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The Chef emerged from the kitchen holding a steaming dish with both hands. He was short and round as a good chef should be, and his fifty-three years pressed on his shoulders, rounding them toward his long white apron. He approached a large table strewn with the remnants of an elaborate feast; discarded napkins, empty plates, melted candles, and half a dozen empty wine bottles. All nine guests turned to look as the Chef placed the dish in front of Arthur O’Brian, who was seated at the head of the table.
“This you no guess,” the Chef said in a thick Greek accent, “is old family recipe.”
Arthur bent his tall, lanky frame toward the plate and inhaled deeply. The candle light reflected off of his scalp, distinctly visible through his thinning hair.
“Please, my good man,” he said tightening the knot of his tie and wiping a speck of sauce from the edge of the plate, “I do not guess. I distinguish and interpret.”
He cupped his long, delicate hand and waved it over the plate. He brought the fragrant steam to his nose, and closed his eyes, already identifying key spices by their aromas.
In the seat beside Arthur sat Marie, his waif of a girlfriend. She leaned back in her chair, crossed her impossibly long legs, and lifted her Pinot Noir. The bulbous glass mimicked her own appearance – a large head balanced on a tall, fragile stem. Her face was flushed, and a possessive twinkle shone in her eye.
“He has a perfect palate,” she added to Arthur’s speech.
A snort burst forth from the other end of the table. Arthur opened his eyes to fine slits and saw Eric, grinning like a jack-o-lantern.
“Perfect palate,” said Eric, “right.”
Eric was a blight on an otherwise delightful evening and should never have been invited. His annoyingly perfect head of hair aside, the man had a vitality about him that fed his flirtatious nature. In the two months since he began working at Alda, Cash, Wicke & Kerry he had charmed every woman and befriended every man until Arthur felt quite alone in his distaste for the man.
“It’s true,” said Marie, “he knows everything there is to know about couture cuisine.”
Eric cocked his head and smiled that stupid grin at Marie. “I don’t believe it,” he said, lifting his eyebrow in a way that had the assistants in the office twittering all day long. Apparently Marie was not immune, and she smiled back. Arthur slid his hand onto her thigh.
The Chef stood by patiently watching the exchange. He did not know their specific faces or names, but he was familiar with their type. A group of bankers from the nearby Marina district, out to spend a small fortune on the night’s food and wine. These people, and ones just like them, were the small restaurant’s brioche and olive oil. More than one claimed to have a perfect palate, and insisted on playing this little game, always initiating the exchange with a long soliloquy about his own prowess. Aside from the color of their ties, they were all remarkably similar and easy to play against one another. Usually the Chef was satisfied by manipulating them into ordering from the bottom of the wine list, but tonight he was feeling feisty. “Perhaps we make more interesting,” he said.
Arthur’s gaze shifted from Eric to the Chef. “How’s that?” asked Arthur.
“I agree with this young man,” said the Chef, gesturing toward Eric, “I put one hundred dollars says you no guess the ingredients of my special.”
“Let’s make it one thousand,” said Arthur, “that’s interesting.”
“Oh come on, Arthur,” said Eric, louder than was necessary, “you call that interesting?” Eric stood, wine glass in hand, and addressed the Chef. “You own this place?” he asked.
“The bank own, but yes, is my name on the papers,” said the Chef.
“I say, if Arthur’s perfect palate can’t tell us every ingredient in this dish, he pays off your mortgage.” The restaurant grew quiet. All eyes turned to Arthur. “What do you say Arthur?” Eric continued, the sarcasm in his voice growing with every word. “Put your money where your perfect palate is.”
Arthur smoothed his napkin against his lap to dry his palms. “I believe that’s fair.”
Eric slapped the table, reached for a bottle to refill his wine glass. “Now we’re talking,” he said, “yes.”
“You are sure?” asked the Chef.
“If I win,” Arthur said to the Chef, “my friends and I eat here for free, from now on – including wine.” Arthur held up his hand. The Chef shook it.
Arthur slid his fork into the meat. He lifted a small bite to his mouth, and lowered his eyes as his lips closed around the end of the fork. He tipped his head back. A small whisper of a gurgle punctuated the silence of the room as he fluttered his tongue to disperse the flavors of the sauce over the roof of his mouth.
“Lamb, of course, salt, white pepper, oregano,” he said, “a touch of nutmeg.”
The tender meat melted in Arthur’s mouth, dripping juice down his throat. He tasted fennel, anise, and a touch of corn starch which would have been used to thicken the broth. As each unique flavor made itself known to him, his smile widened.
The Chef waited as Arthur’s smiled spread. The crowd of customers watched. Whispers of anticipation filled the restaurant.
Then it happened. It was just the smallest of signs, and had one not been watching for it, it would have been easy to miss. The left corner of Arthur’s lip curled down in a curious half smile.
The Chef took a deep breath and seemed to grow a few inches taller.
Arthur opened his eyes, and the crease between his eyebrows folded deeper. He swallowed gently. His gaze, at first far away, shifted closer and then he looked up at the Chef.
“What…?” was all he said, and realized in the same instant that any chance he had at denying the existence of a mystery spice dissipated with the word in the air. There was a collective gasp from his friends around the table. Marie put down her glass.
“Wait,” he said, incredulous. He took another bite. In his mind he reviewed the list of the familiar tastes and landed again on the unidentifiable flavor. It was hearty, like paprika, but more subtle, less texture. The taste was very closely tied to the salt in the dish, and so had taken him a moment to discern. It was amazing. The most delicious subtle under-note he had ever tasted in any dish – and he had dined with dignitaries and statesmen.
“Is it…” he hesitated. He knew it would be something exotic, perhaps something tropical – a fruit reduction maybe, but without the acerbic flavor of citrus. Not tropical, it would be closer to home. Blueberries. But as soon as the thought came to him he dismissed it as wrong. Maybe a sweet mushroom glaze, he thought, but then no.
“We haven’t got all night, Artie,” said Eric.
“I need more time,” said Arthur.
“Time for what?” asked Eric. “You either know it or you don’t. What’s the verdict?”
Arthur scanned his memory, desperately hoping for a flash of insight.
“Well?” pushed Eric.
“I…” Arthur shook his head and looked to the Chef in disbelief. “I don’t know.”
A cry went up in the crowd. The Chef smiled wide and patted Arthur on the shoulder. Friends who had bet the long shot collected their winnings, but then put the money away quietly when they saw the look of defeat on Arthur’s face. He was in shock. The taste of the spice still lingered on his tongue, taunting him.
The Chef accepted his congratulations from the group, while Arthur reached deftly into his coat pocket.
“Here is my card,” he said, his brow furrowed, “Mr…”
“Peloponessus,” said the Chef, taking the card.
“Mr. Peloponessus,” said Arthur, struggling to wrap his mouth around the name, “call me tomorrow at that number and we will work out the details of how I am to pay my debt.”
“I will do that, thank you.” The Chef turned to leave the table.
“Wait,” said Arthur, “aren’t you going to tell me what it is?”
“I’m sorry, I cannot,” said the Chef.
“C’mon,” he said, “one food lover to another.”
“I cannot,” said the Chef again, shaking his head and turning back towards the kitchen. Arthur jumped up to follow him.
“Please,” he said in a whisper, looking around to be sure no one was listening, “I give you my word I’ll take it with me to the grave.”
“It was good fun tonight,” said the Chef, ignoring Arthur’s plea, “you take that beautiful woman home and do not let this trouble you any further.”
“Right,” said Arthur, “thanks a lot.”
He turned and stormed from the restaurant, grabbing Marie’s hand and yanking her out the door behind him. She waved back at their friends and stumbled to catch her footing.
Fifteen minutes later Arthur’s Porsche screeched to a stop in front of a Whole Foods market.
“Can’t you do this tomorrow?” Marie whined.
“No,” said Arthur, getting out of the car and slamming the door.
“I’m waiting here,” she yelled after him, inspecting a chip in her nail polish.
Arthur stopped abruptly before the store’s extensive spice rack. He raised his finger to the top left of the shelf and ran his gaze along the top row. Allspice, ammi, black benny, chervil. Boring, all of them. No contenders there. He made his way alphabetically down the isle. With a flick of his wrist he tossed a jar of epizopte into his basket, then a bottle of lovage. Anything he hadn’t tasted in a while made the cut, as well as the two spices he had never tried; grains of paradise and mastic (because the label claimed Greek origins).
Back at his remodeled, five-story, Victorian home he emptied the spices onto the granite countertop, arranged them in order of the possibility that they were the mystery spice. He turned to pull a sauce pan from the hanging rack over the oven.
Marie intercepted him, kissed his neck.
“Come to bed,” she said softly.
“No,” he said, pushing her aside and retrieving the pan. She sighed heavily. He dropped the pan on the burner and looked at her. “You don’t know,” he said, “it’s right there.” He drummed his fingers on his lips, “it’s right on the tip of my tongue.”
“Fine,” said Marie, turning and heading for the bedroom. Behind her the banging of pots and pans echoed off the vaulted ceilings and Italian marble countertops.
Marie woke the next morning to find Arthur’s side of the bed still made. She dressed for work and made her way out to the kitchen. Arthur sat at the counter, coffee mug in hand, staring at his lap top. The kitchen was a mess of dirty pots and pans. Spice jars littered the countertops. Bowls of different recipe experiments were scattered, some had wooden spoons protruding from them, others were shoved back against the wall, discarded.
“Wow,” she said, reaching over the mess for the coffee pot.
“He said it was an old family recipe,” said Arthur. “I don’t know why I thought Whole Foods would have an obscure Greek spice. I found a Greek grocery, it’s just over the bridge in Marin. I already called in sick.”
“So, what, I’m supposed to take the bus to work?”
Arthur’s eyes met hers. They were bloodshot and hollow looking. “I don’t know why I thought you’d understand,” he said storming to where his wallet sat on the counter, “you’re happy enough to sit by my side and drink my wine, but when I need your support with this one tiny little thing, where are you?” He dropped forty dollars on the tile at her feet.
“What’s that?” she asked.
“For a taxi,” he said.
She stepped over the cash, grabbed her purse and stormed towards the door. “Get some sleep,” she said over her shoulder.
“I don’t need sleep,” he yelled after her, “what I need is that god damned Greek grocery to open, because it’s not cumin, or fennel, or any of these mundane spices.” He grabbed a small glass bottle from the counter and threw it into the sink. It exploded, sending a cloud of spice into the air that was subsequently dispersed by a powerful gust of wind as Marie slammed the front door.
Arthur swiped at the dozens of jars littering the counter and they landed in the sink with a loud clatter. He grabbed his coffee and drank deeply from the mug, checking his watch.
Ten hours, two trips across the Golden Gate and twenty-three obscure Greek spices later, Arthur stumbled back to the restaurant, unshaven and haggard.
“Good evening, Sir,” said the host, his voice dropping off as Arthur stormed past him and walked directly to the back of the restaurant. There he spied the Chef, busy at work.
The Chef looked up.
“Ah, it is perfect palate.” He said. “How are you tonight?”
“It’s not Greek at all is it? Please tell me what it is,” Arthur whispered, “please, I must know.”
“What is what?” asked the Chef with a smile.
Arthur slammed his fist to the counter, shaking the plates and utensils stacked there. The wait staff that buzzed around him paused to stare for a moment before resuming their work.
“The spice, god damn it, the secret ingredient.”
The Chef smiled, “but if I tell you, is no longer secret.” He chuckled to himself and set back about his work at the stove.
“I’ll do anything,” said Arthur, “I’ll pay you.”
The Chef paused, looked at Arthur. “You already pay too much, or you say you will, but you no answer phone.” He pulled Arthur’s business card from his pocket, raised his eyebrows and looked Arthur in the eye.
“Oh, that, yes, I know, I’m sorry I should have called you. I wasn’t in the office today. I,” he hesitated, “I wasn’t feeling well.”
The Chef put down his sauce pan and wiped his hands on his long apron. “Is not about the money,” he said, “you say that you are a man of your word. If this is true, then I feel I maybe can share my secret with you.”
Arthur paused, processing what the Chef was telling him. “If I keep my word and pay off our wager, you will tell me?”
“I no can tell you,” the Chef said again, “but I will show you.”
Arthur took a deep breath, “show me?” he asked.
“Yes,” the Chef said, “but first, I must know that you keep your word.”
“Of course,” said Arthur, “just tell me which bank, I’ll go right now and write the check.”
The Chef leaned forward and whispered. “Better for me is cash”.
“Of course. How much do you owe?”
“Three-hundred-thousand. You can bring to my house tomorrow?”
Arthur did a quick calculation in his head, figuring how to liquidate the amount. “Yes,” he said finally.
The Chef gestured to one of the waiters for his note pad, and tore a page from it. He pulled a pen from behind his ear. “Eleven O’clock, my house,” he said and handed the piece of paper to Arthur.
Arthur looked at his watch – sixteen hours. He took a deep breath and shoved the note into his pocket. “You won’t regret this.”
Then the Chef grabbed Arthur’s shirt and forcefully brought them face to face. “I do this because I believe you are a man of your word. You must promise never to reveal what I show you.”
“Of course, anything you say,” said Arthur.
“Mmmm,” mumbled the Chef, “you go now, I have much work to do.”
Four hours later Arthur arrived back at his condo with three-hundred-thousand dollars cash in a blue zipper pouch. He sat on the sofa with the money in his lap. Liquidating this amount after business hours had been no small feat. There had been questions, expressions of concern. Looking down at his stained and wrinkled shirt he suddenly realized why. His apartment was likewise disheveled. He thought about cleaning up, about taking off his shirt, but he didn’t have the energy. He felt drained. It was as if the dam of his life had sprung a leak the night before. Water was rushing out faster and faster, and the only way to seal up the hole was with the spice. Only twelve hours to go.
His head fell back onto the cushion and exhaustion overtook him. Saliva pooled in the back of his throat as his consciousness faded. The remnants of hundreds of spices slid around his mouth, teased that perfect palate, and haunted his dreams. In them he was chased by giant vanilla beans and towering sticks of cinnamon. Peppercorns the size of boulders threatened to crush his bones. The ringing of his cell phone woke him.
“O’Brian, tell me you’re on your way.” It was Eric.
Arthur had forgotten all about work. “What?” Disoriented, he struggled to remember what day it was.
“The Vandenburg meeting,” said Eric. “We waited for fifteen minutes then started without you. Where are you?”
Arthur jumped up, years of corporate conditioning told him to move quickly, but when he turned and saw the state of his kitchen the experiences of the past two days came rushing back at him and he stopped dead in his tracks. “There’s something I have to take care of,” he said, “I can be there at eleven-thirty.”
“We need you here ten minutes ago.”
“Eleven-thirty,” Arthur said again, snapping his phone closed. He suddenly felt intensely tired. He ran his hands through his hair, rubbed his eyes and took a deep breath. His phone rang again. He turned it off. Soon he would know what the spice was, and everything would be right again. He had to be ready.
He removed his dirty shirt and used it to wipe down the counters. He spent the next three hours cleaning pots, reorganizing utensils and returning his spices to their proper places in the cupboard where they were ordered alphabetically, labels facing out. In the center of the shelf he left one empty space.
Arthur arrived half an hour early to the Chef’s house, the blue pouch resting on the seat beside him. Not wanting to appear as desperate as he was, he sat in the car until eleven, drumming his finger tips on the steering wheel. Finally the time came. He grabbed the money, walked up the path to the front door of the house and rang the bell. He heard the sound of footsteps, then the door opened, creaking on its hinges.
“Perfect palate,” the Chef said with a smile, “good morning. Come in.”
“Good morning,” Arthur said. He stepped across the threshold into the house and offered the blue pouch.
The Chef accepted the bag, unzipped it and peered inside. “Thank you,” he said, “you are a man of your word. This way.” He turned to walk down the hall, his shoulders slightly hunched. He gestured for Arthur to follow.
A delicious smell reached Arthur’s nose – he recognized from the restaurant two nights earlier. His palms moistened.
The two emerged from the dark hallway into an expansive kitchen. Dark wooden cabinets ran from the high ceiling to the Spanish tile floors. An island with a separate sink filled the center of the room and had three bar stools. At the stove a giant pot boiled with a red liquid, the tantalizing smell wafted from it. Arthur turned to circumnavigate the island and approach the stove, but the Chef stopped him.
“Sit,” he said, gesturing to a stool at the island, “and be patient.”
Arthur did as he was told, keeping his eye on the bubbling pot. “It’s something local isn’t it,” he said, “not Greek at all.”
“Do you know what gift you have?” asked the Chef.
Arthur’s gaze pulled from the stove to the Chef, “I’m sorry?”
“Perfect palate. You tell me in restaurant you have perfect palate.” The Chef chuckled. “I no believe you. I am old man, and I know many young roosters just like you who say ‘perfect palate,’ but is very rare.”
“But you believe me now?”
“This spice, from old family recipe, is so subtle, so perfect, that only one with such a delicate sense of taste can tell is there. Most people say oooh, and aaah, and is so delicious, but they don’t know, they cannot taste the true beauty that is the spice. You are very lucky.”
Arthur sat up a little straighter, looked the Chef in the eye, and felt calm for the first time in days. “So you understand,” he said, “I need to know what it is.”
“Yes,” said the Chef, “I understand.” He came close to Arthur, put his hand on his shoulder. “Do you recognize the smell from the other night?”
“Yes,” said Arthur, “but it’s different, just slightly.”
“Again, you are very good. I wait until you get here to add secret spice, so to teach you.”
Arthur smiled wide, excited.
“Breathe deep,” he said, “smell deep.”
Arthur inhaled slowly through his nose.
“No like this,” said the Chef, “close eyes, open mouth, taste the smell.”
Arthur closed his eyes, tilted his head back and opened his mouth wide to take in the smell wafting to him from the stove.
He felt the Chef touch the back of his head. Suddenly his breath was cut short, a sharp pain shot through his jaw. His eyes flashed open, then fluttered in disbelief – there was too much to take in. A hot substance oozed down his neck, the blunt end of a thick cleaver rested between his teeth. With a slight tug the Chef lifted Arthur’s head in the air, leaving his lower jaw attached to the rest of his body, which slowly slid off the stool and landed on the tile.
“You know what is perfect palate?” asked the Chef, as he set the remains of Arthur’s head on the counter and rocked it back so that his wide blinking eyes were aimed at the ceiling. With a second swing he brought the cleaver down again, severing Arthur’s upper jaw from the rest of his face. “Is this,” said the Chef, pulling the pie shaped slice from Arthur’s skull and cleaning it of teeth and lip. “The perfect palate,” he said, and winked at Arthur.
Arthur wanted to scream, but there was no air, he wanted to run, but had no capacity to do so. The light at the corner of his eyes sparkled faintly as he realized that in just a matter of seconds he had been reduced to half a head, resting on a counter top.
“This is what you tasted,” said the chef. “Well, no this, but the last one. Your timing is very good – I was afraid to use the last of that batch, in case I no find you, but there you were. So cocky, but then, with that pretty girl, I be cocky too.” He turned and dropped Arthur’s upper jaw into the pot. “Now is complete, thank you,” said the Chef. He whistled as he picked up a wooden spoon and began stirring the pot gently.
A wave of satisfaction washed over Arthur’s brain. “I
knew it wasn’t Greek,” he thought. The corners of his
eyes crinkled, pulling his cheeks into a gory half-smile. Then the
room grew dark and his eyes fell closed. The whistling stopped momentarily
and Arthur heard a slurping noise, followed by a murmur of satisfaction
before the whistling resumed, the darkness overtook him and there
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