“You should open your own restaurant.”
All of my guests end up saying this. I have heard it from countless friends that have been over for dinner, or at barbeques I was throwing, or from people who ate food I brought to some potluck. At some point towards the end of the meal they would say, “You should open your own restaurant,” or, “You should have your own cooking show,” and I would force a small smile and say that I’m not a professional and I wouldn’t make it. I say that it’s just the fact that it is a home-cooked meal that makes it seem outstanding, but it’s really nothing special.
“No, I’m serious. That was absolutely delicious. I never knew you could cook like this!” Elliott responds, laughing. I chuckle and start to clear the plates from the table. “Are you sure you didn’t go to culinary school at some point and just forgot to mention it to everyone?”
“I’m pretty sure I couldn’t even get into culinary school, let alone pass it.”
“Rick, that was amazing! What’s your secret?”
“There’s no secret.”
“You have to have a secret. Why else would you keep the door to your kitchen locked and bolted?”
I glance over to my kitchen door, with its two bolt locks and a chain lock and a space for a heavy-duty padlock that I only use when I go to sleep and currently have hidden in the chest bureau in the hall. All of them have only one key, and all of those keys are on my key ring in my left pocket.
“I had those installed because this apartment has a horrible draft, and that door is very heavy. After the fourth or fifth time of being smashed against the walled when I was going to make tea, I figured some stabilizers would be a good idea.”
Elliott stares at the door. “Bullshit.” He leans in and takes the stack of dishes I had made and slides them out of my reach. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “This is a real talent, Rick. I’m a reporter on Los Angeles’s art scene, so I’ve been to my fair share of swanky soirees and restaurants. I’ve eaten some fantastic food made by world class chefs, famous and renowned as the top in their field. This, what you’ve made tonight, is better than anything I’ve ever had. Why don’t you do something with this? I could help you, I know the right people.”
None of my guests have ever said that before. I sit down.
“Come on, you have to want to do something more with your life. Chartered accountancy can’t be what you’re really interested in.”
I sigh and look at the stack of dishes on the other side of Elliott. He was right, of course, but not about my job as an accountant (which I thoroughly enjoyed) or about my culinary talents. I’m not a bad cook, but the most elaborate dish I can make is lemon chicken and that’s only because I buy those pre-made spice mixtures from the store. But I did have a secret.
Behind the door with three locks sits a kitchen like anyone else’s; a refrigerator, a collection of dinnerware from Ikea, a cupboard filled with basic seasonings and Kraft mac n’ cheese, a food disposal that doesn’t really work and a dishwasher that seems to make dishes dirtier. No fancy cooking appliances, no extravagant spices from the Orient, no ancient cookbook detailing long-forgotten recipes; just a simple, normal kitchen. Nothing special.
Nothing special, that is, except one very peculiar oven.
About eight months ago, I had gotten home late after a long day at work. I had gone to the grocery store to buy ingredients for a meal I was going to cook for a lunch date I would be having the following day. A girl I had gone on a few dates with was going to be coming over and I wanted to impress her with some show of culinary ability. I stumbled into my kitchen and opened the fridge to find all the space taken up by take-out leftovers boxes and overripe fruit. I would have started throwing things away to make room, but I was tired from work and just decided to throw everything into the oven since the chicken needed to thaw anyway. I just needed some sleep, and then I could wake up early and put everything into the fridge before it started to spoil.
Apparently I needed more than just a little bit of sleep because I slept right past my alarm and was only awoken by my cell phone ringing. I groggily answered it, only to find that my date was outside my condo, waiting to be let in. I quickly put on some clothes, donned a nice cabby hat to hide my bed hair and jogged to the front door. I opened it and let her in. I took her coat and we exchanged pleasantries.
“I can’t wait to see what you’ve cooked, I’m starving.”
Motherfucker, I thought, the food! What the hell am I going to feed this woman?! I started to make a mental inventory of all the leftovers I had in the fridge, trying to figure out what kind of meal I could put together on the fly.
“Mmmmm,” my date said, taking in a deep breath, “It smells wonderful in here. You must be quite the cook.”
In my rush to meet my date I hadn’t notice the aromas emanating from the kitchen and filling the apartment, but yes, it did smell very good. Had I turned on the oven before I went to bed? I imagined the inside of my oven, with burnt chicken and vegetables covered in melted plastic bags and a billow of smoke just waiting to be let loose. But would that smell this good? I wondered.
“What did you cook for us today?”
I looked at her and tried to hide my panic. “It’s . . . it’s a surprise.”
She giggled. “Very intriguing. Well, I brought the wine. Shall we get started?”
I led her into the dining room, where I opened the bottle of wine and filled two glasses. We sat there, chatting about God knows what. I don’t remember any of the conversation from that day. I just wanted to stall her as long as I could, not wanting to see what mess lay beyond my kitchen door. It was a futile plan.
“Save some wine for the meal Rick,” my date told me, with a suggestive look on her face, “I don’t have any other plans for the day, so I’m all yours. There’s no rush.” She smiled, a smile that I would have normally found as an extremely good sign, but I was too worried about what the hell I was going to do to appreciate it. There was no more room for stalling.
“I am going to get the food now,” I said in a mechanical voice as I stood up and walked to the kitchen. I started to close the door behind me, proclaiming about how my methods in the kitchen are an old family secret and if I showed any of them to her I’d have to kill her. It was a bad joke but she laughed anyway. I shut the door and turned to the oven.
It was set to “WARM”. There was no smoke coming from it. In front of the oven, all of the plastic bags lay on the floor. I didn’t remember taking everything out before I put it into the oven, but I was just glad that they didn’t cook. The chicken would still be covered in plastic wrap, and all the vegetables would be ruined, but at least the plastic bags didn’t cook. I leaned over and began to pick up the bags, but those weren’t the only things that I found on the floor. There was also the plastic from around the chicken, a container of “Aunt Miriam’s Lemon-Pepper Spice Mix”, all the twisty-ties that held the bundles of vegetables together, and a bar of fancy hand soap I bought for my bathroom. I definitely do not remember taking those out. I went to my refrigerator and opened the door only to find what I had seen the night before; leftovers and rotting fruit taking up every bit of available space.
The most dreadful times aren’t the ones where everything you can imagine that could go wrong do go wrong. At least those times you are somewhat prepared for, you create an image in your mind labeled “When Everything Goes To Shit” and start to prepare yourself for it. It’s terrifying, but it’s not overwhelming. The true terror comes when you are faced with a situation in which you are in no way prepared for. No preparation could be done because what is happening is beyond your understanding of the actual world. A grim and bleak picture is replaced by an entirely black canvas, a void with no rhyme or reason. And despite Nietzsche’s words, when you stare into the abyss you don’t care if it stares back into you; you’re too busy defecating yourself .
I stood in front of my oven, put my hand on the oven door handle, and pulled the door open.
There, in the middle of the rack and on a broiling pan, was a perfectly roasted chicken. In a small pan on a lower rack were all the vegetables, glazed and looking delicious. I definitely didn’t do this before I went to bed.
“Rick? Are you okay? You’ve been in there five minutes.”
I came out of a daze, not realizing I had just been standing there in the middle of my kitchen, gawping at the food in my oven.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just got caught up glazing the carrots one final time.” I took the food out of the oven and set it on top of the stove. I grabbed some plates, cut off a breast and leg for her and a thigh and wing for me, scooped some vegetables onto each plate, and then drizzled some drippings from the chicken over everything. I picked up some napkins and started to close the oven door when I eyed some just underneath the grate covering the burner. Was that a hand? A tiny hand? I thought as the door closed shut. Placing utensils on each plate, and then holding a dish in each hand I pushed the kitchen door open with my rear end and went back into the dining room.
“Voila,” I said, and placed the dish in front of her. My date’s mouth hung open as she stared at her food.
“Wow,” she said, flustered, “this looks fantastic.”
“Well . . . I try.”
She slowly picked up her fork and knife, cut off a small piece of breast and then lanced a carrot chunk, and then slowly put it into her mouth. She chewed and chewed. I held my breath, worrying that maybe the food was somehow poisoned. And then her eyes widened, as far as they could go, and then drowsily closed as she made a face of pure ecstasy. I have come to understand that ecstasy, true ecstasy, is not caused just by sexual activity but by the simple and unmistakable overload of a single sense. Out of all the human senses taste is the most complex, and when it overloads your entire body begins to quiver with what I can only describe as the joy of God.
“Oh . . . my . . . goodness,” my date stammered.
I began to eat the food that was on the plate in front of me. It was that good. But who had cooked it? Who had thrown all of my plastic bags out of the oven and then cooked me a meal that was 100% going to get me laid tonight? Was that a tiny hand dashing away underneath my oven?! These questions raced through my mind for the rest of the night. Well, they raced up until the point when about twenty minutes after we finished our meal, my date stood up, gently took my hand and asked, “Would you like to show me what kind of sheets you have on your bed?” They were a dark chocolate brown, and I was more than happy to show her.
But after the one or two (or three or four) times we had made love, after she had finally fallen asleep with her head on my chest, snoring softly, I began to think about my oven. Most likely I had gotten up when my alarm went off, prepared everything, and then gotten back into to bed without remembering any of it because I was so tired. It’s not that hard to roast a chicken so I could have done it. But that hand, that little hand; what was that about? Was that just an illusion, a part of a dream that lingered? Why did it only have four fingers?
These thoughts bounced through my head until I, too, drifted off into sleep, where I dreamed that my oven was filled with a thousand tiny men that dragged me into the oven to cook me for their evening meal.
—– This story will be concluded in The Tiny Chefs – Part 2 next week. —–