Knife in the Tale: Pt. 1
Joel stared down at a stainless-steel tray of sea-scallops, fascinated by how the kitchen lamp brought out the molluscs’ shiny, translucent interior despite the fact that he flash-fried it for ten seconds with just olive oil moments before, and conscious that they were sweet and thick enough despite a light dusting of smoked lime-rind and a dusting of crumbled pistachios. They were perfect. Absolutely perfect, but again he felt a nervous pang — one that he hasn’t felt in a while.
“Diver scallops for table two,” he muttered under his breath. The server looked at him quietly, trying to notice the faintest hint of acknowledgement, at least some hint of excitement for the very first order that left the kitchen. Opening day, 6:00 pm. It was a big day for the 29-year old Joel-Damien Price. He had re-done his buzz-cut, lopping off curly, auburn hair that he had pre-appointment at Manhattan’s finest barber, Martial Vivot. If Daniel Boulud had his $200 haircuts there, then Joel had to follow in the esteemed chef’s footsteps. Revelling in a moment of quiet reverence, Joel chastised himself for purposefully not inviting Boulud to opening night. And awkward tensions aside, Joel was Boulud’s protege, having cooked his way up from garde manger to executive chef at Cafe Boulud. And then it happened: Boulud passed him over for Joel’s sous-chef to take the job. “It’s for your best intentions,” the three-Michelin star chef told Joel outside the kitchen, over a quiet post-dinner snack of langoustines cocktail, but Joel wouldn’t listen, not even to Boulud’s plan to send him to his mentor, Roger Verge for 6-months. No, Joel Price was ready to show himself to the world. Upon leaving on “good terms” — Boulud earnestly wished him the very best — He was ready for the frenzied-press to drool over his superstar credentials: a Harvard Graduate degree, a stint at Jose Andres’ Jaleo, and then at Boulud.
His hair now resembled a chocolate dusted crust on a near-perfect skull, with deep-blue eyes, a tiny, slender nose that betrayed his fortified sense of scent, and wide, thin-lipped mouth that signalled not just his trademark boyish grin, but his ultra-sensitive palate. He knew to taste saltiness in both ends of his tongue, and relished the opportunity to make do with the fact that he could manipulate the tastes of his guests too, hence his risky move in pairing the pristine scallops atop kalbi-crusted seaweed and funneled smoke from the scallop shells. As that was finished, on the pass, he motioned for his server, Gavin, to close it firmly with a Murano glass cloche. This was ingenious and he knew it. Time to shine.
“Send this over, carefully,” Joel says to Gavin. They were nervous, Joel more than him. He peered over at the far end of the corner to see two journalists, their DSLR cameras by their side, entitled to devour whatever was sent to them. Joel decided that he would charge them for the degustation menu, but add VIP dishes. It was only fair.
Three other tables were filled. “Time to get back to work,” Joel said to himself, as he flurried over back to the meat stations, his face already swathed in a nervous rouge, to scream at Manuel, who overcooked ris de veau, or calfs-livers in a bubbling pot of saffron-spiked milk broth. Fuck this, Joel cursed, I should have just done it sous-vide. Why did he hire him? He looked over at the corner, where Manuel’s brother, Frank, was quietly dicing pearl onions and following that rhythmic motion of tossing them into a sesame-oil marinated chanterelles. He knew what he was doing, despite his emotionless guide, he was very much into it, again despite the fact that he used to work alongside Joel in a completely different setting. That explained why his surgically precise knife-skills were bar-none better than even the best in Michelin-run kitchens. But that was a story for another time.
Joel relaxed a little, but only momentarily. Gavin, who doubled as a temporary Sommelier, returned with a bottle of vintage Lafite Rothschild. Jesus, who the fuck asked a high-roller to dine here on opening night, Joel grumbled. The ridiculously wealthy ones were always the most entitled. However Gavin was here on a different mission.
“Chef,” he said slowly. “One of the guests invites you for a glass of this in the salon.”
“I have no fucking friends,” Joel snapped. “Tell him I’m busy. In fact, show them the bottle and take out a bottle of our cheapest from the basement. And serve it on a bucket of ice-cubes and see if they care.”
“She insists,” Gavin said, with a slight tremble in his voice.
“Yeah, um, she seems to know who you are.”
“She give a name? I don’t care if Michelle Obama comes in here. I can’t afford to lose focus,” Joel growled.
“Uh, well there’s one other thing…incredibly weird actually”
“She keeps addressing you by Doctor. And she says that she came all the way from Chicago to eat here, and told me to tell you not to waste her precious time.”
Joel’s face, previously flushed in heirloom, turned cream-white as color drained completely. Until now, he was certain that he kept his cover in check; nevertheless he knew he left crumbs — traces of his past — behind. It was only a matter of time before somebody would find out.
“Tell her I’ll be right with her.”
Joel closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. From the pocket of his freshly-starched chefs whites he removed a bright pink capsule. He popped one in his mouth, downed it without water and quietly walked out the kitchen.
– TO BE CONTINUED-