My son gave me the most thoughtful gift on Mother’s Day- this story!
I stumbled, tripping over a loose rock on the road. ‘Damn it’, I thought to myself. ‘Stay focussed’. I glanced at my watch. Twelve minutes to go, and about ten minutes of walking lay ahead of me. This was cutting it fine. Into thin slices? Too thin and you’d have the equivalent of a paste, with no real sliced texture; you’d be better off shredding, or even just blending… I stopped that train of thought. ‘Focus’, I told myself, diverting my attention to the road in front of me. It was always too easy to get lost in the details; where you would meet with the devil, right? The devil being in the details? Bah. Whatever. I quickened my pace, kicking a wet stone out of the way.
The road was blackened by moisture from the early morning due. The air was chilly, winding its way into the nooks and crannies of my jacket, raking its icy tendrils against my warm flesh. Damn, I hated the morning cold. Especially when under-slept and under-nourished. The latter part was ironic, considering I had been spending the last month and a half preparing for a gourmet food competition. You’d think I’d eat more, being a cook and all.
There are three types of cooks in the world. The first are those who cook to eat. These are the happiest of cooks: the classical fat and jolly chefs, with their healthy jowls and infectious grins. These are the people who have found that enlightened alignment of occupation and vocation, doing what they love and loving what they do. Yet, that means that such a cook is easily satisfied with their creation, and focusses more on quantity than quality. The cook who enjoys his food is ultimately cursed with satisfaction with mediocrity. I will never say that such a cook does not make good food, but it is rare for them to make great food.
The second type of cook is the one who makes for others. This is a truly pathetic beast, and I loathe these poor devils with all my heart. Well, with my entire professional… heart? I loathe them from a professional standpoint, is what I mean. These are the cooks who cook for employment, and not for achievement. These are the people who work at mess halls and fast food joints. They don’t create meals, they assemble them.
Finally, there are the cooks who strive to achieve something more. The cooks who don’t just produce, and don’t even create, but who sculpt and mould and paint and give birth. The cooks who are as much artists are they are producers of nutrition. These cooks are never satisfied with food, and will always think of how to improve and innovate. These are the cooks who seek perfection.
I think of myself as the third type of cook. Which is why I hate the food I make. I can never stomach my own meals. Even those creations of mine which my kith and kin rave about; I can only manage a few bites before I am plagued with a bitter sense of dissatisfaction, and I find mistakes and imperfections. Something might be wrong with the texture of one bite, or the tastes might not be what I intended. Anyhow, I quickly discard most of my culinary creations. Of course, by discard, I mean give them to my friends and associates, who are more than willing to devour my work with gusto. I derive some pleasure from seeing their appreciation.
So how exactly do I stay alive? Well, that is thanks to my mentor. The Boss, as we call her. A prodigious chef and the one person whose appreciation I truly seek. There are not words to describe her food, and I will not dare try to find them. I will only submit this analogy: if the world was a desert, and the greatest of cooks were those who could generate drops of drinking water, the Boss would be a freshwater river, flowing with the sweetest, most quenching water that you had ever experienced. I would be not but skin and bones if not for her cooking.
Of course, the reason she is called the Boss is that… well, she is the fire in which the strongest chefs are forged; and for that, the fire must burn unimaginably hot. Each year, she takes on about a hundred new apprentices. Each year, about five of those new remain. She does not care for cooks of the first kind, and definitely not of the second kind. Only the best of the third kind can pass her muster, and even then, many of them break.
I glance at my watch. Three minutes left. Uh oh. I look up. The building is right ahead of me. I should be there in under a minute. I pick up my pace.
The trials and tribulations endured with the Boss is a tale for another time. To cut a long story short, I was one of the few that survived the long and arduous apprenticeship. Today was our final test: a contest between the final ten students. A cooking contest, of course. What else; an obstacle course?
I pushed through the doors of the studio without breaking my stride. The kitchen was in the back and I could hear the sounds of the others in there already. The shifting of metal and wooden implements, the fluttering of aprons, and the rustling of sanitation caps and gloves. I wasn’t late, but I was probably one of the last to arrive.
“Ah, number nine” said the Boss, as I entered the kitchen. Eight other apprentice cooks were already there, ready at their stations. I quickly moved towards the station designated for me, as the ninth cook. I surveyed the table, the implements and equipment, and the cooking materials. The vegetable tray, the spice rack, the bottles of oil. Everything seemed to be in order. Well, maybe not the exact order that I would have wanted it in, but I was barely on time, so I didn’t have that luxury.
I dropped my bag on the stand, slung my jacket after it, and quickly grabbed my apron and sanitation equipment. Within seconds, I looked as ready as my fellow apprentices. Whether I was or not was a different question.
“So…” began the Boss, on the dot of the hour. “It looks like number ten is a no show. A pity”. My insides squirmed a bit, thinking about what could have happened to our tenth compatriot. Illness, injury, death? Or did she just chicken out? “Nevertheless, the show must go on” continued the Boss. She paused, taking a contemplative and dramatic breath. “Surprise me. But in a novel way”. She paused again. “Make me a normal, everyday dish…” she explained. “…but make it in a way that is unique. In a way that improves upon the dish without changing it’s… its essence”. She looked at all of us. “Begin”.
Nine bodies moved in unison. Nine bodies grabbed a plate, assembled cutlery for tasting, and setup a place for a continental midday meal. Now, the Boss was well versed with all forms of cuisine, from every culture imaginable (and possibly some unimaginable). However, there was an unwritten rule that the tests were always a continental setup. Why? Just another one of the unanswerable mysteries of life.
Nine bodies finished setting up the place, assembling their base ingredients, cleaning and preparing their workspaces. Nine bodies started moving differently. Three dived into the vegetables. Two headed for the meat closet. Three started their stoves, preparing different garnishes.
I had decisions to make. Many decisions. Meat centric, or vegetable centric? What was the overall taste I was going for: sweet, sour, savoury? What textures? What flavours? What nuances?
My personal philosophy behind cooking was always relatively… radical? In my view, sublime and complex flavouring was not mutually exclusive from strong flavouring. I wanted my dishes to have powerful and memorable impacts on the palate. I wanted my meals to move the consumer. I didn’t care for the bland, wishy-washy, watery garbage that so many others thought of as high cuisine. I wanted strong, bold flavours… but I also wanted intricate flavours. Just because the flavouring was strong, didn’t mean that it had to be overriding in one aspect. No, I wanted a rich melange of tastes and aromas; a whirlwind of gustatory ideas. Some in parallel, some in sequence. A vivid landscape, with bright colours, but with ornate detail. A synesthetic masterpiece.
I started making my decisions. A vegetable base. A crushed mixture of zucchini and cucumber to provide a neutral backdrop. Tomatoes and lemons for the sour taste. Onions and crushed mustard seeds for pungency. A light pre-garnish of cilantro and cumin. A dairy based sauce, with parsley and rosemary and thistles. A fried garnish with black peppers and thyme. A pea and lentil infusion, coupled with small quantities of boiled mashed sweet potatoes. A mix of shredded lettuce, cabbage, and celery to add consistency (and roughage; after all, a cook has to ensure that the diet is healthy as well as tasty).
That’s when disaster struck. Rather, that’s when I realised that disaster had already struck. As I went about my preparations, I picked up the rosemary bottle, and suddenly realised that something was off. I peered inside the bottle. The rosemary leaves were too thick. I glanced around. Everyone else was doing their thing. I checked my watch. A healthy amount of time remained. I carefully shook a single rosemary leaf out of the bottle. Except… a parsley leaf fell out.
My blood ran cold.
I unloaded my spice rack onto my workspace. One by one, I looked into each of the bottles, checking the contents against the label. Most of the contents were accurate. However, some were not. Parsley and rosemary were switched. Sage and asafetida. A couple of others.
Luckily, the ones which I had used in my dish had all been switched with spices that I had used in the same step. Like the sage and parsley. However, I had to be sure.
I glanced around again. Checked the time again. I was safe, especially considering that I was nearly done.
I carefully traced my steps, starting from the very beginning. I checked the spices I used at each step. I made small samples of each step using the correct spices, just to be sure that it tasted right. However, I realised that I had run out of thyme. No, not run out of time. Thyme. I had none left. Apparently, I had used it all in the fried garnish. How could I replicate that step?
Discreetly, I moved over to the empty workspace in the kitchen. I picked up the thyme container from the spice rack, and took it back to my workspace.
I quickly prepared a sample of the fried garnish, and compared it with the leftovers from the initial batch of fried garnish. Something was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I picked up the empty bottle of thyme that had come from my rack, and I sniffed it. A faint odour lingered, oily and fruity with a hint of turpentine.
“Ok, now”, said the Boss suddenly. “That’s time”.
I balked internally. What?? I thought we had more time! My mind scrambled. Wait… I was done, wasn’t I? But was it done? One of the steps in my preparation was inconsistent. What could I do?
“Remember, this time you get only an hour, instead of the usual hour and a half” said the Boss. I swore at myself under my breath. I just remembered. For this we had less time than usual. The Boss had informed us of this just the last week. How did I forget? Ah, it was no use chiding oneself; now I had to act.
As rapidly as I could do, without revealing my state of mind, I put together the final dish: mixed the garnish into the base, poured the sauce, and sprinkled the last of the garnish over it all. Then I cleaned up my workspace, quietly returning the container of thyme to its origin.
Time for evaluation. Oh, this was not good.
Nine bodies stood perfectly still, watching as the Boss moved over to the first workspace. Nine bodies waited with baited breath as the Boss tasted the first dish. A forkful of honey glazed minced sausage and gravy. A contemplative stare into the distance. A nod of approval. A sigh of relief from number one.
Number two. A spoonful of mango-laced rice pudding. A shorter stare. A shake of the head. A choked back sob. A more in depth evaluation would come later, and that might overrule the initial decision, but that was very unlikely.
Three. A strange combination of salad and gravy. Used meat-based broth, but devoid of meat itself. A curious glance. A wiry smile and nod. That was unusually successful.
Four. A variation of shepherd’s pie. Spoon returned very quickly, with a curt shake. It was two for two, so far.
Five. The last meat-centric dish: a steak of some sort. A slice cut off, and daintily hoisted on a fork. A long stare into the distance. The Boss shrugged. Ok, this happened sometimes, and meant that the later evaluation would tell.
Six. Another salad, with fruit and meat mixed in. A daring concept; one I could appreciate. A second bite. Maybe the Boss also appreciated it? No, a shake of her head. She liked the idea, but not the execution.
Seven. Mushrooms, stuffed with vegetables and a breadcrumb-rice mixture. Pretty exotic. Nod.
Eight. A soup of some sort? Interesting, I guess. Unfortunately, a shake.
Now the score was three nods, four shakes, and one shrug. My heart was in my mouth. Not literally – that would be simultaneously disgusting and fatal. However, I was incredibly nervous.
The Boss came up to my workspace. I stood perfectly still, almost as if with the hope that if I didn’t move, the Boss wouldn’t see me, and would not be able to evaluate my meal negatively.
The Boss picked up a fork. Then she put it down. My creation would be better eaten with a spoon. The Boss did just that – she picked up a spoon, scooped up a spoonful of my dish, and sipped at it. She lingered on that sip for what felt like an eternity. Then she put the spoon in her mouth. It came out empty. Good.
Then, to my great surprise the Boss put the spoon into my dish again. Picked up another spoon. Put it to her lips again. Consumed.
Like an impossible dream, the Boss did it again. Another spoon. Consumed again. I could feel my heart playing 6 different drum-sets in my chest. I could not believe what I had just seen.
Then it happened again! The Boss picked up a fourth spoonful of my dish and ate it. Four spoons? That was… unbelievable!
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner” said the Boss. I felt the world spinning around me.
I don’t quite remember what happened after that. I know that I somehow managed to remain conscious, but only just. The combined lack of sleep and food, as well as the stress of the whole ordeal had taken its toll on me. Yet, somehow, I managed to keep it together for long enough to get to a nearby fast food joint, where I scarfed down two of the worst dishes that I had ever eaten in my life.
Sometime later, I was given the full evaluation. The Boss took each of the dishes, and the instructions for how to make them. Then she sampled them further, took notes, made comparisons, and finally graded each of us. I was awarded full marks, and many a compliment.
“So how exactly did you come up with it?” asked the Boss while handing me my full evaluation.
“I’m not quite sure” I said, honestly. “I just started with a few basic ideas, and moved on from there”.
“Well, I especially liked your garnish. That was really… well, it was really good”. This was incredibly high praise coming from the Boss.
“Thank you”, I replied. “Well, you know, it’s as they say…” I continued, “A switch in thyme saves nine”.
I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did!