SANF February 2009 : Page 50

Chapter 7: Chefs, lies, and videotape Freed at last from his violent kidnapper, celebrity chef Jock Rapini stages a comeback, while food writer David Tuckwall pursues a steroid-beef scandal. BY ROBERT BERINGELA | ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN FOX B izarre business, ranching, Bo Mercer thought. One day, you’re sitting on a panel at the Ferry Building, speaking alongside Michael Pollan and hailing the virtues of grass-fed beef. The next day, you’re hunkered down in an air-conditioned office, torturing a vegan activist in a desperate play to stop the spread of Steroidgate. It wasn’t easy—not when it came to the wild- eyed eco-radical lying on the fl oor of Bo’s converted ranch house, bound as tightly as a rodeo steer. The redheaded giant hadn’t said a word since Bo’s brother, Marvin, had corralled him at gunpoint at the north end of the ranch, where he’d been slash- ing holes in an electric fence with a bolt cutter. “If he won’t talk,” Marvin said, “we should kill him.” “Quiet,” Bo said. “I’m trying to think.” It was difficult to do with his whole world threat- ening to crash down around him and burly, brain- less Marvin running his mouth off. “Or,” Marvin suggested, “we could turn him in. We’d be heroes. He’s a wanted man.” Bo shook his head. “If we turn him in, then he’ll really talk. Not good for us. Not good for anyone.” “Then what?” Marvin said. His voice cracked in frustration. On the floor, Alfie Falfa chuckled. “It’s quite a pickle you’re in,” he rasped. “So, it can speak.” Marvin kneeled, grabbing Alfie by the collar of his hemp shirt. “Tell us what you know, you freak.” “Marvin!” Bo said. “We’ve been down that road.” Whatever the shortcomings of their vegan captive, he had shown himself to be impervious to physical threats. “Ever notice,” Alfie went on, “that everything in life is interconnected? Every action has a reaction. Every cause has an effect. You. Me. The chef. Your poor, suffering cattle.We’re all linked together in Mother Nature’s tangled web.” It wasn’t exactly how Bo would have put it, but Carrot Top did have a point. It was a troubling case of six degrees of separation. Alfi e had a beef with Jock Rapini, the San Francisco chef he’d kidnapped and tormented, and Rapini had damaging evidence on the Mercer brothers that would ruin their business and deal the grass-fed-beef industry a disastrous blow. 50 SAN FRANCISCO FEBRUARY 2009 FOODNOIR

Food Noir

Robert Beringela

Chapter 7: Chefs, lies, and videotape<br /> Freed at last from his violent kidnapper, celebrity chef Jock Rapini stages a comeback, while food writer David Tuckwall pursues a steroid-beef scandal.<br /> <br /> B izarre business, ranching, Bo Mercer thought. One day, you’re sitting on a panel at the Ferry Building, speaking alongside Michael Pollan and hailing the virtues of grass-fed beef. The next day, you’re hunkered down in an air-conditioned offi ce, torturing a vegan activist in a desperate play to stop the spread of Steroidgate.<br /> <br /> It wasn’t easy—not when it came to the wildeyed eco-radical lying on the fl oor of Bo’s converted ranch house, bound as tightly as a rodeo steer. The redheaded giant hadn’t said a word since Bo’s brother, Marvin, had corralled him at gunpoint at the north end of the ranch, where he’d been slashing holes in an electric fence with a bolt cutter.<br /> <br /> “If he won’t talk,” Marvin said, “we should kill him.” “Quiet,” Bo said. “I’m trying to think.” It was difficult to do with his whole world threatening to crash down around him and burly, brainless Marvin running his mouth off.<br /> <br /> “Or,” Marvin suggested, “we could turn him in.<br /> <br /> We’d be heroes. He’s a wanted man.” Bo shook his head. “If we turn him in, then he’ll really talk. Not good for us. Not good for anyone.” “Then what?” Marvin said. His voice cracked in frustration.<br /> <br /> On the floor, Alfie Falfa chuckled.<br /> <br /> “It’s quite a pickle you’re in,” he rasped.<br /> <br /> “So, it can speak.” Marvin kneeled, grabbing Alfie by the collar of his hemp shirt.<br /> <br /> “Tell us what you know, you freak.” “Marvin!” Bo said. “We’ve been down that road.” Whatever the shortcomings of their vegan captive, he had shown himself to be impervious to physical threats.<br /> <br /> “Ever notice,” Alfie went on, “that everything in life is interconnected? Every action has a reaction.<br /> <br /> Every cause has an effect. You. Me. The chef. Your poor, suffering cattle. We’re all linked together in Mother Nature’s tangled web.” It wasn’t exactly how Bo would have put it, but Carrot Top did have a point. It was a troubling case of six degrees of separation. Alfi e had a beef with Jock Rapini, the San Francisco chef he’d kidnapped and tormented, and Rapini had damaging evidence on the Mercer brothers that would ruin their business and deal the grass-fed-beef industry a disastrous blow.<br /> <br /> It had all come to a head at the front gate of the ranch, where Alfi e had shot footage of the celebrity chef denouncing meat consumption and making veiled allusions to unsettling truths behind Mercy Beef. The cell phone video, sent to a food blogger, had swiftly made the Internet rounds, unleashing a predictable media shitstorm and turning Mercer Brothers Pastures into the scoop du jour.<br /> <br /> So far, the full story remained untold: how Marvin, behind Bo’s back, had cut corners by plumping up their cattle with steroid injections; how Rapini had found out and blackmailed the brothers into providing him with discount meat.<br /> <br /> Never mind the chickens—the cows were coming home to roost.<br /> <br /> Bo paced his office. He blamed his brother, he blamed Rapini, and—in honest moments, like this one—he blamed himself. He should have paid closer attention to the day-to-day operations. Instead, he’d gotten swept up in semistardom, in food gatherings and highfalutin schmoozefests. The hard and dirty work of running the ranch, he’d left to Marvin, who, unlike Bo, had no special allegiance to the organic movement. The righteousness of grass-fed ranching?<br /> <br /> Marvin didn’t care if it was better for the cattle or the consumers. All he wanted was to make a buck.<br /> <br /> When he’d learned about the steroids, Bo had put a stop to the unseemly practice and steered the ranch back to the straight and narrow. But what was done was done.<br /> <br /> Now, to prevent the word from spreading, Bo needed to know how much the vegan knew.<br /> <br /> “After you fi lmed the video,” he said to Alfi e, “you’d had your fun. You’d gotten what you’d wanted out of Jock Rapini. Why’d you stick around?” Alfie grinned. “My schedule is fluid. I have nowhere to be. Besides, your cows looked unhappy.<br /> <br /> It was my responsibility to liberate them.” “Let me take him outside,” Marvin barked. “I’ll liberate his brains from his skull.” Bo ignored his brother. “What about Rapini?<br /> <br /> What’d you do with him?” “He’s in a safe place,” said Alfi e. It was infuriating, being held over a barrel by a psychopath. Bo struggled to preserve his calm.<br /> <br /> “And while you were torturing him, what sort of lies did he make up about us? What did he tell you to save his skin?” Alfi e smirked. “That’s for me to know and you not to fi nd out.” Bo cracked his knuckles and walked to the window.<br /> <br /> The sun hung low, and pink clouds streaked the horizon. In the distance, scattered around green folds of pasture, brown specks were all he could see of the family herds.<br /> <br /> He exhaled and turned to his brother, clasping his hands behind his head. “You’re right, Marvin,” he said. “Maybe we should kill him after all.” DREARY BUSINESS, JOURNALISM, thought David Tuckwall. One day, you’re chasing the year’s hottest story. The next day, you’re sitting in a bayside restaurant bar, waiting to interview a blabbermouth food blogger.<br /> <br /> A fl uff-feature writer for the San Francisco Courier, Tuckwall had tried to land the big story: a profi le of Bo and Marvin Mercer, the ranchers who’d been thrust into the center of the Jock Rapini case. Tuckwall suspected that something might be fishy about the brothers, but they had ignored his phone calls, and Tuckwall’s bozo editor had insisted on a fallback for the next day’s front page: Ashley Raven Danner, the self-promoting author of LetMeTellYouIn AgonizingDetailAboutEverythingIAteThisWeek.com. The website was exactly that: a detailed rundown of one woman’s freeloading gustatory feats, seasoned with a dash of harmless restaurant gossip, all rendered in loose and gloating narrative form. It wasn’t navel gazing; it was colon gazing. To read its gushing entries was to marvel not only at the author’s fascination with herself, but also at her metabolic powers, which propelled her through late-morning dim sum, a roast-chicken lunch, and an afternoon “snack” of hickory-smoked pork loin, all within less than four hours.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall had no doubt that Danner could do it—her Falstaffi an fork skills were legendary at restaurant openings around San Francisco. What he questioned was whether all the meals would be as “dreamy and delicious” as she described them if she weren’t getting them for free.<br /> <br /> Then again, what did Tuckwall know? His objection to the blog was a tiny drop of distaste amid an outpouring of public love. Danner was both a media darling and a local tastemaker, and her sway in the city indicated the rising influence of online opinion mongering and the dwindling relevance of oldfashioned print.<br /> <br /> That grim reality lent a humiliating tint to an already undesirable assignment. Tuckwall the dinosaur was seeking a few minutes with the new ruling creature of the news business, a nonjournalist whose site had been chosen by a vegan kidnapper as the venue from which to share his hostage footage with the world.<br /> <br /> “Can I get you a drink, sir?” Tuckwall glanced at his watch. It said 3 p.m., but it was 5 o’clock somewhere.<br /> <br /> “What the hell,” he said. “Pisco Sour.” The drink’s $16 price tag was par for the course at Ocean’s 14, a split-level restaurant on the Embarcadero where standard-issue cocktails came with stunning views. The place was the brainchild of Dizzy Armaletto, the Donald Trump of San Francisco restaurant developers. He’d worked out a sweetheart deal for the prized city property over the objections of local activists, who’d pushed for the construction of an open-air Zen center with statues of the Tibetan fertility goddess, artesian water fountains, and fi rst-come, fi rst-serve communal yoga mats.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall didn’t like the restaurant, but he had to admit it was a better spot for alcohol than for asanas.<br /> <br /> He sipped his drink, gazing out the window at Treasure Island. Sunlight sparkled on the water. A barge drifted lazily under the Bay Bridge. Then a high, sharp voice interrupted his reverie.<br /> <br /> “Hey, don’t get drunk without me!” “Hiya, Ashley.” She wore black stretch pants and a green sweater, her blond hair pulled back into a shiny ponytail.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall wondered if a pact with the devil was what allowed her to stay so thin.<br /> <br /> “Sorry I’m so schleppy!” said the blogger happily.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall forgave her misuse of Yiddish, shiksa that she was. “Personal training session!” She took a seat beside him and ordered a Bloody Mary.<br /> <br /> “So,” Tuckwall said with strained enthusiasm. He brandished his notepad. “Big day for your blog.” Danner beamed.<br /> <br /> “Heck, yes,” she said. “Can you believe it?” “Remarkable,” said Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> “I mean, your paper didn’t have it. The networks didn’t have it. Who would have thought that loopy kidnapper would turn to me before anyone else!” “Your 15 minutes,” Tuckwall said.<br /> <br /> “Hey! Don’t misunderestimate me.” She punched his shoulder lightly and curled her face into a mock scowl. “I’m going to stretch this into half an hour, at least. An agent called me this morning! She thinks I can turn my blog into a book!” Tuckwall winced. And on Danner went, in a ditzy disquisition that drummed at the reporter’s brain like water torture. He was contemplating more booze to dull the pain when his iPhone vibrated: his sometime girlfriend Edie Brandt. In recent weeks, their on-and-off relationship had switched back on again, and Tuckwall was eager to keep the charge alive.<br /> <br /> With an “excuse me” motion, he stood up from the bar.<br /> <br /> “You couldn’t have called at a better time.” Tuckwall had been working hard at sounding upbeat, trying not to wear on Edie with his cynicism.<br /> <br /> “I don’t know about that,” Edie said.<br /> <br /> “How so?” “They found Jock Rapini.” Tuckwall scraped his jaw off the quarry-stone fl oor.<br /> <br /> “Where? When? Is he alive?” “Alive and well,” said Edie. “I, on the other hand, could be feeling better.” “What’s wrong?” “I need you to come down to the police station.” “Really? Sure. OK. Why?” “Inquisitive cops,” Edie said. “Seems they’d like to know what a chef was doing stuffed into the trunk of my Zipcar.” THE NEXT 48 HOURS went by in a blur. Tuckwall spent three of them with the boys in blue on Bryant Street, corroborating Edie’s zany account. The tall cop simply chuckled, but his partner, a squat musclehead with a porn-star mustache, frowned skeptically when Tuckwall described their misadventures in the Central Valley. He, Edie, and Marty Copeland had set off in search of Jock Rapini, only to wind up stranded when a vegan kidnapper stole Edie’s Zipcar.<br /> <br /> That Copeland was an ex-cop gave the story credence and a whiff of comedy. The retired detective showed up at his former workplace with a sheepish grin and, to the mocking of his onetime colleagues, confi rmed that he’d played a part in the Keystone Kops tale.<br /> <br /> “You’re getting old, Marty,” said the mustachioed offi cer. “Why don’t you leave the heroics to the younger generation?” “And why don’t you have another doughnut?” Copeland asked.<br /> <br /> “You kidding?” the cop retorted. “Too many trans fats.” Tuckwall, for his part, spent the rest of the evening on a liquid diet, gulping coffee in the Courier newsroom while banging out a story for the front page. Jock Rapini, he reported, had been rescued after a hiker had heard muffled wailing from the trunk of an abandoned Prius. Gaunt, wan, and badly dehydrated, Rapini had been whisked to a hospital in Tracy—where, according to a hospital spokesman, he’d requested a good Rhône and a rare hamburger but instead had been given an electrolyte IV. Still at large was the kidnapper, a seven-foot-tall man in his late 30s with a jaundiced complexion and violent leanings who’d assaulted a reporter with a giant squash.<br /> <br /> Deadline reporting gave Tuckwall an adrenaline jolt that reminded him of his early days in the inkstained business, when newspapers had occasionally broken news. These last-minute developments had the added benefit of bumping Ashley Raven Danner from A-1.<br /> <br /> As far as Tuckwall could tell, the odd details were true. But in his gut, he suspected twisted ties between the chef and the ranchers.<br /> <br /> The police, meanwhile, remained on the hunt for the chef ’s kidnapper.<br /> <br /> When he’d wrapped up the story, Tuckwall hit “send,” waited 15 minutes, then wandered into his editor’s office.<br /> <br /> Rupert Hunt was perched at his computer, squinting at the screen, his marshmallow belly pressed against his desk.<br /> <br /> “Impressive,” he said, looking up at Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> “You like the story?” “Huh? What? Oh, yeah. Right. Haven’t read the story. I was talking about Jock Rapini.” Tuckwall gave him a quizzical look.<br /> <br /> “Just got an email from his publicist,” Hunt said.<br /> <br /> “The chef, it seems, is blessed with startling recuperative powers. He’s already scheduled his fi rst press conference for tomorrow afternoon at Trough.” THE FOLLOWING DAY’S clouds and drizzle did little to dampen Jock Rapini’s mood as he burst from the kitchen of his downtown restaurant to greet reporters.<br /> <br /> He wore a scruffy beard to match his tufted fauxhawk, and he bristled with energy. Whatever torments he’d endured weren’t obvious to Tuckwall.<br /> <br /> What did seem clear was that the chef was still the same bullshitter he’d always been.<br /> <br /> Like everything else Rapini did in public, today’s event was all about his rough-and-tumble reputation, which had taken a beating during his captivity.<br /> <br /> It hadn’t helped him to appear on YouTube, covered in goose feathers, tearfully repudiating meat, and pleading for mercy between sobs.<br /> <br /> “Thank you for coming,” Rapini said, climbing atop a table and speaking with his trademark bombast.<br /> <br /> “Thank you for listening. Rest assured, there’ll be sustainably farmed caviar and duck confit for everyone when this all ends.” Big surprise, Tuckwall thought. The chef had called the press conference to save face.<br /> <br /> “In recent days,” Rapini went on, “some of you may have seen a video in which I pledged to alter my eating habits and overhaul the menus that I prepare. I want to make it clear that nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, my many hours of pain and darkness have convinced me to live life to its fullest, to suck the marrow out of my existence, and to play my natural role as a highranking animal in the food chain.” Though his voice was hoarse, ravaged by the days he had spent pleading for his life, Rapini took pains to speak with conviction and show himself as unruffled by his ordeal. If anything, he thought, the indignities he’d suffered could play in his favor. All he needed was to spin them right. Now more than ever, he could present himself as a courageous survivor, the chef who’d stared unblinking at the face of death—who’d been to hell and back and was all the stronger for it.<br /> <br /> He raised his right hand, like a witness swearing in before a jury.<br /> <br /> “The pledge I make now is the pledge I plan to keep: Each one of my restaurants—Trough, Truth, Tribe, and Trafe—will continue to showcase the earth’s full bounty, from the freshest local produce to sustainably harvested fish, poultry, and meat.<br /> <br /> The same is true of my award-winning television show, Meal of Fortune, which, as you may know, airs Sundays at 8 p.m., 9 p.m. Central, on the Food Network, with encore performances on Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon.” When he finished, the room erupted in a babble of questions.<br /> <br /> Why the change of heart?<br /> <br /> “No change,” Rapini insisted. “The video was filmed under duress. It’s no more credible than any other hostage footage.” What about Mercy Beef? He’d hinted at a scandal at the grass-fed ranch.<br /> <br /> “I proudly serve Mercy Beef at all my restaurants,” the chef offered evasively. “As long as I’m still standing upright in a toque, that will never change.” And what about his kidnapper, the violent vegan?<br /> <br /> He was still on the loose. What if he showed up again?<br /> <br /> With a dramatic flourish, Rapini reached into his apron and pulled out a Smith & Wesson.<br /> <br /> “It’s registered,” he said. “I have a license to kill.” Nervous laughter.<br /> <br /> “But never mind all that,” Rapini boomed. “It’s lunchtime, friends. Don’t you want to eat?” The kitchen door swung open, and waiters emerged carrying silver platters stacked with caviartopped blini. The crowd pressed forward, except for Tuckwall, who slipped outside onto Mission Street.<br /> <br /> The drizzle had swelled into a full-on downpour by the time he made it five blocks to the smallest, sweetest sandwich shop in San Francisco.<br /> <br /> Edie Brandt was pulling an espresso behind the counter of the Teeny Panini. Marty Copeland was sitting at the shop’s only table, waiting for his midday dose of caffeine.<br /> <br /> “Well?” Copeland queried, as Tuckwall ducked in from his drenching.<br /> <br /> The reporter gave a rundown of Rapini’s performance.<br /> <br /> “Hmm,” Edie said. “Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something fishy about that meat-eater.” “I agree,” said Copeland. “I also think it’s time we rented another Prius.” “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Tuckwall asked.<br /> <br /> “How do you guys feel about trespassing on private property?” Copeland asked.<br /> <br /> “Is that a felony or a misdemeanor?” Edie wondered.<br /> “Depends on the county, and if anyone dies,” Copeland replied.<br /> Edie glanced at Tuckwall. Tuckwall glanced at the retired detective.<br /> “There’s something rotten just east of San Francisco,” Copeland said. “And my hunch is that we’ll find it at a certain ranch.”<br />

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