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The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes story about a chef

The Gourmet Chef
H.G. Dowdell

The two new chef's assistants, fresh out of an Iowa culinary school and frightened to death of the burly, black chef standing in front of them listened as he put them at ease and reminded them that they were now in the real world's cooking arena. To remove some of the overall sting from his words, he lowered his voice before he continued, "Mise-en-place, guys. Just remember that and the rest is always easy." It was the basic principle that works just as well for murder, as it does in the kitchen. Mise-en-place, everything in its place, preparation, preparation, preparation.

Pressure is normal, and under pressure was when master chef, Ron Starks, did his best work. Mainly on those Friday nights when he was overbooked, two waiters down, two shaky assistants in tow, and his suppliers needed shooting.

He never really murdered any of his assistants or suppliers though, even while maintaining that if they didn’t know the difference between a saucier and a double boiler, or Rocket and Swiss chard, he should be able to kill them, or leastwise, they didn’t deserve to be in the business. No, Ron's deadlier days would be about so much more than food, and far more about the subject of eating.
Actually, Ron has eaten just about every dish, every delicacy, everything world cuisine has to offer, and more. He has eaten it all.

Once a skinny black kid with a 1970s Afro who was born and raised in the South Bronx, he's been eating all his life. However, this master chef and boy from the 'hood has always been a rather zealous eater, with his five brothers and sisters guarding the veal chops on their plates as they sat with him around the family dinner table. Although these days, a gourmet is what most people prefer to call him. A restauranteur, food expert, culinary genius, and chef extraordinaire. But these days, the simple truth is that Ron has become the quintessential overeater. Discounting the occasional reference of lard ass, usually resulting in the person who said it deeply regretting it afterward, the truth is, Ron Starks never stops eating.

As soon as he wakes, food is the first and foremost thing on his mind. Rich artery clogging breakfasts like Eggs Benedict, or plain artery clogging breakfasts like a full English breakfast. A saner, simpler, continental breakfast of a plain croissant and coffee? No chance.

And Ron is certainly no food snob who resigns himself only to the ever-constant posh nosh. Even though some might readily assume this given the upscale, haute cuisine restaurant he owns and operates in one of New York's trendier districts. Ron loves gorging on fast food just as well. Pizza, refried doughnuts, burgers and fries—and don't skimp on the ketchup. Subgum chow mein and egg-fried rice to go? It’s all good stuff; and makes for a nice little snack between gourmet meals.
But in years past, for real food Ron felt he needed to go to France. And after a year as a chef's dishwasher when he was just out of high school, France became his spiritual home. In Paris, he went all out for the traditional gourmet meals. Seventeen courses. Dish after dish of culinary perfection. It was the highlight of Ron's life, and a turning point.

He started out in France as a skinny, nineteen-year-old, and apprentice in a Parisian bistro. When he left two years later to tour Italy, he was starting to fill out, and look healthier. The first stop was Northern Italy with the flat pasta and Jotta of Fiorentina. Beef cooked with no accompaniments, no herbs, no spices, no sauces, just roasted to perfection. Then on to Rome where the veal was always sweet, served with spinach and pine nuts, and the pasta came in every shape. Then he finally finished his tour in Palermo, Sicily, where his days found him working for a master chef, and his evenings in a small café owned by two sisters, who served unpretentious peasant food to Palermo’s more discerning gourmets. Their rabbit and radishes in chocolate sauce, was truly an acquired taste.
At twenty-three, he decided to head for home, weighing two hundred pounds even. Ron never had a girlfriend back then. Never had the time or the confidence, so to him it was really no big deal. Instead, he threw himself into his work, and food became his "sweetheart," along with the occasional semi-erection after a truly delectable meal. And having all the "confidence" he needed under the guise of his profession, he could walk into any kitchen of any upscale restaurant he wanted on the isle of Manhattan. Having learned his trade in France and Italy was his gold stamp.

It was the 80’s and everyone was making their fortunes in Nouvelle Cuisine, charging chinless yuppie stock brokers a grand per head to eat tiny morsels of half cooked meat in rich, sweet sauces, served with a single asparagus tip and saucy outlines around the plate's perimeter. Ron counted the money and went home smiling, to eat huge platefuls of roast beef with creamed potatoes, roasted parsnips, buttered carrots and peas. All drowned in thick, au jus gravy, followed by a moderate portion of peach cobbler topped with a double scoop of designer ice cream.
"Ronald Jr., you're gonna kill yourself shoveling in all that food like you do," his mother warned him on the phone from the old South Bronx apartment he grew up in.
A rather hefty two hundred and some pounds in her own right, and had been that way for most of her adult life, Mother Starks, along with her pastor and members of the New Life Baptist Church who prayed her into making the decision, had recently joined the LA Weight Loss program she'd seen advertised on TV, and was doing quite well.
"Yeah, good luck on that new program, Ma," Ron droned, as he held the phone receiver reluctantly to his ear. It was probably the twentieth diet regimen she'd been on since he was old enough to remember, so he stood there rolling his eyes between spoonfuls of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia, figuring the odds on how long she would stay on this one.But as the days, weeks, and months moved on, Ron's earlier experiences in France seemed to have left him hungry for more. And soon, at two hundred and forty-two pounds of sweating gourmet, he decided to leave New York again, on a round the world food fest. First class all the way, of course.

The first stop was Africa, spending time in Morocco and Egypt, then it was on to the Middle East. There the food was a sticky, sweet mix of spice and fruit. Sugary baklava and pomegranate, lamb Tagine on couscous, lamb shanks roasted in molasses with apricots. All served with hot, sweet cups of coffee. But sadly, it only proved to be a crowded, noisy place for a bloated American.
Next it was on to India, to sample the best the Raj had to offer. Tiffin and Kedgeree in Bombay’s finest hotels. Then Ron became more adventurous and traveled to the Punjab, for its rich ghee heavy dishes, to Gurjurati for the hot and sour dhalls, and across the border into Pakistan for lamb and rice in rich, spicy hot gravy.

Moving on to the Far East, and through the streets of Bangkok, Singapore, Beijing, Taipei, and Tokyo, nothing was too exotic for Ron's palette. Snake, cat, dog, pig’s head, ears, and trotters, and duck's head, all with rice and noodles. The aromas, the colors and sounds of food were everywhere, in rich, fresh greens or hot chili reds, and fragrant ginger hot broths. In restaurants and in street bars, the food was sizzling. In Thailand and Vietnam, Ron went out into the villages and into the local huts, with scores of villagers gathered around to see the "fat black man" eat chili peppers. The village elders would see how hot, and how many chilies he could eat, and Ron never disappointed them. Although his mouth burned, his eyes watered, and his throat was raw, he ate anything they set before him.
In Japan at one sitting, he shoveled as much sushi into his mouth as the average Japanese family eats in a week. In the end, he gave up and went to McDonalds.

Then he was off to Australia, where the Old World clashes with the East, and in an eclectic mix of tastes and styles, creates the New World of fusion cuisine. Australia had lots to offer, from Old World European, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, to the oriental influence that matched the real thing Ron had so recently been feasting on. The best though, was a cuisine older than any other in the world. Aboriginal food.

The dry but sweet fruit of the quandong tree, water ribbons from the bilabong; steamed in a can over a fire, live honey ants, their abdomens swollen beyond belief, filled with honey and looking like amber beads, roast Kangaroo, and of course, the infamous Witchetty grub.

But after that, Ron had pretty much lost interest in Australia. The people were friendly, young, vibrant, and good-looking. Everything Ron Starks was not. So he booked himself two seats on the next flight back to New York, weighing in at two hundred and ninety-eight pounds, and still hungry. He also wound up complaining about the food on the flight, mainly because they wouldn’t allow him to have more than four meals, even though he'd paid for two seats. Pissed off to the max about this, he looked around at his fellow passengers, wondering which one of them he'd eat first if they crashed into the Andes.

Back home in New York, Ron's doctor, a tall, physically fit-looking man, told him he was at a point where he needed to take drastic action and make a complete lifestyle change. He even suggested possible stomach stapling and liposuction along with the fact that if Ron didn’t reduce his calorie intake, fat in particular, and attempt a mild form of exercise, he'd be dead within a year. Ron nodded, smiling politely while dreaming about a lone packet of Chewy Chips Ahoy cookies he'd spotted in a vending machine on the main floor. He couldn't help but wonder the odds of it still being there over a steady flow of lobby traffic whenever the good doctor's lecture was over.
But even without his doctor's warnings, Ron knew he was dying a slow death that he, alone, was creating. And there was one thing he knew he had to try before his arteries finally clogged, and the weight pressing down on his chest stopped his heart completely.

Ron Starks' restaurant in the Soho area of lower Manhattan these days is a small, unpretentious bistro with only a few people on staff. His kitchen is of a moderate size, but still, the knives alone average several hundred passes daily on the diamond steel. There's also an ample portion of the freezer chest that has been fully cleared. So tonight, Ron waits.

And, if you just happen to be his last customer, you’ll watch as he dismisses the staff. You’ll probably think that’s nice, what a jolly, friendly boss, letting his staff go home early, locking up on his own, allowing you to finish your meal at your own pace. Ron will lock the front door, then smiling, he'll explain that he’ll let you out through the back.
And he will, of course…probably as soon as his mother arrives.
Now healthier, along with being thirty pounds thinner and counting, she'll be there with all the healthful, quick-frozen and packaged meals of rubbery chicken filets and vegetable rice pilaf that helped her to get there.
It's the one thing Ron knows he has to at least—try.
© H G Dowdell April 2005

H.G. Dowdell is a former freelance journalist and staff editor for NFG Magazine, a Toronto-based literary print journal. Her articles have been featured in Essence and Self Magazines, the NY Amsterdam News, NY Newsday, and the City Sun News. Her flash fiction has been featured in Sister to Sister and Honey Magazines, and her short stories can also be found at Emerging Women Writers and Wild Child Publishing e-zines. She's currently busy at work on her second novel. 

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