The Etiquette of Mythique Fine Dining

by

Carolyn Rahaman

 

The protestors are the same crew as yesterday and the day before. Ava doesn’t know any of their names, of course. She doesn’t know what happened in their pasts to make them so energized about keeping people from eating the food at Mythique, so wound up with vengeance as to embarrass people every single morning as they walk to work. She knows them by face, by their outerwear that doesn’t change. The signs they hold don’t change day in and day out. There’s the “MAGICAL BLOOD DOESN’T WASH OFF” sign and the “THERE’S SO LITTLE MAGIC IN THE WORLD” sign held by a pair who Ava imagines are married and retired and have a couple cats. There’s the picture of the unicorn leg, which is supposed to be grisly, but Ava can’t get over the fine marbling of the meat. There’s the “MEAT IS MURDER” sign, which seems slightly off-message, but the other protestors don’t seem to mind.

They aren’t in full protest mode when Ava arrives. Their signs are lowered. Someone has brought two carriers of coffee, and they’re passing them around. Although they’ll shout at anyone who uses the front door, the protestors don’t start chanting until either Chef Augustine or Hampton, the general manager, arrive, and they disband shortly thereafter. Chef Augustine spends his early mornings at the fish and produce markets and won’t arrive for another hour or so. The protestors don’t dare bother the customers. They don’t seem to realize that there’s a back entrance that the rest of the chefs and the wait staff use. Maybe they don’t realize there’s more staff.

One of the protestors smiles at her and offers a mitten-clad wave. They see Ava every day, after all. They must think she works in the next building over.

She smiles back as she passes and turns into the alley. She’s not afraid of the protestors.

She won’t admit she’s afraid of the kitchen.

In the break room, she strips off her coat and closes her eyes for a series of deep breaths before tying on her apron. Once she knots it, she’ll be on. She’ll be a cog in a machine, a tool that follows orders and cooks and sweats and does not talk back and takes it and takes it, Yes, chef, because she’s learning, by God, one day she’ll learn. Once she knots her apron, she has to be stone, she has to be rock, because rocks don’t cry. Chefs don’t cry.

She pulls her apron tight. Knots it in front, in back, and folds the top over the strings.

She lifts her chin. She has to be stone.

~

At Ava’s interview, Chef Augustine asked her to make an omelet. She made it perfectly, deftly cracking and whisking eggs and milk in a glass bowl, whisk whisk whisk whisk. She slid butter around a pan and poured in the eggs before the butter pat finished melting. A couple quick nudges with a spatula, pulling the eggs towards center, forming little wrinkles through which runny yolks flowed. A sprinkle of salt, a line of cheese, a flip with the spatula, a twist of the pan, and the omelet flipped onto the plate. Her heart swelled at the sight of it fluffy, golden, and perfectly wrapped. Chef Augustine had nodded, taken a bite, and nodded again as he chewed with sharp, quick bites.

Still chewing, he said, “Good.” He swallowed. “You start tomorrow.”

“Yes, chef.”

He pointed a finger at her, tossing the plate back onto the counter. “You’re gonna hate it.”

“No, chef.”

“That’s the last time you get to say that.”

“Yes, chef.”

She didn’t hate it. She didn’t hate it. She didn’t hate it.

But that was a chicken egg omelet. That was before. Now she’s in a whole new world.

Dennis, the sous chef, organizes the unpacking of a delivery truck, laughing with one of the supplier guys as he signs off on a clipboard, and barking at the commis chefs as they heft bags of flour over their shoulders. Zach, the other greenhorn and only friend she has here, grabs her by the shoulders and herds her towards the truck as if he’s a sheepdog. “Today’s the day,” he says. He nods at a violently blue crate of eggs, as if she doesn’t know what he means. He lifts a foot onto the truck’s running board to balance the crate on his bent knee, bouncing the crate once in his grip.

“Let’s hope so,” Ava says, tugging forward a crate of olive oil.

They hand everything off to Jade, the garde manager, in a tizzy with a clipboard, moving back and forth, back and forth in the small space of the pantry, checking off a list and shifting crates a few inches to either side for reasons only fathomable to her. She has a pencil behind her ear and one in her hand.

Zach bounces on his toes. His T-shirt is as thin as it can possibly be and still qualify as a shirt.

“You ready?” he asks.

Ava rolls her shoulders. She doesn’t feel ready but says, “Always.”

Zach shouts, “Dennis!”

Dennis looks up from his clipboard and his discussion with the saucier, annoyed for a second, then waving Zach and Ava on and going back to his business.

Ava and Zach dig into the blue crate, not yet put away, and select three eggs each. Golden eggs from golden geese in Wisconsin, eggs that remind Ava of crafty Easter displays. Mythique doesn’t use chicken eggs, and Ava doesn’t use any magical ingredients at all until she can prove herself by making a golden omelet just as perfect as she can make with a chicken egg. Until they prove their worth, the new people, she and Zach, are stuck peeling potatoes and washing lettuce.

She’s been trying for two weeks. Zach’s been trying for three.

The burner flares. She cracks the eggs. At first glance, they’re normal, the yolks a deep orange, but as she whisks (always counter-clockwise or it would froth into messy, lacy bubbles) the bowl begins to glow, light blooming from the glass bowl. She whisks to a specific tempo, with a specific beat that stutters, trips on every fifth beat. She bounces to the rhythm, and strictly does not look at Zach, who is also bouncing but doing his stutter-step off-time with her. Golden flecks pop in the mixture, rising then whisked away, startling her every time into thinking she’s cracked some shell into it, but she doesn’t falter, whisk whisk whi-isk whisk whisk. It’s a light touch with the whisk, too hard and the golden sheen dulls. Butter in the pan, pour in the eggs, again in a counter-clockwise motion that feels wrong to her wrist. The eggs cook too fast, spitting and sizzling, tiny flecks of gold spewing up to singe her hands, the sight of which can be distracting. The spatula movements have to come faster, but gentler, rippling the eggs, counter-clockwise again, and she’s so close, she’s almost got it, it’s supposed to be runny, it’s fine, it’s fine. She grabs for the cheese and her hand smacks against the side of the bowl and wobbles and she panics, losing her cool for just a moment, but long enough. The omelet’s burnt before she spreads the line of cheese, and she flips it onto the plate too fast, trying to make it before the golden hue vanishes in one final sputter.

It comes unfolded, and–as if the egg molecules can’t exist in an imperfect state–they separate. The omelet reverts to a runny splat on a plate. There is no glowing.

Ava swears, wipes her hands on her apron. Five minutes in the kitchen and she’s already sweating.

A second later Zach groans. He claws fingers through his short hair and then covers his face as if he can hide from his shame. His omelet isn’t liquid, but it looks like burnt toast in an awkward trapezoid shape.

Dennis leans over Zach’s plate with a curve to his lip, then dumps the contents into the trash and tosses the plate back to the counter with a clatter. He makes a derisive, wet sound in the back of his throat at Ava’s attempt. She knows what is coming and he does not disappoint. “Where did you apprentice?”

“Savant, chef.”

He moves into her space, and she holds firm and does not scuttle backward no matter how much the back of her neck tinges. She has to be rock. She has to be stone.

“If I call the Savant right now, would Chef Triallis answer or would I get your best friend Chrissy?”

“Chef Triallis, chef.”

“You sure about that?”

“Yes, chef.”

“Because Chef Triallis wouldn’t put up with this shit. And that makes me think that the only explanation is that you lied on your resume. That you’re a fraud. Are you a fraud?”

“No, chef.”

He picks up the plate, pressing it right under her nose. “I wouldn’t ask the rats in the dumpster to eat this. Would you eat this?”

“No, chef.”

“You will if I tell you to,” he says. He presses closer. “Eat it.”

She won’t. She can’t. She won’t be humiliated.

She has to.

“Eat. It. This is what you’re offering me. Eat it.”

She doesn’t know how to eat it. They had a fork ready, shining on the counter in hopes that it would get used for at least one of their omelets. But the fork won’t work. A spatula might, but Dennis presses the plate in closer, and she realizes he wants her to lick it, like a dog, and she won’t, she won’t, she won’t, she doesn’t know how to not.

She grabs the plate, runs a finger through the orange splat, and presses the finger into her mouth. The flavor pops like sweet and sour sauce with a sparkling fizzle of an aftertaste like Champagne and the golden embers that flew up to burn her hands. It tastes perfect. It’s just the consistency that’s wrong. She closes her eyes and savors it, hiding in the moment.

Dennis tsks. “Clean that up. Get out of my sight.”

“Yes, chef.”

He stomps off and Ava lets herself slump.

Zach frowns after him. He has his arms crossed over his chest–to hug and comfort himself or to look bigger, it’s hard to tell. “He’s way harsher to you than to me.”

“You have a week on me,” she says, scraping her plate into the trash. The egg has developed a film over the top. “Congrats on your omelet. That’s three days in a row it’s held its shape.”

“Just doesn’t seem fair, is all.”

“Life’s not fair,” she says. “Come on. That parsley isn’t going to pluck itself.”

His posture changes, his smile coming back out like the moon from behind a cloud. “That would be something: magical parsley that prepares itself.”

“We’d be out of a job,” she jokes.

“We wouldn’t have to tell anyone.”

“And if it was magic parsley, we wouldn’t be allowed to work with it.”

“Again,” he says, “we don’t tell anyone. Secret magic parsley. And it’s not like we’d be touching it anyway, so it’s not breaking rules.”

“We’d just be hiding in the back and playing cards while it rips itself apart.”

He grins. “I see no problem with that.”

~

On Fridays and Saturdays, Mythique is solely table d’hôte, meaning there is one service of seven courses predetermined by Chef Augustine. They alternate between magical courses and those that are merely exquisite. The exquisite courses work as palate cleansers, or as an interlude during which customers can come down from their highs.

Ava has come to love these services since she gets to cook actual dishes eaten by real customers. It’s the only time when she’s treated like a full commis chef and not a kitchen porter. It’s a chance for her to show off, to prove to herself and the other kitchen staff that she’s competent. Honestly, it’s to herself mostly, because the rest of the chefs view the non-magical courses as a necessary evil, as a task well beneath their status. They’re not impressed with Ava’s work, but they’re glad they don’t have to do it, not that their relief or appreciation is voiced or enacted in any way.

Ava’s trying not to think about it too hard.

The rest of the kitchen loves these services because Chef Augustine will on occasion showcase one of the Chef de Partie’s creations. A few of these have made it onto the dinner al a carte menu: the kraken calamari with lemon aioli, the hazelnut-crusted salmon that brings wisdom, and the salt-fried ants that bring messages from the gods. Tonight, it’s the entemetier’s big night, with the debut of his pea flourish: Avignon thrive peas marinated in the pod for weeks, soaking in the flavor of four different sauces, and served as a single pea on a plate. The diner places the pea on their tongue, and it blooms in their mouth, a shoot, roots, sprout leaves. Flavors mature one after another against the tongue as the pea grows, as it fills your mouth. It stops growing when you bite the pea, and then you chew the best salad you’ve ever had already in your mouth–all with unimpeachable table manners. There’s something invigorating in the way you never see the pea’s growth, you only track its changing form with your senses of touch and taste. There’s something thrilling in the way it could choke you, and the most refined of their customers know to wait to bite the pea until the roots tickle the back of their throats in order to get the full effect, in order to catch that last little change in taste.

The junior chefs’ future signature dishes are a frequent topic of discussion. Evan’s had it stuck in his head that he can do four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie that will burst out when you pierce the crust, and the rest of the junior chefs debate the viability of the concept at least once a day. Ava fantasizes about the feathered design she’d mark into her own version of a four-and-twenty pie crust, perforating it so it would split open to look like a nest.

“My dish is going to be billdad,” Zach says. He’s assisting the saucier, whisking up a cream sauce for the first course scallops. He’s back to back with Ava, who squeezes blood oranges into a strainer at the patissier station.

“What’s that?” she asks.

“It’s like if you took a turkey and a kangaroo and smooshed them together. Powerful back legs. Kind of a gamey meat, I’ve heard.”

“You’ve heard? You want something you haven’t tasted to be your signature dish?”

“Ah! But that’s the thing: if you eat billdad, you turn into a billdad.”

She twists around in disbelief. “You want to turn all the diners into kangaroo-turkeys?”

“See, I bet if I paired it with some phoenix tears in like a full-bodied red wine, it’d counteract the effect. And people would be titillated. They get to eat something dangerous. It’ll be like fugu.”

Ava cuts another orange in half and squeezes both sides before speaking again. “Were all billdads, at one point, people?”

He doesn’t answer as he tosses the sauce in his pan, but she can feel his smirk through his back.

“That’s weird.”

He shrugs and nods over towards the pantry, where four people in elbow-length rubber gloves are coaxing basilisk venom from fangs as long as forearms into shot glasses filled with custard. In small doses, basilisk venom gives people visions. In large quantities, it gives people seizures and paralysis.

Zach has a valid point: weird is part of the job.

“What about you? What are you going to cook for me and change my life? What’s going to make Ava Mikhail famous?”

If she’s honest, a pomegranate sorbet has been percolating in the back of her mind. It’s been done, and pomegranate has fallen out of style lately, but there would be something lovely in its simplicity, in the lightness of the flavor. There’s something magical in a well-known dish served to perfection. The bursting tang of pomegranate is one of God’s gifts to Earth. The splash of red wakes her tongue, reminding her that it’s a good day to be alive.

She knows better than to say this aloud.

“Golden egg in the hole,” she says.

He laughs, “Oh, screw you.”

“If you ladies are done gossiping,” Mario, the saucier, shouts, “I’m thirty seconds out on these scallops.”

“Thirty seconds heard,” Zach sings.

Ava hands the strained blood orange juice to Christos, the patissier, who converts them faster than she can follow into a filling and spreads it across the freshly cut triangles of croissant dough that Ava’s prepared over the past few days using the only bag of regular old flour they have, which she found hiding under a shelving unit in the pantry. As he shifts to the candied topping that will sit on the venom shot to give it a nice crunch, Ava takes his place to shape the croissants, her fingers flaring to lengthen the legs. She proofs them, brushing on a golden egg wash, which she was allowed to make, since Christos is too busy to remember she shouldn’t.

At the butcher station, a small crowd has gathered as one Ibong Adarna after another is carved and transferred to the rotisseur. The bird is served for its healing qualities. It’s said to be particularly curative for old-rich-guy disorders, but whether that’s a quirk of the bird or a quirk of the people who tended to eat the bird is an easily solved mystery that no one cares to look into. It’s much more fun for the junior chefs to hypothesize. Tonight, it’s the fourth course, served roasted over a bed of gold leaves with lemon sauce.

“You are going to be so juicy,” the boucher coos, holding up a plucked bird for inspection, then laying it on the block and removing its head with a chop. “Yes, you are.”

A commis chef hums along at the newly severed head, “Look at the fat on you. Stunning. Oh, you’re gonna make good broth.”

“For an albatross and wild rice soup maybe. Nice and subtle,” says another, touching the Ibong Adarna’s head the way he’d take a child’s face by the chin and bending to look into its eyes.

Ava catches the eye of the garde manager, Jade, who is preparing the gold leaf salad on the other side of their shared counter. Ava rolls her eyes with a smile. Why don’t they just make out with the bird and get it over with? But Jade doesn’t return the smile. Instead, she stares blankly at Ava for a moment. Then sneers, “What?”

Ava realizes there’s no shared joke. “Nothing. Just—”

“Just you think because we both have ovaries, I’m your new BFF?”

“What? No.”

“That’s ‘No, chef.'”

There’s something blocking Ava’s throat, as if she’s swallowed one of the magic peas by mistake. “No, chef.”

“Good. Unlike, some people I could name, I don’t talk to fresh meat. Get back to work.”

“Yes, chef.”

Jade goes back to her rapid prep, ignoring Ava completely, and Ava ducks her head back to her work. She has to be stone, she reminds herself. She isn’t here to make friends. What does she care if people don’t like her? She’s here to do a job. She sets the pastries aside to rise just as the scallop first course goes out, a stream of wait staff gliding from the counter out into the dining room.

Ava has point for the third course: impeccable French onion soup with crusty baguette due out of the oven halfway through the second course, made again with the bag of boring old flour that might be Ava’s actual new BFF. She’ll serve the soup with pear and apple slices simmered in brown sugar as a sweet dipping option for the bread, and sundried tomatoes with salty anchovies and capers as a savory option. Her mouth waters and her cheeks flush just thinking about it. She checks the soup before sliding over to the sauté station to start the apples and pears caramelizing on two burners, simmering the anchovies on two more. Mario checks over her shoulder, gives one of the pans a flip, and nods before shifting back to his bigger project of the lemon sauce for the Ibong Adarna. When the venom shots go out, he sets his lemon sauce to simmer and takes over the anchovies, tossing in strips of sundried tomato mumbling, “Pick it up, Ava. Pick it up.”

She doesn’t think she’s being particularly slow, but she tests a pear with a fork and, finding it tender and oozing juice, and she starts plating the fruit into square dip bowls. Mario appears next to her half way through, spooning the savory option into matching bowls. “Pick it up,” he says, more urgently than before. He’s finished before she is, although her pears are much neater.

“Ava! Oven!” Christos shouts, and she’s slicing baguette, which is whisked away even as she slices. She turns to ladle the soup, but it’s already being done, and she follows behind, placing baguette into the soup bowls and grating cheese over the top.

“Let’s go, people!”

Ava’s cheeks burn from the heat of the burners and the dawning realization that she’s late. Late, late, late, moving as quickly as she can even as Zach swoops in and takes the bread from her, dropping pieces into place, bam bam bam. The wait staff is already lined up at the pass, the plates set with two square dipping bowls each and a gaping space where the soup should go. Dennis grabs bowls out from under her, then grabs the cheese block from her hand, chops in in half and hands it back, moving down the row of soup bowls and grating along with her, faster than her. The soups are not getting enough cheese.

“Ava! Now!” Augustine. His face is as red as hers.

She gasps, “Ten seconds, chef!” and grates as quickly as she can without shredding herself, without serrating the cheese edges, without the long slivers breaking into a short mess, trying to go faster, faster, steady, faster.

“Now!”

“There!” She jumps back as the last bowl is swept out from under her and delivered to the counter for plating. Augustine, Dennis, and Jade swarm the counter, wiping spilled soup from the sides of bowls, the edges of plates fast, fast, fast, steady, fast. Jade gets in Dennis’s way, colliding an elbow with a hip, and they explode in swears, and Chef Augustine barks at both of them and sweeps in to wipe away the mess they made. “If we’d had these bowls two minutes ago…” “…Dicking around…” “…can’t hack it in a real kitchen.” The wait staff is already leaving, the finished plates already entering the dining room, even as Dennis and Augustine plate the last few. Dennis steps back, lifting both hands in the air as the last plate is shifted onto a tray and the last server leaves only two steps out of place.

Ava presses her hands to her hot cheeks. Embarrassment tastes bitter on her tongue.

The second the door to the front of the house stops swinging, Chef Augustine rounds on her. “The hell was that?”

“I was too slow, chef.”

“Damn right you were too slow. The cheese only melts if it’s hot. It’s not hot if you let it sit. It cools, Ava. It’s useless.”

“Yes, chef.”

“You nearly ruined a whole course.”

“I’m sorry, chef.”

“Where do you think you are right now? Does this look like some leisurely lunch in a Tuscan olive orchard? Is everyone here siting around a table, watching you cut a baguette in slow motion. Are you hallucinating right now? Does this look like an olive grove to you?”

“No, chef.”

“Where are you?”

“Your kitchen, chef.”

My kitchen, and no one here is drinking and enjoying witty conversation while you plate like a little priss. Who’s the only person here that gets to plate like a little priss?”

“You, chef.”

“Me. And when the saucier says to pick it up, you pick it up.”

As she says, “Yes, chef,” Zach says, “She just wanted it to be perfect.”

There isn’t enough air in the room. Chef Augustine’s anger narrows along with his eyes and lips. It focuses. He turns with painful slowness towards Zach, and says in a deadly quiet voice, “Excuse me?”

Every single chef stills, poised for fight or flight, waiting for the land mine Zach just stepped on to erupt, not daring to breathe the air that tastes so strongly of smoke. Every single chef but Zach, who is too big an idiot to read the room. “She was being careful. She’s trying her best to make everything she does perfect.”

Ava may be having an aneurysm, because this is surely what it feels like when a blood vessel pops in your brain.

“Was I talking to you?” Augustine says.

Zach looks befuddled, like he’s genuinely confused to hear he wasn’t part of this conversation, like he only just realized that Augustine is ticked.

“Let me make this real clear,” Augustine says, his voice still too quiet and too measured, “since it seems no one has told you this simple, basic fact. You too,” he points at Ava without looking away from Zach, “and any of you other screw-ups who may not realize how food works. If the food is not all ready at the same time, it is not perfect. One part is cold. One part is hot. The cheese doesn’t melt. They don’t go together. If you’re taking too long, worrying about not being perfect, you’re not just an idiot, but a coward. You hear that?” He swerved to face Ava again. “A coward too afraid to cook in the big leagues. A coward who lets other people fight her battles.”

She opens her mouth to argue, to say she never wanted Zach to butt in. She never asked for that. She doesn’t want his help. She doesn’t need his help. But a sharp look from Augustine reminds her not to talk back, not to defend herself.

Her mouth snaps closed, reopening to say, “Yes, chef.”

Chef Augustine shouts to the kitchen, “Four more courses! Get back to work!” And life jerks into motion again.

She ducks her head to hide her face as she pulls down the croissants to proof them a second time. Christos doesn’t make eye contact. Somewhere off to the side, she can hear Jade snort.

She can’t defend herself, and no one can stand up for her.

~

Ava strips off her white coat and is twenty degrees cooler, the air against her bare arms shocking and almost unpleasant. She slumps against her locker in the break room and wipes her face with a towel. Her hair is a mass of flyaway stands, all sticking out from her flushed face, and the sweat against her scalp doesn’t even help to slick them back. She’s a disaster. A disaster that screwed up French onion soup and can’t make an omelet.

She’s debating taking a long hot bath with a hard cider balanced on the tub rim against plopping straight into her bed without taking off her shoes. It’s after midnight and her arms are sore, she’s asleep on her feet, and she’s so punchy she feels drunk.

So, of course, Zach picks that moment to make his entrance. He opens the locker next to her, sighing a few times more than necessary.

When she doesn’t speak or even open her eyes, he takes the plunge. “If they’d been helping with the soup course instead of focusing so much on the Ibong Adrna, it would have gone fine. No one should expect you to get that full course ready by yourself. I should have stepped up and helped out sooner.”

Ava’s felt a whole slew of emotions in this kitchen. Embarrassment. Disappointment. Fear. Anxiety. But never before has she felt rage. It’s a rage that spikes and flashes and suddenly she’s yelling. “I don’t need your help! I don’t need anyone’s help. I can plate a damn soup course. Back off.”

His eyes get all sympathetic, which just fans the rage. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did your best.”

“You really think that’s my best? That’s my peak? That? That’s who you think I am and what I can do?”

“What—”

“Screw you and your infantilizing bullshit. I’m sick of it. I don’t need you protecting me or standing up for me or fighting my battles. I’m a grown woman, and I’m a professional chef in a professional kitchen, so Back. Off.”

He stares at her, his mouth hanging limp. He looks so injured, so betrayed that she would say something harsh, that she possesses sharp edges that it makes her want to punch him.

“Do you not get what it looks like when you pull stunts like that?” she says.

“When I pull stunts?”

“Yes. You. You are at fault here.”

“Chef Augustine’s the one that got in your face. He and Dennis are the ones who are supposed to manage the work load.”

“I messed up, Zach. That happens. I deserved to get chewed out, because I messed up. I don’t deserve you treating me like a baby in front of everybody. That makes me look weak, like I’m waiting for some white knight to come rescue me. It’s hard enough in there without looking any weaker than I already look.”

“I don’t think you look weak,” he says.

She takes a breath, the tiredness crashing over her. “I’m a woman,” she says. “That doesn’t make me weak, but it sure as hell makes those people see me that way.”

She grabs her coat and bag from her locker and stomps out, leaving him standing, speechless, slumped, and alone.

~

In the fresh light of the next day, after a sleep and a cool down, Ava picks up a bag of Swedish fish as an apology. Zach has an unnatural love for Swedish fish. She gets into work to find him waiting for her with his head ducked like a bashful puppy, and a cheese Danish in a paper bag for her. They laugh and trade peace offerings, slipping into the alley and ducking their heads together to whisper and snack before the deliveries start rolling in.

“I thought about it, and you’re right,” he says. “It wasn’t my place. It’s just…” His eyes dart around. “It feels like there are traps everywhere around here. Everything’s a test of my cooking or of my character, and the character tests are like the opposite of everything my mama taught me.”  He twists the Swedish Fish bag closed with a loud crinkle.  He twists and twists to the point where he’s squeezing the candy into a mass.  “With failing at the cooking too…it’s impossible not to fall into those traps.”

“I know what you mean,” she murmurs. “And I was wrong, too. You’re right, anywhere but here, standing up for me would have been a nice thing.”

He nods with enthusiasm and leans in closer. “I get that they’re trying to make us better chefs, and we need to toughen up–I mean, I need to toughen up. You’re tough already.”

She shoves him with her shoulder.

“But sometimes I wonder if what I’m turning into is something I really want to be. You know?”

“Secrets, secrets are no fun,” Mario sings. They jump up when they see him coming down the alley. “Gossiping about cute boys?” He snatches Zach’s Swedish fish away and dumps a pile into his palm. “It’s me, right?” He winks at Zach and shoves the handful into his mouth, grinning through reddened teeth. Zach makes a swipe for his candy, but Mario holds it out of reach like a bully on a playground, then tosses it back so Zach nearly fumbles it, and heads inside laughing.

They both take a moment to stare at the door, both thinking the same thing: this is where I work.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Ava reminds him, reminding herself out loud. Remember the smells, she reminds herself. Remember the way people roll their eyes into the back of their heads after their first glorious bites. Remember the love.

Remember the love.

A delivery truck rolls up and they don’t speak of it again.

On a Tuesday morning a week later, Ava makes a perfect golden omelet. Something clicks, and her every move is assured, controlled, her muscles relaxed and her hands deft, and she knows she has it before she plates. She’s got this. She gets this. She’s leveled up, and she can do anything.

Dennis tilts the plate back and forth, assessing the golden sparkles that catch in the light. For the first time in all the days she and Zach have had the fork sitting ready, Dennis reaches for it, cuts off a piece, inspects the fluffiness, the consistency, then pops the bite in his mouth and chews, eyes on the plate. He nods once. “Good,” he says, and Ava punches a fist in the air.

Zach shrieks and grabs her around the waist, lifting her in the air and spinning her around, shouting, “You did it! You did it! You did it!” She can’t help but laugh.

“Jesus Christ, did that noise come from you?” Jade sneers. “Grow a pair.”

There’s a round of imitating squawks, like rowdy penguins. A few of the junior chefs do little twirls, their arms held out to their sides. To Ava, their display is entertaining in how much they don’t realize they should be embarrassed, and she peeks over at Zach in hopes they can both snicker about it. Instead, she finds that Zach doesn’t agree. He’s rubbing the back of his ducked head, shifting uncomfortably.

As they disperse, Mario looks Zach up and down, reassessing. He pointedly turns toward Zach’s burnt omelet, then back to Zach. “Huh,” he says. A hum of agreement comes from the group.

Zach’s ears turn red when he’s emotional, something the rest of the group picked up on only a touch slower than Ava.

Her joy fades. She isn’t going to let everyone ruin her moment. She isn’t.

Christos, the Greek patissier with fingers that seem too thick to do the delicate work she’s seen him do, slaps a hand on her shoulder and steers her toward the pastry station. “Congrats,” he says. “Now the real hell starts.”

Zach makes his perfect omelet the next day. Ava rushes in for a high-five, but he shakes his head in a subtle motion and avoids eye contact. He heads off to the rotisseur station without any fanfare. It dawns on Ava that his victory over the omelet is null and void. He got beat by a girl.

~

The learning curve at the patissier station hits Ava like a wall. They use golden eggs in everything, and while she can now whisk them up and make an omelet in her sleep, she has to learn brand new procedures for quiche and cookie dough and cake batter. The bronze wheat flour, the amaranth flour, the almond flour, and the rye touched by a Roggenmuhme all interact with the eggs in unintuitive ways. The ritual of removing flour from its bag involves opening the bags as quietly as possible and singing specific songs or reciting specific prayers or ringing certain bells as you scoop and measure and pour into mixing bowls. The kitchen has sets of gold, onyx, and porcelain measuring cups and spoons, and memorizing which ingredient can touch which measuring spoon has Ava’s head spinning. Every time she thinks she finds a pattern, an exception pops up and flour explodes into a puff of black ash into her face. The cooking times are determined by smell rather than sight or pesky digital timers, and Christos tells her the bread is almost done when it smells like burnt plastic and then suddenly turns over and smells like garlic and honey and he has it out of the oven before it starts to smell like strawberries, which means it’s ruined. The kneading of dough involves elaborate dances of protective charms done with snapping fingers and twitching crosses drawn in the air with pinkies while her hands are already filled with a rolling pin. She has to roll some doughs with bottles of two-hundred-year-old honey mead, which Christos then splashes over the pastry in a way that stops Ava’s heart every time.

It’s such that she has to ask Christos to check her before she uses any tool at all, and it’s wearing on both their patience. Christos doesn’t already have a commis chef working under him, because he keeps dismissing them, sending them to the pantry or the entremetier when he decides they can’t hack it in magical pastries. The amount of time he gives his potential assistants varies from a couple months to a couple days, and Ava feels the pressure to perform building inside her with each hour she continues to be dead weight. Without additional help, Christos covers the patissier station mostly alone, and with the added burden of teaching her, their situation lumbers along at an ever more frantic pace.

At first, she tries to make notes, but there’s just not enough time for that and at the end of the day, she finds the pages of her notebook appallingly incomplete with words cut off halfway through when she was called away and large spaces left blank for her to fill in later, but once she has time, once she’s collapsed at her kitchen table at night to study, she has no memory of what she’d meant to write, and just stares at the notebook, straining her brain to remember twenty seconds of instructions snapped somewhere in her twelve-hour shift somewhere between the white lightning cake batter and the crust for the salamander pot pie.

“You’re a pastry chef,” Christos tells her, in what comes so close to a pep talk that she almost cries with gratitude. “It’s hard.”

The only thing that saves her is that pastry involves so much prep work that she’s not constantly rushing to make dishes as orders come in during service and screwing up in real time like everyone else. Like Zach. Her schedule changes so she comes in before the protesters gather, before the sun breaks through the front windows, and she and Christos bake bread and croissants and rolls and crusts and English muffins and cupcakes and ice cream and icing and fondant and chocolate sauce and candies and truffles and spun-sugar accent pieces. They prep, and when an order comes in during service, all she has to do is pause what she’s prepping (because even during services she’s constantly prepping for the next day, for the day after), slice a piece of cake or fry up some dough real fast, throw hot fudge over it, send it out, wash her hands, and go back to her prep work. The bread they make is handed over to the pantry so other chefs can use it for sandwiches at lunch service and they never have to look at it again.

“One roast beef sandwich, one baked salmon, two soup du jours,” Chef Augustine calls from the pass.

“One roast beef heard.”

“One baked salmon heard.”

“Two soup du jours heard.”

It’s Friday lunch service and Ava’s working on the leviathan milk cake, the seventh course of that night’s table d’hôte. Christos made the cake, a serpentine log like a cinnamon roll of white cake that melts in your mouth, swirled with blue leviathan milk that makes those who eat it fearless for about twelve hours. He’s left the decorating to her, as it’s easily inside her current skill set and he has phyllo dough to make because she botched her last attempt. She pulls out fondant that she made earlier, covers the cake, which is about three feet long and takes up a big swath of their counter space, trims, and on another sheet of fondant airbrushes color and machines out scale shapes with a cookie cutter that Christos made himself. Place the scales overlapping on the cake, never losing her rhythm, chick chick chick chick, another sheet of fondant, airbrush color, cut out scales, place, repeat. She can imagine a YouTube video of herself doing this, a camera set over her head and then the video sped up to super-speed as four rows of scales appear, then a pause, then four more rows, then another pause. When the repetitive motion starts to cramp her hands, she pulls out the world’s tiniest paintbrush and dabs shadows, details onto the scales she’s put down. She gives herself three minutes to do that, before she forces herself back, another sheet of fondant, chick chick chick chick.

“How far out on the ants?”

“Two out on ants.”

“Two soup du jours on deck.”

“One vanilla ice cream, one brownie.”

“One vanilla ice cream, one brownie heard,” Ava calls. Christos is still working the phyllo dough and doesn’t lose his rhythm. She sets down her airbrush and grabs a devil’s brownie from its tray on a cooling shelf. The servers tell all the customers when the brownies come fresh out of the oven, so they never last long. She moves to the freezer, scoops vanilla prickly pear ice cream. Chocolate sauce, vanilla bean decoration, and they’re ready to go. “Ice cream and brownie up.” She washes her hands and gets back to her leviathan.

“Man, Ava,” one of the commis from the roast station calls, “it must be nice to not have a real job.”

Half the kitchen hoots. Ava ignores them. Chick chick chick chick.

The offender is slicing roast sun cow slices for a sandwich, which will use bread Ava more or less successfully made this morning more or less on her own.

“Naw, dude, it looks good,” another guy says. “Ignore them, Ava. Hey! You know how I’ve got this Dodge B-series van. You think you could paint a mural on the side of it for me?”

More hoots, and the guys pick that one up and carry it.

“Like a T-rex fighting a wizard.”

“And some spiraling galaxies in the background.”

“And a sexy minotaur.”

“Whoa! Whaaat?”

“What? Minotaur ladies can be sexy!”

They fall upon each other and thankfully move on from Ava.

The guys all act like beautiful plating is superfluous to the manly art of butchering magical animal meats and getting stoned on deadly venoms, like their delicate, pink bites of veal on beds of finely sliced poached pears are the manliest things ever to be invented. They act like the customers couldn’t get leviathan milk off the street for twenty dollars a hit, and they ignore that the customers come here and spend $30 on dessert instead. They come for the safety and cultural endorsement in which consuming it is wrapped, for the elitism of not having to call it a “hit.”

“Hey, Ava,” one of the guys calls, unfortunately bringing things back around to her. “Since you’re not doing anything, could you find me a left-handed spatula?”

She flips him off over her shoulder.

“Hey, hey. What do you call a cake decorator without parents?”

“Homeless.”

Ava’s rhythm stutters. That punchline was provided by none other than Zach.

She’s cold inside the oven of her white jacket, disloyalty jolting her system.

Christos appears at her elbow with impeccable timing, pressing a cold bowl of baklava filling covered in saran wrap into her hands. “Fill these.” He takes over the leviathan scales.

No one mocks Christos for his profession.

As she spreads baklava filling over phyllo dough, she peeks over her shoulder to where Zach jumps back from a flare from a burner, barely keeping hold of the pan in his hand. The rotisseur calls him a sissy and snatches it from him, pulling the salmon from the pan. Zach has already moved on to rotate a unicorn leg on a spit, and without something immediate that needs doing, he looks up to catch Ava watching him in disapproval. Ava curses herself. She wishes he hadn’t seen her.

He checks that the rotisseur is busy but not too busy and sneaks over. She wishes he wouldn’t.

“Hey,” he says.

“Go back to work,” she says, spreading crushed nuts and Manuka honey. They’re both going to get in trouble when Mario notices him away from his station: him for wandering off, her for distracting him or luring him away or something.

He takes a breath, maybe to apologize, but the way she’s ignoring him keeps him quiet.

Instead, he says, “You need to lay it on thicker than that,” and takes the filling from her hands, spreading a thicker layer. He grins at her, like this is a peace offering.

It is so far from a peace offering. She stares at him, unable to control what her face is doing. This is her station. She’s the assistant pastry chef. She knows what she’s doing, and while, yeah, in a typical baklava you’d want it thicker to get the flavor, here the strong honey will overwhelm it and the phyllo dough won’t cook. Where the hell does he get off telling her how to do her job? They’re the same freaking level.

Christos makes a noise that will require he wash his hands afterward. “Get away from my baklava, idiot.” He scrapes off the layer of filling.

Zach doesn’t care. He slaps her shoulder and heads back to the unicorn, where he snatches a brush and a jar of marinade from another assistant who wasn’t laying it on thick enough and does it himself.

“Idiots,” Christos repeats. “Marinating in their own stupidity.”

And that’s what Zach’s doing: marinating in it.

~

She ties on her apron one morning and realizes that two months have passed and she’s still at the pastry station. She scoops amaranth flour with the porcelain measuring cup without checking and hums the bronze wheat’s favorite song without worrying herself into a sweat over it. She stirs the dough for rye bread clockwise and devil’s brownies batter in a seven-pointed star. Christos mentions that he likes her sourdough better than his own, and then tells her to stop smiling.

It’s hard to tell how Zach is faring. Like everyone, he shivers when he comes into the break room and takes off his coat, air conditioned as it is and dressed as they all are for the heat of the kitchen, which only increases when they put on their white coats at service. They are as scantily clad as they can get away with without violating health codes. Zach has a full-body shudder every single morning that he covers with over-exaggeration: bouncing on his toes and flapping his arms and motor-boating his lips. He covers discomfort with jokes and enthusiasm.

It carries into the kitchen with his constant talk about the billdad, which has only grown worse when Chef Augustine caught wind of it and interrogated him about every nitty-gritty aspect of his vision. Should they smoke the meat? Should they marinate it in the antidote or have it be the customer’s responsibility to drink with every bite? Then he announced that they would do a test run of the antidote wine.

Then he announced that they would cook a billdad.

Not for the Friday night diner, but for themselves. A proof of concept. None of them have tried it before, and he doesn’t care how hot an idea it is, if it ends up tasting like budget deer meat, he isn’t serving it.

Zach and Ava and everyone peer over Chef Augustine’s shoulders as he cuts open the Styrofoam cooler from the truck and lifts the lid. The billdad hasn’t been plucked, but its plumage has been folded and crammed into the cooler. It’s surrounded by bags of dry ice and its oversized back legs rear up well over its back, folded in on itself to fit. Zach tsks and reaches in to gently unpack it. After some careful extensions of its neck, some checks of the meat and malleability, the beast is stretched out on the counter like a Thanksgiving turkey with neck too long and legs too big. Its plumage is dull and drab, brown with only a hint of red. Zach and Augustine run their hands over it again and again, smoothing feathers, rearranging. “Nothing to be done for the plumage,” Zach says.

Some turkeys have layers on layers of beautiful, iridescent plumage, which you wouldn’t know from construction paper hand-turkeys made in elementary school, or the images of the emancipated and the force-fed turkeys that come out of turkey farms. Free-range birds are glorious and terrifying, and pictures Ava has seen of billdads in the wild attest to this.

Chef Augustine agrees, “We’ll need a better supplier,” and then slaps Zach on the back and leaves him to the plucking.

Ava leaves him to it as well. With him working on that, she and the other junior chefs have to take on some of his prep work, and she doesn’t want to think about billdad suppliers. She imagines billdad farms that bred them in their billdad form, which she’s not sure is possible. She imagines sinister men offering “turkey burgers” to homeless people, to kids in group homes, to guys in jail, to people in retirement homes. She thinks about who this billdad used to be, how they came to be this way, if they chose it or if it was chosen for them, if their family knows what happened to them. She thinks of the protesters outside and their reaction to the creature lying on the counter. She shivers and starts making bread, bread made with bronze wheat that when it rests on your tongue, you–and only you–can hear angels singing. Ava’s always heard it more like a damp finger circling the rim of a wine glass, but maybe that’s what angels sound like, and maybe everyone hears something slightly different and the experience is not only life-changing but personal.

She thinks about how all her favorite magical foods are vegetarian. Bronze wheat. Honeysuckle nectar. Fire honey. Pomegranates.

Zach finishes plucking the billdad after the action in the kitchen has reached cruising altitude. Another group clumps around him as he turns to butchering. He has the idea to just cook the legs. They’re the meatiest part and the real draw of the creature, since the wings are small and the breast uninspiring. But there’s a push to use every piece of it, and although Ava knows deep down is fueled by respect for the life given so they could have this meat, the push is voiced in terms of occupational integrity and pragmatism. “It’s expensive. You’re not throwing out half the bird.” “Use the breast in billdad Kiev?” “Use the giblets in a gravy?” “At least freeze the head and neck for broth.” “One whole bird could work for a tasting menu. Everyone should only eat one bite anyway. Don’t trust people to eat a whole leg. They’ll get complacent halfway through.” “So what? Some people get dark meat and some get light?” “Sure. Individualized!” “Consistency!”

With the bird carved, Zach turns to the antidote wine. He mixes up a glass, a concoction of Merlot, phoenix tears, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, and orange zest, but he stirs “like a lady making a daiquiri,” and the roast master takes over with his unsung mixology skills. He practically struts as he mixes, puffing out his chest like he’s flexing his muscles on a beach rather than peacocking for his coworkers. They pull a dragon crest sauce from the fridge, pull back the plastic wrap. Zach eats a spoonful and then chokes down a swig of wine through his coughing that he tries to keep locked in his mouth with his lips pressed together, but the coughs slip out in billowing clouds of smoke and spluttered wine. After the first sip, he starts chugging it as if it will quench his fiery belches, and five people shout at him to cut it out. He sets down the glass, twists his face like he’s sucked a lemon, and shudders. He opens his mouth to another round of fireworks, and the mixing duties are taken from the roast master and given over to Dennis, who’s unusually friendly today. They’re like sharks in the water, gleeful for spectacle and violence. They claim to be there to help Zach succeed, but it feels like they’re there to watch him fail, ready to kick him to the curb if he turns into a bird or catch him and embrace him for days and days of more trials.

Dennis’s batch dulls the flames from Zach’s mouth, and one whole side of the kitchen applauds. There are much less explosive magical ingredients they could have used for a test.

Maybe it’s her own tension she feels, but Christos seems to get more and more agitated as the day goes on. They do their work in silence, barely looking up at the showboating distraction on the other side of the kitchen, barely speaking to anyone as no one bothers to speak to them.

She juices some light lemons and fog mint, some pomegranates and black apples for the juices. Christos makes devil’s brownies. She makes fondant and pre-makes candy wings and stars. She fills piping bags with chocolate sauce laced with moon dust and preps pastry dough. She mixes up batter for cookies with honey and silk strings and catches Christos watching her.

When she pauses, he nods and goes back to his candied blood oranges. “Someday I’m going to open a bakery.”

He says it so quietly that at first she’s not sure she heard him right. Then the group behind them explodes again. The billdad is on the grill.

No one seems to be working, watching Zach watch the bird. There was excitement and distraction when the entremetier first tried his peas, an excitement that kept going each time they were brought back out for a new test, but that was nothing. It’s like they’re all eager to watch Zach put his life in danger, ready to watch him become a kangaroo before their eyes.

Ava whips up meringue, taking her frustration out on the poor egg mixture, which collapses, reverting back into golden egg goop. Thankfully no one is watching but Christos, who says nothing and takes the bowl from her after she’s cleaned up her mess. He hands her a saucepan of heated caramel for the decorative cages he’s been making and does the meringue himself. The acceptance of emotion is not lost on her, and she sets to drizzling the caramel with exceptional care.

When the billdad is ready, Ava’s work stops as if a force has halted her hands for her. She’s frozen, watching the plating. She lifts her eyes to watch Zach’s face, the way the sweat has run from his temples, the glitter of his eyes like he’s got the best quip ready to go and it’s going to make her spit her drink across the table at family meal, the way his T-shirt rides up his human arms. She can’t watch. She can’t look away. Everyone is frozen or chanting, “Zach! Zach! Zach! Zach!”

She lowers her saucepan. She can’t watch this. She has to leave. She has to throw up.

Christos grabs both her arms, holds her there. Her heart is beating too hard to tell if the hold is restraining or grounding. “You want to be a chef?” he says, right next to her ear. “Then you stay, and you watch.” He shakes her, and she sucks in a breath for the first time in minutes. “Watch.”

The billdad is arranged, and the plate’s turned a quarter turn for effect.

“This is what you’re in for. This is what it’s like. It’s not going to get better.”

Chef Augustine nods.

“You can break now, but then you’re through.”

And he was right. This is what it’s like, what it will be like. If she can’t bear it another second, if she can’t fathom a life of this, day after day after day until she dies or quits or pushes her way through to some safe and friendly place more mythical than the food they serve, then she can walk away. And if she walks away, she’ll give up on a dream.

She has to be stone.

Zach picks up a fork and knife. Grinning, he cuts off a bite, checks the color, wipes it through the sauce, and pops it in his mouth.

Ava becomes stone. Zach becomes a monster.

 

____

Copyright 2019 Carolyn Rahaman

Carolyn Rahaman writes and produces the Twenty Percent True Podcast: short stories about modern monsters and hosts NaNo-It-All: a podcast about National Novel Writing Month.  She’s working on a novel about a cursed magician, live oaks, and breakfast tacos.  You can find her online at twentypercenttrue.blogspot.com and on Twitter at @CaryAndTheHits.