Oil and Fire and Flesh

            When I walked through the front entrance of shimmering, smudge-free glass for the first time, I was in shock. Different from the last restaurant I cooked for. Certainly. The ceilings were so high I forgot how to look down. And dangling from them were strings adorned with sparkling white bulbs that swayed ever-so-slightly.

            Fountains of rushing water—spawning ferns and flowers and fish—sat perched in the back of the restaurant as a pair of overseeing eyes. They supervised a long stretch of loft, equipped with white-clothed tables. The plates and goblets and silverware shimmered, even after those who ate from them were finished.

            It overwhelmed. It ejected me from my own body and sent me soaring to spectate an immense culinary gallery.

            But what put me right back in my own little shell was the suited man who greeted me. He extended his slender fingers—nails painted red. “Good evening.”

            “It’s nice to meet you.” I shook his icy hand.

            He seemed amused by my blatant sensory overload, per a slight smirk on his thin lips. “You should see the kitchen.”

            We went through the pair of immaculate, stainless steel doors that swung gracefully on light hinges. There were two aisles of organized chaos. Like a dance. Chefs in blaring red coats communicated at a wicked pace. Fire spewed from gas burners, conducive to those wielding cast-iron. Hanging from the ceiling were swathes of cookware; knives—sharp as eagle talons—pots—glistening like jewels—and cutting boards—bleached clean.

            The man, yet to give his name, led me down one of the lines with hands coupled behind his back. And those in our company—the chefs plowing through their craft—didn’t flinch. They didn’t acknowledge either of us. If anything, they tightened up their technique.

            He led me into an office. It, too, was immaculately assembled yet stark in its composition. The chairs that framed the glossy, long black desk were without a blemish. And that desk—naked of dust—reflected the man’s face as he sat behind it.

            I sat in the second chair.

            “I am the chef,” he stated. He didn’t look like a chef. He didn’t have a chef’s hands. But it was the firmest, rawest, and loudest set of words that emerged from his lips thus far.

            I’d have been a fool not to believe him. “Who owns the place? Who built it?”
           “Everything is mine.” He tented his fingers. “Food draws the people. Pays every bill. Why shouldn’t I be the engine here?”

            There was no arguing with him. “This is a famed restaurant. Well known for its beef dishes. Why take interest in someone like me? Especially when you consider where I came—”

            “You are the opposite of spontaneous. You are the future.”

            What else could I do but nod? But smile?

            “I have no doubt you’ll catch on quickly.” He smiled, now. “But before I let you into my little garden, I have to show you one more part of it.”

            That’s when we went outside.

            His restaurant was perched high on a hilltop, overlooking a utopic stretch of suburbs. Those homes had manicured lawns, vast windows, and shimmering swimming pools. But hidden down the slopes, through a bout of dark, dark wood, was a building so out of place. And yes, this notion takes into consideration everything I had seen in that restaurant.

            He had taken me to a secluded section of this forest. The trees were bare despite the season’s warmth. Despite its bloom. No birds—not even crows—cawed. No mole or rat scurried.

Only the chef and I.

            This building was cinderblock. No windows. It was small and sturdy. Compact. Like a bunker. One of its four walls hosted a thick steel door with a massive, rusted lock chained to its handle. And as the chef sorted through the various keys on his keyring, he turned his head vaguely toward me. “Effective tomorrow, you will be the new chef.”

            I hadn’t even touched a pan yet. Hadn’t felt the pressure of a Saturday evening dinner rush. “T-tomorrow? What about you?”

            He unchained the door. “Are you passionate about cooking?” he asked me. “I would be utterly disappointed to find it not be the case.”

            “Of course. More passionate than anything.”

            “So, I assume you accept this change, yes?”

            “Yes.” I made fists at my sides. “I just don’t want to disrespect you.”

            “You’ll have to do a lot more than that.” He pulled the door open, slowly, so that a long, groaning sigh came from its hinges. And on the other side, gazing at us with a spectral eye, was a long shadow exhumed by the dead forest around us. It cascaded down a narrow staircase. And its darkness was pierced by a yellow bulb that dangled by an anemic wire.

            He gestured toward the descent.

            I took an initial step. The stone below my shoe carried a frost so cold it teethed on my toes. And as we continued to shuffle onward, down the stairwell, the air stopped moving. It became harsher in its already electric chill. The bulb, as we passed it, blinded me to the point of ringing ears. Though when that blare abated, I was at the bottom of the stairs.

            And a racket emerged.

            There was another door in front of us. One which masked that clatter which continued to drum and drum away. Though unlike a drum it lacked rhythm. It wasn’t measured and composed and ready. It carried no such instrumental qualities. No. This noise was pure catharsis. Pure primality. “What is that?”

            “Steak.”

            The door opened.

            It revealed a wide room lit by panels of white, buzzing, industrial light that flooded the space with sterility. It rained upon everything with no relent. It assaulted the steel walls. It made seeing painful.

            But not as painful as the sights themselves.

            Hewn into the walls were large, barred enclosures. Two on either side of me. And from each one came that dreadful racket in the form of life. It was life that clung to desperation for survival. Life that dreamt of seeing the sun. Life that didn’t glare or gaze. Only life that stared through petrification.

            Humans.

            People.

            Their mouths sewn shut.

            The hooks that hung from the ceiling made sense. The slight dips in floor. The drains they led to.

            “The first dish you make at this restaurant is in this room,” the chef said.

            I gave him a look awfully similar to those around me. My eyes asked an obvious question, Are you insane? However, my mouth asked a different one. “Wh-why?”

            “I’m at the top. This is what it took to get here. You are what it takes to stay.”

            My mouth gaped. “I-I can’t do this.”

            He assaulted me with icy eyes. He let the clatter speak for a moment’s time. “You’re going to do it. Because the nail must go in the coffin.” With each word he grew closer. “Because tonight the most important dish must be made. And it’s going to be made by you.”

            I swallowed no words.

            “Because I thought you were passionate about cooking.” He brought his stare to his right hand.

            I looked there, too.

            In it was a shimmering object of ferocious sharpness: an eight-inch Damascus steel cleaver that peered at me along with everyone else in the room.

            “Take it,” he said.

            I had it within my fingers before I could protest.

            The chef took several steps from me and moved toward the middle of the room. He began to remove every article of clothing. Each piece of his suit one by one. He started the process with his coat and ended it with his left sock. And throughout this period of time, he treated it like the shower was warming up in front of him. Routine.

            I stood, blade uncomfortably in hand, trying to combat the stares and noises that came from either side of me.

            “You’ll need this.” He retrieved his coat from the floor and pulled from its pocket a piece of folded paper. He handed it to me. “Everything you must do next I have written for you.”

            “I-I don’t—”

            “Read it.”

            The cleaver’s glistening blade told everyone that my hands shook uncontrollably. The swallowing I took every second said my mouth was dry. And the gape of my eyes informed of the gravity of what I was decreed to do.

            The chef knelt onto the floor. He faced the only wall without bars or a door. He stared at nothing.

            I folded the note back up. I placed it in a pocket of my own. I unleashed a serrated sigh. All my focus went into the cleaver clutched by my white-knuckled fingers.

            The men and women in the enclosures clung to the bars that kept them. Their eyes were sullen and intrigued and perennially glued to us. No one looked elsewhere. And if their lips weren’t sewn together, they still wouldn’t’ve been speaking. Because the morbid fang in my hand did the bloody talking.

            I drove the piece of immaculate metal into his nape.

            The chef’s blood filled those thirsty drains.

***

            Oil and fire and flesh.

            It drove the kitchen.

            The cut of human steak that I placed on a sizzling pan stared back at me. And in every sinew of that meat was the calculation he spoke so adamantly about. Because in that note he left, the chef didn’t dawdle. He didn’t ramble on about how he’d lived his life and in what manner he wanted to be remembered by friends and family and staff. No. He bragged about his perfect diet down to each particle of fat and protein and vitamin. How his flesh would be utterly perfect to dine.

            And all of that—all of that vanity—stared back at me. It spoke to me through sizzling. It made my mouth water with scents.

            I ran a large knife through the mass of a carrot. I made thin slices with the precision of a stable mind. I wiped the cutting board with a rag and introduced a sleeve of garlic. Like how I crushed the chef’s skull I crushed a few cloves. I threw them in the pan with the carrots. It was about time to flip the steak over.

            About time.

            Still had a couple minutes.

            I glanced out into the dining room through the pristine glass. And sitting beside one of those towering fountains was the man who would taste this dish. The man with a palate immaculate enough to place a restaurant in the grand hierarchy of fine dining. Who would decide the fate of this place’s success.

He had come dressed in attire that suggested a funeral.

            Black from throat to toe.

            All except a red amulet that glistened on his chest.

            He pawed through the hot, doughy rolls in the basket before him. With his plump, meaty fingers he tore a steaming wad from one of them. Those jowls of his took the bread with a great dead-pan expression. One that stood out like the rushing water at his back.

            I had stared for long enough. Time to flip over the next thing he’d eat.

            The cut of steak oozed a gentle stream of fat. With a touch of muscle into the pan, the meat was flipped onto its opposite side. A shot of fire from the burner set alight every inch of metal in the kitchen with orange. All anyone needed was a couple more minutes. Just a couple more minutes.

            Then the chef was ready.

            And as the filet sizzled in its baste, I wiped a veneer of sweat from my brow. I could taste the salt from that same sweat which dripped. Veins bulged from my red, oil-laden skin. My hands quivered in an emerging famish. All else blurred except that cut of animal in the pan. And when those couple minutes were up, I carried it on a hot dish to one akin.

            To an animal whose mouth was wet with diabolic hunger.

            Who couldn’t wait to have a taste.

***

            I had ironed and hung his suit up in that spotless office.

            It looked truly marvelous drenched in the hues of the windowpane. The fabric hadn’t a blemish on it. The tie’s silk nearly glistened like the critic’s amulet. And after glancing my attire up and down I decided the tie may suit me a little better. Though, once I buttoned those cuffs and gave the mirror a healthy look, it was a tad bit big on me.

            I just needed a little more meat on my bones.