Carlos was Luís’s sous-chef, but I was his right-hand girl. I was in charge of prepping ingredients for the daily specials.
Thwack—the flat side of Luís’s knife crushed a clove of garlic against the cutting board. “Tonight,” he announced with a flourish, “we are featuring a lasagne primavera with yellow squash, portobello mushroom, and ricotta.”
I liked how Luís rolled words around in his mouth as if he was tasting them. He always made a big production out of his specials—maybe because they were the only thing he controlled on the menu. The rest of it was composed of Greek and Italian classics, mostly recipes my father inherited from Nonna and Pappou, who had owned a restaurant back in Thíra. Taverna Ristorante was more spaghetti carbonara than wasabi and panko–crusted skate with lime chervil salsa. My dad liked to say, “Not fine dining—great dining!” Painful.
“Mmmmm.” I stuck a spoon into a pot of marinara bubbling on the six-burner stove and tasted. “Needs more garlic.” Carlos playfully batted my hand away with a charred oven mitt.
I liked working with Luís. He knew I wanted to be a chef when I grew up, and not just a chef, but a top chef. He didn’t laugh when I talked about “flavor profiles” and “balance.” Sometimes he even took my advice, dashing in a little more salt or coriander when he thought my back was turned.
“Where can I start?” I asked, running my hands down the sides of my apron.
“Onions,” said Luís, only it sounded like own-yuns.
“Aye-aye, cap’n.” It was cry time.
* * *
By six, the dining room was nearly full with early birds—old people and families with small children, who left almost nonexistent tips and a sprinkling of bread crumbs around their tables like Hansel and Gretel scattering a trail out of the forest. The waitstaff hated the early birds, but my father loved them. He loved every customer, but particularly those who, like him, saw meals as a ritual. For Antonio Nicolaides, food was about family and community as much as it was about taste and nourishment. Which was why you could find him every night circling the dining room like a nervous socialite, chatting with customers, asking how their meals were or, if they were regulars, inquiring about their hip replacement surgeries and recent Disney vacations.
“Order up!” yelled Luís.
The doors to the kitchen thwapped open and closed for Nikki, a waitress who’d been with us as long as I could remember. She was from Greece, which made her family. She whisked two hot plates of moussaka from the window. I wondered how she hadn’t burned all the skin off her fingers yet, but she refused to use a tray.
“And eighty-six the bucatini!” Luís yelled after her, meaning we were out of it.
Nikki cursed. “Okay. Hold my order on table ten till I can see what Mr. Meinhardt wants instead.”
As she backed through the door, I glimpsed my father in the dining room. He was talking to table eight, where the Tuccis’ four boys were polishing off a mountain of spaghetti and meatballs. The door swung open again, and I caught his baritone voice, still stubbornly accented after all these years. He was mid-story.
“Oh, geez.” I wiped the seeds of the tomato I was chopping into a food scraps bin.
“ Cómo?” asked Pablo. He was one of the line chefs tearing lettuce for salads beside me.
“He’s telling it again.”
Pablo and Carlos chortled, and Carlos launched into his near-perfect imitation of my father. “Sophia, my daughter, she’s the real cook in the family. When she was three years old—just a baby!—she baked a chocolate soufflé in her Easy-Bake Oven. Her mother was reading Julia Child—”
I had to cut Carlos off. I’d heard my father tell the story of my preadolescent culinary genius a thousand times. I knew our customers had also; they were just too polite to stop him.
* * *
The flow on Saturday evenings was always the same. The six-o’clock crowd was replaced gradually by the eight-o’clock crowd—young professionals and couples on dates, who liked to linger over their meals. They ordered desserts to share and bottles of wine as the grumbling servers loitered by the cash register tucked behind a lattice decorated with more fake grapevines. My father didn’t like our diners to see their orders being put into the computer or their bills being printed. He preferred things to just appear on the table, as if willed into being by Zeus himself.
I did the math once. In four hours, we would put out approximately 172 entrees, 57 appetizers, 193 baskets of bread, and 36 desserts—or 0.716 meals per minute. In other words, don’t think, just cook. And so my Saturday nights sped by in a marathon of chopping, peeling, plating, and—the best part—tasting.
By nine forty-five, my feet were aching in my clogs and my head was buzzing with the heat and energy of the kitchen, but the tickets on the line had dwindled to five. We were almost there.
Carlos, a kitchen rag slung over the shoulder of his marinara-splattered chef’s jacket, stood on his tiptoes, peering out the porthole-shaped window in the door to the dining room. “Your boyfriend’s here!” he yelled across the kitchen.
The eyes of a dishwasher named Ramón darted to me. I could often feel them on the back of my head. It was a running joke in the kitchen that Ramón was madly, Mexican-soap-opera-style, in love with me. Lucky for Ramón, he didn’t speak enough English to know his tortured love kept the entire kitchen entertained through dinner service.
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said quickly, but I could feel myself blushing. “He’s my friend who happens to be a boy.” I hated that the teasing in the kitchen about Alex had suddenly started to embarrass me. Worse, I hated that I couldn’t hide that it did.
“Maybe you should tell him that, because he’s hanging around like un perro,” said Carlos, making puppy-dog eyes.
I had been artfully topping a tiramisù with whipped cream. I pushed it to Pablo, wiped my hands on my apron, and peered out the window, narrowly escaping a concussion as a waiter flew through the door. Alex was standing at the hostess stand, but he looked nothing like a lovesick puppy to me. He was chatting with Amber, our new hostess, a grad student working her way through Georgetown Law. I wasn’t sure yet if I liked her. Considering the way she was playing with her hair as she talked to Alex, the forecast was a ninety percent chance of no.
Alex leaned over the hostess stand and pointed at something on a piece of paper. His blond bangs flopped over one eye. Despite my repeated objections that he looked like a certain tween pop star, Alex refused to cut his hair. It was too long and always fell in his eyes, which in my opinion were his best feature. They were a bright, almost jade green, like cat eyes, with a ring of brown around the edges.… Not that I spent a lot of time gazing into them or anything. His surfer hair worked for at least one girl, though—a freshman named Lindy who kept finding far-fetched reasons to hang out by Alex’s locker. I did not care for Lindy.
I pulled my apron over my head, adjusted the baseball cap I had to wear for health codes, and exited the fluorescent kitchen into the relative murkiness of the dining room.
“Soph!” Alex’s eyes lit up the way they did when he wanted something from me.
I narrowed mine suspiciously in return. “Hey. Kind of in the middle of something. What’s up?”
“It couldn’t wait.”
“What couldn’t wait?”
“What contest, Alex?”
Alex held some kind of application up to my face. “ Teen Test Kitchen Qualifying Competition,” I read at the top.
I took the paper and squinted down at the small print. Glasses would just not look right perched on my big, fat Greek nose, and I couldn’t even begin to think about touching my eyeballs every day. “What is this?” I asked.
Alex had a big, sloppy grin on his face that happened to show off his annoyingly cute dimples, and he was shifting his weight from foot to foot. “It’s your Golden Ticket.” He tapped the top of the page. “You’re welcome.”
I gave him a look that said, “I have four tiramisùs and what are probably now two bowls of gelato soup waiting for me in the kitchen.”
Alex snatched the paper from my hands, waving it in frustration. “It’s a reality show cooking competition thing. And you’re going to win it.”
I laughed as if Alex had just announced my nomination for homecoming queen—a fun fantasy but entirely implausible. “I’m going to win it?”
“Yep.” His eyes sparkled with an intensity I had no power against.
That was the sparkle that had been getting me into trouble since third grade, when Alex’s mom, then just a random neighbor, invited me to the Underhills’ house. She wanted me to give my chicken pox to her son. On the phone with my dad, she called it a “chicken pox party.” My dad called it “strange” but allowed me to go anyway. It was after lunch when Alex convinced innocent, young, calamine-covered me that we were going to run away together, preferably to the circus, but not the kind where they were mean to animals. We had stolen his mom’s keys and gotten as far as the end of the driveway with the gearshift in neutral before Mrs. Underhill ran out of the house screaming.
I cocked an eyebrow and spoke in a mockingly soothing voice. “Hey, Alex, have we made an unscheduled stop in Absurdistan? Because I didn’t see it on the itinerary.”
Alex and I had had sixth-grade geography together and found it nearly impossible to recite the “-stan” countries in front of the class without cracking up. It thereafter wormed its way into our private lexicon. Rather than Uzbekistan, people in our world lived in Freakistan and Creepistan. If they were particularly insufferable, they carried passports from Turdistan.
A sudden clang of metal followed by the sound of china shattering on a tile floor exploded from behind the ...
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Book Description Henry Holt and Co. (BYR), 2012. Hardcover. Condition: New. Seller Inventory # DADAX0805092854
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