Monday, December 5, 2022

Read an #Excerpt from The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique by Samantha Verant

This December, author and amateur chef Samantha Vérant whisks readers back to Paris in an all-new story about an American chef who aims to open her own restaurant in THE SPICE MASTER AT BISTRO EXOTIQUE!

About the Book

The Spice Master at Bistro Exotique
by Samantha Verant 
Paperback, 352 pages
Published December 6th 2022 by Berkley Books
A talented chef discovers how spices and scents can transport her--and, more importantly, how self-confidence can unlock the greatest magic of all: love--in this perfectly seasoned new novel by Samantha Vérant.

Kate Jenkins doesn't believe in fate. She believes in a clear vision, meticulous planning, and hard work in order to achieve her culinary dreams. On the cusp of opening her own Parisian restaurant, Bistro Exotique, she isn't even concerned when her standoffish--and annoyingly sexy--neighbor dismisses her as a crazy American tourist or when she meets the wildly eccentric Garrance, the self-proclaimed Spice Master of Paris, who ominously warns her of the previous owner's failures.

Confident and optimistic, Kate keeps calm and cooks on. Until a series of unfortunate events derail her plans and her entire staff quits.

Kate is about to throw in the kitchen towel on her lifelong dream when Garrance offers to use her mastery of scents and spices to help her, but it comes at a price: Kate must work with Garrance's son, Charles, a world-class chef and total jerk. After Kate hesitantly concedes to the deal, she slowly learns to open her heart and mind to new concepts, not quite sure if the magic she's experiencing comes from Garrance's spices, from within herself, or from the growing chemistry with Charles. One thing is certain, though: her kitchen is getting increasingly hot.


Chapter one
A Temporary Distraction

Dreams manifest with a vision and obtainable goals. And mine have always been clear. Food is my life—my calling, my raison d’être—better than sex, better than anything.
I get lost in sensual experiences when I prepare a meal—the way the juices run all sticky and sweet on my hands as I cut fresh fruits like an orange or a fig, the way the flavors dance on my tongue when I taste my fingertips, the way salty and sweet fresh oysters kiss my lips at first, followed by a lustful intoxication when they slide down my throat, or the way a fragrant soup heats up my entire body, my soul.
Foreplay is the preparation, and the climax comes with the fin‑ ished recipe, bringing all the senses together while balancing flavors. Food is passion in its purest form and one of the reasons I became a chef.
As I tenderly fold the dough for my sourdough bread, my hands caressing the slick and smooth form much like a lover would, I look up, taking in my pristine kitchen—the polished prep station, the stoves, all my tools of the trade—and I can’t help but to let out a proud squee.
Holy guacamole—preferably hand‑crafted tableside with a mor‑ tar and pestle—I am actually opening up my own restaurant in Paris, and my culinary offerings are going to rock people’s minds and taste buds. Bistro Exotique—my restaurant—will finally unlock its doors to the public in four short days and I’m going to share my passion with the world, satisfying the most discerning of palates while in‑ voking all the senses.
I huff out a laugh, hoping my neighbors didn’t hear my cries and moans for more garlic last night. More! More! Garlic! Or when I’d gasped out “Pound it” and “Harder,” as I smashed whole pep‑ percorns with a mallet. At the very least, nobody would have heard anything unsavory and, surely, they’d understand that dreaming up recipes keeps me tossing and turning with unbridled inspiration all night.
I’ve been in the kitchen since 6:00 a.m., the dough is on its final rise, which gives me half an hour to get to Marché Saint‑Martin— one of Paris’s last historical covered markets, with its original stone entries from the late 1800s still remaining. I lightly spank the mound, loosely cover the beauty with a kitchen towel, and then wash my hands before heading to the front door and locking up. Meandering slowly, it will take me eleven minutes to get to the market, but I push myself into speed walking, wanting to be the first in line when the doors open at nine.
On the way, I’m reminded of how much I love this neighborhood and the location, with its lively cafés, cheaper rents, and the canal— a haven in the summer, boasting dances on its banks, festivals, and cultural cruises for Parisians and tourists alike. Add in the poets on their box stands, the fishermen, and the picnickers—it’s people‑watching galore. Although there is a ton of foot traffic with les flâ- neurs (people wandering and observing), this haven is surprisingly calm.
Not in the best of shape, I’m breathless when I reach my utopia, my playground of seasonal delights, immediately running up to Fabian, my fish vendor, panting heavily. He loops his thumbs into the straps of his denim overalls and rocks back and forth in his thick black rubber boots.
“Kate, are you concerned about the delivery?” he asks, his caterpillar‑like eyebrows raised. “Don’t worry. It’s all good, and we’re all crossing our fingers for the success of your restaurant. You don’t have to check in.”
“I’m not worried. I want to test out a new recipe. I dreamed about it last night. A ceviche.” Pant, pant. “Do you have sea bass?”
“I do.”
“Is it fresher than fresh?”
“Of course. Practically off the boat. How many?”
“Just one for now,” I say, catching my breath. “But I may need more on Friday if the recipe works out.”
“Should I empty it? Filet it?”
“Yeah, that would be great, save me some time.” “Give me a few minutes,” he says.
“Fantastique! Formidable! Thanks and I’ll be back.” I pull out my list, holding it up. “More fresh ingredients to catch.”
Fabian grins and turns to take care of my order, knife in hand. Being in the market always transports me to another dimension, another time and place—each ingredient conjuring up memories. For a moment, I stand in front of the glass, staring at the fish, breath‑ ing in the briny and salty scents of the ocean, and I’m back to my roots in California, bodysurfing the waves in Malibu and feeling the sand sticking in between my toes as I walk back to my towel, the frothy water lapping and crashing on the shore. I’m suddenly licking my lips and craving fish tacos covered in a Baja sauce. So many fish in the sea, so many ways to prepare them.
Too bad I haven’t been by the ocean in years, but I chose cut‑ ting blocks over surfboards. Such is the life of a chef. And I have no regrets.
At least I live by Canal Saint‑Martin, a glorious 4.5‑kilometer‑ long waterway lined with ancient chestnut trees. I’d never risk jump‑ ing in it—who knows what kind of diseases lurk under the surface? But I have skipped stones into the water like the character Amélie did in the movie of the same name from the safety of its elegant iron bridges.
A woman passes by me, saying “Excusez-moi,” and I come back to the present.
To clear my head, sometimes I try to guess who would eat what. What would she eat? Meat? Vegan? Vegetarian? Pescatarian? More important, would her taste buds be open to spices? I call this re‑ search ocular reconnaissance. The woman meanders toward one of the butchers and points to a goliath‑sized leg of lamb—definitely a carnivore. I wonder how she’d prepare her meal—perhaps with slices of garlic stuffed into the meatiest parts of the top, slow roasted with rosemary, with potatoes on the side, the juices, the herbs, in‑ fusing into everything. Served with a mint sauce? Or is she the type who colors outside the lines and does something less traditional? The woman pays for her purchase, tucks the large package into her polka‑dotted wheeled shopping caddy, and catches me gaping at her. With a visible shudder, she shoots me a death glare, understand‑ able since we’re not at a café where it’s okay—even expected—to people watch. Sometimes my research puts me into uncomfortable situations. I offer an awkward smile and turn on my heel, racing around the stalls, from the stinky cheeses to the produce, inhaling every scent, falling in love with all the colors, picking up the ingredients I need along the way for my dish—namely juicy mangoes, succulent limes, and enormous avocados I can barely fit into my palm.
Finished hunting and gathering, I make my way back to Fabian. He hands over a butcher paper–covered package with a wink. “I’ll put it on your account.”
“Merci,” I say. “You’re the best.”
I stuff the fish into my now full wicker basket and speed walk back home, hoping I don’t trip. Yoga and swimming I can handle. Running? Not so much. I’ve fallen a few times, plus the jiggling hurts my boobs—my chest is a blessing and a curse. On that, I should probably stop humming I’m bringing booty back while skip‑ ping my way through the maze of stalls.
I’m in a great mood—giddy, hopeful, and optimistic. The sun‑ light filters through the trees, illuminating the sidewalk in a hazy, golden glow and reflecting on the wicker basket bursting with the colorful ingredients now resting by my feet.
Although I’m eager to create the dish, testing this recipe will have to wait a few more minutes. It’s the end of May, and, for once, the rain has subsided, the sky is clear, and I want to get a photo of the restaurant, capture the magic of the moment for posterity.
I stand across the street from my future, gazing at the crisp charcoal‑gray awning, hung up a few days ago. Emblazoned with the logo a friend of mine had designed, the name sparkles in the sunshine, the symbol a hummingbird. It’s perfection.
Right when the economy picked up, after a major crush—with restaurants closing left and right—I’d swiped in like a vulture, getting a fabulous deal on the space in the trendy tenth arrondissement, and signed the lease on the spot. I can’t beat the corner location, which faces the canal on one side.
Not only did I get a good deal on the space for the restaurant, my five‑hundred‑square‑feet one‑bedroom apartment in the same build‑ ing came as an added bonus. My place isn’t big, nor is it fancy, but it has everything I need save for a washer and dryer. Thankfully, my restaurant has one, I’m the boss, and we’re closed on Mondays. It’s a win‑win.
With a wicked grin on my face, I take the first shot. The way the light flickering on the silver wings of the bird sparks up my heart, zapping me like a virtual defibrillator. I fight the urge to spin around and dance on the street or raise my hands into a celebratory fist pump.
Well‑heeled Parisians, hipsters, and youngsters surge by me like salmon swimming upstream, rushing off to work or to school or wherever else they may be going, some giving me odd glances with raised brows while I stand on the corner, clicking away.
Of course, after living in Paris for thirteen years, I know the sidewalk comes with a unique set of rules: (1) Stay on course. For example, a couple or group of people walking toward you from the other direction should move to let you by if there isn’t space. You hold your ground. (2) Don’t stop suddenly, or you risk being slammed into because Parisians walk fast. (3) Watch where you step. Al‑ though a bit better since I’d first moved to the City of Light at the age of fifteen, land mines of dog crap still littered the paths. (4) Don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk during the rush hours. Even the sweet little old ladies will run right over you. (5) Last, and probably the most important rule of them all, never smile. Peo‑ ple will think something’s wrong with you—especially if you’re by yourself.
Not usually a rule breaker, I can’t stop myself from losing a little control; I smile wider until a man barrels by me, his elbow jabbing into my left rib, and my phone tumbles onto the ground. I scramble to grab my lifeline to the world before somebody smashes it into a million pieces or kicks it into a sewer grate, noticing his designer shoes—Prada. He’s about to walk on without an apology, not one désolé or pardon. Nothing.
My phone slides on the pavement. It’s an iPhone—one I bought secondhand but still expensive. I’m blocking his path, crawling on my hands and knees like a squirrel on Red Bull. (I’ve seen this hap‑ pen. Trust me. Run. Or risk a potential attack.) The screen seems to be okay, but this guy should have one shred, one tiny ounce of po‑ liteness. Instead, he turns to walk away.
“Hey, you! You could have broken my phone,” I yell in French. “You shouldn’t be standing in the middle of the sidewalk during rush hour,” he replies with irritation.
“Oh yeah? And you shouldn’t be—” I say, looking up and taking in his appearance.
So damn hot.
My throat catches. Words do not form. He’s sexier than the ce‑ viche I’m planning on making—slick and smooth, cool and hot. Confession: I may have a problem binge‑watching rom‑coms and steamy romances, hoping for my own meet‑cute. If they happen in the movies, why not in real life? When I’m not in the kitchen, I watch them all, inhaling the happy endings—from Sleepless in Seattle to Pretty Woman to Sixteen Candles, the latter so politically incorrect and cringe‑worthy today but made up for with the drool‑ worthy hotness that is Jake Ryan.
Something about this guy reminds me of Keanu Reeves, with his razor‑sharp cheekbones, mildly unkempt black hair that nearly touches his shoulders, two‑day scruff, penetrating hazel eyes, and,  from what I can tell—dressed in a casual but elegant fitted black suit—a buff body. I may have developed a slight Keanu obsession after I saw him in Always Be My Maybe, the story of him being the temporary love interest of an ambitious chef. Even though he played a douchebag version of himself, he was funny and hot as hell.
Normally, I only salivate over recipes, but this feast for the eyes is clearly an exception. Food is my first love, and I’m not looking for the real thing at the moment, but there’s nothing wrong with a tem‑ porary distraction.
“I just wanted to take a picture,” I say, pointing to the restaurant.
I’m still on my knees, looking up into his beautiful face. There is a halolike glow around his head, making him appear absolutely heavenly. He coughs as I swoon. Instead of apologizing or returning my twitchy smile, my two‑second fantasy scowls, turns on his heel, and mumbles, “Putain de touriste.”
And screeeech. Record scratch.
Maybe it’s the way I’m dressed? Granted, no Frenchwoman would dare wear food‑encrusted Crocs, a torn sweatshirt, and stained cargo shorts—at least, not in public. A scrunchy holds my frizzy blond hair in a messy ponytail. Dusted in flour, I’m a hot, sweaty mess. And, sure, nobody on this planet has ever referred to me as a fashionista, but, in my defense, I have dirty work to tackle—like testing recipes and scrubbing down the industrial stoves until I can eat off them.
“Can you move?” he says, pulling out five euros from his wallet.
He holds the bill over my head. “Here, this should help.”
My fantasy evaporates like dry ice on a summer day in the hot‑ test of deserts. I shoot him daggers with my eyes and swat the bill. He actually thinks I’m homeless?
“I don’t need money.”
“Could have fooled me,” he says, his eyes making an unabashed loop over my outfit, and then pockets the bill.
Under my breath, I mutter, “Quelle bite.” What a dick.
“I heard that,” he says in English, his lips pressing together into a thin line. “Crazy tourist.”
“You speak English?”
“Yes, and it’s obviously more refined than your limited French.” The lilt in his affected voice, the precise English accent that would normally have me drooling, echoes in my head when I snap to. How dare he? He crashes into me and then launches insults like grenades?
Bye‑bye, meet‑cute, this prince in disguise is as ugly as a toadfish. “Je ne suis pas une touriste,” I reply defensively, getting up and straightening my posture. I am quite proudly almost French, having spent nearly half my life here. I nod my head in silent affirmation. I’d become naturalized shortly after receiving my diploma from Le Cor‑ don Bleu eight years ago. I think I say the latter out loud.
“N’importe quoi,” says Anti‑Keanu, his upper lip lifting into an‑ other nasty sneer. He looks over his shoulder. “Si vous n’êtes pas une touriste, vous êtes folle. Should I repeat myself in English?”
This guy hasn’t seen my knife skills, the way I could filet him like the sea bass in my basket. Now, that would be crazy.
He swaggers down the street before I can come up with a witty retort like “I may be crazy, but crazy is better than being a preten‑ tious jerk” (and insanely good‑looking, but I’d never admit that to him). Plus, he’s already turned the corner, and Paris is such a big city I’ll probably never see him again. Good riddance. Snorting back a huff, my eyes latch on to my restaurant, and I take in a deep breath. Anti‑Keanu is not going to ruin my day.
Thanks to my road map and my inner voice (who occasionally swears or comes up with ridiculous expressions), though I may question my sanity, I’ve never doubted my capabilities as a chef.
Slap a red beret on my head, put me in a striped shirt, and call me anything you damn want to. I know who and what I am. And one thing I’m most definitely not is a tourist. What I am is a chef in Paris, the City of Light. Nothing is going to snuff out my glow.

About the Author

Samantha Vérant is a travel addict, a self-professed oenophile, and a determined, if occasionally unconventional, at home French chef. She lives in southwestern France, where she's married to a sexy French rocket scientist she met in 1989 (but ignored for twenty years), a stepmom to two incredible kids, and the adoptive mother to a ridiculously adorable French cat. When she’s not trekking from Provence to the Pyrénées or embracing her inner Julia Child, Sam is making her best effort to relearn those dreaded conjugations. Find out more at

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