Incognito was a California fusion restaurant, steaks and sweet potatoes cooked with expensive wine and Asian seasonings, so pretty much anything flew for dessert. Upon landing the job, Esmerelda introduced a menu of fried green tea ice cream, eggplant tiramisu, papaya gelatin, Japanese plum cakes, cardamom shrikhand, and, on Sundays, raspberry fortune cookies with home-cooked haikus rolled up inside. Her profiteroles were made of thousands of choux pastry strips woven together, layered squirts of Swiss chocolate cream oozing within; her handmade ice cream was cool on the spoon and warm in the mouth, thick as mashed potatoes; her apple pie cracked with ripe fruit and fresh cinnamon, a dash of saffron spicing the crust.
But the showstoppers were the oatmeal raisin cookies, outrageously lush and creamy, always fresh from the oven and tonguelatheringly soft. Shaped in trapezoids and accompanied by scoops of vanilla ice cream, the cookies were light and rich, complex but simple, sweet yet savory, contradictions that tickled the palate so imaginatively that many diners broke out laughing for sheer joy. The perfume of fresh-baked goods meandered down the alley in which Incognito was housed, the thick, wholesome aroma giving the upscale neighborhood a downright homey feel, grandma’s secret recipe and natural goodness twined up in a perfect, pure dessert.
Her secret was simple: butter and lots of it, the high-fat unsalted stuff from Jamison’s Milk & Dairy up in Cotati, where three Jerseys worked exclusively for her in a barn she paid for out of her own pocket, eating vitamin-infused feed, drinking purified water, getting daily rubdowns and baths twice a week, and milked solely by hand while manager, lead milker, and deliveryman Camden Jamison played country tunes on his harmonica and listened to baseball on the radio. The butter arrived in San Francisco in a shade of light blue with the consistency of wet clay, until you warmed it up or used it for baking.
Then—zap! Within months of Esmerelda’s hiring, Incognito was swarmed. Most diners skipped dinner entirely and ordered three or four twenty-dollar desserts with accompanying elaborate specialty coffees, lounging for hours amid politicos, socialites, and awestruck out-of-towners while the butterfat absorbed in their bloodstream. Incognito raised prices, expanded the seating area, paved a new patio with heat lamps and abstract sculptures, but it was still impossible to secure a reservation with less than three months’ notice. Movie stars got turned down at the door, a cabal of reservation specialists was dismissed for accepting bribes—even the president was forced to wait without calling ahead, though he was thrilled with the cookies speed-delivered to him at the bar. The place was burning hot, a national keepsake, a pastry Mecca and investor cash cow, and Esmerelda received a correspondingly ludicrous raise.
She was apotheosized in Gourmet, Bon Appétit, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the fawning articles accompanied by large photographs of Esmerelda in the kitchen modeling evocative silk blouses and short skirts without pantyhose, chestnut hair strewn lazily over her apron like unraveled extension cords, seductive flour splashes on her cheeks. For a six-month period she was a mainstay of second-tier tabloid features, her string of flings with reality-show contestants and pro hockey players raised to sizzle level by a trail of trashed hotel rooms. Proposals flooded in to launch her own restaurant, join a national morning show, license her desserts to a prominent grocery chain, even go on a world tour. And the three Jerseys in Cotati barreled ahead with the world’s most sublime butter, the exact location of Esmerelda’s barn a secret to everyone except Camden Jamison, who was paid handsomely and was incomparable in his ability to ditch jealous rival restaurateur tails on his ride back to the farm on Highway 101, that hefty milk truck of his surprisingly nimble on the open road.
Esmerelda, at the age of twenty-two, was an enormous star.