In Kitchens We Trust, by Sarah Munn
Updated: Oct 26, 2021
Phone calls to the kitchen during service were a nuisance, so I was gruff when I answered. I regret that now.
“Raych, it’s me.”
My sister was crying on the other end but she got the words out: “Dad is gone. It happened here at home, pretty quickly. We’re a mess. You should come.”
I tried to say something but my lips were glued together. Her words were flip-flopping through my mind, repeating themselves in curlicues and somersaults. Dad gone home mess home Dad gone.
I finally unstuck my lips. “Okay,” I said, my mouth dry and fuzzy. “Thank you. Love you. I’ll see you soon.” I hung up and went back to my post by the pass. I checked a couple of plates, my eyes glazing over as I looked for smears of sauce and missing garnishes. I nodded at the server standing at attention on the other side, giving him permission to take them to their waiting diners.
Dad is gone.
I turned my gaze to the chunky little ticket printer that spat out orders. It was whirring and pushing out a piece of receipt paper. Hurry up, I thought, each second of idleness forcing me to feel. I tapped my fingers on the printer as I waited for it to inch the order into the hot air of my kitchen and tore at it as soon as it was there.
“Ça marche,” I called, reading the order. “One cream of tomato, one calamari, two steaks, medium rare, mash and asparagus, gratin and roast veg.”
“Yes, Chef!” My staff sprang to action.
Dad loved a good steak. If he were in the restaurant tonight, he would have chosen my cheesy gratin potatoes and asparagus for sides, with sautéed onions and mushrooms.
I needed something to do. I was annoyed that my team was so capable, that I wasn’t needed in the thick greasy air of the hot line where I could lose myself in the non-stop noisy bustle of grilling steaks and searing fish and tossing pasta in sauce, or drown my thoughts in the roiling bubble of the deep fryer. I looked over at the dish pit. Even that was under control. I could probably leave right now, should probably leave right now, and everything would run smoothly as I rushed over to my parents’ house to grieve with my mother and my sister. But I didn’t want to go. Not yet. I scanned the room, gleaming with white tile and stainless steel, my chefs busy in the dance of the kitchen, each following their own choreography yet perfectly in sync with one another. I would have been proud of them any other night.
There was a free worktable to my right. I grabbed a cutting board and filled my apron with onions from the sack in the corner. I dumped them in a shallow Cambro container so they wouldn’t roll around and grabbed another for the skins and root ends. Then I pulled out one of my knives from their case.
My hands moved deftly. I’d done this thousands of times. Top and tail the onion, leaving a bit of the root end to hold onto. Slice in half, right through the core. Peel. Lay one half flat on the board. Downward cuts, then horizontal cuts. Then whizz through the whole thing, creating a simple dice. I swept the squares of onion into a stainless-steel container. Next. A few of my staff noticed me but didn’t say anything. The perks of being in charge, I suppose. You could decide it was time to prep onions in the middle of dinner service and everybody kept their mouths shut.
Dad is gone.
We’d been expecting this, sort of. He hadn’t been well for a while. His heart had finally given in to the years of abuse it had been put through with relentless consumption of alcohol and cigarettes. There’d been a couple of close calls, a refusal of surgery, and then a lot of waiting and walking on eggshells. I’d stopped going home to see my parents because it was too hard to bite my tongue. I was angry at him. And it wasn’t fair to yell at somebody who already felt guilty, so I kept my lips pressed together and smiled tightly and made flat conversation until I couldn’t bear it any more.
Dad is gone.
Usually the onion fumes didn’t bother my eyes after all these years in the business, but this time I hid behind their side effects and let my eyes well up. I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye. I kept thinking there would be more time, that my anger would subside, that he’d take a turn for the better, that things would feel normal again and we’d talk like we used to. That I wouldn’t leave every interaction feeling like I hadn’t said what I really wanted to say.
That little printer was chug-chug-chugging again. I set my knife down on the board and walked back over to it, wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.
“Ça marche, one bruschetta, one caesar, one crab back.”
“One linguine, one almondine, one steak, rare, fries and salad.”
Dad is gone.
I needed to be busier. The calamari and the cream of tomato soup were at the pass now and they looked good. The spiral of cream in the soup bold white against the fiery orange. The rings and tentacles of squid golden and crispy but not greasy.
“Pick up!” I shouted, my voice over-loud and strained from holding emotion in my throat.
Another server picked up the plates and left quickly. I went back to my onions. Top, tail, cut in half. Peel. Downward cuts, horizontal cuts, dice. Next.
A memory of cooking with my dad wafted through my mind, unbidden. I was five and impatient with myself; he was forty and gentle with me. He was teaching me how to make pancakes. “Watch for the bubbles, Rachel,” he told me, one hand on my shoulder, stopping me from reaching to flip them while they were still gooey. I watched as bubbles started to pop on the surface of the two circles in the pan, mesmerized. “Wait for a few more,” Dad said, all-knowing. I hated waiting. “Okay. Flip ’em.”
I had to use two hands to hold the spatula and my aim was off, but I flipped them. The first one landed half on top of the other, but Dad helped me separate them, and the second one landed perfectly. The cooked sides were the colour of sunburnt wheat, and Dad was smiling proudly. “Very nice,” he said. “That’s the colour you want, every time.”
I swept more diced onions into the stainless-steel container and inhaled a shaky breath. I couldn’t break right now. We had an hour of service left and then an hour of clean-up. Later. I could break later.
“How are those steaks, Raul?” I called, smelling that they were ready.
“Two minutes, Chef,” came the reply from the hotline. I knew when Raul said two minutes he’d have the plate to me in one. He just said two to give himself room for very rare error.
“And those apps? Celine?”
“Oui, Chef, coming now.”
I whizzed through the last onion and tried to focus my attention on just that: the pale white-yellow of its flesh, wet and crunchy under my glinting blade, the weight of my knife in my hand, the control I felt over it. The factory Crayola green of my plastic cutting board, colour-coded for vegetables only. Colours, sounds, textures, anything to distract me from the refrain beating behind my eyes. Dad is gone. Dad is gone. Dad is gone.
The rest of dinner service went by in a blur of plates and soon we were cleaning up, sanitizing cutting boards, brushing the grill, wiping down work stations and mopping the floor. The front of house staff swept the restaurant and stripped all the tables of their cloths. They split the tips among themselves and the kitchen crew, and I checked all the shutters were closed and locked.
Finally, we said our goodbyes and I thanked my staff for their hard work as they left through the back kitchen door. I bolted it behind them, the heavy iron rod slugging into place, and then, alone in my kitchen, I broke.
Sarah Munn is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Of Jamaican and English heritage, she grew up in Micronesia and the Caribbean, and looks to incorporate food and flavour in her fiction. She is currently revising her first novel, for which she is seeking agent representation, and can be found on Twitter @SarahMunnWrites.
Patricia I. Vargas is a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) educator of 10 years Los Angeles, CA. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Sociology “with great distinction” from Oregon State University where she conducted and published quantitative research. She has also conducted qualitative research at her transfer institution, the University of California, Los Angeles. Her written works have been published by the Center for Open Science, Environmental Systems Research Institute, and ScholarsArchive@OSU. Most currently, she is a member of the American Statistical Association, National Education Association, and Pacific Sociological Association. This is her debut art publication.