A BOY CALLED SOUS
By J.R. Blackwell
“Are you a criminal or a fuckup?” asked Mrs. Kurt, sliding into her chair and crossing her long brown legs.
Thomas looked over the crystal place settings in front of them, unsure how to respond. It didn’t help that his pants were too small, the lining gripping the groin and the jacket slipping off his shoulders, creating the look of a sad slump even when he was sitting straight in the dining chair. “I’m a recent graduate of Hopewell Culinary Academy,” he said, “I haven’t had enough time to become either.”
“That’s too bad,” said Mrs. Kurt, leaning back in her chair, “because I like to keep an equal ratio on my crew.” Mrs. Kurt dressed like a ballerina turned businesswoman, her dark hair pulled back in bun and a fitted beige suit. Her French manicured fingers twirled a pen around like it was a dance partner.
Thomas ran his hand through his brown hair and smiled in a way he imagined girls would find charming, maybe even roguish. “How about you tell me what you’d like me to be, and I’ll grow into the role.”
It must have been the wrong thing to say, because her eyes narrowed. “You’ve never worked in a professional kitchen before,” she said, curling his small, sad resume up in front of her, “and yet, you want to be a sous chef here, at the highest rated restaurant in the city.” Her dark eyes flicked up from her clipboard to his soft face. “You realize what that makes you, right?”
“Ambitious?” asked Thomas hopefully.
“Terribly entitled,” said Mrs. Kurt, standing, “Entitled and arrogant.” She picked up her clipboard and shook her head. “Kid, you need years of experience to work here. A lifetime of experience.”
Thomas looked down at his hands. He was holding the salad fork from the place setting. He didn’t remember picking it up, though fidgeting with objects was a bad habit of his. He knew the job had been a long shot and he hadn’t expected to make it to the interview stage. Thomas had been sending resumes everywhere for weeks from diners to four-star restaurants, hoping that someone would give him a chance. “I’m sorry for wasting your time,” said Thomas.
“Good,” said Mrs. Kurt. “You should apologize.” She looked towards the kitchen and sighed. “You’re lucky that the sous chef we hired last night quit and that we’re desperate, because otherwise, you’d never be able to step inside that kitchen.”
Thomas sprung to his feet, holding out his hand, “Mrs. Kurt, I swear to you that you won’t regret this.”
“This isn’t permanent,” she said, ignoring his hand in favor of shaking her finger at him, “you are a temporary hire. You’re just here until we find a real sous chef.”
“Of course,” said Thomas, “I’m grateful for the work.”
“Grateful,” said Mrs. Kurt, “yes. I want you to remember that word. Now come with me, because dinner service starts in an hour.”
Mrs. Kurt pushed her way into the immaculate kitchen, Thomas following her high heels into he room. The kitchen was a vision in stainless steel, but the frantic movements around the room gave the impression that it was ready to implode. Men and women in starched jackets whisked bowls and pots across the kitchen, while a serious looking man knelt on the floor scrubbing a stain. Mrs. Kurt flicked the switch next to the door and the florescent lights blinked.
The room went silent, all eyes turning to Mrs. Kurt. “Everyone, this is Thomas Florence, our temporary sous chef. Temporary. I don’t want to hear any complaints about him unless he breaks the law because he’s temporary, and you can tell Chef Surrell I said that.”
A busty woman with short blond hair pushing a cake tray held up her hand, “Why don’t you tell Chef Surrell yourself?”
Mrs. Kurt crossed her arms, “Because I have things to do, Violet, so thank you for volunteering for the job.” Mrs. Kurt spun on her heel and shoved her way out of the swinging door to the kitchen, back into the dining room.
Thomas sidled over to Violet, “Hey,” he said, “You wouldn’t happen to know where the sous chef station is, would you?”
Violet gazed at him, wide-eyed. “Where did they find you?” she asked, stepping back and giving him the once-over, “and what are the drugs like there?”
“Okay,” said Thomas, holding up his hands, “I’ll just ask the Chef,” Thomas looked around the room, “wherever he is.”
“She,” said Violet, “and the sunset was half an hour ago, so-”
The back door to the kitchen slammed open, and in the doorway was a petite woman with muscular arms and long dark hair that was bound in an intricate braid. She pointed at Violet. “You!” she said, charging through the door and grabbing Violet by her starched white jacket. “You have been drinking!”
Violet put both her hands up in the air in surrender, “Chef Surrell, I swear that-”
“None of your excuses,” said the Chef Surrell, “do I look like someone with time for lies?” Violet shrugged. Surrell pulled Violet close and took a deep breath, her eyes closed. “Vodka,” she said, “The cheap stuff,” she shook her head disdainfully. “Your goddamned potato-juice is going to ruin this kitchen.”
“My pastries are impeccable,” said Violet, “I have a shot to celebrate their completion.”
“Really,” said Chef Surrell, “Impeccable, you say.” She leaned over the pastry cart and inhaled, her nostrils flaring. She frowned.
“Yes,” said Violet. “This particular chocolate ganache will send people to heaven on a flying bed made of feathers and orgasms.”
Chef Surrell took the serving cake cutter from the tray and cut a piece of cake with two swift moves. She grabbed a fork from her pocket and looked around the kitchen, where the staff made themselves very busy ignoring them.
Thomas smiled crookedly when her dark eyes met his. “Hello,” he chirped with a wave, “my name is-”
“I don’t give a fuck,” she said, “Put this in your soft little face,” she held out the fork and Thomas reached for it, smiling nervously. Chef Surrell jammed it in his mouth.
“Taste and swallow,” she said, “And then tell me the goddamned truth.”
“Ow,” said Thomas, pulling away. One of the tines had scraped the roof of his mouth, and now blood mixed with the fluffy chocolate on his tongue.
“How does it taste?” demanded the Chef, licking the fork.
Thomas nodded, and then looked from Violet to the Chef, who both stood with their hands on their hips, as if asking him to pick sides before a battle. “Good?” he said.
The Chef threw the fork across the room, where it hit the wall with a clang, bounced, and clattered to the floor. Immediately one of the staff picked it up and started to scrub at the part of the wall where it had left a smudge. “Good?” she cried, turning to Violet. “Do you hear that? Your cake is “good”! Why don’t you throw yourself a fucking party?”
“He’s just out of culinary school,” pleaded Violet, “He doesn’t know how to describe a pastry any more than he can describe a marmoset.”
The Chef whirled to face Thomas, “Just out of culinary school? Are we hosting interns now?”
Violet snickered, “No Chef,” she said, “He’s your sous.”
“What?” she said, walking towards Thomas, her movements as deliberate as a cat stalking a mouse. Thomas backed up, his hands in the air.
“Oh yes,” said Violet, walking alongside the Chef, egging her on. “Just out of school. Mrs. Kurt hired him today.”
“Were all the line cooks at all the diners in the tri-state area occupied?” asked Chef Surrell, advancing on Thomas. “Did they are spontaneously combust, or did this fine institution finally run out of cash entirely, to leave us to bring in street performers?”
Violet chuckled, “You’ll have to take it up with Mrs. Kurt,” she said, hiding her mouth behind her fist.
Thomas’s back hit the wall. “It’s only temporary,” said Thomas, confused why this black-eyed woman half his size was so incredibly terrifying. “I promise to do my absolute best.”
Chef Surrell stabbed a finger to Thomas’s chest, “You better believe it’s only temporary,” she whispered, placing a hand on Thomas’s abdomen, “because if you are here tomorrow night, I’m going to rip out your liver and feed it to my patrons as the special.” Surrell’s hand pressed against him, as if she was going to pull his liver out of his body right that moment. Then she turned and threw up her hands, “I am going to my office,” she declared to the kitchen, “and when I return, we will cook.” She pointed to Thomas, “and you will not ruin this night for me.”
Chef Surrell strode into her office and slammed the door shut, the blinds clattering against the glass in the doorframe.
“She’s intense,” said Thomas peeling himself from the wall.
Violet’s eyes grew wide. “Oh my god,” she said, “you don’t know.”
“Know what?” asked Thomas.
“Chef Surrell is a vampire.”
Thomas felt faint. He had heard of vampires before, and had seen a few of TV, but he had never encountered on in person before. Now he had met his first vampire without even realizing that she was one. Thomas felt like he was drowning, and that there was a lifeboat next to him, but everyone on board was stepping on his fingers when he clutched at the side.
The grill chef, a lanky red haired man named Andrew, finally directed Thomas to his station. Thomas began to prepare for the night, setting up his spices, reviewing the menu, and washing his hands. In ten minutes Chef Surrell burst from her office in her chef’s jacket, and moved from station to station, reviewing each one. When she came to Thomas, her eyes narrowed, “Is this how they taught you to do things at school?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Thomas, now eyeing his station critically, wondering if all those loans were worth it.
She grabbed his wrists. “Your hands are filthy,” she said.
“I just washed them.”
“Why doesn’t it surprise me that you can’t bathe yourself?” she said to the air. Surrell grabbed Thomas’s hands. Her hands were cool and small and unbelievably strong. She pulled him to the sink and turned on the water. “You will not make anyone ill tonight,” she said. “I don’t care if I have to mommy you.”
She dipped his hands in the water. It was very hot, and Thomas winced. “Don’t be a baby,” she said, drawing a small knife out of her pocket.
Thomas looked at the knife, and felt his heart skip a beat. “What are you going to do?” he asked, visions of his vivisection running through his head.
“Shut up,” said Chef Surrell, and she turned her attention to his hands, slipping the tip of the blade under each fingernail, digging out the dirt there with a swift motion. Thomas squeezed his eyes shut, then opened one eye, then the other, and she was done, his hands and nails wet and clean.
“Wow,” said Thomas.
“I am going to burn this knife,” said Chef Surrell. “Because you are filthy. I can smell it.”
“Um, okay,” said Thomas, and then hurried to his station. Chef Surrell reached under her station and pulled out a starched white coat.
“At least, look the part,” she said, throwing him the coat. On the breast of the coast there was a name, “McKay” and the collar had brown stains on the inside, right above the jugular. It could have been gravy or grease. Could have been. Thomas swallowed, and wondered how the last sous had quit.
Chef Surrell stood beside him as the first orders came in, barking commands to the kitchen. Chef Surrell put him to work endlessly chopping mirepoix, mushrooms and tomatoes. Occasionally Surrell would lean over to criticize the size of celery piece or the shape of a carrot. Once, she snatched a steak from the grill station and threw it into the trash. “Burning!” she cried, grabbing the coat of the man on the grill and pulling her face down to hers. “Damn it, Andrew, hellfire is not food.”
Thomas knew his strength was his speed, all his teachers had said so. Thomas liked to imagine that he was The Flash, working at super speed. Eventually he got into a rhythm, focusing on what was in front of him, following directions as best he could. He knew his work was standard but the Chef was all over him and her own station, fixing, turning, and giving orders. She would berate him, and he let it wash over him, since the experience was only for tonight, it hardly seemed like it mattered.
It was close to midnight when Mrs. Kurt walked through the door. “There’s a table of six to see you Chef,” she said.
“I have a bone to pick with you,” said Chef Surrell, sliding out from behind her station, “You have to answer for giving me a student to instruct tonight.”
“Right now,” said Mrs. Kurt, tapping her clipboard with a perfectly manicured nail, “You need to get out to see this table.”
Chef Surrell shook her head and grabbed Thomas by his collar, pulling him over to her station. “Plate these orders before I get back,” she said, and stormed out of the kitchen. Thomas was plating a lobster when a waiter waltzed in. “Thank you,” he said, picking up the lobster and a soup. He looked over at the Chef station, “I guess you’re on your own now,” he said.
“We’re almost done,” said Thomas.
“Almost being the word,” said the waiter. When he pushed out of the Kitchen, Thomas could see though the door that Chef Surrell talking to a table of six patrons. She looked annoyed. In school, they had told Thomas how sometimes Chefs would get pulled away from service to talk up important customers, who might try to keep a Chef longer than was good for the kitchen.
Thomas placed a soup under the warmer and peeked out the door. Chef Surrell was still at the table, her arms folded, her eyes rolling in annoyance. No one at the table had food. Apparently they hadn’t ordered yet. No chef should be pushed into doing the waiters job. Thomas hurried out the door, slinging a towel over his shoulder.
“I’m sorry Chef,” he said, clasping his hands together. All the eyes at the table turned to him. None of them looked friendly. “There’s a bit of an emergency in the kitchen-”
Chef Surrell took his arm. “I’m sorry,” she said to the group, “but you heard him. Work calls.” She pushed Thomas back inside the kitchen.
“What have you broken now?” she hissed.
Thomas shrugged. “Nothing, everything is fine,” he said, “You looked like you didn’t want to talk to those people.”
Chef Surrell put a hand to her forehead. “Do you have any idea who they are?” she asked.
Thomas shrugged. “Nope.”
She chuckled, her eyes crinkling with delight. “You are so stupid. Anyone else would have been terrified to pull me away from that table.” She put a hand on his shoulder, steadying herself as she laughed. “But you didn’t know!” She shook her head.
“I’m sorry,” said Thomas, “You really did look unhappy talking to them.”
“Oh, I was,” said Chef Surrell, “Those creatures are shitheads, every one. I’m just glad you were dumb enough to pull me away from them.”
“Who are they?”
“They are the council that leads the vampires in the city.”
“Oh,” said Thomas, stunned.
Chef Surrell punched him lightly in the arm. “You can come back tomorrow night,” she said. “At least, until they find me a real sous.”
Thomas slipped to the front of the house, where Mrs. Kurt was counting the cash at the bar, her ever-present clipboard on her lap.
“You didn’t tell me Chef Surrell is a vampire,” said Thomas.
“Is that a problem?” asked Mrs. Kurt, arching one perfectly shaped eyebrow. “You religious or something?”
Thomas shook his head, “No, it’s just- I don’t think she likes me.”
“Does she have to like you?” asked Mrs. Kurt, making a notation on her clipboard.
“No,” said Thomas, “but-”
Mrs. Kurt interrupted him, looking up from her paperwork. “Listen to me, kid, this is work. No one has to like you at your job. Work isn’t about liking people, it’s about getting things done. You are lucky enough to be working in one of the best kitchens in the city, with a person who was around before there were zippers.”
“I don’t like being called stupid.”
“Are you stupid?” asked Mrs. Kurt.
Thomas looked down. “I’ve got to get home,” he said.
“Don’t let me keep you,” said Mrs. Kurt, waving her hand dismissively.