Short story submitted to the Mogford Prize 2020
Chef stands grandly and full-bodied in the middle of his domain, his kitchen. Smoothing the crisply starched linen over his ample frame, tweaking his moustache and adjusting, again, his high pleated toque.
The kitchen door bursts open and the waiter scurries in. ‘Two at table three didn’t even open their menus. One said he wants Chef’s best signature dish and the other said “ask chef what he can do for me, I’m vegan pescatarian”’.
‘Sacré bleu’ yells Chef, his face flushing the colour of beetroot, ‘why do these ignorant people come to my restaurant? We ‘ave the finest of French cooking, yet they ask for vegetarian, vegan, now pescatarian. I can cook fish, but I cannot cook without butter, eggs and cheese, that would be sacrilege, an insult to the art that I practice in this hallowed place’ holding his arms wide, appealing to the heavens in his frustration.
Second in command in the busy kitchen is sous chef, or just ‘Sous’ to everyone who works there. She is a young, wiry, Yorkshire girl with sharp features, for whom food means everything. Having learnt at her granny’s knee in the kitchen of their farm in the Dales, she has grown, and read and practiced her way up that most greasy of poles.
‘Aw pack it in Chef, I’ll fettle summat’ she says. Chef shrugs. He is never entirely sure what Sous is saying, nor whether she is being sarcastic, or even disrespectful, but she is a reliable sous chef with a touch of something special he cannot quite put his finger on.
Sous’s exploration of the world of food has led her away from her homeland of robust stews, black pudding and Rhubarb Cobbler, across Europe through the rich diversity of France, to the homely and hearty pastas of Italy and on across the Ionian Sea to the fresh food of Greece swimming in olive oil. From there she ventured to the meze and sarma of Turkey, to stews flavoured with pomegranate syrup in Iran to gobi aloo and seekh kebab in Pakistan. Now she is in India where she has been tasting its astonishing breadth of flavours.
Recently, at the end of her shift, she’s been going to the South Indian restaurant down the street. They have the most sublime daal that she has always thought would beautifully complement sea bass. So, Sous puts a fillet on to poach and nips out to order a portion. Combining the two she adds some fresh herbs and ‘a smidgen of this and a dollop of that’. Sous is like a whirlwind in the kitchen when she is whipping up a creation. She tastes the sauce to check, ‘ooh, scrumptious’ she mutters.
Chef tastes Sous’s creation, his moustache twitching with surprise at the delicate and complex flavours. Both nutty and sharp, yet smooth and warming. He does his best to hide his admiration for the dish and reluctantly agrees that it can be served although it is nothing, he declares, compared to his signature ‘la viande de veau carpaccio à la truffe blanche et Fourme de Cantal’. ‘Yer mean raw cow and cheese, ‘ats not cookin’ Sous mutters under her breath.
Chef pretends not to hear. He hates anyone making fun of him. Hates it with a passion ever since school. In fact, he has hated it ever since one particular French lesson at school. Monsieur Porcher, had come into the class that morning, and started discussing their homework. Something was obviously amusing him, his shoulders shook and he kept making little snorting sounds.
‘Now class,’ he started, ‘it is oh so very important not to be mistaking similar words for each other.’ He stopped for another bout of snorting, ‘it can lead to, how can I say, some embarrassment.
‘You would be correct, for instance in using “brasserie” for café but “brassière”, he made “brassière” sound like “brass” followed by a donkey’s “ee-air”, ‘is an item of lingerie,’ he signalled helpfully with his hands what that item of underwear might support.
At this point one boy in the third row realised that he was talking about his homework and slipped down into his chair trying to find invisibility beneath the desk.
‘And’, he continued, ‘“preservative” for preservative or jam, however “préservatif”’ he ended it with “teeth”, ‘would,’ he paused for dramatic effect, ‘mean, how you say in English, “French letter”.’
The whole class, excepting the boy in the third row, collapsed in raucous laughter. It soon became clear who was not laughing and in a flash, the whole class turned on him, pointing and yelling ‘brassy-ee-air’ and ‘preserve-a-teeth’.
That evening, on his way home through early winter’s snow, he stopped at the little corner shop that sold some special biscuits that he loved. Home was in Blackburn, in the north of England. Growing up there the closest he had got to France was ‘Whittle le Woods’.
The next day he turned up in class early with the biscuits in a tin. ‘These are,’ he said, imitating Monsieur Porcher’s ridiculous French accent, ‘Les Petits gâteaux de Noël dits “Schwowebredle”,’ he snorted a few times just like the swine’s tittering yesterday, ’a little Christmas cadeaux for you all’. There was laughing at his outrageous mimicry. A few hands dipped into the biscuit tin, and there were gasps of delight as they tasted the wonderful orange and cinnamon flavours. ‘Ooh la, la’, ‘magnifique’, ‘you are a bon chef indeed!’.
‘Oh no,’ he tried to interject above the revelry, but he was drowned out. He never meant to imply that he had baked the biscuits himself, but it was too late. Suddenly he had been catapulted from zero to hero, with a silly French accent and some tasty nibbles. It was a lesson for life.
Chef is woken from his reverie by the waiter returning with the empty plates. ‘Chef’ he says, ‘they said your food is supreme, some of the finest they have ever tasted, they couldn’t stop talking about it’. Chef responds by fluffing himself up even further and replies with a nonchalant ‘naturellement’.
The waiter passes close to Sous on his way to the sink and whispers ‘and they thought the sea bass was best of all’, ‘appen as maybe’ she replies with a smile and a shrug.
Sous loves anything to do with food. She travels for food, she reads for food, she dreams of food, she even watches cooking programs on television: Bake Off, Chef’s Table and of course ‘Chef On The Spot’. It is always fascinating to see great chefs create their signature dishes. Of course they tried not to give too many secrets away, but a knowledgeable chef like her could always fill in the gaps. She had learnt so much from that programme and it always left her brimming with ideas. The idea for how to do the sea bass came after watching a program about cooking in southern India.
Two weeks later and the pescatarian is back. This time she has brought a television producer with her.
‘I believe you completely about the food’ he says to her, ‘but does he have that star quality? Will the audience love him, or hate him? This is entertainment we are creating here, the food is just a side show, a nice one I’ll grant you, but it is the chef that matters.’ Actually, he wasn’t being entirely honest. The only thing that really mattered to the producer was the viewing figures the morning after the show aired. They’d been sliding in the wrong direction for months now and unless they reversed them, the show was going to get fried.
Again, the guests don’t open their menus and again they ask for the chef’s signature dish and whatever he can cook for a vegan pescatarian. The outcome is the same, they love the sea bass, and the signature dish was OK too. This time they want to thank the chef in person, and after some persuasion, Chef sails from the kitchen to have their praise heaped upon him.
He shrugs. He waves his hands as if to deflect the praise. He tries to be humble, but in the end he has to accept their fulsome compliments as entirely justified and deserved.
‘The nutty richness and slightly spicy daal went so well with the firm flesh of the sea bass, and what had they added to get that complexity to the sauce’ asked the pescatarian?
Yes, he had to admit the sea bass was quite exceptional, and yes, it had taken many trials to make it ‘parfaite’. Chef hits his stride and now nothing is going to stop him. His chest rises, his arms flap, his moustache twitches and wriggles. It is, he admits, a dish he has been working on for months and was preparing to add it to the menu. Their kind praise has encouraged him and he will be adding it in the near future. And apologies, but no, the magic of the kitchen could not be broken down into a series of ingredients.
The producer just sits there, watching, a sardonic smile spreading across his face.
Two days later Chef answers the phone to an obsequious television assistant-producer with an oily, honeyed voice. She tells Chef how magnificent his food is, how impressed they had been on their two visits, and how they would like to invite him on to their television show ‘On The Spot’. It is, she says, a great opportunity for him to talk about his food, his creations, and to share his philosophy of food, and she adds, to give a ‘little demonstration’. Chef is too confident in his own abilities ever to lower himself to watch television cookery programs so does not know of the show but his ego is puffed up like a well prepared soufflé and he accepts the invitation without hesitation.
The day of the show arrives and Chef has told his staff that he has an important meeting to attend and that they are to manage the kitchen themselves this evening. Without Chef, Sous takes over and the kitchen is a happy and harmonious place. It is a quiet evening so Sous puts on the television so they can all enjoy ‘On The Spot’. It grabs their attention when they see a recorded piece by the ‘vegan pescatarian’ standing outside their restaurant eulogising about the food. Sous reaches up and turns up the volume. ‘What the ‘eck?’ she mutters.
The shot cuts live to the studio as the presenter, head and shoulders filling the frame, starts his tribute. The camera starts a slow pull back and pompous Chef is standing next to the presenter, chest out, smug lopsided grin curled up in Gallic superiority. The presenter describes the impressions of the critics, the food they had eaten. How they always liked to put restaurants ‘On The Spot’ (greasy smile and wink to the camera at his own joke) by asking for something off menu to accommodate particular diets, and how well Chef had risen to the challenge.
Chef thanks him and confirms that yes they were very discerning on their visits and had been most kind in their praise of the food. He says that it takes a long time and much skill and effort to perfect these dishes. The perfect ingredients, the perfect heat, the perfect timing, it must all be just so.
Of course Chef will know how the show works, won’t he, but tonight they would like to make a break with tradition. Chef nods, not really understanding what the presenter is talking about. As the camera continues to pull back, the wall of the studio slides away to reveal a gleaming kitchen. ‘We’re going to ask Chef to recreate that amazing sea bass dish for us tonight, live for the studio audience and for the millions of you watching at home. And of course you can do it in French if that would make you more comfortable Chef. We have laid on simultaneous translation.’
Chef’s face goes blank, then blanc, his moustache droops, hot air drains from him, he’s pancaked.
Back in the kitchen Sous whispers ‘mon Dieu’.