The Acuity of the Senses
Fame and two stars. His burbot with foie gras emulsion...
©David Todd McCarty
Fame and two stars. His burbot with foie gras emulsion. His double cream of escargot. His truffled lobster. His beef cheek with lemon confit is talked about far and wide. His duckling with nettles has brought more than one diner to the brink of ecstasy. His creativity enthrals the most refined palates; his appreciation of contrast and emphasis makes every single dish a gastronomic adventure. A cuisine composed like music, where scores are constantly rearranged so that every note brings a surprise. An unmistakeable signature.
An elegant, considerate and assiduous team in the dining room. At the ready to attend to requests of all natures or the slightest sign of impatience, with a touch of humour to lighten the mood. A highly experienced team in the kitchen. Performing an opera without raising voices. An opera matching the tempo of the waiters’ ballet. Confident gestures, surgical precision. Palates trained to recognise the most subtle flavours. Able to identify no less than thirty spices and ingredients in one bite.
At the heart of it all, the produce. The top quality that Robin ferrets out at the market in person. Twice a week at dawn. Directly from the producers. One menu per season, created around what is available. Local, organic, the absolute best.
Robin is lionised, cited as a reference. It seems that nothing can stop his stratospheric ascent. Soon, his third star will shine brightly in his firmament, guiding even more customers towards his restaurant. Just like the Evening Star.
And yet, one thing troubles him. Even though he has surrounded himself with the best of the best, he has completely neglected the issue of quotas. A staff of fifty-four, but not a single woman among them. Totally unacceptable in this day and age. His standing might suffer. Yet, as timely as ever, luck has it that among the pile of pending applications on his desk, begging for attention, lies the profile of a young woman who already has outstanding experience. An opportunity to start evening things up.
For the first few days, this new addition to the team is a marvel. Blessed with an exceptionally keen palate and sense of smell, Mathilde can detect the earliest hints of rotting fruit. It is not long before Robin decides to bring her along when he tours the farms and market gardeners.
A lobster sparks the first outburst. Even though every single step must keep time, Mathilde suddenly digs her heels in and refuses to subject the crustacean to the prolonged agony of being steamed. The side dishes are ready; the other orders will be ready in twelve minutes. The slightest hiccup will delay service or cause other dishes to go cold, clearly a catastrophe at this level of excellence. Robin, who always has an eagle eye on everything, tries to take over from his new employee. But she brandishes the net in one hand and a large meat knife in the other, daring anybody to come any nearer.
“She’s a nutter,” thinks Robin.
But there is no time for drama in the kitchen, every second counts. It is vital to maintain the hushed atmosphere, to avoid any negative waves that might harm the arrangement of molecules and upset the team in the middle of its high-wire act.
He opts for his most soothing voice to risk a gentle “Now then, Mathilde,” as he moves closer to the aquarium, ready to fish out another lobster with his bare hands.
Over a minute has gone by. Disaster could still be averted if they cook the lobster in boiling water rather than steam and hope that the customer won’t notice. A painful concession for Robin, who is usually utterly uncompromising.
Mathilde is one step ahead of him. She lays the crustacean on a chopping board, legs up, and slices it lengthwise with a single thrust of the knife.
“Torture never tastes good,” she assures him, tossing the corpse into the water.
Robin swears he will fire her. Gross professional misconduct, insubordination, and risking all the work for which he has sacrificed sleep and a personal life. He hesitates, however, when he sees that they still manage to serve all four orders at the same time. He even changes his mind completely when, as they settle the bill, the one who had the lobster books to come back.
Invisible walls everywhere. No escape. His universe confined by glass ceilings on all sides, barely space to turn around. Fellow creatures all over the place; he has never been so cramped in his life. A crushing sensation; gasping for air. To top it all, maimed, shackled and cuffed. His companions’ stress echoes his own. It’s impossible to grasp what is happening, but their anguish is so intense it is palpable.
Abruptly fished out of his element, thrust into unfamiliar surroundings, disoriented, and still bound. Flung through the air, then into the pot, infernal heat, and walls of steel. He’s struggling, screaming and lashing out. His nervous system is firing out warning signals. He’s thrashing around, arching his back. The lid lifts slightly before falling once more like a relentless gavel delivering its sentence. He shrieks again and this time it wakes him up. He’s soaking wet, sweating from every pore, but alive and well in his bed. Determined to take lobster off the menu. Once and for all.
He wakes up at dawn, as usual. But for once he skips his market rounds. Montreux to Savona, seven hundred and fifty-four kilometres, a nine-hour round trip. And a feeling of immense joy when he throws the eleven aquarium inmates back into the sea. He is moved to tears as he watches the crustaceans retrieve their freedom. He seizes the moment to sample and purchase a few local delicacies and devours the miles back home with an extraordinary sense of atonement, of having unearthed a treasure deep within himself.
After crossing the border, his euphoria starts to wear off. He thinks of the cream of escargot he had been planning to make that evening, but far from inspiring the usual thrill, the prospect suddenly weighs heavily on his heart. To be honest, the mere thought of what is in store for the gastropods makes him feel sick. Is it the bends in the road or all those hours behind the wheel that have scrambled his stomach? He tries to cling to this explanation, yet feels it slipping away.
Where has all that joy gone, the joy he felt earlier as he embraced the intoxicating freedom of the surviving lobsters? What’s the point of today’s deed if, as soon as he gets back, he’s going to take snails that have been starved for at least a fortnight and disgorge them three times with coarse salt? Would Mathilde agree to the cruel act of forcing all the water out of their bodies? And to then bring them slowly to the boil while they still cling to life, despite the abuse they’ve endured? How many days must they suffer to give mere seconds of delight?
Annoyed by his sudden sentimentality, he tries to push this absurd equation out of his mind; but the more he pushes it away, the more it takes root. This is what he gets for hiring a woman. Barely ten days since she started work and things aren’t what they used to be anymore. He should’ve dealt with this disruptive element at the first misdemeanour. Rising bile prevents him from mulling it over any further. Before he can stop his van, he throws up the wild boar salami he had eaten for lunch. A foul stench of gastric acid fills the air.
Robin opens the windows, swills out his mouth with some dregs of mineral water, and gives in. Too bad for his double cream of escargot, which had once earned him the cover of a glossy magazine. He envisions a version with porcini mushrooms, and the adjustments that would be needed to tickle adult taste buds and revive childhood memories. After all, he has always known how to reinvent himself.
On his return from Italy, given that the restaurant was closed that day, he was not expecting to find Mathilde at the stove. She blushes at being caught in the act of working overtime and taking initiative.
“Completely unmanageable,” thinks Robin, while he tries to identify all the ingredients in the delicate waft of scallop terrine pervading the air.
“It’s just a suggestion, an alternative to the lobster for the next few days,” she stammers in her defence.
“I really hope you’re not trying to take my place already,” he protests, while admitting in his heart that, if the aroma is anything to go by, she seems to have achieved a near perfect balance. “Well, since you’re here, you may as well help me.”
He points to the crate of snails and notices she tenses up.
“It’s just that… I…”
“Hurry up! It weighs a ton.”
She sheepishly follows him, surprised to see him leave the kitchen, and then the restaurant itself. He asks her to open the back of the van. She obeys and watches astounded as he puts the crate inside.
“Where are you taking them?”
“To the forest, to scatter them like Hansel and Gretel’s pebbles.”
“Are you serious?”
Her face lights up, just like when a child sees a Christmas tree.
They arrive shortly before nightfall. As the crate gets lighter, their laughter gets louder. Two mischievous youngsters in the middle of a prank. And both feeling lighter and lighter in themselves too.
“This is good karma,” declares Mathilde with such a twinkle in her eye that he suddenly wants to kiss her.
The release of the last few snails brings him as much joy as his second star. As he watches them escape, he suddenly notices a bed of morels, just a little further away.
“That’s good timing,” comments Mathilde, “we’ve got room in the crate.”
With his appetite whet by the scents of the undergrowth, Robin realises he hasn’t kept any food down since the previous day. When a world-renowned chef stops at a traditional inn, it does not go unnoticed.
“Will you let me buy you dinner?” asks Mathilde.
Robin nods, delighted with the unexpected turn the day has taken, and lets himself be tempted by a fillet of sole in cream, garnished with shallots, tarragon and mustard. A delicate dish that, while lacking in originality, can count on its solid values and the emotions memories rouse.
When their meals arrive, Robin notices the care given to presentation. A lack of creativity, but dedication to do things well. He is about to cut into his fish when a feeling of suffocation engulfs him. There’s no air; he needs to open the windows; the air feels utterly stale. He tries to stand up, falls back into his chair, squirms and writhes, feeling more breathless with every movement. “This sole is guzzling my air,” he says, pushing the plate away, while Mathilde, the chef and the other customers all look on anxiously.
Sending the fish back untouched would mean ruining a competitor’s reputation. If he doesn’t touch it, nobody would ever order it again. He tries to reason with himself, picks up his fork again and quite clearly feels the pain of the hook like a bone stuck in his throat. No, he really can’t do it. Besides, beneath the harmony of the sauce, he now detects a note of ammonia, a lingering odour of mercury and traces of an oil spill. This fish carries with it all the horrors inflicted on the sea.
Disheartened, Robin pushes the plate away for the second time. He’s not the least bit hungry anymore.
One year later, the restaurant he had built around meat dishes causes a stir with an entirely vegan menu. But uncompromising quality, uttermost attention to the smallest details, and unbridled creativity like never before, sweep away any initial doubts. Having momentarily wobbled on its pedestal, the second star proves it was well deserved, and rumour has it among those in the know that a third might well be on its way.
With a smile on his lips, Robin leans over his pot of basil. He is stopped in his tracks by the sight of a slug, mouth gaping, devouring the young plant and its tender leaves alive. He feels their quivering like an electric shock. Suddenly, it all becomes quite clear to him: His basil is in excruciating pain.
This short story was awarded first prize in the short story competition Writing about food disgust organised by the Alimentarium in autumn 2020.
(Translated from the original in French)