Start by making the topping, mashing two avocados and an equal amount of vegan creme fraiche in a mixer together with vinegar, garlic, ginger, cilantro and salt. Finely chop one red chilli pepper and one to two shallots and stir it into the mixture. Let it rest in the fridge. Make a batter from a mixture of wheat flour, boiled potatoes, beer and yeast. The batter should be thick as a sponge cake batter. Let it rise until bubbles are visible. Heat up lots of oil in a frying pan, pour your batter into the oil, making sure it spreads out nice and even and doesn't rest too heavily on the bottom of the pan. Deep-fry it for two minutes on each side, or until browned and cooked through. Place on kitchen towels to dry. Fry sliced mushrooms until all water is gone. Salt and pepper. Cover the potato bread with a layer of mushrooms and a layer of avocado creme. Cut into sixteen squares. Serve four squares on an emulsion of basil juice and moss oil and decorated with a paper thin, deep-fried slice of horseradish.
“Smells like a walk in the forest”, he said when the plates were put before them. “It always reminds me of a summer vacation when me and my friends built a tree-house. It rained every day, but I don't think we cared. We were much too absorbed in our project”.
“Is that important to you when you cook?” she asked. “I mean; memories”.
“Oh yes. I think, when I create a new dish, I write a new chapter in my memoirs.
He observed her carefully while she cut one of the cubes in half. Her hands were delicate, almost old-fashion in a way. It was probably the nail polish, the timid pink. He could do that; thin slices of peach soaked in raspberry liquor on cashew cream and meringue. She put the bite in her mouth, chewed once or twice and smiled.
“Yes”, she said and nodded. “I’m with you in the tree house. It’s raining, but we are dry. It’s warm and the forest floor is steaming”.
She had been to so many cities around the world and tasted so many different kinds of foods. Her ex husband always saw to it that she was treated to the very best restaurants the cities had to offer, but her mind was always set on the tournament at hand and food was just fuel. Now this man, this somewhat famous chef - yes, she has read about him in the passing, never thought she would actually meet him - he forces her to feel the food. This was something new, and she really, really liked it.
He saw her smile. That is what he lived for; the smile. The indication that he had made someone’s life a tiny bit better, a tiny bit brighter.
“Do you like it?”
She nodded and put another bite into her mouth.
“I was quite surprised to find you on the site”, he continued. “I mean, you’re famous. I didn't think famous people used dating sites”.
She shook her head. “I’m not that famous. At least not anymore. I think you have to be a chess player to know about me. Are you a chess player?”
“No, no. I wouldn't say that. At least not to you. I used to play when I was a kid. But I discovered I didn't like to win. I didn't like to make my opponents sad. I was really a wimp. And then… well, life sort of happened and I didn't play for many years. Nowadays, once in a while, I play online, for fun. And I read about tournaments and titles and rankings and stuff. So, naturally, I’ve read about you. Congrats to the Hilton, by the way. I played through your final game after our chat”.
“Ugh.” She made a grimace. “I still don't understand why he didn't take my h pawn. I had made such a bad move”. She moved the salt shaker to the pepper shaker on the table to illustrate how her opponent should have acted.
He looked at her and tried to remember the game. He remembered some, but not the part she was talking about.
“It’s a miracle you didn't call back and cancelled our date when you saw that”, she said and laughed.
“Well, I didn't exactly ask you on a date because of your chess. In fact, I didn't even recognise you at first. I didn't connect the dots until we had that chat when you mentioned that you were just home from the Netherlands”.
“So”, she muses. “If it wasn't for the fame and glory of a has-been champion; what was it? Why did you ask me out?”
Soak a rice paper sheet in blueberry juice until it starts softening. Cover the middle of the paper in thin slices of marinated seitan meat, and build layers of fresh salad, avocado, re-hydrated mushrooms and finely chopped tomatoes and cucumber. Top with fresh cilantro, chopped macadamia nuts and sour cashew cream. Fold together to form a purple spring roll. Boil chickpeas in spinach juice until soft. Let rest until cool. Save the chickpeas for another dish and beat the green “water”, the aqua faba, until it becomes a firm, green foam. Whip in a pinch of salt and enough lemon juice to make it nicely sour. Cut the purple spring roll in two and mount the pieces on top of a mound of green foam in the middle of the plate. Sprinkle lemon zest over the plate.
“I was eleven years old”, he began when the sommelier had left them with a glass of chilled sake. “It was a sort of fair, a big event with lots of food and carousels and handicraft and stuff. There was a chess tournament for children, and there were clowns and music and lots and lots of people. But the food. Jesus Christ. I spent all my money on food. I had no idea you could make so many different things with food. Finally, in the evening, I spent my last coins on a fresh spring roll, like this one. And then the fireworks started; the sky lit up in colours and I dipped the spring roll in sweet sour chili and ate it. I swear I had tears in my eyes”.
“So you decided to be a chef?”
“I don't know. Probably. At least my interest was piqued. I began cooking at home and watched cooking shows on TV”.
She looked at him with a puzzled expression. He was lean and looked strong and his forearms were sparingly adorned with tribal tattoos. He was nicely dressed (For the occasion? she wondered) and his facial hair kempt and tidy. Some strands of grey hair had begun to show around his temples. But the silver necklace… She had not noticed it before. The charm in the form of a rabbit. What a strange object.
“Now it’s your turn”, he joshed. “Why chess? And when?”
She didn't hear him. She was miles away. She could see the fireworks, the colours in the sky. She could taste the food from the stands along the street. The jars of preserved vegetables her parents sold to people passing by. The sound of folk music from the stage far away. The fireworks. The tears. The anger.
“Hello?” He touched the top of her hand to wake her up.
“Uh. Sorry. Memories”. She drank her sake in one fell swoop as if to calm herself down. “I just… You were saying?”
“When did you begin to play chess?”
“Oh, I don't know. I’ve played all my life. As far as I can remember. I won my first tournament when I was seven. But it wasn't a big part of my life as a kid”. She paused for a long time and he didn't hurry her on. Her heart was pounding uncontrollably. “Not until I was ten and went to this Harvest Fair in town with my parents. There was this chess tournament there, and, well, of course I signed up, even if I felt it was beneath me. Cocky kid, I was, but my parents were busy in their booth selling produce from our vegetable garden, and I was bored. It was not so much a proper tournament as a “try this game called chess and win a box of chocolate”-event, and I played against kids who had to be instructed during the game on how to move a rook. Of course I won every game. In the final match, I met this boy who was almost as cocky as me. I overheard him saying something like “Can I have a piece of chocolate now, because I will crush that girl”. Something like that. It made me so angry. I went up to him and told him that I could play him blindfolded without losing a single piece - which of course I couldn't - and if he won, I would give him my most precious possession, a silver necklace with a rabbit charm that I had got from my grandmother”.
She looked at him in silence. His mouth was open, his head tilted.
“Guess how it ended”, she finally said. “I lost. A stupid, stupid mistake. As soon as I let go of my queen, I knew it was over. That was when I decided to become the world’s strongest player and crush that boy to tiny pieces and get my necklace back”.
To make the syrup, pick light green spruce shoots in early spring. Pack then together with palm sugar and star anise in a clear glass jar. Put the jar in the sun and let the sugar dissolve for a couple of weeks. Separate the syrup with a sieve. To make the pudding, peel a zucchini and pass it through a fine mesh, cutting it to rice grain sized pieces. Put it in a towel and squeeze out excess water. Mix the zucchini grains with thick cashew cream and finely chopped blanched almonds. Scoop up in a dessert glass and pour the syrup over it. Garnish with fresh cloud-berries and a twig of lemon balm.
He remembered the match vaguely. A girl, furious, crying, handing him the necklace and telling him she would get it back. But that wasn't what the necklace was to him. To him, it was the memory of food; the night he discovered a new world of wonderful aromas and enigmatic tastes. He had worn it ever since.
“I play you for it”, he grinned.
“Challenge accepted”, she answered coyly and stood up. “Your place or mine?”