The Return of Chef Carmichael
Edward Steele Kelleher
The news that Chef Carmichael was returning to his first and only eponymous restaurant was barely a day old, and already all of the reservations for the historic evening were taken. He was returning to celebrate its thirtieth anniversary. Carmichael’s had done just fine without him; his successors behind the line and at the front of the house had more than upheld his impossible standards, a courtesy his employees at his other restaurants were parsimonious in the extension of. So many of his visitations to different branches of his empire quickly turned ugly, and he found it necessary to upbraid his chefs and managers for having forgotten his “concept,” which he, at times, had difficulty remembering himself, given how many he had and how old—fifty five—he was. He felt faintly absurd delivering this harangue, which the state of his empire required him to know by heart. He agreed with his critics who compared him to a roving missionary who departs immediately after his conversions, without doing the infinitely more difficult work of seeing that they remain true. And yet what religion grows that requires its missionaries to remain with their converts so that they do not become apostates? The missionary instead returns to hound those who lapse. The problem for Chef Carmichael was that practically all of his restaurants had lapsed, forcing him to adopt, on the fly, his own method of triage. At least, like the missionaries of old, he did not have to reach his next problem by foot. This being the modern age, he could fly to them.
It was all to no avail. His restaurants were being shuttered, not only in the United States, but as far away as Beijing. He had bought out his investors long ago; the losses were all on him. Only yesterday his restaurant in London had closed; his accountant had identified his daring Berlin concept as the next to fall. The Germans simply could no longer abide his take on their cuisine, for he had, most maliciously it seemed to them, brought it into direct collision with at least three other country’s cuisines, one of which they were at war with. His flagrant disregard of the embargo against them was the final straw. The idea that people he had never met were answerable to him, and he for them, he found mildly preposterous. He used the qualifier “mildly” because to admit it was preposterous was to confess the folly of his enterprise, which depended on the assumption that all of his subordinates had somehow been infused with his genius, though of course not in such high doses that they might one day overshadow him and build their own empires to compete with his own. He was not on the lookout for defectors, however; he would have rejoiced if that was what he had to be vigilant for. No one, dear god, wanted his people.
He had had foresight, evidently, in having only one of his restaurants take his surname. It had made the disowning of them so much easier; his failure was not nearly as ignominious as it might have been. His return to Carmichael’s resembled very much a retreat—as one after another of his restaurants fell in rapid succession he felt all the more strongly about the ones still standing. My analogy falls flat because few of his restaurants were being besieged. The crowds were gone, the chaos over. The lull, perhaps even the end, had come. For all that, failure had its compensations: he could now sleep in. He did not have any interest in launching another campaign and scoping out untapped markets, every market having been thoroughly tapped and penetrated until his customers and the customers of some of his colleagues had reached the point of engorgement. And now, on cue—it was all so very predictable—the disgorgement had come.
The public had recognized its mistake. It was embarrassed it had persisted in it for so long. People were tired of the whole dialogue surrounding food. They were tired of people not in the business who acted like they were. They were tired of pretending they cared about where their vegetables came from and who their farmer was and whether he was fairly compensated. They were tired of inquiring of their waiters if the cows (now rather reduced in size) on their plates had had, before being slaughtered, a fair go at it. They were tired of thinking themselves virtuous if the answer was “yes, they had had ample leg room.” They were tired of feeling guilty if the answer was “no, they had never left the paddock.” They were tired of making similar inquiries regarding the liberties permitted the salmon they ate: had they been caught in the Atlantic or hauled out of some tub? They were tired of being penetrated; tired of all the new places they had to try. They were tired of never really knowing what the new “hot spot” was there being so many of them. They were tired of the owners of the new “hot spots” telling them that theirs was the newest. They were tired of waiters who thought it their duty to recite all the microbrews on tap. They were tired of microbrews. They were tired of taking the whole god damn thing too seriously. Most of all, they were tired of having no time for the old haunts.
And now, at last, they were returning en masse to them, only to discover vacant buildings for lease. The stupid ones wondered why they had closed; the smart ones repented and gave their patronage to their surviving kindred spirits. They wanted something else, something that was not built yesterday, something that was not a shtick, something that did not inflict itself on you but rather waited to see what you would make of it. They clamored for that which their indifference had helped to destroy. And Chef Carmichael had what they wanted, though Carmichael’s was not about to be rediscovered, as it was already overrun every night.
For what was Carmichael’s but a refuge for all of those who had reacted against its owner and his bottomless pit of concepts? Who knew he was a visionary? Carmichael’s thirtieth anniversary could not, you see, have come at a better time, for it reminded people, if they needed a reminder, that Carmichael’s was not new to the scene. It was, for a restaurant, blessedly old. He had failed them signally elsewhere, but not here.
Somehow Carmichael’s had not strayed. It had stayed gloriously intact. While other restaurants struggled mightily with their identities, Carmichael’s was proud to have known its own from the very beginning. Neither the menu nor the restaurant had ever undergone a renovation. The menu was not “seasonal”; it was unapologetically “annual.” As it refused to make concessions to the seasons, so the décor refused its tribute to the times, which favored sleekness, chairs that had no “give”, and shiny metallic services without crevices. Heaviness, mahogany, and dimness reigned in perpetuity at Carmichael’s. Carmichael’s was not merely evocative of the old world; it was the old world. To those who said it was not lively enough, Carmichael’s said, “Too bad,” and then added, rudely I think, that it could do without them. Fashionable people avoided the restaurant altogether; it did not flatter them as the new places did. Indeed, it cared nothing for them. Carmichael’s always knew it was the main event. Oh, yes, Carmichael’s had a high sense of its worth, which it would not have been so vulgar as to put into monetary terms. It had only to look up and down the street for a good laugh, so pathetic it found the competition.
When Chef Carmichael left his namesake, under circumstances which I will describe in a moment, he had made it explicit to the staff remaining behind that their only task was to preserve what he had created, as if anticipating how disposable all of his future restaurants would be. He likened them all to curators, and suggested to them that posterity would be even more appreciative of their diligence than he was. The waiters and dishwashers had done their part through ceaseless mopping and scrubbing and sweeping and polishing; the cooks did theirs by turning out exact replications of every dish on the original, the only menu. Carmichael’s was the one restaurant of the Chef’s that seemed inviolate, though its innocence was protected by nothing more than his adherence to his own policy, which, of course, he could forswear at any moment.
Chef Carmichael had created a monument, and while he waited the requisite one hundred years for it to be recognized as such, he wanted, like any good collector, to keep his treasure as pristine as possible, which was very difficult given the public uses to which it was subject. More faithful stewards he could not have found and because his staff experienced practically no turnover the continuance of a successful stewardship never depended on the quality of the new hires. Not surprisingly the staff at Carmichael’s was old for a restaurant. Unlike young people, they had blood in the game. (Perhaps this is why the Chef withdrew from it so early; he was too young to see how serious a game it was). Their nostalgia for high varnishes and leather backed chairs and a vanished elegance that probably never existed was not at all affected. Given the opportunity to nurse the past (admittedly under the supervision of a jealous present) they seized it and kept it in excellent repair. Over time, Carmichael’s had taken on the character of a time capsule as the history whose pulse it kept beating was subject to general destruction outside of its walls.
Chef Carmichael had not planned to part with Carmichael’s so early in both of their lives. The birthing process had been so prolonged, the money so hard to get, the inspectors so hard to satisfy, the excellent help so hard to find, but once the doors to Carmichael’s had opened and the first guest had crossed its threshold, he saw that the joy of owning such a gem would make the perpetual polishing of it pleasurable in the extreme. One does not flee after the birth of one’s child, knowing all the joys—and yes the tribulations—waiting to be unlocked. It is one’s privilege—to call it a duty besmirches the nature of parenthood—to feed, bath, educate, perhaps even bury one’s child. Thirty years ago Chef Carmichael had foreseen an array of similar delights peculiar to the rearing of a restaurant lain out before him and was overcome by how many he had to choose from. He had planned to cook, of course, but he had also foreseen taking a few tables, running a few racks of dirty glasses through the dishwasher, shaking a few martinis, pulling a few espresso shots and getting drunk with his staff after the departure of the last party, all the while swapping the evening’s horror stories and assessing another honorable day’s work. When once the restaurant was safely ensconced in its success, he had envisioned himself roaming the dining room in his Chef’s clothes and interrupting people in the midst of the flights his food had sent them on. He would demand assurances, in the most affable way, of what he already knew: were his guests happy with the food, the waiters, the bartender, and anybody else connected to the establishment he might have missed. Of course, they would say yes one thousand times over, and praise the virtuosity of all the functionaries whose performances he had asked them to review, dwelling on his own especially. Those who had not yet ordered would implore him to return to the kitchen, fearing the preparation of their dishes might be left to other, less skillful hands. And so he would return to the kitchen, never so glad to submit. At the end of the evening, he would go on another excursion, show up at another place he was not expected, and so see his restaurant from all possible angles. Naturally, he could not be privileged to every vantage point: for obvious reasons, guests did not want to see Chef Carmichael cleaning the restrooms. His enthusiasm would require some discretion. He had imagined all of this and more. Had he remained he would have seen his visions materialize. We are all prophets; we just choose not to fulfill our prophecies.
Chef Carmichael instead made the usual exchange, and traded throbbing humanity for a few bucks. Investors heard of the young Chef’s genius—it was dutifully reported on the day of its first manifestation—and after seeing that he looked the part for which they were that day casting, told him he was wasting his time in the kitchen. The public, at long last—they were frankly baffled as to why it had taken so long—had discovered an interest in the people who fed it, and since it was impractical for the public to squeeze into the kitchen, it was necessary that a few great—and good looking—chefs come out and meet the public on its turf, so as to give this budding interest of its the air and the space the kitchen simply could not provide. Chef Carmichael, being young and ambitious, had not thought it odd that someone should want to remove him from the only place his genius had any play. What is odd, the Chef knew, is the man who refuses to be taken from his playground, declining the enticements the acceptance of which makes us adults. Already the investors had him on the defensive. They would make him big; he, on the other hand, would have to expand at his own human rate, and even for geniuses, that was rather plodding. Why not let them accelerate the process, as they had accelerated it for so many others—they were ready to pull out references—and bring him in ten years to the place he could only hope to arrive at in thirty?
They said he should do what all the other great chefs were starting to do: sprinkle his genius around the United States, and then, if it took—and why would it not?—the world. Unfortunately, they could not standardize Carmichael’s; that was just not what the public wanted at the moment. (Here the Chef had paused and wondered at their assessment of the public’s desires. Was not Carmichael’s booked solid evening after evening?) They wanted his takes on Italian, Chinese, Thai, Mexican, Greek, Cantonese, German, French, and even possibly American cuisine. After he opened a few restaurants which considered these cuisines individually, they wanted him to effect the union of a few of them, though not indeed in a traditional sort of marriage between two parties. Was he comfortable in amalgamating as many as five cuisines in one union, the different unions he effected to be the occasion for opening a new restaurant where the exotic offspring would be served? It would be his solemn responsibility, of course, to keep all parties to these marriages happy. Some cuisines, they said, do not simply disagree with our stomachs; they disagree with each other. They did not have to tell him, of course, which ones got along. That is one of the reasons they needed him. He would find combinations the others had missed. Was he interested? The investors were prepared to give him a lot of money. The Chef gathered up the courage to ask them for a figure. They gave it. To cinch the deal he was told his window was closing, which is to say theirs was. If he did not jump, some other brilliant young chef would. Apparently, they had a list of them, and would go to the next name should he say no. There was only so much room for them all. The public, they said knowingly, would simply not tolerate latecomers to the movement. They would be roundly rejected. It was “All Aboard,” or be left at a permanently vacated pier. He took his windfall. He gave his notice to his own restaurant and he jumped into the system the investors had set up for him.
Before parting, he enjoined his staff, as you will recall, to take care of the place. He was ashamed and embarrassed that his fidelity could take no more active form than that, but the investors had told him he would be quite busy, and that a chef of his caliber must constantly be opening new restaurants rather than tending to old ones. Four new restaurants a year were expected of him. His staff responded by pledging their loyalty to Carmichael’s and its twenty-five year old owner and outgoing Chef. They might have been knights in the middle ages paying homage to their lord. The ceremony was made all the more touching because of the disparity in age—on average ten years—between the lord and his retainers. He thought his employees might despise him for abandoning the restaurant so soon after its opening, but they did not. They understood. Who does not understand a bargain? Sous Chef Rogers, as excellent cook in his own right, assumed the Executive Chef position. The transition was seamless, and naturally Chef Carmichael wondered if this meant he was superfluous and not nearly the bright young genius the investors had told him he was.
He knew he had sold out, and without any necessity to do so, but he vowed, as a sort of act of contrition, that Carmichael’s should not humor people like him. Cooks who came to Carmichael’s to make names for themselves were immediately dismissed, or rather they were never hired. No one piggy backed off the restaurant’s reputation. He never could believe that he had earned the boost his own had given him. He became wary of geniuses and the avant-garde culinary movement most of them championed. As his investors forced him to be on the “cutting edge” of the “cutting edge”—he sometimes became rather dizzy, being always so close to the brink—his solicitude for Carmichael’s relative antiquity only became more pronounced. Innovation at Carmichael’s, whether with the ingredients or the preparation, was not only frowned upon; it was prohibited. The cooks at Carmichael’s might have had their hands tied, but who in god’s good name wanted to take the responsibility of untying them? Giving them license to experiment might ruin everything.
For thirty years, Chef Carmichael had steered clear of Carmichael’s, receiving updates from Chef Rogers and the restaurant’s general manager, John Walker, who had also been with him from the beginning, starting as a waiter. He avoided Carmichael’s for many reasons, and I will do my best to list them all here. First, he found it painful to return to what should have been his field of glory. Second, Carmichael’s did not need his attention: it was now Chef Rogers’ field of glory. The reviews were clear as to that. Even if Carmichael’s had required attention, he was not the right ministrant for it. His meddling was hardly some type of curative. When, of late, he had applied it with any degree of force to his other restaurants, it had resulted in their closures. His restaurant in London was just the latest to die while under his care. He had left the death throes to his staff.
Now that his portfolio was so reduced and it was the most vulgar affectation to speak as if he still had an empire, he was tempted to dig into things in a way that he never could have done during his Pax Romana, when he flew around the world to see in person all of his successes and hear people compliment him on meals he had not cooked. He had nothing to do now except count his losses, and so was starting to get antsy. He could only confirm he was “finished” so many times. Antsy people are not given to new projects; they prefer revisiting old ones.
He was only contemplating the alteration of Carmichael’s menu; the restaurant itself was sacrosanct. We will sometimes lose our religion in order to prove that we exist. Chef Carmichael was rather beginning to doubt his own existence, the visible proofs of it daily whittling down to just the man, who he was ashamed of. His empire had been absurd, as all successes built to scale are. Still, it had helped to stay that most obnoxious question his conscience sometimes bothered him with: what had he done with his life?
If nothing else he had built Carmichael’s. And he had not changed it. That was something, too. He would have been insane to edit his masterwork, for that was what Carmichael’s was, and yet that is just what unoccupied geniuses are always tempted to do, subscribing to the belief that something can always be made better, that there is no such thing as a final draft, just an endless series of improved rough ones. While that may be true of the other arts, it is decidedly not true of the greatest art, the art of cooking. Perfection is not only attainable. It is eatable. How wonderful it is that the food critic does not have to confine his appreciation of his subject, as the art critic must, to mere staring, or as the book critic must, to mere reading. It is his privilege, his honor really, to consume perfection, to swallow masterpieces of unspeakable beauty, and then, for a blessed few hours, digest them over a nightcap or two.
To his credit, I do not think the Chef ever thought he could improve Carmichael’s. He was more interested in reasserting his claim to it, sometimes fearing it was forgotten.
The masterpieces he was considering altering were turned out night after night (Carmichael’s did not do lunch) by Chef Rogers and his crew. Despite his long absence Carmichael’s was the place the Chef’s apologists took the Chef’s critics—he had left them no other vestige of his heyday—as if to say, “You see, he’s still got it,” even though his critics were quick to note that “he” was a thousand miles away, and had not been to the restaurant in thirty years. As much as I, one of the Chef’s apologists, was saddened to see him leave, perhaps it was for the best. If he had stayed longer than he did, he undoubtedly would have felt compelled to tweak or even overhaul the menu, as well as alter the dining room, lest the regulars—a contingent so large he barely needed any irregulars—conclude his genius was fixed, and lacked the inventiveness of other chefs’. His colleagues proved their genius many ways but never so well as when they limited themselves to only those ingredients that could be found within, at most, a half mile radius of their restaurants. Indeed, one of the reasons the Chef’s empire was failing was that it was not self-sustaining. His supply chains were not those of your modern, responsible, environmentally aware Chef; they were those of British East India Company’s.
Carmichael’s was the touchstone in the debate over the Chef’s talent for a good reason. It had been the last place he had cooked. No one, at the time, had had a true appreciation of how precious those first few weeks of Carmichael’s existence were. Yes, it is true: Chef Carmichael no longer cooked, not even for himself, making the question of whether he was one of the greats somewhat irresolvable. (He was, by the way, hardly anomalous in this regard. Many of the chefs he was friendly with were taking sabbaticals from the kitchen. Not indeed just to laze; they too had empires—some rising, others declining—to administer). How could his supporters prove the brilliance of a chef who, in a sense, was no longer one, and hadn’t been one for some time? It was vain to appeal to the past, for while he had garnered some extraordinary reviews (one of which I will momentarily share with you) he had left too inconsiderable a body of evidence. Certainly, there were plenty of people still alive who had eaten the Chef’s creations, but that had been decades ago, and their memories of other wonderful meals of more recent date had overlaid, and in some cases effaced, the memories they had of his. Also, a considerable number of people belonging to this very select group were unfortunately dead. Because he had only cooked about three thousand meals in his life—his precocity was unheard of—peoples’ remembrances of them had become that much more important to the Chef’s future biographers, who were politely waiting for him to die so they could tell the story of his wasted genius without fearing his comeback. What, after all, is more tiresome than a comeback, which is generally but a very inadequate reprise of its precursor? And yet these things must be covered, for suppose if instead of dying Keats had stopped writing poetry for thirty years and then in his mid fifties started again. Certainly, critics would have an obligation to take note. Chef Carmichael, an arrested Keats, would merit the same attention should he return to the kitchen. Some speculated the lucky day was near and he would don his cook’s clothes and sharpen his knives and calibrate his cook’s thermometer for the restaurant’s thirtieth anniversary dinner. So far only his appearance had been advertised. Still, one could hope.
To be clear, I must assure you and you must believe me that Chef Carmichael was a genius. “Let me taste one of his alleged masterpieces so I may decide for myself,” you say. If the protagonist of a novel is a brilliant novelist, do you demand to see his manuscripts? No, you grant him his genius and think no more about it. I beg of you to grant me the same courtesy so I can get on with my story. You concede his genius? The Chef and I both thank you.
Chef Carmichael had reached perfection with his thousandth meal, which, in case you are interested, is akin to writing Anna Karenina before reaching adulthood. I find there is something admirable about great chefs that has nothing to do with their genius. They, unlike other artists, must repeatedly and ceaselessly produce, or more accurately reproduce their masterpieces because people have the maddening habit of eating them. They do not pretend like writers that it is not important that they find a contemporary, paying audience. Already I have reconciled myself to the fact that this story will, if I am lucky, wither away in some periodical that will compensate me for it by giving me a year’s subscription, as if I have an interest in reading writers as obscure as myself. Oh, what I would give to not give a damn about posterity, and drop this stupid conceit that somehow it will see something you do not (assuming, of course, you see nothing). A great chef, I tell you, would never allow himself to be so humiliated. He always finds his public; indeed they find him. They will tramp through snow drifts just to reach him; show me a man who will tramp to a library. It is all very unfair. Of course, I understand the very practical reason chefs do not care for posterity: it would find their masterpieces rather smelly and probably all but the most destitute would refuse to eat them. But most, as I said, do not survive. If they do not perish on the plates that set them off, they die in torturous stages. The scraps are first parceled out to hungry, barbaric waiters, and then to microbes, rats, mice, and other organisms I disdain knowing despite our shared affinity for fine food. They are such fragile things, and they lead the most brief, miserable lives one could imagine. I almost weep for our great chefs when I compare how much more humanely we treat the masterpieces of their fellow writers and painters, though I am consoled when I remember how much more they are revered.
It is a good time to introduce you to Robert Whelan, the chief food critic of “Gastronome”, a second rate food magazine. A good meal could make him weep; an excellent one made him philosophic. He was one of the people who the Chef had “wowed” in those first few magical weeks. He was lucky enough to have eaten the Chef’s thirteen hundredth meal, when, you will recall, he had settled into his genius and his guests were enjoying its first, its only fruits. His memory of this meal had not been effaced. Thinking the Chef’s tenure at Carmichael’s would be a long one, he had had only one. He liked, anyways, to give long intervals to his pleasures, so as the make them memorable. For this reason his meal of the Chef’s had assumed a much greater importance than perhaps it otherwise would have had. Every time he ate it was on his mind, never failing to usurp one of the duties of the meal before him, which was to induce salivation. Thus, even when Mr. Whelan was confronted by a bad meal, salivation still occurred, and in copious amounts, since the memory had lost nothing of its vividness. His complaints about the “dryness” of certain dishes disappeared after his dinner at Carmichael’s. Now he was given to complain about the “sogginess” of everything he ate. I should note that Mr. Whalen never returned to Carmichael’s after the Chef’s departure, despite the wonderful reviews his fellow critics gave Chef Rogers. I think he feared imperiling the memory of Chef Carmichael’s meal, for a person having reached what he thinks the summit of a mountain does not want to be told he is in fact just beginning his climb. The frustrating thing for those whose task it is to review genius in the culinary world is that the supply of it is constantly being refreshed. While we will consent to fallow periods in literature and painting, content to live off of what is extant, we demand that our chefs keep at it, our appetite for food being somewhat more recurrent and insistent than that for culture. Given this, the food critic can either admit that the best meal he has ever had might not be the best meal available at the time, or he can become a reactionary and hold that the best meal he has ever had is the best meal anyone could ever have. Mr. Whalen, you already know, was a reactionary.
The remembered scents and tastes of Chef Carmichael’s meal did much more than quicken his critic’s production of saliva: they shamed whatever he put into his mouth, for everything he ate suffered tremendously by the comparison, which he had an inveterate habit of making. One could not conceive of a more cantankerous critic. He peppered his reviews with references to Chef Carmichael, not even waiting for a suitable pretext to drag him in, prop him up, and let him perform his function, which was to shame every chef who was not Chef Carmichael. “There will never be another Chef Carmichael,” was a favorite refrain of his, as if the Chef was dead, and he was delivering his eulogy. Mr. Whalen once humbled an upstart chef by ending a review with the suggestion that he take a night off and dine at Carmichael’s (this was when Chef Carmichael was still there), implying it would be a waste of his liberty to dine at his own restaurant. These insults had become increasingly absurd given the Chef’s circumstances, and consequently Mr. Whalen had, over the years, marginalized himself as a critic. He was not taken seriously by other critics, so beholden was he to this Chef who no longer cooked. He was aware, of course, of the licks Chef Carmichael had taken, but he had no desire to help him fight back, not that his support was worth much anymore. He was frankly glad that his empire had collapsed. If only Carmichael’s survived the wreckage that was fine with him. Its exemption from the general calamity would distinguish it all the more. It would be as if all of that other nonsense had never happened; the blight on Chef Carmichael’s name would disappear, his maligners bereft of material to abuse him with. With only one restaurant, Chef Carmichael would inevitably—so his critic surmised—delve deep into its operations and perhaps even interject himself into them. No, was it possible, the thing Mr. Whalen was thinking of?
The problem was that for this to happen the Chef would have to participate in the good work; he would have to be an accomplice in his own resurrection. It was unlikely he would regain the public’s favor by opening another restaurant. What if instead he should cook at one of the ones he had remaining? Giddiness overcame the chief food critic of “Gastronome” as he plotted the Chef’s return to the kitchen. The thirtieth anniversary of Carmichael’s provided the perfect occasion. A chef like Chef Carmichael could not just return on any old night. His return to the kitchen would sanctify any evening at Carmichael’s, of course, but to have it coincide with its thirtieth anniversary would practically make it a holy day of obligation for all gourmands worthy of the name. He, a person whose more potent predecessors had been known to lead chefs to their early retirements (and even graves), would be the one to coax Chef Carmichael out of his own. (Mr. Whalen, old enough to be his own predecessor, had humbled a few chefs back in the day). But now he had an opportunity—one which granted had been there for thirty years—to do something wonderful, something noble, and what critics are ever accused of being noble? What greater service could a critic render the art he criticized than recalling its best practitioner to his duty? If the Chef resisted, Mr. Whalen might even use force and make him a captive for the evening. Yes, he would personally collar him and not let him stop cooking until the last meal had left the kitchen. After consideration, Mr. Whelan realized that this would not do. He was a gentle man, and a rational one. Chef Carmichael, he reasoned, probably would not perform well under duress, for the kitchen is a trying enough place as it is without having a gun to one’s head. Having ruled out violence, Mr. Whalen considered how he might get his favorite chef back in to the kitchen for Carmichael’s thirtieth anniversary.
Chef Carmichael had not forgotten Mr. Whalen’s review of thirty years ago. He kept a copy of it, folded up into a small square, in his wallet, which he withdrew when he needed propping up and lately, for reasons you have seen, he had. Mr. Whalen also kept a copy in his wallet, for the same reason; he believed it was his best review, the one in which he omitted all the rubbish peculiar to food criticism—sometimes he felt like the most insufferable oenophile, only he talked about “texture” instead of “hints”—and pierced the mystery of what makes a great chef. It was written during a time, now of ancient memory, when food critics sat rather higher on the totem pole than chefs, who were, back then—if you were close enough to the back of the house—only heard, not seen. As you know the best now reach us almost exclusively through both of these senses. We can only be thankful for this, for I understand their publicity has forced them to expand their vocabularies beyond those of their unsuccessful brethren, who, shielded by swinging doors, still speak principally in expletives. Just think what a little publicity would do for the culture of these obscure chefs. But I digress. Here is the review which Chef Carmichael read so often:
The kitchen at Carmichael’s, thank God, is open. Most providentially, I have come unaccompanied and can devote myself to observing it. I order my meal, and now am free to look at Chef Carmichael and his three assistants, who, no doubt will all have their own places quite soon. Already I am anticipating with sadness the dissolution of his staff without having even eaten the slightest morsel. He must be quite good, I think, to have me close to tears before the amuse-bouche even hits the table, which it soon does with the Chef’s compliments. I wonder if my identity has been blown until I see this beneficent gesture repeated at the table next to mine.
There is no commotion, no clattering of pots and pans. The noise comes from us, the diners, but we, catching the example of the kitchen are not vociferous or loud. And yet it does not seem that anyone in the kitchen is restraining themselves or trying to be noiseless, for if this was the case one would expect occasional lapses, enforced silence generally being very difficult to sustain. They simply are noiseless, and isn’t the appearance of effortlessness synonymous with noiselessness? There is a code they use; I try to initiate myself in it, but my seat is too far away from the main action to make any significant progress and so I give up and resume my general observation of them. One would almost think they were all miserable if it were not for the utter seriousness with which they prepare the food; such purposefulness is not vouchsafed to miserable men.
My meal comes; it is divine. But I do not want to comment on the food. Order anything, order everything. Order the things you despise. Chef Carmichael will put your preferences to naught; he will teach you just how little you know about your own palate, how utterly provincial it in fact is. (Mr. Whalen occasionally partook in the writer’s privilege of insulting his readers, especially when his editor demanded he make his reviews less ‘flighty’ so as to make them more palatable for general consumption). I’m not sure the best thing about this restaurant is even its food, though it is the best I have ever had. The patron of Carmichael’s leaves with a distinct moral; he has been taught something of value, something he will remember the rest of his days. Indeed, he might even recall it on his death bed—I know I will recall it on mine. He is reminded, emphatically so, of what dedication and devotion to a craft means. He sees it in the sweating brows of the cooks; he sees it in their bowed heads; he sees it in their unrehearsed dance, to which Chef Carmichael sets the beat. Come to Carmichael’s to witness those blessed enough to know their calling and weep that you have not found yours!
It was not surprising that Chef Carmichael should be predisposed toward the writer responsible for these effusions, though, thirty years later, they read as a rebuke much than they did as a panegyric. The last paragraph he found especially poignant. Mr. Whalen had been the first critic, the only critic to consider seriously the meaning of his work. He had tried to find meaning in his subsequent labors—his critics, to be fair, had made the same hopeless effort—and in the beginning, when his empire was expanding at the preordained clip, he had sometimes managed to convince himself that what he was doing was worthwhile. Most days, however, he had felt like he had been kidnapped from his vocation, and indeed when the patrons of Carmichael’s learned he was leaving them they felt as if they too were having something of inestimable value wrested from them. With time the regrets of each died down—Chef Rogers did not allow the patrons’ to last long—and all that was left of them, on both sides, was a vague consciousness of something lost, which became with each passing year yet more indistinct. Mr. Whalen’s review, however, always brought back to the Chef’s mind exactly what that “something” was. Chef Carmichael was something of a masochist, forever reading the review which by now he might have had hundreds of if only he had stayed put, for what genuinely successful person is not to a large degree immobile? The review explained to him, in no uncertain words, what a hash he had made of his life, giving up his calling to give television interviews telling viewers the proper way to brine a Thanksgiving Day turkey. He had given up, if he read his critic right, a serious, purposeful, joyful life as a chef to become a businessman who hawked his restaurants, books, and associated paraphernalia, too embarrassing to mention.
He was hoping to meet his critic at the anniversary dinner, having sent him a personal invitation. The critic was honored by the invitation, floored by it in fact. After accepting the invitation with many thanks, Mr. Whalen took his opening which the Chef had most considerately created for him. He was clearly already in the Chef’s good graces, and until he savaged one of his remaining restaurants this was unlikely to change. Indeed, if Mr. Whalen had possessed one talisman of the Chef’s equivalent to the one the Chef kept of his they might almost have been called intimate. His memory of his meal was, however, a fine substitute and more than accomplished its invisible work of making these men sympathetic to each other. He finished his letter with his request. He did not work his way into it, lest he bury it under a bed of qualifiers and so risk having the Chef miscomprehend him. He was blunt: would Chef Carmichael return to the kitchen for his one night at Carmichael’s? Not just for him, of course, though that would a great—if rather embarrassing—honor, but for everyone in attendance. Fearing the Chef might think him impertinent, he added that it seemed quite the best way to celebrate the restaurant’s thirtieth birthday and set it on the right course for the next thirty years. He ended the letter by telling him, quite needlessly as we have seen, of how much he still treasured the one meal he had had of the Chef’s, and how he should delight in its replication.
Chef Carmichael had received hundreds of such requests, not only from those who had tasted the glories of his cuisine, but even more preponderantly from those who had not and felt cheated. He found them all touching, but ultimately he was always unmoved by them. Did these people who begged him to cook again know what they were asking he resume? He was no longer a spry young chicken with the illusions of youth. His desire to return to the kitchen and real work was perpetually checked by his knowledge of what a kitchen and real work were. No, the business was not all pleasant. Often it was downright unpleasant. There are ill usages a young man will submit to that an old man would never contemplate, and the Chef was getting old. How could he take seriously a guest who sent back his steak, telling his waiter to tell him that it was overdone? Chefs hate waiters for precisely this reason: they generally speak to them only as the mouthpieces for old ladies complaining about the limpness of the lettuce in their salads. It is for youth to take overdone steaks and limp lettuce seriously, not old, tired men. He was fifty-five for Christ’s sake. He was also quite fat. If he had not cooked at his restaurants, he had at least eaten at them. The pretty boy whose face had captivated the investors was now a non-descript man, with all the accoutrements of plainness: the weak chin, the puffy face, the vacant eyes.
It was not just his physical limitations he would have to overcome. He would have to deal with purveyors, health inspectors, and ornery guests, something every restaurant must endure with grace. Certain freeloaders of the animal kingdom, in particular cockroaches, mice and rats, would have to be shown the door not just once, but thousands of times, for the better the restaurant, the greater their importunity. And then there were the recurrent nightmares to which all chefs of any perceptible talent are subject, their intensity correlating exactly with one’s genius. During his brief tenure at Carmichael’s, he had had one in which a whole batch of his hairs—not just one—turned up floating in a VIP’s bowl of minestrone.
But these objections, because he could give them names, were not the real reason for his hesitancy. He sensed his unfitness for the kitchen, and suspected he would find it rather embarrassing to displace even the most incompetent of his chefs. The only thing more embarrassing than elevating one’s incompetent son is elevating one’s incompetent self.
It was impossible, however, for Chef Carmichael to dismiss the request of Mr. Whalen out of hand. All he was asking for was one night. The other requests had not so ingeniously truncated his return, and so his potential humiliation. It would have taken many nights back in the kitchen to even begin to reach any degree of reciprocity in the relationship between the Chef and Mr. Whalen, so much had that review meant to him. After he admitted his duty, it took but a few moments for him to imagine how the fulfillment of it might be pleasurable. He was, as you have seen, an adept at imagining what it would be like to be a Chef. Indeed, Chef Carmichael began to take to the idea and soon he found himself embracing it. Here was his opportunity to make himself felt and so reassert his claim to his restaurant. I suppose it is to be expected that chefs should occasionally feel the urge to cook, and so I will forgive the chef his enthusiasm, which no enthusiasms of his in the past thirty years paralleled. There was a reason for this: he had had no others.
He doubted any officious health inspector would have the temerity to waylay him during his four or five hour stint in the kitchen. No one would interrupt his return, not even some bureaucrat concerned about the Chef’s refusal to cover his bare hands with latex gloves while handling a patron’s steak. He could, in other words, be a chef without being one. He would simply show up, the prep work having been done, the dishes stacked, the waiters spoken to. The endless minutiae of running a restaurant would be taken care of prior to his arrival. Had it not been taken care of for thirty years without his help? Why should he interrupt the routine? He might take on all of Carmichael’s later if he wanted to, but for now he would return by degrees.
He would cook, that is all, but that was everything. Plenty of comedians and actors have one night engagements, but had any celebrity emerged from retirement, just for one evening, only to resume it the next day? And his long layoff would make his performance just that much more extraordinary. He summoned his confidence quickly, the stage being far away. Was he not a genius? And therefore could he not dispense with rehearsals? (The food, in any case, was too expensive to rehearse with.) What difference did it make if he had not been forthcoming with his gift? He would be now. He would, for one evening, make amends. He was not at all worried about any falling off. A writer who stops writing for thirty years might forget how to write. Great chefs, good god, do not forget how to cook. That is why we allow them such long reprieves from the kitchen. It does not matter how long they are away; we just ask that like Ulysses they make, at some point, a concerted effort to return. Buoyed by these reflections and his wish to once again be a part, however briefly and however loosely, of the fraternity of chefs who did cook, Chef Carmichael called up the general manager of Carmichael’s and told him to get his cook’s clothes ready for him. He would cook for the thirtieth anniversary of Carmichael’s. He would have his hand—and his hands—in every dish that left the kitchen that evening. “Talk it up,” he said. “I’m returning to the kitchen.” He almost hung up phone before clarifying, “For one night only, for one night only.”
The news of Chef Carmichael’s one night engagement in the kitchen spread rapidly. The phone at Carmichaels would not stop ringing. Every person in the world wanted to know if he could get a reservation. But, of course, all of the reservations were already taken prior to this announcement, leaving those wanting them wondering at the cruelty of the person who had made it. Even without reservations, hundreds of people, some of whom were educated in the legend of Chef Carmichael and others who were just being initiated, decided to make the pilgrimage to Carmichael’s. Their hope was that he would take pity on all those who would not be present that evening and continue cooking—with breaks of course—until everyone who wanted a meal from him had had it. Here was something Mr. Whalen had not considered: the coercive power of a hungry, infatuated mob.
The general manager of Carmichael’s informed the Chef over the phone that he had in his hand a petition asking that the Chef extend his return so as to encompass his petitioners in his hospitality. In it, they made clear that their patronage of Carmichael’s depended on the Chef’s continued presence behind the line. They were ready to spend hundreds, nay thousands of dollars at Carmichael’s, but only if the owner cooked for them. The Chef laughed, and said if Carmichael’s ever had an open table he might consider their threat, but as it was they were only open when they were being reset by the busboys. His return, he repeated, was to be for one night only. He was rather starting to like that word “return.” It almost made the Chef feel like some Romantic figure. He was appreciative that no one publicly challenged this vision of himself, not that the Chef had informed the public of it.
When the appointed day arrived Chef Carmichael found just how difficult it would be to stay away from Carmichael’s until his presence was required. He had boundless energy and needed to find some way to discharge it. He considered working on his speech. He was expected to say a few words before he began cooking, words he would thankfully not have to repeat since there would, as on other nights, be no “turning” of the tables to admit a new influx of diners. The speech he decided to wing; he had done the lecture circuit in his youth.
He had told the general manager of Carmichael’s to expect him at three. This would leave him two hours to get settled in, reorient himself in the kitchen, and generally reacquaint himself with his best restaurant. He refused to admit to himself that he was nervous. He also refused to admit that the reorientation might take longer than the time he had allotted for it. He maintained he was only excited. To put it simply: he was excited to return but nervous that he would flop. The thought of the flawless returns of so many of his colleagues fortified him somewhat, but they had not stayed away nearly as long as he had. Even they were somewhat skeptical that there would be no falloff in Chef Carmichael. They were hoping there was not, as the immediate resurgence of the Chef’s powers would give them confidence to extend their own sabbaticals.
Chef Carmichael had been reviewing Carmichael’s menu, having forgotten it. “But why should I cook off of this,” he thought. “If this is to be a special night, then part of making it special is making it different. I’ll create a menu just for this evening.” Here was something he could apply himself to while he waited for 3 o’clock. He sat down at the desk in his hotel room and in an hour had finalized a menu, which incorporated all of the latest trends in the culinary world. The Chef might not have cooked in a while, but, like any good scholar, he had kept abreast of his subject. It then occurred to him that Carmichael’s might have neither the ingredients nor the equipment necessary to make some of the dishes on his menu. He called Chef Rogers to see what they had. He then made the necessary modifications—many of his bolder dishes were sacrificed to Carmichael’s antiquity —and informed him, in a subsequent call, of the evening’s menu.
Chef Rogers tried desperately to dissuade Chef Carmichael. He had nothing against the Chef’s menu—indeed it looked wonderful—but he simply had not given him enough notice. Chef Carmichael was a generous man and not given to exercise his authority gratuitously, but as he had seen his status in the culinary world sink, he had overcompensated for his diminishment in it by delivering his harangue to the few people left to receive it. His harangue was of course never intended for Carmichael’s employees. They indeed were the model he had told his other employees, once numbering in the thousands, to emulate. It was for this reason even more absurd than usual. Chef Carmichael had a very hard time getting through it and Chef Rogers was most amused listening to it, for it had not the needed fluidity of a harangue, a good one requiring a steady flow of uninterrupted abuse. It ended when Chef Rogers agreed with Chef Carmichael that he was wrong: the new menu was not only eminently practical, it sounded delicious. He would have the maitre d’ get gorgeous copies of it printed up immediately. Chef Rogers really was a good employee; he took things so easily. He did not let the absurdity of the world bother him, as it sometimes bothers me. Indeed, he himself occasionally liked to participate in the spectacle he so enjoyed. Before hanging up the phone, he told the Chef that his special menu would probably become a souvenir for the evening’s guests.
Robert Whalen was also in a high state of preparation for the evening. He felt as if he were attending some royal banquet where he was the unnamed guest of honor. It had taken all of his restraint not to publicize his essential role in orchestrating the Chef’s return. He took it for granted that when asked to give the reason for it, as assuredly he would be, Chef Carmichael would have the delicacy to omit mentioning his name, as much it would pain him to forsake the recognition such a slip would bring. Mr. Whalen had seemingly forgotten that there is a healthy enmity that ought to exist between the critic and the artist. But even if the food critic does fraternize with the enemy, it really does not matter. The fact that our palates do not need much education forces the critic to keep within the bounds of truth.
He had at last settled on what he was going to wear. Only his finest suit would do. He had ordered a white boutonniere for his lapel. All food critics ought to dress as well as Mr. Whalen did for the thirtieth anniversary of Carmichael’s, and so positively contribute to the ambiance of the restaurants they review rather than just comment on all of the deductions from it that their fellow diners are responsible for. The next time a critic complains about a restaurant’s ambiance I would ask that he check to see that his shirt is tucked in and his Blackberry is on “silent.”
The critic had debated for some time whether or not to bring his girlfriend, and at last decided not to. When he met Chef Carmichael, he did not want the Chef to have to divide his attention, not that he feared his girlfriend would monopolize it. She was, as he himself admitted, not very good looking. It was not that Mr. Whalen wanted all of the Chef’s attention. He considered himself a nonentity compared to him. Rather Mr. Whalen wanted to give the Chef all of his attention, and this would be impossible unless he shed all unnecessary encumbrances, including his girlfriend. He planned, moreover, to once again watch the Chef while he cooked, and he did not want to have to explain to his girlfriend—their relationship was just getting off of the ground—that he rather preferred looking at Chef Carmichael than herself.
Mr. Whalen’s editor was naturally expecting a full review of the evening. He had of course not informed him of his role in the Chef’s return, knowing just how strict he was with real or apparent conflicts of interest. Mr. Whalen was honest enough to admit the conflict, which went very deep. He had, in his letter, told the Chef that he could not have his meal be on the house, as he had offered, but how could he be sure that his tab had not already been taken care of? But if Chef Carmichael replicated his masterpiece of thirty years ago what would all these hindrances to objectivity matter? By evening’s end, everyone would have renewed their devotions at the altar of Chef Carmichael. (Strictly speaking, those eating their first meal of the Chef’s would be commencing them). The chief food critic of “Gastronome” would have the honor of articulating their utter awe. He imagined that it would also be his task to act as censor, having to translate their (and his) muffled or perhaps even unchecked orgasmic moans into decent language. Though it was not the food critic’s responsibility to account for everyone else’s response, only his own, Mr. Whalen foresaw how enraptured everyone would be, and he wanted his review to capture this shared ethereal experience, from which the coming down would be very hard indeed. He might even end the review musing on how difficult is to rejoin the real world after spending some time in Chef Carmichael’s.
Once again, Chef Carmichael would elicit the flickering genius of his critic, providing the inspiration, quite literally the sustenance, for another one, or rather two of his rare “flights.” The first would occur at the commencement of mastication, the second during the composition of his review. And if the Chef failed? Would his critic rebuke him by once again invoking his memory, only this time to humble the Chef himself? Or would he lie to save his idol’s reputation and perhaps ruin his own? But that, as I suggested above, is not possible. It is beyond the power of food critics to save chefs. Only chefs can save themselves.
Once again, you see how unfair it all is. Their brother painters and writers can go by for years, even their whole lives, without being exposed. The moment a Chef cooks a bad meal it is sent back to the kitchen without the diner’s compliments. Sure, writers are told to edit their work, but they can take their sweet time in the editing, and most do. That dish which has so offended must be edited immediately, or else the person who sent it back will soon be asking his waiter where it is. I wish writers could spend some time watching great chefs: it might inspire them to speed up the production of their own masterpieces, for in the time it takes them to write one, a great chef has probably turned out—and this is a conservative estimate—thirty thousand. I speak, of course, of the ones not on their sabbaticals.
Chef Carmichael was walking through the dining room of Carmichael’s. On his heels was John Walker, the restaurant’s general manager. He could not discern if Chef Carmichael was pleased or displeased, and was naturally anxious for an indication either way. It had been thirty years and he had lost the ability to read his boss, though, given how short Chef Carmichael’s tenure was I am not sure he ever acquired it. Their backs stiffened more than normally, waiters were dancing about the dining room polishing the gem Chef Carmichael had entrusted to them. He wanted to tell them to leave off with their ministrations and let him have a go at it, but of course he did not. A few walked up to Chef Carmichael and told him how glad they were to see him. Many of the waiters on hand had met him in the same room thirty years ago, and his sudden reappearance in it reminded them of how long they had worked at Carmichaels. The Chef was reminded of how long he had not.
Gone was his excitement and nervousness; they were replaced by embarrassment and shame. He saw how rash he had been. What sane Chef would assent to anything a critic asked of him? The dining room, which should have stimulated him, was instead threatening. The solidity of the place started to grate on him, an itinerant most of his life. He was unsure what he should be looking for in his review. He was, apparently, engaged in another farce; the years had seen him a party to many. He had now to pretend he could improve something that was already perfect. It was arguably better, he supposed, than trying to improve something that should have never been. Still, had he not proved over the last few years just how ineffectual his touch was, how fatal indeed it could be? He was the most insignificant personage in the dining room—the very busboys eclipsed him. If you asked him where something was, he assuredly could not have told you. And yet something was expected of him, was it not? Well, come to think of it no one at Carmichael’s had ever asked him to return to the kitchen. The general manager had asked that he be present at the thirtieth anniversary, but no one there feared he would misinterpret his role for the evening. But he must, of course, do something. Politicians are expected to make laws, whether or not they are needed. It was all so stupid, and yet was he to confess, right there in the middle of his restaurant, how unfit he was for what he had undertook, and how little, how very little they should expect from him? He adjusted a few place settings he knew to be in good order. Everything was so perfectly appointed that if he was going to make himself felt he would have to undo perfection. After he had moved on, a few waiters stealthily undid his work and put the table back to rights. The sense spread quickly among the staff that a few of them might have to shadow Chef Carmichael throughout the night and correct his mistakes should he distribute them beyond the kitchen. Naturally, Chef Rogers would have to supervise him while he was in the kitchen but they would have to take over if he wandered outside of it. Their precautions were justified: you will remember the excursions the Chef had imagined he would make as the Executive Chef of Carmichael’s. If somehow Chef Carmichael got it into his head to give orders, the staff would have to clandestinely contravene them. All of this, of course, was understood; they were starting to take Chef Carmichael’s incapacity for granted.
He was an exile in his own restaurant. It was not that his staff was standoffish. On the contrary, they were ready to give him the hero’s welcome he did not deserve. They would have all hugged him if only he seemed susceptible to hugs. He knew what a sorry front he presented. He was not the Chef Carmichael who thirty years ago had entrusted them with the polishing of his gem. Then he had been young, beautiful, and possessed of noble, expansive ideas about what it is a Chef does. Now, stripped of empire and beauty and youth, he could not but be defensive, for these people, almost to a man, had known, thirty years ago, who he was, and thus could arraign him in a way some passerby on the street could not. So what if they pretended not to notice his collapse; he noticed it, and with every passing second he saw just how complete it was.
He had lost the lingo of the kitchen. What was a runner? An expediter? He had no sense of where everyone else was in relation to him, for chefs, like basketball players trying to execute a “no-look” pass, need that talent. He almost ran into someone was who coming around a blind corner carrying heavy plates, even after that person had courteously indicated his approach by saying “Coming around.” He had lost his ability to maneuver and slither, and so now it seemed the only thing for him to do was skulk, in his own restaurant no less. He was completely cut off, moreover, from that camaraderie which binds together even those restaurant workers who, outside of work, do not speak to each other. Again, this was not because of their aloofness; it was rather because of his.
Mr. Walker was dismissed, and now Chef Rogers, who Chef Carmichael was only slightly better acquainted with, succeeded the general manager as the great chef’s escort, introducing him to the other cooks he would be working besides that evening. Chef Carmichael was looking at all of the appliances in the kitchen. They were all so antiquated. He had found his opening. He told Chef Rogers that the kitchen needed to be completely refitted. His employee smiled, said nothing, and the review, almost indistinguishable from a tour, continued.
Chef Rogers, seeing that dinner was only an hour away, was gathering up his courage. He wanted to cook off of the old menu; he foresaw disaster if they used Chef Carmichael’s. He regretted having assented to it. With time, of course, his crew could master any menu, but Chef Carmichael had given them—and himself—only a few hours. He was one of those who thought the Chef’s long layoff might indeed have consequences, not all of them positive.
“Do you think,” he asked Chef Carmichael, “that your menu might be too ambitious? Not for you, of course,” he said, careful to make that distinction, “but for the others?”
They were sitting in one of the booths which would momentarily be occupied by a party of four.
The Chef seemed to consider. This menu was his; it was his note, his contribution to the evening. Everything else, the very restaurant for god sake’s, was theirs. This, however, was his.
“Everything will come off brilliantly. Just follow my lead.”
Chef Rogers accepted his defeat, as graciously as he accepted his other one a few hours prior. Looking at Chef Carmichael, he thought of something else.
“Are you going to change? We open in an hour.”
“Oh yes. How silly of me.”
Chef Carmichael disappeared in to the employee’s restroom. It was a disgusting hole. “Well, this will have to go too,” he said to himself. He emerged in the white clothes of his profession. “Chef Carmichael” was emblazoned in blue stitching across his right breast. Loose pants with an elastic belt replaced his jeans. In place of his cordovans, his feet had to endure thick, heavy black clogs with cheap rubber soles that prevented slipping. Everyone did a double take, for it was well known how long it had been since he had so pointedly identified himself as a Chef. For three decades, you might, judging by his wardrobe, have taken him for anything. But now he was like a priest putting on his collar after a life spent wearing street clothes. The simple resumption of the garb of his profession suddenly revivified him. He prayed that this was the last oscillation of his for the evening. He was indeed Chef Carmichael, author of five cook books, owner of many restaurants, both here and abroad. No matter that those restaurants were now closed. He almost convinced himself that he still possessed an empire, and not a faltering one, but one in its prime, with its coffers full and the wisdom of its ruler universally acknowledged. Of what use is the past if we cannot rely on it, and alter it, when the present fails us?
He returned to the bathroom to look at himself in the mirror. He needed to see what they saw. Did he look absurd? Not a bit. He admired the reflection of his name, done up in elegant cursive. He anticipated all of the stains his shirt would acquire throughout the evening. Soon enough he would be dirty. Perhaps he would even scald himself. Even for just one evening, he had no immunity from the hazards of the profession, and he was grateful for that. He wanted the real thing, the genuine experience. He had wanted it his entire life. It was, at long last, within his grasp. He smiled, wiped his brow, which was already perspiring, and joined his assistants behind the line. His right hand, clutching a copy of the evening’s menu, was trembling—whether in ecstasy or fear he could not say. His reintegration into the life of his restaurant was about to begin at its very heart, in the open kitchen of Carmichael’s.
Mr. Whalen was the first person to arrive. He associated his arrival with the evening’s commencement. Certainly, he was entitled to this conceit, for without his intercession the Chef would have been nothing more than a glorified host that evening, walking aimlessly around the dining room, with that insipid question, “How is everything?” on his lips. The critic was not even embarrassed by his enthusiasm, which was that of a thirteen year old boy heading out on his first date. A knowing smile lined his face. The evening had already played itself out in his mind many times, and now it was time for him to see if he was a seer. He was moving his mouth back and forth, putting it through a variety of exercises, so as to prepare it for the food it knew it would soon enjoy. He had told his body, in some detail, just what to expect.
Despite his jovialness, Mr. Whalen was now debating the propriety of introducing himself to Chef Carmichael. An honest critic, Mr. Whalen did not want to get any attentions denied to others. He wanted the works, of course, but only if the kitchen was liberal in the distribution of them. (Some critics do not decline being so distinguished, and indeed take it rather ill if they are not). Unable to extricate himself from his dilemma, he asked another question: what if Chef Carmichael should introduce himself to him? Certainly, he could not run away. No, indeed he could not.
While Mr. Whalen was situating himself at his table, Chef Carmichael had walked up to him, proffered him his hand, and asked for his name. Already, he was making one of his excursions, his reorientation in the kitchen apparently concluded.
After gaining his composure, Mr. Whalen could not stop repeating how honored he was. The Chef, trying to change the subject, only led him back to it.
“I see you have taken a front row seat,” he said.
“Oh, yes. I like to watch you all work. I find it fascinating. It gives me immense pleasure.”
Then Mr. Whalen added, apropos of nothing, “Do you know that you are the only one in this whole city who can cook meatloaf? The only one, I tell you. I’m so looking forward to having it again tonight.”
“Didn’t the maitre d’ tell you? There’s a special menu this evening. I’m going to be trying out some new things. ” He said this as if he took frequent breaks from his repertoire.
Mr. Whalen, hearing this revelation, did his very best not to look deflated. He rubbed his not insubstantial gut, as if to apologize to it, for his whole body, down to his very toes, was in a state of readiness for Chef Carmichael’s meatloaf, and thus it deserved an apology for this false alarm. The critic was now incensed. Why hadn’t he been told? This was an unspeakable breach of etiquette. One goes to a restaurant knowing more or less what one can get there, and now he hadn’t the faintest clue of what he would be eating. What did this mean, anyways? Carmichael’s had never tried out new things. It was devoted, exclusively so, to old things.
“All the better Chef. I’m in your hands entirely,” Mr. Whalen somehow managed.
Why do we feel compelled to tell chefs what they already know, namely that we are at their mercy? We submit, moreover, only to brilliant chefs. And yet it behooves us to flatter a bad chef much more than a brilliant one, if only to be preserved from food poisoning. The brilliant chefs will please us whether we formally submit to them or not.
“I thank you for your confidence Mr. Whalen. You are my favorite critic by far. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a dinner to cook.”
The dining room started to fill up with couples and families. Mr. Whalen wished all restaurants had an interdiction on children. He hated them. Here was another thing with which he must make his peace, or else be on a high simmer the whole evening. He was now vexed he had come alone. He so wanted someone to vent to. The evening was off to a horrible start for Chef Carmichael’s favorite critic.
Outside those without reservations lingered. They all had a vague expectation that the Chef would capitulate and grant them admittance at some point during the evening. One of their number had gone into the restaurant to ask the maitre d’ if Chef Carmichael would come out and greet them and so see how many people he might make happy. The maitre d’ abruptly told him that the Chef must first see to the happiness of those who had reservations, and then he might, if so inclined, consider his obligations to those who did not.
“But we don’t have any time,” their representative said, aware, apparently of the Chef’s itinerary. “He leaves tomorrow.”
Everyone had taken their seats. The waiters had been instructed to hold off greeting their tables, as Chef Carmichael was going to say a few words and offer a sort of benediction. Once again, he needed prompting. Mr. Walker motioned to Chef Carmichael, who was clumsily handling a very sharp knife and seemed absolutely oblivious of what was required of him. Mr. Walker had somehow neglected to consider in planning for the evening the possibility that Chef Carmichael would not be quite up to par. And because he was not prepared, he was at a loss of how to get the chef to begin his speech and so the evening. At last he came behind the line and gently told him what, at the moment, was needed.
Before I tell you what the Chef said, I should tell you how things were going in the kitchen for him. Chef Rogers was frankly embarrassed for Chef Carmichael. The great chef had forgotten how to chop vegetables. That was Chef Rogers' first discovery, though he was certain there would be many others if this ridiculous charade was allowed to continue. Chef Rogers was wracking his brain as to how he might leave the Chef nothing to do but garnish the plates with parsley. Even that might prove too much responsibility. If the evening was to come off at all, it was imperative that the Chef’s part in it be limited at once. In other words, he had to give the great chef some ceremonial role that would not interfere with the execution of his assistants’ more practical ones.
The Chef, obeying Mr. Walker, came out from behind the line and into full view. Someone started clapping, and others quickly followed. He was not the beautiful Chef Carmichael of thirty years ago, but most people in attendance had aged with him, and so were willing to makes allowances. Mr. Whalen even softened a little and pricked up his ears to hear what the Chef had to say. He wondered whether food critics were obliged to review the rhetorical performances of Chefs, and being of the old school decided in the negative.
Chef Carmichael had no podium, and so no obvious place from which to hold forth. He walked into the middle of the room and began speaking.
“I want,” he began, “to thank you all for coming. As many of you know, I’ve been away from the kitchen for quite some time. Thirty years in fact. You would think in that time that I would have forgotten everything I know. Quite the contrary, as you’ll see. Excuse my immodesty; I’m a little worked up. You see, I’m back.” Another round of applause broke out. “Yes, I’m back, and not just for one night as was advertised.” The great Chef had made a sudden decision, a life altering decision. Suddenly he admitted to himself that he did in fact have nowhere to go but his namesake. How could his own restaurant bearing his own name refuse to take him in?
“No, I’m back for life. I’m here to stay.” At this people rose from their chairs and each offered up their own thanksgiving. Apparently the chief food critic of “Gastronome” was not the only one with a long memory. Mr. Whalen was transported at this declaration of the Chef’s. So what if tonight’s menu was different; he could get his meatloaf tomorrow night. He assumed the Chef would politely wait a few days before giving himself a night off.
Chef Rogers miraculously was not offended by all of this clapping, which he might easily have interpreted as an indictment of himself. Indeed, he was enjoying himself thoroughly. He was immensely amused. He had just been demoted to make room for a man who could no longer cut celery and carrot sticks.
“Tonight,” he continued, “I’ve prepared a special menu, which your waiters will hand to you in a moment. I wanted, you see, to surprise you. Tomorrow we’ll go back to the old menu but tonight, to honor the thirtieth anniversary of Carmichael’s, my first, my most beloved restaurant, we’ll use this one. Enjoy.”
The disappointment was general. This surely was a sour note. Mr. Whalen had been prepared for this announcement, and so was already congratulating himself on having secured the Chef’s indefinite return. He would now find his role in the whole affair rather difficult to keep quiet. Everyone else was in a state of consternation. People had come to have Chef Carmichael cook their favorite dishes, the ones he had invented. The last thing they had expected was something new, or good forbid the foofoo food found in every other restaurant in the city.
After the conclusion of Chef Carmichael’s speech, the waiters circulated about the room, handing out menus and taking drink orders. One could almost hear the groans of the diners while they considered Chef Carmichael’s menu. Mr. Whalen, in particular, was heartbroken. The news of the Chef’s permanent return was not enough to offset the ludicrousness of his special menu. He could think about his return later, but in the meantime was his meatloaf to be delayed for this? What did he want with a parsnip soup, or a parfait? He should have considered himself lucky. He would have had to suffer much worse indignities than these had the ingredients and the equipment necessary for Chef Carmichael’s first draft of his menu been available.
Chef Carmichael returned to his place behind the line, eminently satisfied with himself and unaware of the grumblings around him. His absent-mindedness, on display all day, would not leave him. Mr. Whalen watched him, as he had watched him thirty years ago, but now his perceptive eye saw something different. It was clear to him that the Chef’s role as conductor had been usurped by Chef Rogers. He saw the reigns being handed over before his very eyes, or rather the transfer had already taken place. I do not mean to suggest that this was a momentous event for Chef Rogers; he was simply taking up the reins again after they had ever so briefly slipped out of his hands. Nor, indeed did this transfer of power have any import for the great chef, so used was he to having others execute his genius. All that was left for Chef Rogers was to formalize the transfer, which he did by suggesting the great chef take on a supervisory role and see that every dish they made met his impossibly high standards. Chef Carmichael was not stupid; he knew what was happening. He consented, nonetheless, to his own effacement, perhaps because Chef Rogers insinuated, quite brilliantly I might add, that no one would be the wiser. No plate, the waiters were told, would leave the kitchen without the Chef’s express approval. It was, after all, his menu, and he knew best how everything should look. Needless to say the waiters played along too and would not grab a plate off of the line until Chef Carmichael had given it his blessing.
Chef Carmichael knew this was the best, the only role for him, though he waited a suitable minute or so before accepting, as if contemplating whether he might be put to better use doing something else. Even though he was in essence relieved of his responsibilities, it was necessary for him to remain in the kitchen if he wanted his guests to think he was cooking their meals. The game would be up if he started prancing around the dining room as the food came out. He did, just for good measure, try to do the things chefs do, but he had a most difficult time remembering what these were. He was finally reduced to stirring the contents in the all of the pans and throwing a pinch of salt here or there, salt being, at least, a universal ingredient in restaurants. Beyond this, he did not dare to venture. When a meal was ready for his inspection, he looked it over knowingly, though even when he thought he noticed something awry, he let it pass, hardly trusting his judgment. Do I need to tell you that no dish left the kitchen that evening without also receiving Chef Rogers’ blessing, which was—he was so good—of the most tacit kind?
Chef Carmichael knew he looked absurd and so tried that much harder to look important and dignified, and even looked to Chef Rogers to see what that pose might look like. Chef Rogers, however, had an infinite number of poses, and none of them were particularly dignified. Chef Carmichael, rather confused by them all, gave up and resumed his salting. Of all of the guests, only Mr. Whalen was conscious of his displacement.
The first courses were starting to go out and the reviews were coming in. Everything was excellent; people were euphoric. The parsnip soup was transcendent, even Mr. Whalen had to admit that. He was judging everything that entered his mouth against a meal he had had thirty years ago and so far the meal before him, which was steaming up his face, was winning. He could not believe it. All of the deceived diners were asking if Chef Carmichael had really been away for so long? Was it possible to resume one’s gift without any revving up? They were all tremendously inspired, and some even left that evening with the intention of trying to recapture gifts they had long ago left off cultivating.
The group outside had only grown larger. Some, quite rudely, were pressing their faces to the window, trying to get a sense of what was transpiring within. The maitre d’ had locked the door to Carmichael’s, fearing the crowd would interrupt the dinner. They could hear, in any case, the moans of the diners; no one was any longer trying to make an effort to suppress them. They were part of the tribute to Chef Carmichael; they mean so much more to a chef than a mechanical “Thank you,” and I would encourage you to freely offer them up to the next chef whose masterpiece elicits them. Mr. Whalen, quite forgetting his professional dignity, let out a pronounced one himself. Even the children, normally so finicky about their food, had the same reaction as their elders. No longer would they be satisfied with hotdogs and pizza, not after this night. And to think that Chef Carmichael was here to stay; these meals would become, over time, mere commonplaces. They might not change the menu at Carmichael’s, but certainly the great chef had proven that they could take a break from it without incident.
The end of the meal came and people got up slowly, reluctant to take their leaves and so conclude what had been a beautiful evening. They wanted to draw it out and so they lingered, talking about anything that came to mind. It was the transcendent experience Mr. Whalen had predicted it would be, and this despite the Chef’s nonparticipation in the main event, or perhaps rather because of it. Well, that is not quite fair. He had created the evening’s menu, which became a souvenir, exactly as Chef Rogers predicted.
Chef Carmichael went out and mingled with the crowd. He had come to accept their praise, of course. He had accepted it all before, in his dreams and in his thoughts, but now he was to accept it in reality, in the flesh, in his cook clothes. He had no stains on his uniform. Someone congratulated him on this miracle. How had he managed to do that? The Chef said he got lucky. He accepted their praise, now of the articulate kind. To his credit, he told his admirers that he was lucky to have such good help. Chef Rogers was not at all resentful. He was, as I said, amused. His sense of the absurd—he was an Irishman—was titillated to the extreme. He did not want to befuddle people by telling them he was the evening’s genius. It was so much more fun having them believe that Chef Carmichael, the chef who could no longer cook, was.
Mr. Whalen, meanwhile, considered his review. Would he expose Chef Carmichael? Would he bring to light Chef Rogers’ essential role in the evening’s success? These were deep questions for the critic. Once again the Chef had sent him rather far field and into areas beyond the province of the food critic.
Once the crowd outside learned from those leaving Carmichael’s that the Chef’s engagement had been extended indefinitely they rejoiced and gradually dispersed, their objective having been accomplished. Tomorrow Carmichael’s would return to its regular menu, its old menu, and Chef Carmichael would once again be at the helm. What he cooked was irrelevant; all that mattered what that he cooked it. This was the moral of the evening.
In his review published a few days later, Mr. Whalen praised Chef Carmichael’s virtuosic talents, though in an extended aside which many readers of his found perplexing he dwelled on the importance of a chef’s assistants. Without good ones, he said, “things can go very wrong.” That was the extent of his tribute to Chef Rogers and his crew. Farther than this he would not go: he had satisfied his conscience. He held out hope, you see, that Chef Carmichael powers were not completely spent and that he would, just one more time, cook him his meatloaf, the memory of which was slowly fading from his mind, replaced as it was by Chef Rogers more recent creations. (He still refused to entrust his meatloaf to Chef Rogers). Chef Carmichael’s meal of thirty years ago had truly marked an epoch in his life and he was not about to give up on a man who had privileged him with a genius too soon abandoned, and never, he was soon to see, recovered.
The Chef’s tenure was again a short one. Within a week, Chef Rogers was once again named the Executive Chef of Carmichael’s. Chef Rogers convinced Chef Carmichael that he really needed time to rest: he had been in the business too long. Chef Carmichael played his part perfectly and pretended he needed convincing. All in all, he was eased out in the most graceful way, and all the absurd ceremonies that allowed Chef Carmichael to save face were faithfully observed. A few months later, Chef Carmichael ceded control of his namesake, giving equal parts ownership to everyone who had been there from the beginning. There was no exchange of money. He just formally granted them what was already theirs. In so doing, he gave up the pretense that he was in any way involved in the perpetual polishing of his first, his only gem. Still, first timers to the restaurant who ask about its name always receive an answer which grossly exaggerates Chef Carmichael’s role in its history and success. Chef Rogers, that sliest of dogs, would not have it any other way.