It’s no secret that Laurence is good at his job. I love watching him cook. It’s like watching an intricate, heated dance. Every ingredient he adds, the way he handles his knives; they’re all well-practiced steps that he’s mastered with confidence and flare. It’s hard not to be distracted by him when he’s in his element. He has the sleeves of his chef’s jacket rolled up, exposing the coiling snake tattoo on his left forearm. His dark brown eyes are focused on the task at hand. His black hair is slicked back, not a strand out of place. He smells pleasantly like cooking oils and freshly ground herbs.
He commands the kitchen with self-assurance, voice always clear and booming. It’s the middle of the dinner rush, but he’s not even remotely fazed. Unlike me, he hasn’t even broken a sweat. Order after order, plate after plate. This is just another day of work, another shift that he’ll get through like any other. He expertly inspects dishes for presentation before he gives the waiters permission to run the entrées sitting out on the line. Everything has to be perfect or he’ll order a re-fire. He knows what he’s doing, that much is clear.
It’s just a shame that he can be a real asshole sometimes.
“Claire, you’re plating it wrong,” he frowns at me, disappointment clear in his tone. “You don’t need to drown the salmon in sauce. You’re the sous-chef, you should know this.”
He steps in, facing the plate and fixing what he can. I’m not a rookie anymore, but he talks to me like I am. I take a step to the side, watching what he does so I know what to do for next time. He’s busy multi-tasking, looking up at the rail to read out the next chit being printed. He makes it look so easy.
“Fire two scallops and three steaks, all medium-rare,” he announces to the kitchen. Clear, concise. In total control.
“Yes, Chef,” several cooks respond back to him, their voices echoing off the kitchen’s tile walls.
The Royale is a five-star restaurant specializing in French cuisine. Its kitchen is alive with the sounds of sizzling oils, the metallic chopping of sharp knives against wood cutting boards, and the soft bubbling of boiling water. The rich aromas of fresh gravies, savory meats, and sweet pastries all mix together in the air. It’s enough to make my mouth water and stomach grumble.
About halfway through dinner service, there’s a small lull, which gives me more than enough time to make sure that everybody’s stations are clear. Nothing chokes up a kitchen like unorganized messes. I make my way over to Clarke, the kitchen’s newest entremetier. Her cheeks are flushed pink, brow sweaty from working near such hot stoves. She’s working on plating a side salad, but she manages to look up and smile when I approach her station.
“How’re you holding up?” I ask her, genuinely curious.
“Better now,” she admits.
I pat her on the shoulder and smile encouragingly. “You’re doing great.”
“You could pick up the pace a little,” comes Laurence’s flat comment. He’s wiping his hands on his apron.
I watch as Clarke shrinks into herself a little, shoulders hunched and sheepishly averting her eyes. I frown at him. “She’s doing fine,” I insist. “It’s only her fourth day.”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s her fourth day or her hundredth. If you can’t handle something as simple as the salads, you may as well be a shoemaker.”
I take in a sharp breath. Being called a shoemaker in our circles is as harsh as it can get. “Stop it, Laurence,” I snap. “Why can’t you be more constructive?”
“I have a kitchen to run,” he argues. “I don’t have the time. Either get good fast, or get out.”
“I-I’ll do better,” stammers Clarke. “I promise. Sorry, Chef.”
With a huff and disapproving shake of his head, Laurence walks back up to the rail to check on the new chits off the printer.
“Is he always like that?” she asks me in a quiet voice.
I nod my head. “Yeah, he is. He was like that in culinary school, too. I’m surprised he hasn’t tripped over that stick in his ass.”
“You went to school together?” she asks, her eyes brightening up a bit.
I nod again. “He was a year ahead of me, but we had a lot of the same workshops.”
“It’s cool that you ended up working with someone you know. All of my classmates wound up at different restaurants out of state.”
“Yeah,” I bite down. “Cool.”
In the corner of my eye, I see Kate enter the kitchen from her office. She’s been cooped up in there all day. She wags a finger at me, beckoning me over. I give Clarke one more encouraging clap on the shoulder before starting towards the office. Up close, I can see exactly how exhausted Kate is. Her curly blonde hair is disheveled, tied messily into a loose bun. There are dark circles beneath her eyes. She recently took over as owner of the Royale from her father, but it’s plain to see that she’s been struggling to adjust to the role.
“Everything alright?” I ask her.
“I just got off the phone. There’s a last-minute party of forty coming in fifteen minutes.”
I feel my heart sink and my stomach flip. “Forty?” I echo in disbelief. “Do we even have enough seats? Why didn’t they make a reservation?”
Kate just shrugs, brows furrowed into a steep frown. “Do you think you can handle it?”
“We’re going to have to,” I sigh. “I’ll tell the kitchen now.”
“I’ll try talking them up when they get here,” she offers. “To give you a little more time to prepare.”
I turn on my heel and walk over to Laurence. He’s watching me attentively, arms folded across his chest.
“What is it?” he asks, words clipped and low.
“There’s a forty top on their way.”
Laurence pinches the bridge of his nose, clearly frustrated. “Everybody,” he booms, “listen up.” He has the kitchen’s full attention. Just like that, everyone stops what they’re doing to look up at him. “We’re about to get slammed. I want everybody at their stations. Use this time now to make sure you have everything you need.”
He’s met with a chorus of, “Yes, Chef.”
He turns to me next. “I’ll expedite. I want you on the rounds and help where you can.”
“I know what to do,” I insist as I turn away from him.
“I should hope so,” I hear him grumble under his breath.
The Royale can only hold up to sixty customers at one time. It’s a smaller restaurant, designed for quiet evenings and appreciative patrons of haute cuisine. So it’s very obvious when the party of forty arrives. It’s total chaos. The hostess can’t seem to find enough menus to give to everybody, the waitstaff have to tackle the unexpected party in teams to get everyone’s orders at the same time, and the sole bartender is immediately swamped trying to get their drinks ready.
The orders come in slowly at first, and then all at once.
The printer goes off like crazy, matching the rhythm of my pulsing temples. Laurence calls out the orders as they come. The kitchen bursts into a cacophony of sounds. Chefs are barking times at each other, the hood fans are roaring at full force, and the commotion of clanging pots and pans vibrates the surrounding air. Twenty minutes doesn’t feel like a long time, but in the kitchen, that’s an eternity. Before I know it, Laurence is already calling out at us angrily.
“How far out for those steaks?” he snaps.
I can’t look up from the skillet. There’s fire and bubbling marinades. It’s all I can do to keep the gas stove top from burning my hands, or more importantly the food.
“I’m five out,” is all I can manage.
“You said that five minutes ago,” he grumbles bitterly. “Clarke, where’s that Caesar salad without croutons?”
“Right here!” she exclaims. She runs the food up to the line. Her pink cheeks are now a bright red.
I wipe at my own brow, feeling the exhaustion begin to set in. I know that the problem isn’t cooking the food. The problem is that we have to cook all the food all at once. It won’t look good for the Royale if half of the party is eating, and the other half is still waiting on their main course. But all we can do is cook as fast as we can. It doesn’t help that this plate can’t have any garlic, and this one has to be cooked well-done, and that one doesn’t can’t have any tomatoes.
Kate shuffles back into the kitchen from the floor. She looks as worried as I feel.
“They’re starting to complain,” she says to Laurence quietly so that she doesn’t disturb the other cooks.
“The food’s coming,” he assures her, but he shoots me a hesitant glance like he doesn’t quite believe his own words. Things are pretty backed up by the time we get the main meals ready and out the door. We somehow managed to get their food prepared, but I know deep down in my gut that it took far too long. When Kate finally stumbles back through the doorway, she looks less than pleased.
“We’re giving them free dessert,” she grits through her teeth. “They weren’t happy with the wait.”
“Are you kidding me?” I frown. “That’s almost a three-hundred-dollar write-off.”
I look over at Laurence, who’s nodding in agreement. “They’re being unreasonable. You can’t just walk in with a party of forty and expect quick service.”
Kate raises a hand. “They have several food critics with them. If we don’t give them dessert on the house, they could tank our reviews. But if you want to tell them that, please be my guest.”
There’s a throbbing in my head. I feel a terrible pulsing pressure behind my eyes. I rub at my temples, but it doesn’t sooth away the pain. I let out a heavy sigh. The thought of curling up in my bed is a very attractive one. I just want this day to be over.
“Fine,” I mutter.
“It wouldn’t have come to this if you hadn’t shut down on me,” I hear Laurence grumble.
I shoot him a dirty look. “Excuse me?”
“You were clearly in the weeds, but you didn’t ask anybody for help.”
“I was the help. You saw how swamped we were. There was no way around it.”
“Maybe if you were better at your job, it wouldn’t be a problem.”
I stare at him, stunned. “Don’t you dare try to pin this on me. I was pulling my weight, same as everyone else.”
“Enough!” exclaims Kate. “You two. My office. Now.”
We follow Kate into the tiny corner room. She shuts the door behind us. The noises of the kitchen are muffled now, but I’m still very much aware of the gawking and whispering from the other kitchen staff through the door’s window.
“What is going on with you two?” she demands, hands supported on her hips. “I can’t have my head chef and sous-chef at each other’s throats like this. It was an off night. It happens.”
I don’t need to look at Laurence to know that he’s rolling his eyes. “Every night lately seems to be an off night ever since someone started here.”
“Would you let it go already?” I snap. “Clarke’s new. She’ll get better.”
“I’m not talking about Clarke.”
I blink. My chest tightens uncomfortably. He holds my glare like it’s a challenge.
“Have you ever considered that maybe it’s because you’re a shitty head chef? You’ve only been here a year longer than I have. It’s not like you’ve got years of experience under your belt. Maybe it’s you and your arrogant attitude.”
“I seriously doubt that. You’re just upset you couldn’t find an executive position straight of school like I did.”
“That’s not what this is about, Laurence.”
“I get it. You’re an insecure chef who can’t handle critique.”
“It’s not a critique if you just insult us.”
Kate slumps into her office chair. It’s an old piece of furniture, so the springs squeak loudly under her weight. She brings a hand to her forehead and stares blankly at a spot on the floor. Letting out a heavy breath, she shakes her head slowly. “My father was right,” she groans. “I can’t handle running the Royale.”
I bite my lip, uncomfortable. I don’t like seeing Kate like this.
“I’m going to be honest with the two of you,” she utters, “the Royale’s not doing very well.”
“What do you mean?” asks Laurence, a little sharply.
“I took over the restaurant from my father four months ago, and we haven’t turned a profit in three. If we don’t turn things around by the end of this month, we won’t be able to pay the building’s lease.”
“Why are you telling us this now?” I ask.
“Because I had faith that under your combined leadership, things would fix themselves on their own. My father hired the two of you because he was impressed with your skill sets. He said that you two were some of the most highly qualified chefs to come out of Langton Culinary. I wanted to give you two the opportunity to prove him right.”
Laurence and I exchange glances. His lips are pursed into a thin, contemplative line.
“You should have told us this months ago,” he frowns.
For once, I agree with him. I silently nod. It’s like buying home insurance after the building’s already gone up in flames. If we had enough time, enough warning, we could have done something more to get out of the trouble we were in now.
“We’ll try and make it work,” he states after a moment.
“Don’t try. Just do.” Kate sits up a little straighter in her chair. “I want the two of you to stay late tonight and do the dishes together. In fact, I want you to stay after ever shift and do the dishes for the foreseeable future.”
“Why?” asks Laurence, sounding a bit offended. “We have a dishwasher for that.”
“Consider it a teambuilding exercise. If the Royale’s going to stand a chance, I need you two to work like an actual team. I’m not asking you to be best friends. I’m just asking that you work together for the sake of the team.”
I nod slowly in agreement, though the thought of staying late after a long shift with him is less than appealing.
“Fine,” we both sigh at the same time.
Laurence is the first to leave Kate’s office. He swings the door open wide and trudges off around the corner.
“And Claire?” Kate calls out quickly as I pass through the doorframe.
“Don’t listen to him. I think you’re an excellent chef.”
“Thanks,” I say before turning on my heels and head back to my station.
Dinner service isn’t over yet, but my aching feet wish that it was.
There’s an obvious difference in our management styles. Claire’s too sweet, too understanding. I, on the other hand, don’t have time to deal with other people’s bullshit. We’re surrounded by hot metal, sharp knives, open flames. If you can’t do your job properly, if you can’t handle the pressure, it’s best if you just leave. We can always find another chef who’s more talented, more skilled. This isn’t a mentorship. This is the Royale. And here at the Royale, you bring your talents with you, or you don’t come at all.
Have you ever considered that maybe it’s because you’re a shitty head chef?
Claire’s words echo in my mind. No one has ever had the balls to talk to me like that. I didn’t know Claire could sound that angry, that upset and hurt. That angry. She’s too sensitive for the Royale. I honestly don’t know how she landed a job here. Claire gives me a wide berth for the remainder of the evening, which is perfectly fine by me.
I’ve worked too hard to get where I am today. I can’t let the weakness of others, intentional or not, sabotage my career. Very few things surprise me. But today, she did. It’s never a dull moment here at the Royale.