A Sweet Taste Under the Skin

ingredients-498199_1280Santos glides in with his question without sounding too authoritarian. “Did you mean to not salt the kidney beans?” At first the question irritates John, grumpy from being inside all day during filming, his long limbs cold and tired, and he bobs his chin up to compensate before answering, if he answers at all at this point, the row of studio lights behind the judges’ table flashing in his numb eyes. These questions, all head and no hands, have become familiar to him by now, and this question briefly reminds him of his wife, who is probably slicing red apples for their daughter’s afternoon snack, given the time he saw on the PA’s phone after she herded them into the studio kitchen. He subtracted three hours, falling back into Pacific Standard Time.

Santos leans on his thick forearms, tattoos flexing like a sailor fresh off the boat, and he plays with his chin stubble. “I mean, it’s flavorful,” he looks up at John, “and I totally appreciate the plantains as a kind of banana cream pie, if you will,…very inventive…but…,” he grimaces and rubs his hands together, “I don’t know…” He looks to his left where Guarnaschelli picks apart shards of crystallized ginger and the chocolate-kidney-bean-plantain pie John made for the dessert round. “Something’s missing…,” Santos’s soft voice fades as he pushes the kidney beans across the plate, scraping up powdered sugar.

“I think you’re right.” Conant stares directly at John and then bends his head towards Santos, his wide frame enhanced by the padded shoulders of his dark-blue blazer. “I think…,” he folds his hands in front of him, pausing his response, scooting the plate off to his right, “for me…it is the lack of salt.” He emphasizes this with his fingers coming together, pinching the air. Out of the corner of his right eye, John notices the Asian woman from San Francisco nodding, and he thinks, He just repeated what Santos said. “You missed a real opportunity to do something internally with the kidney beans,” Conant continues, his mouth agape, “but I have to say…the ginger really pops in my mouth at the end. Is that mint I’m also getting?” With a nod, John thanks Conant, whose teeth gleam as he flops the top of his hand onto the table.

John looks up at the giant orange timer glowing over Guarnaschelli’s head and the rows of lights just above the top part of the glass background behind the judges’ table. She was the first judge he saw when taping started as he and the other three chefs entered the set for the appetizer round. He had no idea who would be sitting there waiting for him; deep down inside he was hoping to see Sanchez so he could fist-bump him at some point, something he told his daughter he would do if given the chance. But he saw Guarnaschelli first after the PA motioned to him that it was “Go time” many long hours ago. He walked around the corner of the green room, through the sliding glass doors, and down the hall with the opaque windows and blazing orange stripe. One of at least half a dozen cameras in that place followed him. The camera operator walked backwards for a bit then stopped entirely before he reached the end of the hallway. John saw Guarnaschelli first because she was nestled between two broad men. Rose between two thorns, he chuckled to himself. She jumped out to him, her white blouse contrasting with the other judges’ dark clothes.

And as John stands there, wiping his forehead with the sleeve of the smock wardrobe has provided, he looks at the three judges with his dessert cooling and congealing in front of them, sitting there long enough for this part of the judging to be filmed. John knows that he could say to them time was a factor, but he blamed the appetizer round on that, from which he barely went on to the entrée round, sliding by, afterwards watching the big Italian-American from New Jersey slink home back down the orange-striped hallway because he over-sautéed his spinach and because his hand-breaded onion rings were “like noodles” to Guarnaschelli, who had the final word.

“Anything else, judges?” Allen asks, dapper in his pink tie with dark blue diagonal stripes, which matches the colors and pattern of his pocket square. None of the three have anything else to say. Adjusting his glasses, Allen pushes himself off from the table and turns to the lineup of chefs. “OK, our esteemed panel of judges will now deliberate…which dish is on the chopping block.”

As soon as the PA points to the chefs to leave the kitchen and announces that it’s deliberation time, motioning to the crew to set up for the final verdict, John notices that the props master walks towards the pantry. She has no labels clinging to the tips of her fingers, and she’s not slapping them on bottles and cans that have peeled off. Between the other two rounds, she scrambled around the place as fast as her printer could buzz out the replacement labels. But this time, she quickly organizes the bottles and cans in plastic bins, taking some away, back into the dark wings of the studio. Looking over his shoulder on the way out of the kitchen, John watches her until the cameras settle down like carousel horses.

 

* * * * *

 

“Same song and dance. Watch playback and comment, K?” the PA with frosted spiky hair says during his post-entrée interview. Her coffee-breath is more potent than the first time she talked to him, but John knows he’s had the same coffee she, the entire crew, and all four contestants have had, downing cup after cup since arriving at the studio at five in the morning. “Two Californians left in the final,” she smiles at him as they both sit in the small room next to the green room, two cloth screens flanking him, two cameras and lights humming in front of him. A tissue box rests on a silver case by the chair the PA sits in. John can tell someone has pulled tissues from it because it wasn’t opened the last time he was in here, and he knows the PA called Chef Julie in here before him.

The PA wheels the video monitor towards him and pushes Play. He watches his awkward galloping to the pantry to grab a blender; he then stops and stumbles to the big stainless-steel fridge, reaching over Julie to grab a fistful of fresh mint. Though the audio is unedited, the chorus of judges cuts through the action.

 

What did he just grab? Cream?

Oh no, no, no…

That’s really risky right now.

Does she know that other burner is on?

It’s very bitter at the root. I personally wouldn’t do that.

 

“You’re so much taller than she is,” the PA smiles, shaking her head, and scribbles on her notepad. “Do you think that’s an advantage?”

“Maybe cuts down on some time,” he shrugs, knowing that she’s digging for more, molding the drama. He’s been pretty quiet this whole competition, which he’s gathered they don’t really like.

“What about the salt?” she asks, glancing at him.

“Salt?”

“The lack of salt on your kidney beans… Chris brought it up. If you notice in the video, Scott seemed to agree too.” She turns her head to the video and rewinds before hitting play again.

“Oh…,” John brushes it off, seeing the scheme, “it’s all right.” He thinks of his grandmother, who would have simply grabbed the saltshaker and said nothing at all, sprinkling salt until it was perfect for her. She would have eventually shrugged her shoulders and flat-lined her response in Dutch or in garbled English, “It’s all right,” which was always all right for him.

The PA continues her assault on the competition, not just the dessert round, commenting on some more clips and decisions he’s made, second-guessing him, trying to get him to second-guess himself. “What’s done is done,” he shrugs, frustrated by this loop. They have to re-film some of his responses because “the shot wasn’t there,” the camera guy says, hovering over them. Maneuvering the raw video with the buttons in front of her, the PA circles back to John’s remaining competitor, Julie from San Francisco. Crewmembers, the reshuffling of lights and cords, steam from the stovetops, and Julie grabbing some lemons, blip by until the PA hits Play again.

“I could have done more,” Julie moans into the camera, and John can tell this happened not long ago because he was there when it happened, sitting at the same metal table in the green room, drinking the same bottled water. Julie crosses her arms after spinning her water bottle. “They complained about the thickness of my chocolate reduction. I shouldn’t have melted the cookies.” Her long, slim fingers massage her eyes and cheekbones.

The PA stops the video and wants John’s thoughts on Julie’s neo-French-cuisine style, specifically her attempt at making the chocolate-ginger reduction. She flips through her notepad and digs up the one comment he made out loud in the green room after the appetizer round. “You said…,” the PA pauses, looking down, “‘No need to French it up.’ Do you remember that?” She looks blankly at him. He doesn’t remember saying exactly that, but he’s positive whatever he said on film will be used at some point during the episode. As John shrugs off the PA’s insistence, she scribbles on her notepad. “You made a face when Hunter mentioned his restaurant and reputation over and over,” she says, emphasizing this by spinning her hands in the air, as she fast-forwards through some more footage. “Didn’t you think Hunter talked too much?” Her eyes sparkle from the floor lights, conjuring the sous chef from Brooklyn who was chopped after the entrée round. “I mean, you seem to be all-work, no-talk. But Julie’s a talker…like Hunter,” she beams.

“Ah…it’s all right,” John swipes the air with his chapped hands and feels a low heat open inside him, the camera positioned in front of him like a hackled dog tightening its stare.

The PA asks, “Watching your performance here in the dessert round,” she taps the video monitor with her pencil as John, with an armful of plates, slides behind Julie, “how would you feel if you lost the $10,000? You’ve mentioned your daughter and the money before.” Lost it? he thinks, the heat inside him quickly flaring up, quickly turning into a light. He starts to answer, but she quickly cuts him off, following up with, “I mean, didn’t win it? How would you feel if you didn’t win it?” Shifting in his seat, John looks at her, her question re-angled in a span of a day. After the appetizer round, she had asked him, “How would it feel to win the $10,000?”

John crosses his arms and leans back in the soft chair, the brightness he feels expanding. He wants to call his wife and his seven-year-old daughter. Mainly his seven-year-old daughter, because he and her mother are on the outs. It’s delicate and complicated right now. The words space and time have been tossed around since late last summer. Mainly by her, but John didn’t disagree, nor did he feel the need to force the two of them back together in any way other than the public stories families often have to tell. And it was the first time in their ten years together that the need to run back, the need to call or text right away, the need to patch things never pushed through the storm. Neither talking nor doing. July and September exploded with two huge fights, both happening around the time he took trips to local farms, hoping to make a win-win deal with the owners and himself, both times being indirectly accused of having an affair, as Leslie mumbled on her way out of the living room, her laptop pulsing in her arms, “Have fun seeing your girlfriend.”

Their respective careers were also an issue. Who gets to be in front, who needs to be in neutral for a little while. The owner of Pacific Crest Farm told him about the casting call, telling him that his story about pursuing his passion of cooking on his own, in his own way, would propel him past the other applicants. He didn’t think he’d have a chance, especially as someone only a few years into devoting all available time to something that has transformed from a hobby into a new career. Plus, the expenses of running a catering business and being a one-man show had started taking its toll.

“Why would you do that?” his wife asked when he announced it at the dinner table that summer. He told her it was for the money, that he would be playing for the money, but not for him or his catering gig, but for Maddie. “I need to focus on my tenure package. If I don’t get it…,” Leslie exasperated that night. “We have to move,” he finished for her.

As the PA presses on about the contestants who have been chopped and the prize money and its amount and where he thinks he stands in the competition and how he’s taken big risks that have paid off and how she thinks he is better than his competition and how he’s the underdog because he’s self-taught and new to all this, gossip and ghosts and a lot of talk circling and snipping at him, John wants to call Maddie, the light inside him having opened its iris over the many parts in front of him, some pieces scattered by him, some by new and old strangers, pieces that need to rewind and repeat until they assemble into their places, and he wants to tell her that he’s made it this far, which is the exact same thing he wanted to do and say each round he survived, many long hours ago between courses, between the cameras repositioned, between the serving of grey eggs and cardboard toast the network gave the contestants for breakfast and the cheap sandwiches and sugary salads for lunch (“Ironic,” smirked Hunter), between one of the crew members sweeping up a broken light dropped close to the cooking area. John heard it pop, having snuck out when Hunter radioed in a request for a smoke to a PA who, many minutes later, opened the door, letting Hunter out. After watching the crew and judges joke with each other, John slipped back into the green room before being noticed by anyone.

 

* * * * *

 

Disneyland was his idea after he found out he was selected as a contestant. “I want us to go…all of us to go,” he offered to Leslie, who nodded without looking at him. John thought that going there with his wife and his daughter would be a way to break the ice between Leslie and himself and would allow them to wear a different kind of public pretense, one that at least could be more enjoyable if child-like amazement pressed down on the surface of it all. His result with the show didn’t factor in. “We should take her because of the time I’ll be away. We should take her if I win or lose.” He sighed, finally confessing, “I just want to take her to Disneyland.” To John it felt like it was time for Maddie to go, plus the Disney bug had bit her. Leslie cringed at the thought of it all, especially at the commercialism and saccharine endings. She wanted to discuss redirecting Maddie, have encouraging talks, if Maddie wanted to talk about that. “She can ride each ride twice,” he compromised. “Once with you, once with me.”

The trip would the first time for Leslie and Maddie, at least the hundredth for John. He lost count after a while. But he remembers highlights: his first time in grade school when he lost a baby tooth in the Haunted Mansion, his grandmother avoiding the Matterhorn because it was “too German,” and his high-school graduation lock-in at night when he had no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life, but the air was cool and everything felt so large and open in the electric dark. There was also the time, after he quit college, when he sold medical supplies in Orange County. He didn’t show up for the meeting, instead headed straight to the park, which was so close that he left his car in the client’s parking lot and walked to the front gate. He rode Pirates of the Caribbean over and over, lounging by himself at the back of the boat, drifting away into the underground night. John didn’t care that he was fired. But none of these compared to seeing his daughter’s face light up after he told her where they would go as soon as he returned home. And it seemed overnight that tiaras, princess dresses, and ballerina tutus exploded from Maddie’s closet and onto her bedroom floor, pink and white lace cobwebbing her books and toys. The two extra seats at her tea set were now reserved for Minnie and Mickey, her toy bunny keeping his place.

“Does she need to get into this?” Leslie asked, wrinkling her nose one night as they washed the dishes, Maddie singing and dancing to Aladdin, spinning around in the room, the little genius of her private world.

John knew what she meant. “It’s all right,” he said, swirling the brush inside a metal pot, letting the bubbles build, the smell of liquid citrus filling the kitchen.

“Maybe we can all get jobs at Disneyland,” Leslie quipped, handing him a chafing dish. “I’m sure you can cook way better than any of the cooks they have there. It’s all fried food, right?” The silverware chimed on top of each other. “I mean, chef,” she corrected herself before drying her hands and turning off the kitchen’s lights. “You could be a chef there.”

 

* * * * *

 

“We only have winter out here way up north with the mountains,” he said to Maddie, pressing on a map in front of them on her bed, letting her eyes and fingers travel from California to New York. “There’s summer, and everything else is spring.” Maddie’s eyes rested on the small island. “They don’t have flowers in February like we do.” He told Maddie there’d be snow waiting for him there.

She kissed him goodbye. “Why are you going there?”

“Remember that game I told you about?”

“Where you cook?”

“Yep. I got to go to work.”

“You’re always working,” she said, rubbing her eyes.

“I know.” He tightened the blanket around her. “But remember what we’ll do when I get back. It’ll be so fun.”

She smiled and nodded. “You can’t make snacks for me to take to school.”

“Mommy will. I promise I’ll be home soon.”

And then he turned out the little lamp by her bed.

 

* * * * *

 

“Maybe,” John opens up on his own in the interview room, “if I were a twenty-something chef, like Hunter, I’d be worried about prestige and reputation too. But there’s something about cooking for someone.” He takes a drink from his water bottle, leans forward in the seat this time, and keeps his arms from crossing his chest. “I don’t want to say so much depends on this round, because I said that the last round and the round before that, but yeah, so much depends on this round,” he nods, sliding into his words. “But I’ve made it this far,” he stares towards the camera. The PA stops him and wants him to repeat it outside the room, in the hallway, with just her, the camera, the mic guy, and John.

“Again,” she says, throwing her head to the interview room, her voice echoing in the hall as she looks at John, the camera whirring, “exactly what you said in there.” Before John can say anything to her and the camera, her radio buzzes, and she slides the headphones over her icy hair like huge black ears. “We’ll do it again when you get back,” the PA says, clicking the microphone in front of her mouth, telling John to stay put where he is. She opens the green room door and tells Julie, “This is it. It’s go time,” leading them into the kitchen and in front of the judges’ table, where again the brightness of Guarnaschelli’s blouse catches John’s eyes. Santos lounges on the table, leaning on his forearms. Conant rotates his shoulders back, sitting up in his seat.

“The final decision is in. We’re ready to crown the champion. Are you ready to find out whose dish has been chopped?” Allen asks, staring into their faces before lifting the lid.

 

* * * * *

 

Three texts sat on his phone as he stood in the glass foyer of the network studio after the taping, waiting for the hotel taxi in the winter night. One was from the owner of Pacific Crest Farm who let him know that she had e-mailed her list of upcoming crops and available herbs, and was looking forward to working with him and seeing him again as soon as he got back, hoping that he had done nothing but his best during the competition. You deserve it, it ended. It was professional and dragged nothing else along with it, which he appreciated.

The other two messages were from Leslie. The first was a picture of Maddie dressed in operating scrubs draping off her body, the stethoscope around her neck pressed against the toy bunny’s belly. She’s a “vetrinaran” the text read. You two should go. I guess I’m fine if she does. He knew what the second text meant.

As snow fell, blinking in the streetlights, John couldn’t help but think of warmer air and the uncovered blue sky and the fuzzy green mountains dotted with pinks and yellows, as on the day he flew to New York City, and he thought of Disneyland, which he wanted to unfold as quickly as he could unfold it after his plane landed back at LAX. He looked out across the grey and white landscape, the cars and buses and bundled people crunching by. His sigh fogged the window in front of him. He no longer needed a compromise. Minnie would look lovely in her polka-dot dress, curtsying to everyone she met, he chuckled to himself, Goofy lost in his screwball antics, Mickey driving an old Model T, teasing Donald by pulling up next to him and then pulling away right as he tried getting in. He’d seen it all before and knew it would all probably happen again, cued and practiced until it felt spontaneous and joyful, the sun shining down, a warm February day, the characters and the princesses celebrating and parading around, the loudspeakers announcing where and when they’d be appearing next. A sense of wonder charging the air. Throngs of people would head that way before returning to the rides with their dark, fictional spaces.

WILLIAM AUTEN’s work has been published in CahoodaloodalingDrunken BoatfailbetterHayden’s Ferry ReviewNimrodNotre Dame ReviewOrigins, Canada’s Saturday Night ReaderSycamore ReviewTerrain, and other publications. Work was read at the 2015 bicentennial celebration for North American Review. You learn more about William at www.williamauten.com.