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The Parable of the Chef who Gained Everything, and Lost Everything

The Parable of the Chef who Gained Everything, and Lost Everything

A cautionary tale in times of pandemic that have followed many seasons of abundance and avarice.

Edward was a humble man. In the beginning, at least. In the beginning, when all he’d wanted to do was open a simple steakhouse and grill the steaks that his friends all said were the best anyone could make, anywhere. You’ve gotta have your own place, Edward, they all had said, at one point or another. So, one day, he did.

There was enough custom, once word had got out. The place on the corner, across from the museum and near the old hotel, saw cars parked outside most nights, while inside was the familiar sight of Edward in his apron at the grill, and the aromas of grilling steaks and his ubiquitous Béarnaise sauce. Everybody loved Edward’s Béarnaise, as much as they did the tenderness of his steaks and the way the knife just glided through, as if propelled by the air and not human muscle. Once a day his wife, Felicia, would pull up outside in her Golf to bring him the newspapers he liked to read in the afternoon between services.

He knew he’d never get rich off the business, but he didn’t mind. Anyway, it wasn’t a business, to Edward. It’s like being paid to indulge in my hobby, he liked to say. Things were turning over nicely, as he often said to his regulars late at night, when most customers had gone home and there was a table of his mates left in one corner, at the window where they always sat. He’d bring them a pitcher of crushed ice, grab the bottle of Cointreau that he looked forward to all evening, and pour everyone a liqueur. “The only way to drink Cointreau!’ he’d tell them, again, as he poured the clear liquid over the crushed ice and all eyes were on it as it turned milky as if Edward had performed a chemical experiment in science class. “Ahhh,” they would sigh, as one, and Edward would smile, bark “Skål!” and they’d all sip, not knock it back, because they knew that Edward would frown at such vulgarity. “It must be savoured, every drop,” he would chastise with a hangdog brow, should any greenhorn presume to break the code.

Beards once black or brown turned grey or speckled, there at the window table, as nights turned to weeks and weeks turned to months and those into years and then as many as two decades. Until, one day, the public relations lady with the big hair and the flashy smile breezed in and asked “to speak to the owner please”. When a quizzical Edward peered out of his office door, she had clasped his hand manfully and told him how thrilled she was to be able to break the news to him. The news, he asked, perplexed? What news? Is something wrong? Oh noooooo, she had said, your fame goes before you, Edward! You have been nominated as the Steakhouse Chef of the Year!

He didn’t, he told Felicia later, know what that meant. How could there be one of a whole year, there were steakhouses and there were chefs, and there were customers. Wasn’t that how it worked?

But she was having none of that. Edward! How can you be so stupid about something so important! Imagine what it could do for us! Think how much more business it will bring us if you are the steakhouse chef of the year – for the whole country! Think, Edward! And he thought, and it was true, he could imagine a life with less of the financial pressure of always worrying whether he would meet his overheads and come out the other side with a bit of profit.

Still, Edward frowned, because he liked the simplicity of his existence, he liked that he could do the only thing he could do well, and that is cook a really good steak with a Béarnaise sauce, and people were kind enough to pay him for it, so he and Felicia had all the money they needed to settle all the bills, live in a nice house, drive a Toyota and have enough left over in a good year to fly to the old country to see his parents before they died.

Well, said Felicia, whose eyes were flashing the same colour as her dyed auburn hair, why did I even bother! And, his own eyes frowning, “bother what”, asked her husband. Why, contacting the organisers of course, did you think they just found you?! Said the wife he thought he knew well, and whom evidently he did not.

Barely two months later, Felicia had come running through the steakhouse’s front door, shaking with excitement and waving a letter. Edward, look! Look! We’re invited to the awards! And she’d accepted on his (and her) behalf, and hired a penguin suit for him (and bought something nice for herself), and in the plane they got, and at the big city airport the plane landed, and in a cab they went to the important hotel on the hill. Where, in the fancy-shmancy ballroom (which is what Edward called it), when the band wasn’t playing Porter or Gershwin (why no Makeba and Dollar, he had whispered in Felicia’s ear at one point), a lady with too many teeth and too much makeup had handed out runners-up prizes to what seemed like half the people in the room and Edward had sighed at least three sighs of relief when it had become clear that, as he had hoped, he had been overlooked and soon he and Felicia could go up to their room and have a Cointreau and a good sleep and fly home to sanity tomorrow.

But then. The lady flashed her teeth right at him, and said his name, and her words were a-jumble in the air, mingled with clapping and cheering and even some people standing up and staring at him while chanting his name. They were chanting your name, Edward! Did you see that! Felicia would say later. And he’d cringe. But now the many-toothed lady was still speaking. “And our steakhouse champion of the year is … all the way from … yes, ladies and gentlemen! …  Edwaaaaaard…” and he wanted to dive under the table or flee the room, but Felicia was pushing him to his feet and his unbidden legs carried him awkwardly to the front of the room where he forced a smile and took the trophy the gnashing lady thrust at him and endured her smacking a big red one on his cheek, and he said words he couldn’t remember five minutes later, and the throng cheered even more, and people he didn’t know and would never see again gave him many drinks afterwards, and eventually he fell into bed without his Cointreau and slept and dreamed of a small steakhouse with a table of his friends in the window.

In the days that followed, things were not the same. The phone. It never stopped ringing. And Felicia was now in the restaurant every day and had forgotten all about his papers, ever sashaying from table to table as if she owned the place (well, she did, as she had taken to reminding Edward, it had been her dad’s money that had helped him get started, after all). She’d leap at the phone and answer it and take the booking, and the next one, and the next. Within a week she had started taking orders for two sittings a night, because you have to capitalise on this, Edward, this may never come to us again, and Edward would watch from the grill as his mates got up at their window table and gave him an apologetic wave of good night, and he’d smile weakly and wave adieu, and turn back to cook another batch of steaks, and another, until, by the time the last table had finally left, an hour after Felicia had gone home, he’d dumbly pay the staff, close up and climb in his car for the drive home.

Within a year they had made so much money that Felicia had bought the silver Audi TT she’d craved, and his old mates asked what was going on with Felicia. I don’t know, he’d shrug, she never used to be like this. And the clothes she’s wearing, who needs so many frocks and jewels. And his friends would go quiet.

By the time the new boyfriend came along, Edward had retreated so far inside himself that his mates could barely get a word out of him. There were only two Edwards left by now. Edward the steakhouse chef, at his grill, and the sad man who climbed into his old Toyota for the solitary drive home every night. The twinkly-eyed Edward who poured cloudy Cointreaus and toasted the night with his mates was a memory in the air at a table in the window.

Two years after winning the steakhouse chef of the year award, Edward was a bachelor again, living in a flat with his cat to welcome him home every night and an empty Cointreau bottle on a shelf as a memento of the favourite times of his life.

Three years after winning the trophy that he had given to Felicia as part of the divorce arrangements, and which now resided on the mantelpiece in the lounge of the Clifton penthouse she shared with the financier who was now her second husband, Edward shuttered the old steakhouse. Ever since custom had started to drift away, 18 months after winning the award, he had tried to rekindle the old passion. His new customers had included TripAdvisor “reviewers” who smiled good night and shook his hand, then went to their hotels and wrote things like “the place has gone down” and “the steaks don’t live up to the hype”.

He’d started inviting his mates around again, but they seemed to have other interests now, new priorities, and Edward’s coveted time at the window table with them and the milky Cointreau somehow remained a thing of the times before the lady with the big hair and the flashy smile had walked in, one day, unannounced and uninvited, to change his life ostensibly for the better, but inevitably for the worse.

Seven years after Edward won his award, I saw a man at my local shopping mall who triggered a vague memory. His shoulders were stooped, as if the world and worry had weighed him down. When he saw me he lowered his gaze, as if he’d rather I didn’t recognise him. I took the hint and pretended he was someone else, just a stranger whose past had evidently soured his old age.

I turned away and forced my mind to the times when I was sitting in the window of his steakhouse with our mates, willing the time away for that prized moment when Edward would hang up his apron, grab the bottle of Cointreau, ask a waiter to send over a bucket of crushed ice, and join us, heaving that familiar sigh of satisfaction as he sat down alongside us. On my way out of the mall, I stopped at my local liquor store and bought a bottle of Cointreau and a bag of ice. I’d light a fire when I got home, crush the ice, pour in the clear liquid, watch as it turned cloudy, and drink to Edward’s good old days. “The only way to drink Cointreau!”, I’d whisper to the night air. But the ritual would not be the same. Watching the flowing tendrils of liquor form into clouds in the glass, it seemed a metaphor for what had happened to Edward when avarice was forced upon him, and the sun in his life disappeared. DM/TGIFood

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