The Four-Star Frenzy -A top chef's ego runs roughshod over his staff as success pushes him to his breaking point.

Submitted into Contest #207 in response to: Set your story in the kitchen of a bustling restaurant.... view prompt

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Drama

Diners and critics hailed "La Tavola Appassionata" as the premier Italian restaurant on the west coast, and its Chef, Arturo Pacioretti, emerged as the newest culinary star in the industry. He was short, with a round, plump face, beady black eyes set beneath a Cro-Magnon protruding forehead, and even though he kept his hair trimmed close to the scalp, it was still as thick and unmoveable as fresh asphalt. For a man whose entire life revolved around found, it was ironic that he had such a small mouth, with lips pursed in a perpetual pout.

He was not an ugly man, nor was he memorably handsome; in fact, when asked what people remembered most about meeting the chef was his apparent absence of a neck—he seemed to go straight from chest to shoulders, to chin. 

In contrast, the restaurant Maître d', Garret Quill, was hardly recognizable as a man at all. He was waif-like, tall, and stiff, a man who could disappear in the shadow of a door or from one's side quieter than a whisper.

The partners equally responsible for the restaurant's success had just gone nose to nose in a heated argument over who controlled the number of diners in an evening. Chef was adamant that maintaining the quality and timing of his food demanded a cap of 60, while Garret reasoned that 100 was an achievable feat. When the argument concluded, battle lines were drawn, with the front of the house declaring themselves enemies against the kitchen. 

Chef returned to the kitchen, scowled at his sous chef, Guy, then went into his office and slammed the door. 

Guy strode down the line in his usual murderous gait, nudging the two young cooks, Sally, the cold apps, salads, and dessert girl, and Drew, the eager and overly serious chef de parties. 

"Double your mise en place," Guy barked, "We're all getting fucked tonight. So go and have your smoke break, bitch, and cry about, then get back to your stations and work like hell. You have four hours."

Sally, her eyes wide and glossy as the crème caramels she was setting inside her fridge, asked, "Double? You want me to double my desserts? In four hours?"

Guy looked impassive. "Did I stutter?"

Panic hit Sally, and she visibly rocked on her heels. Guy thought she might faint. If she went down, then at least he and Chef would know she couldn't handle it. "Better now than in the middle of the fray." he thought. 

"Do you have any advice on how I'm supposed to do that?" Sally asked with terror in her throat. 

"Improvise," Guy answered, then, before turning on his heel, he added, "And pray."

He turned, anticipating seeing Drew bent over and cleaning slabs of fish; instead, the station was empty. If he had fled, it would be very bad; Drew's station was the kitchen's anchor. Guy walked past Chef's office and aimed for the back door, hoping to find Drew at the end of a cigarette. 

 The sunlight hit his face, blinding him for a moment. When his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he looked upon the ferociously ambitious young cook rubbing out a cigarette with the toe of his shoe. 

"You said we could have a smoke," Drew said anxiously. 

Guy smiled, pulled a pack from his pocket, and handed the kid a fresh stick. 

"Have another," he said, "It'll be your last until the moon comes out."

"Have you ever done a hundred covers in one night?" Drew asked, taking the cigarette and running beneath his nostrils. Guy was notorious for being a prankster and was not to be trusted. 

"Sure," Guy answered. "A hundred is a piece of piss. Try 240 every night. That'll chaff your balls."

"Yeah," Drew answered as if he'd known. "But I mean here, in this place."

"Nope. Pumping out a hundred a night here is too much, and if we're lucky enough to get a critic in tonight, it'll cost the place a star. Tonight will be 'pump and dump,' not dancing over each plate for three minutes."

Guy glanced at Drew. He looked sick.

"You're gonna love it, kid," he told him. "It'll be hell, but if we survive, you'll feel like a fucking warrior."

"What if we don't survive?"

"Then we don't, and that's that. Any other questions before we head in?"

Drew pulled a long draw on the cigarette and looked thoughtful. Finally, he looked up and nodded. "Yeah. How do we know if we're losing?"

He laid a hand on the kid's shoulder and said, " If he ignores the line and the machine and lets the chits fall to the floor because he's arguing with Quill—then we're done. Remember," Guy said as they walked along the hallway, "We're a machine. Chef drives, I'm the engine, and you're the anchor. If any of us break down—game over."

"Can't we take over if Chef is having a meltdown?" Drew asked. 

Guy stopped and yanked Drew back to face him. 

"If you never want to work in a kitchen again, sure, go ahead, step in front of Chef, and take his station. We don't do that. We go down with the ship."

When they returned to the kitchen, Chef was rapidly cleaning lamb racks for the popular Aringa d'Agnello al Forno, and on the tray next to him lay beef tenderloins, waiting to be prepped for his Filetto di Bue alla Griglia. 

Chef set his brigade to work in order of importance. "Guy, we'll need more blood orange sauce for the duck. Check that we have enough caviar for the grigliata. Then count what we have for quail and duck."

"Yes, Chef!" Guy snapped in reply. 

"Drew!" Chef called. 

The young cook sprang to his leader's side, "Yes, Chef!" he answered in kind. 

"Lots of fish prep."

"Yes, Chef."

"Start with char, at least a dozen scallopini, yes?"

"Yes, Chef."

"Stack the station. We have enough of everything, salmon, pike, perch, seabass, scallops, octopus, lobster."

"Yes, Chef."

"If I see you cleaning fish during service, I'll cut your hands off. Understood?"

"Yes, Chef."

"But before you start the fish, make double the fagottini—it will sell, and I don't want to run out early."

A rock fell into Drew's stomach. The Fagottini Ripieni di Ragout ai Funghi e Gorgonzola, an intricate filo pastry purse filled with mushroom ragout and gorgonzola, was the most time-consuming prep. It was delicate work requiring precise attention. With the amount of prep work (mise en place) on his list, he would be doubling the number of purses in half the time. 

His eyes flashed to the clock on the wall, and the black slashes looked as ominous as death's swords, cutting relentlessly toward his execution time. 

"Yes, Chef!" he answered, pausing a moment to wait for further commands, then with Chef paying him no more attention, Drew spun on his heels a double-timed it to the walk-in fridge. 

Around the corner from the hotline, in the coolest corner of the kitchen, Sally worked feverishly at her desserts. They exchanged only a look, and without a word, both cried out their panic and doomed immediate future. 

At a quarter to six, a mere fifteen minutes before the brigade faced the five-hour-long assault, Guy appeared on the line with a tray of espresso and set a cup before each. "Drink," he ordered. 

Drew raised his coffee to his lips and tilted it back, taking the caffeine injection down in one gulp.  

"Good, huh?" Guy asked. Then he took his serving and slugged it back. 

"Shit, was that a double?" Drew asked, shaking his head, trying to get his brain to focus his eyes. 

"A triple," Guy answered. 

Sally, who'd remained anxious all afternoon, grabbed her mug with both hands and drank the concoction in two gulps. "If you bitches slow me down tonight, I'll cut you," she said, brandishing her razor-sharp paring knife. 

"Okay," Guy replied, "I think we're ready."

By 8 p.m., pots, saucepans, ladles, spoons, cutting boards, knives, plates, platters, and trays were heaped in sinks and filled the dishwasher's table. The floor was a disaster of discarded foodstuffs. 

"Everyone," he called out. "Reset. We clean, restock, and get ready for round two. Fifteen minutes. I want your stations spotless, floors too. Smoke break, then change. Fresh jackets and new aprons. You all look like pigs. Make the food, don't wear it."

The answer was a unified bark, "Yes, Chef!"

It was a little past 9 p.m. when Drew looked at Sally, who understood his silent question, shrugged, and smiled in response. Then he turned to Guy, his square jaw set firm, his lips drawn tight as he and Chef focused intently on plating. For a brief moment, Drew believed they would make it through relatively unscathed.

Then the doors to the dining room swung open, and a very somber-looking Quill stepped through them with death on a platter—he was returning an entrée. 

 Chef saw Quill standing there, plate in hand, waiting to interrupt, but wouldn't dignify the Maître d' with his gaze. 

He barked from below. "What? What's the fucking problem?"

Quill cleared his throat and apologetically explained. "He says the filet is overcooked. He asked for rare."

The line stopped. Chef and the brigade converged on the returned plate. Chef stabbed the meat with a carving fork, raised it off the plate, and slapped it on the cutting board. Blood pooled beneath the steak. The sear was perfect; the center cherry-red—the epitome of "rare."

"You brought this back to me?" Chef asked a terrified-looking Quill. 

 "Yes, Chef."

  "Then you're both morons."

  "Fire another," Chef barked. "Mise en place. One filleto," he commanded icily. 

  "Yes, Chef!" Guy and Drew answered in unison. 

  "Rare?" Chef asked for clarification. 

  "The gentleman said, 'black and blue,' Chef."

Chef nodded. "Get out of my sight," he snarled at Quill, who gave a half-bow, turned on his heel, and nearly sprinted back through the doors. 

New orders came in, and the second plating of the Filetto di Bue alla Griglia – Grilled filet on a coulis of black olives—went out. 

 Two minutes later, Quill returned to the kitchen with the plate in his hand once more. 

  "You're fucking kidding me," Chef said. 

  "I'm sorry, Chef," Quill apologized, then painfully relayed that the customer still found the steak overcooked. 

  The machine kept spitting orders, which Chef ignored. No one touched the chits but Chef. Again, the kitchen ground to a halt. Nothing was being called for "ordering," "firing," or "picking up." Chef stood staring, with murder in his eyes, at Quill, whose hand was trembling, holding the plate in front of Chef. 

 "What did the sonofabitch say?" Chef asked. 

  A nervous smile flashed across Quill's face. "Does it matter, Chef?" he asked. "He would like another."

Chef eyed Quill carefully and asked again, "What. The. Fuck. Did. He. Say."

 Quill set the plate on the pass, slipped a finger behind his starched white collar, and cleared his throat. "Chef, I don't think--,"

  "—Tell me exactly what he said," Chef commanded.

  Quill stiffened, found his resolve, and repeated the diner's words.

"He asked if you knew how to cook a 'fucking slab of meat, or if you thought serving a hockey puck was acceptable.'"

 "Is that all?" Chef asked. 

  A fragile exhale of lungs filled the silence. Guy, Drew, and Sally hadn't moved, and with Chef's calm response, they thought that perhaps they weren't sunk yet. 

"No, Chef," Quill replied. "He asked if you knew what 'black and blue' meant."

 That was it. The breaking point. The snap. 

Guy turned, removed his apron, threw it in the garbage can, stepped over the roll of chits hanging from the machine on the pass and onto the floor, and left the kitchen. The orders for a dozen tables or more, starters, mains, and desserts, continued to spit from the machine. Ignored. Untouched. Abandoned. 

While Chef launched into his tirade against Quill, the futility of trying to educate heathens in the culinary arts, the greed of the wait staff seeing only a fattening of their pockets from extra tips, to the imbecilic brains of his useless Maître d', to the moron who'd returned his meal, not once, but twice, the rest of the wait slinked into the kitchen desperate to pick up orders for their tables, of which, there were none. 

Drew looked at the faces of the panic-stricken wait staff. No sign of Guy, and over his shoulder, Sally wiped tears from her eyes as she quietly plated a few desserts. He inched closer to Chef, then reached out and pulled the trail of orders off the machine. Then, Drew gave the nod to Sally, who tried to smile and nodded back. 

Drew turned and set pans on the range and began to cook. 

With Quill engaged with Chef, the wait staff, who stood stacked up six deep, recognized the change of kitchen control and shifted down the line to face Drew. In turn, each asked for the orders required for their tables. 

Things were moving again, but now Drew needed to get beside Chef to access the sauces in the steam table. Chef was in full fury now, shouting at Quill with his hands gesticulating; one held a paring knife that arced, jutted, and sliced through the air around him. 

He had no choice. Drew had to move into the danger zone.

Chef seemed not to notice Drew encroaching on his domain. He made no move to give the young cook easier access to what he needed, but he didn't impede his work either. He remained planted at the end of the line, screaming and gesturing wildly. 

As Drew bent over and plated his favorite dish on the menu, the Francio di Luccio- a parcel of pike wrapped in rice paper filled with spinach and set on gold caviar lemon butter sauce—he felt a sting at his temple. It was like a mosquito bite, except a sting didn't wobble—this sensation did. 

 Drew ignored the mild annoyance, but when he set the plate on the pass, the waiter on the other side looked back at him with eyes as wide as saucers. Puzzled by the expression, Drew shrugged. The waiter took the plate, turned, and exited the kitchen. 

 Quill, who seemed about ready to collapse from Chef's assault, flashed his eyes at Drew with a look of shock. Drew felt terrible for Quill but ignored him and moved on to the following order. He turned and handed Sally the next chit, one calling for pick-up on desserts, and Sally snapped straight, then raised a finger and pointed to her head. 

Drew looked at her, then raised his hand to his head. His fingers touched the wooden handle of the paring knife, which sat firmly lodged just above his temple. He strained his eyes to the left and, in his peripheral, saw the shiny steel embedded in his skull. A slow, warm trickle of dampness pooled in his ear. Unsure of what to do, Drew returned to face the hotline, took the next chit, and began assembling the orders. 

 At that moment, Guy returned to the kitchen wearing a fresh apron but stopped dead at the end of the line, staring at the cook with the knife lodged in the side of his head, slowly putting plates on the pass, and Chef still hollering at Quill.

As Guy walked onto the line and stood beside Chef, moving chits across the board, Chef concluded his tirade and pushed past Guy to Drew. Angrily he shouted at the young cook, "Quit fucking around!" Then he reached up, pulled the knife out, and turned and faced Guy.

  "Help him. Finish this shit. Obviously, this isn't my kitchen anymore." Then Chef marched off the line and disappeared down the hall. 

  Guy sidled up to Drew, "Where are we?"

 "Plating 15, firing 8, 2, and 11," Drew answered. 

 Guy shot a glance at the young cook. "He fucking stabbed you in the head?" Guy asked incredulously. 

 "I think it was an accident," Drew replied, "I think I walked into his knife. He was talking. You know how he can get."

Guy laughed. "And you kept cooking with a knife stuck in your skull? Are you okay? Does it hurt?"

"Not much. It was like a needle. I'm fine."

  Guy slapped Drew's shoulder and dug in for a manly rub. 

"No," he said, "You're good but not fine. It's too bad. I told you, 'We go down with the ship.'"

 A slightly intoxicated Chef returned to the kitchen at the end of the night. The place was spotless. Guy, Sally, and Drew stood with Quill on the waiter's side of the pass, laughing and joking as the grateful Maître d' refilled their wine glasses with a vintage Bordeaux. 

 Chef pushed into them, shoved Drew out of the pack, and, stabbing a finger into his chest, said, "You think you've got the balls to steal my kitchen from under my nose? You want to take that shot? You're not the first to try, but I'm still standing. You'll have to put me into the dirt before you return to this kitchen."

 The laughter was gone. The kitchen was silent. Then Chef gave his last command to Drew. "Roll your knives and get out of my kitchen, and if I see you again, it'll be you that gets carved up and served, black and blue."

A week later, a review came out in the Food & Culture section of the newspaper. A critic had found herself at La Tavola Appassionata on the busiest night of the year. She raved about the food, and Chef Arturo Pacioretti's restaurant gained its fifth star. 

July 22, 2023 01:44

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2 comments

Karen Corr
10:44 Jul 25, 2023

I enjoyed reading your story. Great tension build up.

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Arpad Nagy
02:18 Jul 28, 2023

Thanks so much!

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