Mise En Place

Nathan Chen

Sometimes I’d catch Mendel, the new dishwasher, staring down at the water. When this happened I’d slap the soapy bath lightly, sending a spray onto his already drenched apron — and maybe a little on his chin. He’d look up in surprise, but quickly return to his scrubbing with a smile. Only a week after starting, he confided in me his goal of becoming a chef. I assured him that excelling as a dishwasher was the best place to start. If his face showed an initial flash of displeasure, I brushed it off as the hasty ambition of youth. After all, he was only a senior from the local high school and I was proud to give him his first job. 

Mendel was dedicated, but floundered in his role, apt to drop dishes or let puddles creep to where cooks carried out their dangerous ballet of fire and steel. I took to cuffing him over his head in a tough but kindhearted way, muttering: “You fish out of water, you.” This name caught on. When a waiter brought a particularly large stack of dishes over, they’d shout “Time for bottom feeding!”, followed by a loud hurrah from the cooks. Mendel would also look over as I trained my cooks, and I often reminded him to stay focused on his own station, which held an unceasing amount of ceramics. It was no doubt through these surreptitious glances that he learned the importance of mise en place, the amount of battuto to prepare before lunch hours, and how to wrap the perfect cannoli. I was secretly delighted when I noticed the interest he took in our art, even as it meant the attention to his cleaning declined. 

There was pushback from the staff when they heard I was considering hiring Mendel. He was far from a star student; in fact, some claimed he was a delinquent. But wasn’t I also once a troubled teenager? And had I not been given undue grace? The kitchen had shown me a refuge where your past sins would not follow. It was only right to extend Mendel the same opportunity. I knew his trajectory otherwise — to reject him would be to walk away from a drowning man. 

He was the first and only dishwasher for Trattoria Bianca, which in turn would be my first and only restaurant. It was a celebration of my good fortune. I had large paintings commissioned for the four walls, each showing a glimpse of the Tuscan countryside. Yards of pure, white linen were flown in and cut for my tables, which I handcrafted from red oak. I sewed the edges of every tablecloth with a small hem. I did not mind the effort and costs behind these, for they made for a most fulfilling labor and expense. However, there were also fees I didn’t realize I had agreed to. 

All the restaurants in the area paid for ‘security’ from the local mob. In addition, the don and his family — not all of them the same blood — made rounds every few months to assess the food. Their evaluation was evidently meticulous, as it often required multiple plates of the same dish. They would appear without reservation, and restaurant-goers had a peculiar way of disappearing when this would happen, even if there were lines waiting the day before. 

The Sunday evening they appeared, only Mendel, myself, and a waiter were on staff. It had been a successful dinner hour. The other chefs had gone home and we were preparing to close. We didn’t realize they had arrived until it was too late. A large group of laughing men, one woman, and a young boy began to file in through the door. As I polished a wine glass behind the bar, I watched my waiter Michael move to turn them away.

“I’m sorry, we’re closing soon,” he said with a small bow. The small boy giggled loudly, and a short but well-built man detached himself from the group and walked over. 

“Not for us you’re not. We’ll take a table for thirteen.” the man said, grinning. Michael, an older anthropology student waiting tables on the weekends, stood speechless for a moment. Both of us mobilized our wits, and unfortunately, his mind was faster than mine.

“I’m sorry, but we’re closed,” Michael repeated sternly before I could interrupt. The smile on the other man’s face began to fade.

“We’re open!” I said, hastily placing the glass down and rushing over. “Michael, push those tables together. Gentleman, any drinks to start with?” Michael coldly turned to arrange the tables, and seeing his scowl, I plucked the notepad from his hand and wrote down their orders. The letters came out as if they had been shocked by lightning. Back in the kitchen, I looked at Mendel, who had started mopping the floor. There was no way I could cook for this group without another pair of hands. Next to the sink there was still a mountain of dishes from the evening’s earlier crowd. A brief thought appeared in front of me: I could telephone for another chef. If I did it now, there might still be time for them to arrive… I then looked back to Mendel. Could this be the boy’s golden opportunity?  

“Boss, what’s going on?” he said, noticing my stillness. 

“Put the mop away.” I quickly explained the situation.

“Don Cipriani?” His face soured.  “I’m familiar with his crew.” He began to turn away, and I put both hands on his shoulders and twisted him back.  

“They’re just another set of customers. You’re getting your start.” I looked at the clock and knew the party would have finished their drinks minutes ago. “Succeed tonight and you’ll be an assistant cook tomorrow.” Now his eyebrows raised, and I added desperately, “but I need you to wash these plates now.” 

I ran back into the dining room, where Michael was nowhere to be seen. Upon noticing me, another man in the group waved me over. The chatter came to a close as I arrived. Next to him sat an older, dignified man with graying hair, who I instantly registered as the patriarch. The don was looking right at me.

“You’ve been late with your payments, you know,” he said. His voice was soft and raspy. 

“Please forgive me,” I said, bowing and looking down, not daring to sustain eye contact. “This is my first restaurant and -”

I stopped as he raised his forefinger in front of his lips. 

“May this dinner vindicate you,” he said.

I walked swiftly back to the kitchen. Mendel was still washing the dishes. 

“That’s enough, help me prep!” I said. Although the group had only ordered drinks, I knew from talking with fellow restaurateurs I was simply expected to prepare my best dishes, and enough for the entire party. It was tempting to prepare a black bass — a specialty where I cooked the entire fish in a rosemary-olive vinaigrette — but I knew Mendel wasn’t experienced enough to help. I decided to serve spezzatino di maiale, a rich Tuscan stew full of smoked pork loin, and told Mendel to chop the celery, onions, and carrots. This would be accompanied with one of my most popular dishes: a simple spinach & ricotta ravioli topped with melted butter and sage. To top off this late night meal was a chocolate hazelnut cake waiting in the freezer. I let myself exhale deeply as I watched Mendel slice onions with surprising deftness.

We finished the stew and I had Mendel set up the plates as I walked out to check on the guests. My face blanched as I saw several men and the don standing in front of a painting, where an elegant villa sat amidst undulating hills. The don turned to me.

“Such beautiful, expensive paintings,” he said. “You long for Italy. Perhaps it’s time to return.”

“Please seat yourselves. My spezzatino is almost ready,” I calmly returned. Back in the kitchen, I stared at the plated soup. They were all wrong; the ratio of vegetables to meat was too high, and with uneven levels of broth. 

“No, no, this isn’t good enough,” I said, pouring the contents of each bowl back into the pot and throwing them back into the sink. Mendel began to protest but I cut him off, grabbing him by his shoulders.

“Two vegetables for every piece of meat. Four pieces. Two cups of stew. Every. Plate. Nothing else will work, okay?”

Mendel’s body stiffened and he brushed my hands off before nodding.

“Okay, got it. I’ll need more plates.”

As he turned to the sink, I heard loud voices from the dining room and I ran back. Michael and the short man were standing inches away from each other. Behind the short man, the boy that had come in with the group was using balsamic vinegar as finger paint for the wall. His drawing looked to be a building in flames. He was seemingly unaware of the tension a few feet away from him. Michael turned to me, furious, and the short man reached into his jacket.

“My famous spezzatino is ready!” I cried out, seeing the man’s arm freeze. “Be seated, my good man!” 

I ran to the kitchen and brought out the first tray of bowls, then motioned for Michael to get the others. I sat them down carefully in front of each guest, making sure the slightest drop would not escape each bowl. Michael begrudgingly returned with the remaining ones and I placed those as well. Once every guest had a bowl, I took a step back and waited to admire their first tastes. 

The table quieted down and watched the don. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, clearly appreciating the rich aroma from the bowl before him. A small smirk of pride began to creep near the edges of my mouth. He then took his spoon, but paused, moving his head to the side. Something had caught his eye in the spoon’s reflection. He put both hands on the steaming bowl and gingerly raised it to his eyes. There was a long chunk of spinach wrapped around the lower side, which slid off and hit the table with a splatter. The woman a couple chairs away from him gasped. My face froze as the don placed the bowl back on the table and looked at me with unvarnished repulsion. I might as well have been grinning ear to ear with the spinach laid across my teeth. The table was still. I walked slowly to the don’s seat to collect his bowl, and he continued to peer at me, no doubt engraving my accursed features into his memory. 

As I walked back to the kitchen with the bowl, I wondered what I should say to Mendel. Expressing disappointment was too light of a response. He had only one true job: to clean the kitchenware and plates thoroughly. Yet, I had thrown him into a high-pressure situation. Surely some leeway was necessary. Although he didn’t rise to the occasion, it didn’t mean the yeast was bad — a different mixture of sugar and water could lead to a better result. I swore in that moment to forgive him. But as I walked through the kitchen doors my eyes and ears noticed the room was preternaturally still, save for the ravioli that was still boiling. I set down the lousy bowl and looked around. The ravioli was bloated, and Mendel was gone. Feeling my spirits plunge, I burst through the backdoor into the alleyway where we threw our trash bags. There was nothing, although my sudden appearance and accompanying light surprised a nearby cat, which quickly scurried off into the night. 

The don and his crew left without taking a bite. I could only watch them go. A couple days later, I arrived at the restaurant only to find its carcass. The windows had been broken. The pipes had been clawed out of the walls, punctured, and left running. It was as if someone had ripped through my skin to pull the valves out of my own heart. My paintings sat against the walls, and on them the cherished hills of my motherland had giant, black chasms where they had been torn, like some terrible beast had crawled out from the idyllic landscape. My tablecloths lay on the ground like a discarded wedding dress, and when I bent to pick them up — the sheets I had so carefully hemmed — I saw they had been urinated upon. All of this lay open like an exposed surgery. It would have been more merciful to simply burn the restaurant down. At least that way its pain would have come to an end. 

I decided to close the restaurant rather than repair a place already marked for doom. The incident would mean there was now a curse around my name; the title chef de cuisine could never be mine again. I dragged the memory of the Trattoria Bianca alongside me like the iron ball shackled around a convict’s ankle. 

Still, there was hope for a respectable career as a line cook, perhaps even sous chef if the restaurant was middling. However, an unusual pattern emerged as I interviewed. I would do well in my initial conversations and even the audition. In the final rounds a rejection would be given without fail. As these occurrences stacked up, I became more and more frustrated. Could it be that the mob was following me? That it wasn’t enough for my restaurant to close, but that my paltry existence must also be starved of success? Whenever I was face-to-face with a manager that was dismissing me, I'd look closely into their eyes, and in the fibrous craters of their irises I'd see something lurking in the shadows.

As for Mendel, he disappeared completely. Every night my mind would replay the events of that fateful evening and seek his part. The nature of his flight condemned him as guilty, although without a clear motive. Jealousy seemed well within range. I was also aware of his unsavory connections to the underworld. Given his heritage, this could have very well been an act of initiation for the Jewish mob, which were fierce rivals to the Italian one. In my most depraved moments, I began to wonder if the mob hadn’t just bribed him to ruin their meal, which would give them an easy reason to destroy me. As a dishwasher he was financially susceptible and that opened a world of possible schemes. A part of me wanted to believe it was an accident, that he had fled out of shame, but there was too much unexplained. I became wreathed in these theories and they surrounded me like a sweet cocoon, protecting me from a cold unknown; this was my fabric of reality, and it was not until later I realized that these silk threads had been wrapped around me by a pernicious spider.  

I ended up tossing aside my white apron for a black one, relegating myself to the seedy bars that dotted the city like pustules. Cooking, once my preferred form of creative expression, became the colorless act of frying onions and potatoes. The nights were long and my habits and debts eventually caught up to me. I began spending evenings at shelters. My remaining dreams curled up and shriveled like bacon on a frying pan. 

The years passed with a frightening swiftness. I grew from the young restaurateur that had proudly doled out his life savings, to a withered soul with nothing left to give. One of the many languishing in the back of kitchens, unfit to deliver their own handiwork to the customer — how it would frighten them! I joined the lot of nocturnal beings that had become numb to the senses, capable of staying in a walk-in freezer far in excess of when mortals would shiver and shake. Most of us had a cross-work of scars on our hands and arms that spoke of a gruesome torture. From my lowest times during this era I knew not all the scars came from cooking. 

I accepted my invitation to this league of the damned and began moving the way they do — with incorrigible resignation —  as if our own bodies would be served to the customers as the final course. My endless routine was being repeated during a slow evening when a colleague walked in with a newspaper. I was throwing clammy chicken wings into the fryer when I saw the front page. A sudden heat filled me as I recognized the face beneath the headline. In faded black: “New seafood restaurant hopes to make waves.” I began moving more deliberately in the kitchen, and emotions I thought were frozen forever started to thaw. It all came back so fast: anger, disbelief, curiosity, and even pride. 

I had to get closer and understand. A taxi took me to the location after my shift, and from across the street I inspected the restaurant. There was no evidence of his rustic beginnings with me. Corrugated sheets of iron and tall panes of glass switched off in a vertical pattern, each window the size of three men standing side by side. A long line trailed off to the end of the block. I walked closer to the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of the staff inside, when I noticed a flyer that had been previously hidden by a waiting customer. The flyer’s call for help could have been my own. 

I knew I couldn’t apply under my own name. Luckily, I’d spent enough time in the underground to know where to go to falsify identification papers. To solve the problem of my references, I simply listed several acquaintances and warned them that my name was different to avoid taxes. Of course, my appearance was the biggest issue. Does my face haunt his dreams like his does for mine? This last fear of mine dissipated when, back at the dilapidated shelter bathroom, the man in the mirror assured me I had on a good disguise.

A few days after I mailed my application, a plain letter arrived at a mailbox I pilfered enough to consider my own. I was invited to an interview. I arrived at the restaurant in the mid-afternoon, the dining room calm before dinner’s onslaught. The design of the room made me nauseous. The booths were made of a leather so finely processed and thin that it would have been more respectful to simply burn the cow alive. The tables stood naked, the finished mahogany laying exposed to all sorts of morsels and spills. With a pang, I remembered the tables I had carefully dressed with fresh linen. Finally, the floor was a horrendous black-and-white chevron pattern. Their wicked points led me to the kitchen, and I was relieved to see it was one like any other. Beneath the garish outfit and painted skin there was still a heart and pair of lungs. 

I instantly recognized Mendel’s figure in the midst of cooking. The slippery eel was finally within grasp. I noted with joy the gray hairs that had begun to sprout on the back of his head. He threw onions into a pan and glanced over to where I stood by the door.

“You’re Jacob?” he said above the din of his frying. He still had not given me a good look.

“Yes sir, interviewing for prep cook.” I had chosen the pseudonym Jacob as a testament to my own wrestling match with a higher power. 

“You’re not interviewing, you’re auditioning.” Mendel moved to chop several stalks of celery on a nearby board. “Come back in two hours for the dinner crowd. Goodbye.” 

Shocked at his abrupt dismissal, I began to leave. I’d spent barely a minute in the kitchen.

“Oh, and Jacob?” I turned around.

“I run a prime establishment.” Mendel paused to flip his pan, which I now saw was a sizzling mixture of onions, butter, and shrimp. “You’ll have to earn your keep. I want you spending half your time on dishes to start.” 

I walked out of the restaurant with less dignity than the shrimp.

Later that day, the audition went well enough. Mendel inspected my plates closely but paid me no mind. It became apparent that I was not unique in this treatment. Although he was quick to shout about the width of handmade pasta or over-salted cod, he gave little attention to those below him. If my eyes were missing and in their place two unsightly gaps, he would have still berated me on the pattern of my garnishes. 

The reason behind my speedy hiring turned out to be an event the following week. Mendel was reserving the restaurant for his friend, a politician who had recently ascended to office. It was to be a large epicurean affair and the kitchen needed a prep cook. A recent newspaper on the politician’s victory claimed that a large portion of his campaign bankroll had come from the racetracks. They speculated his bets had been fueled by inside tips on races. He had been slow to announce any initiatives against organized crime. 

I should mention that although something stirred within me at the thought of Mendel, I felt nothing for the gangsters that had ruined my life. They were a sleeping bear that had been poked with a branch and I had been the poor schmuck there when she woke up. It was odd, however, that Mendel would happen to be so close to this politician. Mendel’s restaurant was in a much different part of town than mine. He would certainly be aware of — if not in direct allegiance with — the mob that ruled this part of town. It was one that rivaled the mob that ruled my late restaurant’s neighborhood. I began to feel more certain that this could not be mere coincidence.

The week went past and I held my own in the kitchen, retaining the position. I began to think about how I would reveal myself to Mendel and the questions I would ask. There was truly only one though: why

On the night of the event, I found myself opposite Mendel, who was tending to a giant pot of simmering consommé, where a large raft of celery, onion, and carrots covered the top. I heard him throw his tasting spoon into the sink — a sign that he was satisfied with the taste — and dash into the dining room to serve the guests. 

Every one of the other cooks had a hundred things to look after. Like a tiring swimmer giving way to the current, I began to float to the right, until the boiling pot of soup stood directly before me. I found myself taking the salt container and pouring a trickle. My hand trembled and the stream increased into a waterfall. Before long the soup was thickened with streaks of small crystals and I found myself stirring it vigorously so they'd dissolve. 

I heard footsteps from outside the door and barely made it back to my station as Mendel burst in to plate his soup. My eyes remained glued to the shrimp I was arranging in circles alongside slices of peach. However, I watched as Mendel carried his full tray happily away like a boy walking home with a perfect report card. 

I took a deep breath and focused on the noises outside, dimming the nearby sounds of chopping and searing. Someone was giving a toast. I heard the clink of glasses. A moment of swallowing passed and the hungry crowd picked up their spoons. And then — loud sputtering, what I can only imagine was a glorious spray of soup across the table tops! 

Mendel rushed in with his eyes wide and ran to the pot, tasting the vile slop for himself. He spit onto the stove and liquid hit the red-hot burners, instantly vaporizing from the heat. The air likewise boiled inside my lungs and I opened my mouth to release the laughter. To my surprise only a deep sob came out, and its resonance exposed itself as one that had been held inside for many years. 

There was a still moment as Mendel realized my deed. He walked at me. As he grabbed my neck with both hands, I could feel a large callus on one where the handles of knives had hardened his skin. I felt a strange surge of pride and found myself wanting him to press the rough skin further, for it to scratch away mine, for him to begin throttling me.

But he softened and suddenly we looked at each other. For the first time in the years I had known him, and the week he knew me, we looked at each other. The man who haunted my dreams, the boy I helped start out in the kitchen, and me — the chef who had failed. He was my boss, and I had been his, and we had cooked with our backs pressed together, taken orders and sampled dishes together, but for the first time we looked at each other.   

Mendel blinked and his pupils searched my face. "Why?" he said, and my heart broke for him. Then his face hardened and his fingers dug into my throat. "The Barzinis put you up to it. And you couldn’t keep your disguise." 

"No," I said, the sound barely making it past my teeth. The Barzinis? 

Mendel leaned in closer and now his voice was low and guttural. 

"Don't deny it," he said, his breath hot and full of garlic. "I’m not the idiot here. You made us look foolish today, but we’re going to make sure they pay.” He shook his head and for a moment I thought he would cry. He looked back into me. “Starting with you.”

With horror, I understood I had penetrated his inner chamber of meaning-making, where every man tells himself he is lowly David struggling against Goliath. I saw myself in his eyes. My mouth went dry. 

Mendel wrenched my body around, putting me in a chokehold before shoving aside a stack of plates. They shattered on the floor in a series of explosions. His arm tightened around my throat. I bit my tongue trying to speak. He wrestled me over the sink and I put both arms out, trying to push myself away even as he pushed me closer. His free hand gripped the back of my head. I tried desperately to look upwards, and then his other arm came up to help overcome my neck. 

"Fish," I managed to gasp before my face was thrust into the warm, soapy water alongside soiled plates and the discarded shells of shrimp.