Gary’s life had never been as controlled and regimented as it was filming this show, not even when he was a cadet. Every morning he was up at 5, barely choked down a tea and made his way to the studio van. They would then spend at least twelve hours in the studio before being shuttled back to the hotel and metaphorically locked into their rooms until the next 5am call. Some nights a producer would take pity on the twelve of them and order a film or invite them in for drinks. More often though he would take a shower to get the disgusting mix of makeup and cooking grease off his skin before studying the notes and cookbooks he had brought with him. When he was too tired to hold his head up any longer, he would get a few hours of sleep before the whole process began all over again.
A loud knocking on his door signalled the start of yet another day. Day 18. He had made it through 4 rounds of eliminations so far though he had no idea why. He was the least experienced, hadn’t auditioned and had only had one week to prepare whereas the rest of the cast had known for months.
When Sandra, the show runner, had first come into the restaurant he had thought she was a disgruntled customer. “ Excuse me,” She bellowed in the direction of his staff meeting on the couches “ I need the owner please.” Clive and the rest of the lads all pointed at Gary. No camaraderie eh? He thought. They all just throw me to the wolves. He passed his notes to the sous chef and asked him to continue before walking to her place at the bar.
“Gary Preston” He extended his hand. “How can I help Ms-“
“Newman, Sandra Newman.” She shook his hand and then quickly took a picture of him on her phone. He blinked confused.
“Sorry, why did you just take my picture?”
“I was given your name from a blond woman at the Surrey Tennis Club.” Gary internally cursed, Penny Hart strikes again. “I’m under a deadline, you see I’m casting a cooking show and we’ve had a drop out. You would be competing against eleven chefs from around the United Kingdom for the title of best chef and a cash prize.”
“I’m not sure I’m what you’re looking for-“
“Are you a chef?”
“Are you good?”
“I guess but-”
“Have you been in prison or committed any un-pardoned crimes”
“Then you are what I am looking for.” She said confidently. “Of course on top of the prize there will be press and an online social media presence.” She looked around the restaurant. “National publicity is not something most people turn down.” She took out her card and handed it to him. “I’ll need your answer tomorrow and we start shooting next week.”
A second round of loud knocking brought him back to the present. “Preston! Lobby in fifteen minutes!”
“Yeah I’m coming!” He called back. He quickly got into a T-shirt, sweater and jeans since his whites were at the studio. He quickly grabbed his notebook for downtime and let his gaze fall to the small pile of best wishes bobbles he had brought with him. He picked up one card in particular, a hand drawn picture of a dinner table set for 11 people with a bird in the middle. The caption read “Their goose is cooked!” He flipped it open. Dear Gary, I’ll miss you. Only stay away long enough to win. Your best friend, Miranda
He smiled and closed the card standing it up on the desk. As doors began to open and close in the hallway he realized he was about to miss his ride and rushed out the door. “There’s our underdog!” Brant, one of the other contestants, called as Gary approached the van.
“Very funny.” Gary climbed into the back of the van between Claire and Tom, two other chefs he was actually becoming friends with. As opposed to Brant whose main goal every morning seemed to be to remind Gary he was a desperation pick. “I spent more time talking about you on film yesterday than the bloody food!” Brant continued “What are you cooking Brant? Did you see what Gary was cooking? What do you think Gary’s biggest threat is? Are you surprised Gary beat you on the drinks challenge?”
“ Leave him alone Brant, its not his fault the editors picked up on the fact you’re a snob.” Claire shot back.
“ Yeah mate, if you don’t want the attention stop being such an arse.” Tom added. “They are goading you because they know they’ll get an answer.” Brant picked the farthest row away from the trio to pout for the 20 minute drive to the studio. Claire offered a sympathetic smile before opening the book she read during downtimes.
“She was a little sad you didn’t stay for a nightcap last night.” Tom told him when they were in the men’s locker room getting ready
“Who, Claire?” Gary asked.
“No, the front desk clerk, yes Claire!” Tom rolled his eyes. “You’re a thick one aren’t ya Gary? She’s been watching you since day one and it isn’t for your knife skills.”
“We get along is all.” Gary buttoned his chef coat and closed his locker. “ I mean we’re all kind of stuck with each other right now so it’s nice to have someone to chat with.” “Ah huh. And is the issue that you have someone back home you” Tom made air quotes “Chat With in Surrey?”
“ No…” Gary drawled uncertainly. He and Miranda had given up after the whole Tamara incident and dated other people for awhile. But they were both single again and maybe…
“So what’s the problem then?” The interrogation was interrupted by the call to set.
Gary didn’t just make it through the next challenge. He won it. He placed top 3 in the two after that. Without any comprehension as to how he got there, Gary suddenly found himself in the top 5. As a reward, and a way to get some variety in the non-kitchen shots, the show set up a fancy dinner on the roof of the hotel to congratulate the group on their progress.
“Gary, Hi!” One of the producers and a cameraman knocked on his door shortly before they were expected on the roof. “Sorry I was hoping we could shoot some confessional while you get ready? Just ask you like 5 questions while you pretend to like brush your hair and stuff?”
“Yeah of course! come on in!” He held the door open while the lugged the equipment in. The producer mic’d Gary up as they decided where the camera would be least obtrusive.
“So it will mainly be about being top 5, might ask you about who else made it or didn’t, when you are looking forward to tonight etc. Just redo your cuffs, check your shoes, small things right?” Gary nodded and was directed to sit on the bed. He lost track of who he was talking to for a moment once the camera lights turned on and missed the first question.
“I said are you looking forward to dinner?”
“Oh! Yeah of course!” He said with a giddy tone. “It’s nice to get a treat once in awhile, get out and stop being cooped up.”
“Are you happy with who is in the top five with you? Is it who you expected?”
“Well I , um, would have to say no because I didn’t expect myself to be there. I mean I wanted to but it’s tough to break in ya know? Everyone who’s made it has worked really hard.”
“You, Claire and Tom hit it off right away. Are you nervous about competing against your friends?”
“Well that’s what we’ve been doing the whole time isn’t it?” He smirked a bit. “They’ve been my mates while we’re here and if you can find that kind of a connection then you should be cheering each other on as much as you challenge each other.
“And what about Brant?” Gary held back an eye roll.
“He’s very- determined.”
“But does he intimidate you?”
“He tries, but it’s the farthest thing from my mind to be honest.”
“And why’s that?”
“I suppose because I’ve got to focus on me first.” He shrugged “The rest is secondary.” The producer tapped the camera man on the arm and suddenly the bright light was replaced with floating blue blobs while he readjusted to the dimmer hotel lights.
“Perfect! thanks Gary! See you upstairs in 10 yeah?” He nodded and opened the door again. “Oh! one more thing,” She pulled a paper off her clip board “We’ll need your finale guest contact information tomorrow. You know, just in case.” The producer winked and passed him the paper. “Have a think of who you want coming in and we’ll make the calls once we know who the top 3 are.” Gary used the paper to give a half wave to the departing staffers before placing it on the desk with everything else.
He was much better pretending the cameras weren’t there when the group was together. Thankfully the food was nothing they had cooked that week which meant fewer arguments over proper technique or plating. Fewer as opposed to none because Brant still insisted on doing his terrible impressions of the judges as each course came out.
“This is so nice, I mean how often to we get catering and be the ones served first?” Claire smiled.
Gary remembered exactly when the last time that was, it was the night before he left and the gang had insisted they pull together a pot luck dinner at Miranda’s. The rule was that he wasn’t allowed to help unless something was on fire. He had been the first there and Miranda had still been assembling the appetizers.
“Hi, doing ok?” He asked with a bottle of wine in his hands.
“Yep, perfect, right on schedule.” She placed something in the oven before crossing her fingers and standing up. She smiled at him warmly before noticing the bottle. “Oh hello there.”
“ I know that I wasn’t supposed to bring anything but I also know that cooking usually makes you, thirsty.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek before heading to the counter to find the corkscrew. As he worked on the bottle he stepped back and surveyed the kitchen. “ No M&S bags,” He looked at the ceiling “No floating crepes,” He poured two glasses and passed her one “Maybe you’re finally catching on!”
“Cheeky!” She smacked him on the shoulder and he let out a small whine. “Now go sit. The guest of honour is not supposed to help.”
“You didn’t have to go through all this trouble you know, it’s not like i’m leaving again. You know exactly when I’ll be back. “
“I won’t get to see you or even write you for six weeks. I’m being selfish and wanting a last fix.”
“Way to make me sound like a narcotic.”
“Well you are my carb dealer.”
“Fair point.” He watched from the sofa as she clanged and banged her way through the cupboards “Are you sure I can’t-“
“You are not allowed in this kitchen for any reason other then to pass through it to use the loo.” She stated. “ If you really need to busy yourself you can find some music?” He nodded and made his way over to the stereo. He found a 90’s compilation cd and started with the opening upbeat track. As often happened when the two of them were goofing off, an air guitar and tv remote microphone concert eventually broke out. He spun her around and she bumped into the counter causing the CD to skip to the next track. The next, significantly slower track. Still holding hands, a moment flashed in both their minds. The night before Gary left for Hong Kong.
“Miranda, there have been so many times you’ve run off when I wanted to dance with you! You’ve got to stop thinking that people don’t find you attractive.”
Gary brushed his thumb against the top of her hand. He stepped forward to pull her in when Stevie and Clive burst through the door. Miranda threw herself over the stereo as if it were a bomb about to go off and changed the song a second time while Gary whipped around to face the duo as if they hadn’t just completely botched it all.
After six courses of the best food he’d had in weeks, Gary was completely knackered. “Well lads, and Claire.” He said pointing out the lone woman left in the competition. “I think I’m going to call it a night.” He stopped by the camera station, took off his mic pack and waved goodnight to the silent crew as they kept working.
He was halfway back to his room when he saw Claire emerge from the opposite stairwell. “Day catching up with you too?” He walked past his room and met her halfway down the hall.
“Yeah little bit. Also wasn’t really interested in sticking around if you weren’t there.” There it was again. After Tom had brought it up two weeks prior, Gary had noticed Claire’s hints were losing their subtlety.
“Ah Claire, look, I think you are great but I’m not.” He tried to find the words “I don’t think we.”
“Got it. say no more.” She said blushing with embarrassment. She opened her arms. “Friends?”
“Of course!” Gary beamed at her and gave her a long hug. “Now,” He said pulling back. “ Off to bed, can’t have you going easy on me eh?” She giggled and nodded.
“Night Gary,” She said quietly.
“Night.” He walked back to his room and began to get ready for bed. His eyes fell on the paper he had been given earlier.
The name and phone number of the one person he wanted cheering for him in the finale, if he made it. He grabbed a pen and wrote quickly.
Name: Miranda Hart
Relation: Best Friend
Phone Number: 01483 5555877