This story is by James Braun and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Another late night here at the Gillerton, line chef Jerry comes tumbling out of his section, his chef’s uniform painted in béchamel sauce, and he says, “Sous-chef, we need an extra order of ginger-lime baby carrots!”
Great. Next thing I know, the carrots will get sent back to the kitchen with the complaint that they’re not cut brunoisette.
“On it,” I say.
Permanent nerve damage, carpal tunnel, wrist and shoulder repetitive motion injuries, chronic back pain, second degree burns. As a chef, I endure the majority of these just so some imbecile without taste buds can tell me my scallop sashimi with meyer lemon confit came out a bit overcooked.
I make a living by perfecting the pappardelle with sea urchin and cauliflower, by cooking pork rillette hand pies, and a pretentious critic tells the New York Times that the sous-chef at the Gillerton undercooks his pasta.
It’s called al-dente, for crying out loud.
In any case, this all comes down to opinion. These food critics, these know-it-alls with forks and knives, they take jabs at chefs who are just trying to perfect their bourbon pecan chicken. While these critics sit back and chew, chefs like me just try to present the perfect meal.
And still, our work gets ridiculed.
Ever since I’ve been old enough to pick up a spatula, I’ve wanted to be a chef. Not just any chef, but the head honcho. The big cheese. The executive chef.
And I’m close. After extensive culinary schooling and enduring the cooking-induced injuries, I’ve made it to sous-chef.
Ask me how to make spaghetti with nolche olives, lemon scented tomatoes and oregano from vendicari. Ask me how to make sous vide salted caramel sauce or yo-yo English trifle, or perhaps braised leeks with mozzarella and a fried egg.
Go ahead, ask me.
Tonight, critic Stefano Rossi will be here. Stefano Rossi. The man who’ll determine the fate of the Gillerton’s four stars. A single asparagus spear gets moved out of place, Stefano will give us three stars.
Losing a star, being reduced to three, would ruin our reputation.
Executive chef Davide and Stefano, they have what chefs call a “beef.” Tonight, Davide peers out the window of the kitchen door, scanning the Gillerton for Stefano.
Jerry, working in overdrive, he reads off the clothespinned line of orders. He calls out, “Island duck with mulberry mustard!” Calling, “Black sesame and apple risotto!” Calling, “Salmon carpaccio with lemon aioli!”
Executive chef Davide steps away from the window and prowls out into the dining room. Two orders of foie gras later, he sways over next to me and scribbles something on a notepad. He tears out the sheet and slides me the paper, nodding microscopically.
The paper reads: STEFANO IS HERE.
Below that, it reads: He’s ordered the fugu blowfish and the asparagus soup with parmesan shortbread coins.
He leans into me, his breath hot enough to steam clams. He whispers, “Leave in the tetrodotoxin.”
And he walks away, smiling.
“Jerry!” I call out, “I need you to take over for a minute.”
I grab Davide by his meaty shoulder and pull him into the pantry. Locking the door, I say, “Davide, I’m not going to kill the critic.”
Davide, he picks at his teeth, looks at his nails and says, “If you don’t, you’re fired. My restaurant will not be getting a three star review, got it?”
But… this job. It’s my life.
I stare at Davide, and his shrimpy eyes stare right on back.
Ask me about the fugu dish. Ask me about the poison tetrodotoxin inside the blowfish. Getting the license to serve it, you learn to remove this poison to make fugu eatable, creating a delicious seafood dish. Ask me how to remove it.
Go ahead, ask me.
As for Davide, he’s asking me not to remove it.
Davide says, “Stefano has asked me to have dinner with him. Don’t mess this up.”
“Davide, this is murder.”
Don’t get me wrong, I want to keep the four star status too, but that doesn’t mean I want to off some critic just because he thinks my escargot comes out too salty.
From beyond the pantry door, Jerry’s voice calls, “Lamb salad with fregola!”
Davide leans in and whispers in my ear, “I’m counting on you.” He puts a hand on my shoulder, lets it slide down my apron, and leaves.
Me, I’m in the pantry. You know, contemplating murder.
If you ask me if this is a good idea, I’d tell you I have no idea.
Even to prepare fugu, you need a license and extensive training, both of which I’ve acquired a couple years back. Not many restaurants serve fugu, but the Gillerton is among the few that does.
I leave the pantry with two servings of fugu and begin the preparation. To prepare fugu, first you remove the skin. You wash off the fish and coat it in salt, and proceed to remove the eyes. Then you gut it, careful not to puncture the liver or ovaries, as this is where most of the poison resides. You fillet across the bone just like you would any other sashimi. To finish, you cut the head into two or three pieces.
The fish I prepare, I’ve punctured the liver.
I make the other fugu dish, this one for Davide. If they’re eating the same food, maybe it’ll make murder look less suspicious.
Jerry calls out, “Deviled shrimp ragu! Crab-stuffed lobster tail! Chicken makhani!”
I peer out the circular kitchen window, and there they sit. Davide and Stefano, talking and laughing as if they’re best buds. As if Davide didn’t just order up Stefano’s death.
Stefano, he takes a handkerchief out of his double-breasted suit, takes off his round bifocals, and wipes away the smudges. He puts the glasses back on and reels back in another round of laughter. Davide leans over, putting a hand on Stefano’s shoulder. Best buds.
From here, I can’t hear either of them, but if I could, I’d be listening to a pseudo-friendship.
As a sous-chef, you follow orders. I take the two plates of fugu and push through kitchen door. The burgundy carpet sweeping beneath me, the room candlelit in a flickering peace with Beethoven’s symphony No. 5 in C minor playing in the background, I hand deliver the meals myself.
Stefano and Davide sit back in their seats, awaiting their meal.
Davide gives me a smile. Gives me a wink. His eyes pass over me, and he says, “Thank you, sous-chef.”
Stefano folds a napkin in his lap and says, “Yes, thank you sous-chef. Fugu has always been an old favorite of mine.” Sweeping his pudgy arm towards Davide, he says, “If Davide here taught you how to cook, you’ll be getting three stars without a question.”
This smartass with a fork. This ungrateful swine.
Stefano takes his fork and pierces the fleshy flower-like meat, spearing a hunk. He delicately bites the fugu, contemplating it through his teeth. He chews. Swallows. “It’s delicious,” he says.
I return to the kitchen to watch from the porthole kitchen window.
Davide and Stefano continue to make conversation, their lips moving without sound They both pick at their fugu, eating the delectable meat until Stefano’s chewing slows, his mouth turning hesitant. Another bite of fugu disappears into his mouth when his chewing stops altogether. A grin brews on Davide’s shrimpy face.
Stefano says something, but his mouth slags off to the side. The way his lips pull back to reveal a set of straightened teeth, the way his pudgy face turns to muscle, it’s the same sinewy expression of a flayed fish. A flayed fugu.
And then, Davide’s expression mimics Stefano’s.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to be an executive chef.
The head honcho.
The big cheese.
Ask me if I’d rather choose to have the Gillerton reduced to three stars or to kill a man.
Go ahead, ask me.
Because I’d tell you, I’d rather not have to do either. But, when you’re a sous-chef, you follow orders, sometimes adding in extra ingredients along the way. Like releasing the toxin in not just one fugu, but two. Killing one person, the consequences will be the same as killing two. It’s for my benefit, but that doesn’t mean killing the critic and my boss adds to the joy of my new position as executive chef. If you ask me, I’d tell you I feel like shit.
In fact, I’ll probably cry about it tonight over a glass of cabernet sauvignon. Pairs well with filet mignon.
And Jerry’s calling, “Somebody call 911!”