I travelled for months searching for the opportunity to cook for high society. Working for chefs up and down the country, many with great skill, most with little more than egos to protect them from the truth. I also waited on the common man and learned the trade of servants well. I applied myself with consummate dedication, until the day my first patron snapped her fingers and summoned me to her table. She was dressed in a gown the like of which I had never seen in my life. I can remember thinking that it must have cost more money than I would ever make. And she wore it with such nonchalance that she exuded an almost banal selflessness. As she gave me her order she looked through me, but with a reassurance grounded in her own self-assurance. She was monolithic, a towering presence that could not have been more than five feet tall. She spoke with a clarity and zeal that cut through the bustle of the room, but never once raised her voice. Madam Sabine ate her meal and left without ever addressing me other than to place her order, but she had made an indelible impression on me.
I waited and waited, hoping and praying for her to return, but she never did. I scolded myself for not having taken the opportunity that had presented itself to me, night after night I berated myself to sleep. But one day, in the market, I saw her entourage pass on the street and I cast off my anger and walked right up to her. To her credit she remembered my face and allowed me to speak, but I stumbled. Ever the noble, she told me to compose myself and try again. I told her of my culinary mastery. I told her that I could not gain employment as all the chefs who I demonstrated for in interviews wasted no time in dispatching me from their kitchen with hateful jealousy. Her obvious disbelief showed me that I was losing her attention, so I challenged her to pick the most mundane of ingredients in the market and declared that I would make her a meal out of them which would be so profound as to ensure my position as her personal chef.
Though cultured and of an innate class above even those of high society, the Madam pondered and then smirked a playful acceptance before perusing the stalls. One by one she stepped up to the various foods nearby, her body language gloating yet enticing, and paused, glancing at me to glean a reaction which never came. I played along, silent, unmoving. I don’t know why but it seemed to enthuse her. When she had finished I held in my hands a potato, a dried radish and a withered leek. Raising an eyebrow in appreciation of her abilities, I bowed.
That night I found myself stood in her kitchen, surrounded by the finery of wealth. Pots larger than I knew could be cast hung high in the rafters, a small unused ladder for retrieving said pots stood in the corner, leaning against the brilliant white tiles that covered every inch of the walls. The worktops were vast. Almost saddened by their pristine appearance I knew at first glance that they were not in regular use. There was a contrast of show and function in that place, such that I was both eager to soil it in order to prove myself, and yet also wanting to not disturb the vigil which it seemed to uphold. Without a further thought I slung open drawers and presses until I found the implements of my salvation from the mundane world of anonymity.
In no time steam and clattering clanks of loving labour sung aloud and filled that hallowed hollow in the heart of the Madam’s manor. I was so focused on my commission that I didn’t hear her knock and enter. She would be dining alone, bar her usual personal attendant lurking always by the door. But to the kitchen she had come alone. Still the very definition of elegance, she wore a more simple, yet expensive, fitted dinner dress. She smiled and surveyed my work then nodded her approved and bounced in her step as she turned and floated away. She was perfect in that moment, innocent but knowing, maternal yet youthful. I remember thinking how what she was about to experience would change her, and how that was in a way a kind of shame. But I didn’t hesitate. Before the door had swung shut behind her I was again to my work.
Stood there, the Madam’s attendant leering down his nose at me, I presented my host with a glass of wine from her own cellar, with a flavourless additive of my devise, of course. As she sipped it I spoke of the craft I had honed in my fictitious past. I charmed, or at least thought that I charmed my way through a speech I had rehearsed so many times that even I believed it. I cast a swathe of historic establishments at which I had fine-tuned my skills, and some abominable hovels which I had managed to escape only by sheer chance. She smiled and allowed my chorus of pomp, as a noble would, then dipped her chin and raised her eye brows before glancing behind me at the kitchen doors. Smirking, the attendant offered his assistance, but I declined with thanks and returned to the kitchen to retrieve the radish soup. The attendant grimaced at the garish sight I placed before the Madam, but I knew well that she had been taken in by the serum by her fixation on the woeful and lame peasant dish before her. She contained herself with gracious calm, eyeing it for a moment, no doubt attempting to explain to herself the power that such a thing had over her. Enthralled, Madam Sabine lifted her gold plated spoon and skimmed a veneer of liquid into it. As she lifted it to her pursed lips my own mimicked hers until she sipped it and her eyes peeled open with vivid shock and locked themselves onto mine. A crazed glancing blast of awe erupted and passed from her to me then darted away with the lifelong grace trained into the Madam, but she had given herself away. She had shown me the weight of her desire for my cooking and, most of all, she knew that I had seen it when I smiled a knowing nod. She hurried, yet savoured her soup, no doubt unravelling the minute flavours woven through the water and the radish; clay and tang and air and all the hereditary power of the plants genealogy, onions, beets and the long lost other variants. As the bowl emptied and Madam Sabine squirmed in her privacy I went to retrieve the next dish.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey