Chef Ribauld sneered at the plate I set under the warmer and rotated it like it might look better from another angle. He scraped away some of the sauce on top, then he jabbed a knife into the center of the chicken parmesan and sliced it open, ruining the presentation and revealing a blackened crust and a too-pink center.
“What is this slop? The outside is burnt, the inside is undercooked, and the sauce is smeared on the plate like a toddler’s art project! The guest will die from salmonella poisoning if they don’t choke first on the mushy pasta!” He dumped the food into the trash can then slapped the plate on the counter so hard it vibrated for a moment before rattling to a rest. My heart skittered along with it.
I wanted to drop my eyes to the floor to avoid his fiery gaze, but I didn’t dare. “I’m sorry, Chef. I’m a little distracted, but it won’t happen again.”
He didn’t bother to ask what was on my mind, just put a fist on his hip and jabbed a finger at me. “Make sure it doesn’t, or get out of my kitchen!”
I wanted to pull off my chef’s coat and walk out. I had bigger worries on my mind that burnt chicken, but I knew that would tick him off even worse. Instead, I scurried away, wiping my sweaty palms on my pants and furiously blinking away the tears that pooled in my eyes as I called out into the kitchen, “We need a re-fire on the chicken parm!”
“He’s been watching too much Hell’s Kitchen. He thinks he’s Gordon Ramsey,” my sister, Abby, grumbled as she glared at him over my shoulder. He did kind of look like the abrasive chef, with a face that was permanently red and wrinkled from scowling and yelling.
“He’s right. That plate was unacceptable. I never should’ve let it get through to the pass,” I said, but inside I was thinking that, if I was head chef, I’d never treat my staff that way.
Of course, I’d never get to be a head chef if I made mistakes like that. It didn’t matter that I was distracted by personal problems. You had to leave those at the door when you entered the kitchen. The kitchen was like a machine, every part had to work in sync. If one part faltered, the whole operation failed. And as the sous chef, it was my job to make sure every dish that left the kitchen was perfect.
I moved from station to station, following the food as it was cooked to ensure each chef got their part right. When I was satisfied that everything was perfect, I carried the plate to the pass and set it down carefully, turning it to present the best angle to Chef Ribauld. “Chicken parm, Chef.”
He sneered at it again, turning it this way and that, but didn’t dissect it. Instead, he nodded and called out, “Order up!”
That was as close to praise as I ever got from him. I didn’t like working for him, but I didn’t have much choice unless I wanted to leave Sweet Bay. The Sweet Bay Table was the only restaurant in town with a true kitchen. I didn’t want to flip burgers at the diner, I wanted to be a real chef.
The dining room was slow that night, leaving me more time than usual to contemplate my future. Thoughts of leaving Sweet Bay flitted through my mind like they did every so often. I’d have so many more opportunities if I did. But Sweet Bay was my home, and I didn’t want to leave my family or the community that I loved.
The other fantasy was to open my own restaurant, but I didn’t have the capital or the business experience, so that was nothing but a pipe dream. I’d just have to put up with Chef Ribauld’s grating personality and hope that someday he’d retire and I could be promoted. Too bad he was barely 50 and wouldn’t think about retiring for at least another decade.
When there were no orders on the rack and most everyone was standing around, looking bored, I sucked up the nerve to approach him. “Chef, would it be alright if I left early tonight? My grandmother is really sick, and—”
He shooed me away with a wave of his hand before I had a chance to finish speaking. He didn’t care, anyway. He’d probably fire his own grandma if she ever burnt the chicken.
“You’re leaving?” Abby stuck out her lip pitifully as I walked by, unbuttoning my marinara-spattered chef’s coat.
“Yeah, I’m gonna go see Grandma. Mom texted me earlier and said she was asking for me.” I tossed my coat in the hamper then headed out to my car.
It only took a few minutes to drive to my grandma’s house on the other side of town. Like her, the old bungalow was showing its age, but its charm and history made it way more valuable than any monetary appraisal would reflect. I parked in the cracked driveway behind my mother’s car and climbed the crumbly, cement stairs up to the porch. A path had been worn through the paint by a lifetime of visitors.
I didn’t bother knocking, just pulled open the squeaky screen door then carefully pushed open the heavy, wooden front door. The familiar, musty scent of the old house, laced with my grandmother’s rose perfume, enveloped me. Normally, the scent was overridden by the smell of simmering tomato sauce and baking meatballs, but Grandma hadn’t been well enough to cook for the last several months. I tiptoed across the creaking floor, trying not to make too much noise in case Grandma was sleeping, but she heard me anyway.
“Is that my Lindsey?” her shaky voice called out from the living room.
I rounded the corner and smiled at the sight of her, still alive, still smiling. She laid on the sofa, covered in quilts, her headful of black hair propped up on several bed pillows. I assumed the unnaturally dark color came from a box now, but I never had the nerve to ask. Even at almost 80 years old, she never showed any gray roots.
My mother sat beside her on a footstool, holding Grandma’s frail, wrinkly hand. She had the same Italian coloring as my grandmother. But they hadn’t passed it on to me. I had the blonde hair and lighter skin of my grandfather and father. The only thing I got from the women in my family was my love of food and cooking, as evidenced by our soft, plump figures.
“Hi Grandma.” I hurried over and leaned down to greet her. She clasped her hands on the side of my head and kissed my cheeks.
“I’m going to make some tea.” Mom got up and went to the kitchen, leaving the footstool for me. I sat down on it and took my grandma’s hand. It felt cold and bony. I wanted to ask my mom about Grandma’s health, but I didn’t want to do it in front of her.
“You smell delicious, dear. Were you cooking something?”
“I was working at the restaurant.”
“No, Grandma. I work at the Sweet Bay Table.” Her short term memory was iffy. She didn’t always remember recent things.
“Oh, well, you need to add more basil to the marinara sauce, dear. You can pick some from the garden.”
I chuckled and patted her papery hand. “Okay, I’ll do that.”
“You make me proud, dear. You’re turning into an excellent chef.”
“Mom said you were asking for me; she said you had something to tell me.” I tried to nudge her memory in case she’d forgotten.
“Yes, I wanted to tell you that I’m leaving the restaurant to you. You’re the only one who can run it.”
“Grandma, you don’t need to worry about that right now. You’re not going anywhere.”
“Now, don’t try to coddle me. I might be forgetful sometimes, but I know I’m an old woman and my days are numbered. I want to make sure my restaurant is taken care of.”
My mother came back carrying three tea cups on a tray. The scent of Earl Gray wafted behind her. I glanced at her, unsure how to respond. My grandmother’s restaurant had been closed for over a decade, ever since my grandfather got sick and needed his wife at home to care for him. Neither of their children had the time, skills, or inclination to run it, but Grandma refused to sell it, insisting she’d reopen once Grandpa got better. But he never did. After he died, Grandma’s health declined quickly. The old building had languished, abandoned, ever since.
My mom nodded at me and set the tea tray down on the coffee table then took one of the cups and sat down in a nearby armchair. “Okay, Momma, we’ll take care of it.”
Grandma lifted herself up on her elbows and craned her neck around so she could see my mother. “Don’t blow me off, Francesca! I want that restaurant to go to Lindsey. I spelled it out in my will.”
She turned her head back towards me. “It’s your dream to be a chef, isn’t it?”
Fantasies of running my own restaurant danced in my head like little chefs pirouetting, despite the unlikelihood that I could revive the defunct restaurant. I leaned down and hugged her, careful not to squeeze too hard. “Yes! Thank you, Grandma. That’s very generous.”
She patted my face, her eyes moist and her sagging cheeks soft with a smile. “My Lindsey, so much like me at your age. It was always my dream to own a restaurant, and your grandfather was willing to risk our life savings on it. My blood, sweat, and tears went into that restaurant. I trust you to bring it back to life again. You’re the only one who knows all my recipes.”
She winked at me, and I couldn’t stop the grin that spread my cheeks. Moments of vibrancy like that almost made me forget how old and sickly she was. But my mother frowned at me, deflating my enthusiasm. I knew she’d have something to say later about the impracticality of the whole thing. Hopefully, we wouldn’t need to worry about it for a long time, though.
Grandma moved to sit up, so I jumped up to help her. Once she was upright, I handed her a cup of tea. It rattled a little on the saucer at first, but she steadied it.
She took a sip then look at me over the rim of her cup, her gaze serious. “Now Lindsey, I don’t want you to lose sight of the rest of your dreams because you’re too focused on the restaurant. I still made time to raise a family. You need to pass those recipes on to the next generation.”
I picked up the remaining tea cup and took a small sip, savoring the sweetness. “I will, Grandma. But you need to stick around long enough to meet them.”
“You’re 25, dear. How long do I have to wait?”
I snorted out a laugh, spraying a bit of tea. She’d married and had both her children by that age, so I guess in her mind, I was an old maid. “Hopefully not much longer. I have a serious boyfriend, but he’s been busy starting his career.”
Steam curled from her cup, and her eyes grew cloudy as a fog of confusion rolled in. “Have I met him?”
I nodded. “He came to Christmas dinner the last few years. He’s tall with blonde hair. His name is Dylan.”
“Oh yes, I remember now. I didn’t much like him. I guess that’s why I forgot.” She shrugged and made a little noise then slurped her tea.
My mother shook her head and gave her a little scowl. “Dylan’s a very nice boy, Mother. You just don’t think anyone’s good enough for your grandchildren.”
She humphed. “Maybe I’ll have to pick someone out myself.”