SANF January 2009 : 58
Chapter 6: Cattle tale To spare his own life, a captive chef shares a dirty secret about the Mercer brothers and their famous grass-fed beef. BY ROBERT BERINGELA | ILLUSTRATION BY NATHAN FOX O n the night that Jock Rapini became his captive, Alfie Falfa had stripped the hotshot chef down to his skiv vies and stuffed his belongings in a large hemp sack. Among the comman- deered items were a Rolex watch, pin-striped Gucci slacks, and a nifty Nokia cell phone that Alfi e, a lonely Luddite, had no clue how to use. The complicated gizmo had been turned off when he snatched it, so its battery was still fresh a week later, when Alfie handed it back to Rapini and ordered the chef to flip it on. “Just the power button,” Alfie rasped. “Try mak- ing a call, and I’ll slit your throat.” It was pushing twilight. They’d spent the last two hours in a stolen Prius, gunning up and down the Cen- tral Valley while Alfi e tried to settle on a suitable plan. On a winding one-lane road south of Manteca, he finally parked the car in the shade of some scrub oaks and dragged Rapini by his fauxhawk from the backseat. Escape, always a long shot, was now out of the question for the Food Network star. Seven days spent in a cage, where he was force-fed by gavage, had sapped his strength, and the goose feathers plastered to his body had exacted a steep psycholog- ical toll. Gone was his cocksure TV persona, along with the swagger he showed in the kitchen of his San Francisco restaurants, Truth, Trough, Trafe, and Tribe. In their place stood a wan and weary coward who’d exhausted his reserves in a last-ditch act of self-preservation: swapping information in exchange for his life. With his captor tugging at his hair, Rapini shuf- fled across the road. A low-lying wire fence stretched in both directions, split by a tall wrought-iron gate. Atop the gate was a red painted sign with an etching of a steer and bold letters that read: “Mercer Broth- ers Pastures.” Rapini had dished dirt on the Mercers’ so-called grass-fed operation to spare himself the sharp end of Alfie’s butcher’s knife. The whole sordid tale— how the brothers used steroids on their livestock, how Rapini found out and blackmailed them into supply- ing his restaurants with discounted meat—was now a secret shared with a giant loon with a chip on his shoulder and an odd scheme in his head. 58 SAN FRANCISCO JANUARY 2009 FOODNOIR
Chapter 6: Cattle tale<br /> <br /> On the night that Jock Rapini became his captive, Alfi e Falfa had stripped the hotshot chef down to his skiv vies and stuffed his belongings in a large hemp sack. Among the commandeered items were a Rolex watch, pin-striped Gucci slacks, and a nifty Nokia cell phone that Alfi e, a lonely Luddite, had no clue how to use.<br /> <br /> The complicated gizmo had been turned off when he snatched it, so its battery was still fresh a week later, when Alfi e handed it back to Rapini and ordered the chef to fl ip it on.<br /> <br /> “Just the power button,” Alfi e rasped. “Try making a call, and I’ll slit your throat.” It was pushing twilight. They’d spent the last two hours in a stolen Prius, gunning up and down the Central Valley while Alfi e tried to settle on a suitable plan.<br /> <br /> On a winding one-lane road south of Manteca, he fi nally parked the car in the shade of some scrub oaks and dragged Rapini by his fauxhawk from the backseat.<br /> <br /> Escape, always a long shot, was now out of the question for the Food Network star. Seven days spent in a cage, where he was force-fed by gavage, had sapped his strength, and the goose feathers plastered to his body had exacted a steep psychological toll. Gone was his cocksure TV persona, along with the swagger he showed in the kitchen of his San Francisco restaurants, Truth, Trough, Trafe, and Tribe. In their place stood a wan and weary coward who’d exhausted his reserves in a last-ditch act of self-preservation: swapping information in exchange for his life.<br /> <br /> With his captor tugging at his hair, Rapini shuffl ed across the road. A low-lying wire fence stretched in both directions, split by a tall wrought-iron gate.<br /> <br /> Atop the gate was a red painted sign with an etching of a steer and bold letters that read: “Mercer Brothers Pastures.” Rapini had dished dirt on the Mercers’ so-called grass-fed operation to spare himself the sharp end of Alfi e’s butcher’s knife. The whole sordid tale— how the brothers used steroids on their livestock, how Rapini found out and blackmailed them into supplying his restaurants with discounted meat—was now a secret shared with a giant loon with a chip on his shoulder and an odd scheme in his hea Alfi e shoved Rapini in front of the gate.<br /> <br /> “Give me that thing,” he said, taking back the cell phone, “and show me how it works.” Rapini indicated a button. Alfi e held up the phone awkwardly, like a novice hunter peering through a rifl e sight. He centered the frame on the slumped-shouldered chef, a broken man with the beard of a Survivor contestant and the bearing of a strange, humiliated bird.<br /> <br /> “Okay, big shot,” said the vegan with a cackle.<br /> <br /> “Smile for the camera. Speak clearly. And stick to the script.” “WELL,” SAID FOOD WRITER David Tuckwall, “that wasn’t exactly how we’d planned it, was it?” His sometime girlfriend, Edie Brandt, grimaced in agreement.<br /> <br /> “Then again,” she said, “life is what happens when you’re planning something else.” “Actually,” chimed in ex-cop Marty Copeland, “life is what happens when you drive into the middle of Nowheresville, looking for a kidnapped celebrity chef, and a wack-job vegan steals your Zipcar.” They were squeezed into the cab of a tow truck, its driver kind enough not to ask questions. It would have taken some explaining—how three clear-headed adults wound up stranded on a gravel road at the far end of an abandoned ostrich farm.<br /> <br /> In retrospect, thought Tuckwall, it was a dubious idea, heading off to hunt for Jock Rapini themselves instead of alerting the police. Still, it might have worked out fi ne if Edie hadn’t left the key in the Prius when they got out to search a rickety old barn.<br /> <br /> But, having spent the last three months trying to win Edie back, Tuckwall opted not to mention her absentminded move.<br /> <br /> “When we catch up with that freaky vegan,” Edie said, “I’m going to force-feed him a hamburger.” “I could go for a burger,” Copeland said. “Grassfed.<br /> <br /> Medium-rare.” The retired detective had the appetite of a hyena and a Chowhound’s snobby relationship with food.<br /> <br /> At the Hertz in downtown Manteca, they rented a Ford Taurus.<br /> <br /> “Bigger carbon footprint than that poor little Prius,” Edie said.<br /> <br /> “Not to worry, honey,” Tuckwall said. “We’re a carpool.” THEY DROVE WEST IN SILENCE toward San Francisco over hills as dry and mangy as camelbacks.<br /> <br /> Near the Dublin grade, Tuckwall tuned the radio to KQED in time to hear a wrap-up of the local news: The trail was growing cold in the search for Rapini.<br /> <br /> They headed down into Castro Valley as the Marketplace theme came over the airwaves, an oddly upbeat soundtrack to complement a global fi nancial meltdown.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall switched off the radio and turned to his companions.<br /> <br /> “Where do you fi gure they went, anyway?” The Taurus hummed smoothly along I-580.<br /> <br /> “Hard to say,” said Copeland. “Your man Mr. Falfa Is what we expert criminal profi lers refer to scientifi cally as an unpredictable lunatic.’” “You’d think someone would spot them,” Tuckwall said, “a giant redhead dragging a chef around by the ear. Kind of stands out.” “You haven’t been hanging out with me in the Lower Haight,” replied Copeland.<br /> <br /> They merged right at a split in the highway and eased up a hill into East Oakland.<br /> <br /> “Now that we’re getting closer to civilization, my appetite is coming back,” Tuckwall said.<br /> <br /> Edie suggested, “I know a place where we can get some grub and maybe even pick up a few ideas.” “Yeah?” Copeland asked hopefully.<br /> <br /> “A vegan restaurant,” Edie said. “Specialty’s raw food.” Copeland sighed and sank back in his seat.<br /> <br /> THE PLENTIFUL CAFÉ sat in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto, within grape seed–spitting distance of sustainable-gourmet icon Chez Panisse.<br /> <br /> A bronze Buddha statue, hands clasped over its belly, stood at the entrance, as did a smiling hostess with elaborate piercings and sleeves of Chinese tattoos covering both arms.<br /> <br /> “Have a plentiful meal,” she said, after leading the threesome to their table.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall scanned the menu—a long, unsettling list of culinary impostors. Parsnip “hot dogs.” Bulgur “Bolognese.” Each item was accompanied by an uplifting phrase that diners were encouraged to repeat when they ordered. “I feel luminous” was Plentiful-speak for “I’d like the bean curd à la king.” “Geez, so much to choose from,” Edie said.<br /> <br /> Copeland shook his head sadly.<br /> <br /> “Seriously,” Edie said. “I thought this would be helpful. To catch an unhinged vegan, you have to learn to think like an unhinged vegan.” She grinned and peered mischievously over her menu.<br /> <br /> “Besides, I like watching you guys squirm.” A waitress wandered over. She wore a tie-dyed dress and the dreamy, blissed-out look of an Obama diehard.<br /> <br /> “How do we feel today?” she asked.<br /> <br /> “I feel bountiful!” said Edie, beaming. She meant she wanted the shiitake “sirloin.” “I feel undecided,” Copeland said.<br /> <br /> In a lucky break, Tuckwall’s iPhone chimed. He pulled it from his pocket.<br /> <br /> A mass email had arrived from Ashley Raven Danner, the Marina-dwelling daughter of a hedgefund mogul and author of the blog LetMeTell YouInAgonizingDetailAboutEverythingIAteThis Week.com. Living as he did under a meteor shower of Danner’s messages, Tuckwall had learned to delete them immediately after scanning just enough to see if they said anything worth saving. But the tagline on this message caught his eye: “Check It Out, Peeps: A Video of the Missing Chef.” “Look what someone sent me!” read the body of the message. It came with a link. Tuckwall clicked it open and pressed play.<br /> <br /> “Sir,” the waitress said, “do you know how you feel?” Tuckwall’s gaze remained locked on his iPhone.<br /> <br /> “I feel sick to my stomach,” he said distractedly.<br /> <br /> He held the phone up for his friends. “Jock Rapini,” he said. “Captive celebrity chef and Internet sensation.” “Wow,” Edie said. “He doesn’t look so hot.” THE NEXT MORNING, the newsroom of the San Francisco Courier was buzzing with a sudden and unusual concern for the news.<br /> <br /> As was its custom, the paper had been beaten to the day’s top story. What made things different was that Rupert Hunt appeared to care.<br /> <br /> Tuckwall’s obese editor sat at his desk, cracking his knuckles and frowning at the footage on his PC.<br /> <br /> The Internet had done its viral duty, spreading the video of Jock Rapini to YouTube, where it had already registered 763,333 hits. Tuckwall and his boss were padding that statistic by watching the performance for the 11th time.<br /> <br /> “How is it that something like this happens and the local paper doesn’t have it?” Hunt said.<br /> <br /> “We’re like dodo birds,” Tuckwall said. “Ill adapted to modern life.” Hunt grunted and clicked play again.<br /> <br /> On the editor’s big screen, a frozen image of Rapini sprang into motion. The chef appeared drawn and haggard, a gaunt, frightened specter of his former ass-kicking self. He stood on a quiet country road, partly covered in feathers that left him looking like a half-trussed Christmas goose.<br /> <br /> Dark circles ringed his eyes, and his voice was a hoarse whisper, but his tone was earnest and the words were clear.<br /> <br /> “Friends, fans, coconspirators in carnivorousness,” he said into a shakily held camera, “in recent days, you may have come to think of me as a victim. But that perception is false, and your sympathy misplaced.<br /> <br /> The truth is that I am an unqualifi ed villain, a perpetrator of horrendous deeds. My crimes are not crimes against humanity but heinous acts of terror committed against every other living thing....” It went on in the same spirit of bombastic selfrebuke for seven minutes, an epic mea culpa in which the chef confessed to sins that placed him in the ranks of historic monsters, “like a culinary Slobodan Miloševi´c.” He pleaded for the forgiveness of all who’d suffered from his evildoing: the local sand dab and the line-caught halibut, the grass-fed lamb and the milk-fed calf.<br /> <br /> “And so,” the chef went on, “I have built my name and an undeserving fortune on the blood and agony Of others. Just as I have fattened myself at the trough, so have I plumped up a complicit public, serving and promoting so-called humane products from farms and ranches like this one here.” Rapini pointed, and the camera focused on the Mercer Brothers sign.<br /> <br /> “If you knew the truth about this and other killing fi elds around our land of plenty, your guts would roil and your hair would curl. There’s so much I could tell. But for now, I simply ask that you join me in my pledge to forgo sustenance born of slaughter, along with animal products of any kind.<br /> <br /> I hereby promise to embrace a vegan lifestyle, the only lifestyle that meets the ethical and sustainable standards that we in the Bay Area claim to hold so dear. I urge all of you to do the same.” When Rapini fi nished, the camera veered and a hideous close-up fi lled the screen.<br /> <br /> “I’m Alfi e Falfa,” said a sneering redhead with skin the color of a zucchini blossom, “and I approve this message.” He chuckled, and the video went dark.<br /> <br /> Hunt closed the window with a click, turned to Tuckwall, and belched. “I said it before and I’ll say it again: That chef ’s got great stage presence.” “And a fl orid speechwriter,” Tuckwall added.<br /> <br /> “Speaking of writers,” Hunt said, “I could use some lively prose—and fast. Our online guys are updating our website. But I need something juicy for tomorrow’s page one. We got beaten to the punch, but that doesn’t mean we can’t follow up with a bomb of our own.” “What do you have in mind?” Tuckwall winced as he braced for his boss’s reply.<br /> <br /> “A profi le of this Ashley Raven Danner.” “She’s pretty well-trod territory, isn’t she?” For the past year, the gossipy blogger had been standard play in the paper’s three-dot columns, receiving more free ink than Wilkes Bashford and Billy Getty combined.<br /> <br /> “But now she’s a food wonk at the center of a shit storm,” Hunt said. “The kidnapper reached out to her. But why? What makes her so special? Give me a snapshot of Danner in the moment. What was she thinking when she received the video? What was she feeling? Put me in her shoes. Make me...” Tuckwall had stopped listening.<br /> <br /> With his editor barking orders in the background, he strode across the newsroom to his desk. He clicked on Google and plugged in a name. Then he picked up the phone and dialed the number for Mercer Brothers Pastures.<br /> <br /> HUNKERED DOWN in the offi ce at his Central Valley ranch, Bo Mercer swiveled in his chair, rubbed his chin, and marveled at the value of caller ID.<br /> <br /> The ringing stopped. Bo exhaled. He’d run out of patience for reporters. A few heartbeats later, the ringing resumed. The San Francisco Courier was calling.<br /> <br /> Again.<br /> <br /> It had been like this all day, a media siege that had begun just after sunrise, when the fi rst news vans rolled up to the ranch. Bo had ambled out to greet them and spent an hour affably fi elding questions.<br /> <br /> Yes, he knew Rapini. Yes, he’d seen the video. No, he had no clue what to make of it; and no, his operation, Mercer Brothers, hadn’t changed. It still adhered to the same high standards that their loyal customers had come to expect: grass-fed and organic, a leader in the business of humane beef. Bo couldn’t fathom why the chef had made veiled charges of something untoward. Mostly, Bo told the camera, he prayed for the well-being of Jock Rapini, whose comments “appeared to have been made under duress.” For a man without a background in media relations, it was a skilled display of modern crisis management.<br /> <br /> Bo showed no sign of the strain he was under, no indication that everything he’d worked for—his livelihood, his reputation, his family—now risked crashing down like a house of cards. If the steroid scandal broke, it would sink his business, even as it set back a movement he believed in: the small but growing group of cattle ranchers who pitched themselves as good stewards of the earth.<br /> <br /> When the last question was answered, Bo smiled for the cameras as the TV crews thanked him. Then he strode back to his offi ce, cupped his head in his hands, and tried to ignore the ringing that wouldn’t stop. He felt a newly conceived ulcer gestating in his belly.<br /> <br /> Bo Mercer’s woes were far from over, he knew.<br /> <br /> Rapini was still out there, armed with damning evidence of steroid use at the ranch. He had the proof on video, in a B-roll he’d shot for his Food Network show. For nearly a year, Bo had kept the chef at bay by complying with his blackmail, providing him with cheap meat to ensure his silence. But with Rapini in the clutches of a psychopathic vegan, their delicate stalemate might be coming to an end.<br /> <br /> Finally, the phone stopped ringing. But then came a pounding on Bo’s offi ce door.<br /> <br /> “Open up, it’s me!” It was Bo’s brother, Marvin, the dim-witted source of all their problems. As strong as an ox and about as smart as one, Marvin had injected their steers with steroids, taking a sleazy shortcut without telling his more responsible brother.<br /> <br /> Bo opened the door.<br /> <br /> “Found this one by the feed barn,” Marvin said.<br /> <br /> He stepped inside in dusty overalls, a shotgun slung over his right shoulder. Shuffl ing beside him, limbs roped as tightly as a rodeo dogie’s, was a giant redhead with the wild-eyed gaze of a wounded steer.