Karen Fayeth – Fiction

POSSIBILITIES. AND TURTLES.

Henri sat heavily in a worn leather chair, pulled it up to a battered desk, and groaned. His feet, back, hips, hands, shoulders, and head ached. Two hundred meals successfully made and served. It was a good night at Maîson d’Etre, and the satisfaction of another day’s close was rewarded by two fingers of quality scotch from a locked desk drawer. Locked to keep it away from those unrefined heathens he employed as line cooks.

Maîson was the sort of place that served steaks and pommes frites, thick swordfish filets, wedge salads, and martinis. A venerable restaurant, serving sturdy food. The sort of pseudo-French-but-mostly-American place you can find in Manhattan, except located in Yonkers. One might think Yonkites lacked the sophisticated palate needed to appreciate Maîson’s fare, but one would underestimate the American yearning for red meat and French fries rendered in duck fat.

For forty years, Maîson served an array of regulars who were both the cause for Maîson’s continuously open doors and the bane of Henri’s life. When he worked as a line cook, a short eight months ago, he had been shielded from the finicky insanity of Maîson’s routine clientele, including: the dreadful woman who ordered steak to share with her yappy purse-dog and always sent the steak back, claiming it was improperly cooked; the red-faced man with a bulbous nose who once got a hold of a bad oyster and loved to retell the story of his fountainous night on the toilet; and the young man who fancied himself an oenophile but was too cheap to buy a quality vintage. The kind of people who paid good money to eat his food were horrible people, and Henri was beginning to regret accepting the head chef job when his predecessor and friend Antoine had finally had enough.

Henri’s time in the toque hadn’t been for nothing. In just shy of a year, he had fixed all of the things he knew could be improved as he constructed his mise en place every night for nine years as a line chef. He once loved preparing food, the creativity of the culinary arts, and helping Antoine come up with a menu each night. After years of grinding out plates to mostly unappreciative customers, Antoine gave up and Henri stepped in to fill, if not big clogs, mostly respected, anyway.

Antoine and Henri became fast friends after discovering they grew up less than fifty miles apart in rural Mexico. Born Pedro and Miguel, they both had found their way into the United States through means better left undiscussed, and secured jobs in various restaurants that didn’t ask a lot of questions. American diners loved French chefs, so they both changed their names, worked hard, and their paths soon intertwined at Maîson. But Antoine was gone, off to Florida with a leggy woman who would surely break his heart, and Henri was left in charge of Maîson, a job that broke his heart a little each night. In fact, he was starting to become bitter. Well, he was already bitter, a common feature of any restaurant’s kitchen, but it was getting worse. 

As executive chef, he wasn’t just a chef anymore. He was manager, accountant, human resources, and therapist. He was dockworker and inventory management and detective each time a pricey bottle or expensive cut went missing. He just wanted to make the place run a little better, and he had. His innovative inventory management had reduced food storage costs significantly. He’d done such a good job that in the back of the restaurant, behind the kitchen, was a small empty room. It was really a large closet that Antoine had called the “cooling room” and loaded to the ceiling with decades of rusty cans and greasy boxes. Henri and a few line cooks came in on a day off to clean it out and scrub it down. It was now empty square footage, and Henri wanted to fill it up with something that made money.

Financially speaking, the Maîson was taking on water and sinking fast. Henri had to find some extra cash quickly.

A sharp knock made Henri look up. 

“Hey, Boss, can I talk to you?” said Manuel, a mostly solid worker whom Henri still wasn’t sure about. 

“Oh, what now?” Henri responded, ever the supportive manager.

“So, like, I have an idea.”

“Miracles do happen.”

“No, I mean, for the cooling room. I know how we can make some money. You and me. Just you and me only, though.”

It was enough to get Henri’s attention. He sat back in his chair. “Go on,” he said, waving his hand but making no gesture for Manuel to sit down. Manuel did anyway, sitting right on top of the stack of overdue invoices in the small office’s guest chair.

“Yeah, right, okay. So here is the thing. You ever hear of something called cryptocurrency, like the Bitcoin?”

Henri’s eyebrows knitted. 

Manuel continued quickly, “So my primo Alejandro knows a guy who knows how to, like, mine the money. Like digging it out, right? But with a computer.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Cryptocurrency, with the blockchain and the hashing and all of that.”

Henri physically shook his aching head so hard his lips flapped. “Get out of my office.”

“No, wait, look. Alejandro needs space to set up computers to make this money stuff. We can use the cooling room for the computer thingies, and you get a cut of whatever he mines.”

“Let me get this straight, your cousin wants to counterfeit money in my storage room?”

“No, man, look, just think about it. Google it. You’ll see.”

“Get out.”

“You want in on this.”

“Get out.”

“It’s so hot right now, we’re going to be rich.”

“Get out.” 

Henri picked up the dull knife with a broken blade, laying on his desk to remind him to order a new one, and whacked the butt of the handle on the desk’s surface.

“Jeez, man. You need to, like, meditate or something,” Manuel said, letting the door slam behind him.

“Imbecile,” Henri said, slurping his scotch while absentmindedly scratching his ear with the broken knife. 

“Ow, shit!”

* * *

Henri could not get money off his mind. Not just about the restaurant, but for himself. He knew that Executive Chef at Maîson d’Etre was a nice title, but it wasn’t going to make him rich. He sweated his ass off every night in the kitchen because the work once meant something and money didn’t matter. Except now it did. 

He’d become mildly obsessed with making money. Or acquiring money. He’d daydream over a cappuccino about winning the lottery, or finding a long-lost, obscenely rich uncle. All day he longed for money in his personal life, and all night he worried about making even a slight profit at the restaurant.

All this was to say, despite Manuel being a complete moron, and against Henri’s better judgment, he found himself on Google looking around in odd corners of the web where tech people used language that made no sense. None of the articles about cryptocurrency helped him catch on to what this was about, but he did understand economic valuation charts. It was a lot of up and down, but mostly up. If something called a “Winklevoss” could make money at this, why couldn’t he?

It wasn’t the rendezvous with Google that changed Henri’s mind, though it helped. No, it was the spectacularly brutal Friday night at the Maîson in which actual straws became the proverbial straw that broke his back. 

It was literally about straws.

* * *

Henri was up to his eyeballs in the kitchen. Maîson was hopping, uncharacteristically so. This on a night when two line chefs called in sick and one server walked out over something that happened in the break room with the bartender. He’d look into that later, but suffice to say it was already a crap night when his hostess Charlene came into the kitchen to let him know one of the customers wanted a word with him.

“What? No. Tell her I’m busy.”

“Henri, she’s got startup money. She likes the Maîson. She’s a regular. You need to step out.”

He took his eyes off the stove to glare at Charlene and burned the side of his arm on a scalding pot. He hardly flinched. Burns were a fact of life in the kitchen.

“Can’t you see we’re dying in here? I’m two down on the line, and we’re barely keeping up.”

“If you can make her feel like she’s part of the Maîson family, she may be willing to give us some cash. You know, like an angel investor? So we can make some upgrades around here?”

She had him there. 

“Fine!” he said, yanking off his apron and shouting at Jody to take the lead spot. Every chef up and down the line called him a different foul name as he stepped away. He flipped them all an emphatic bird on the way through the kitchen doors and out into the dining room.

“Put that down!” Charlene hissed and slapped at his hand.

“Where is this harpy anyway?”

“Will you shut up? She’s at the bar. Take a breath. You need to be calm.”

“Calm? The Maîson is having its busiest night in a year, we’re backed up and shorthanded, and you want me to be calm? Chingao!”

Charlene raised her brows and gave him a meaningful stare. A look that conveyed more than a litany of easily ignored words could do, in any language.

“All right, fine. Which one is she?”

“Follow my lead,” Charlene said, putting on her practiced hostess smile and leading Henri over to a pretty young woman. She exuded power and good taste in a crisp white cotton shirt and black slacks. She looked like money. 

Henri felt very grungy and very humble.

“Hi, Isla? I’d like you to meet Henri Laurent, Executive Chef here at Maîson. Henri, this is Isla Tanner, Vice President of Sustainability at Cooper, Langham, and Tanner.”

“Enchantée, mademoiselle,” Henri said. He wasn’t above putting on a bit of the ol’ Frenchy when he wanted to.

“Ah, Monsieur Laurent, quel plaisir de rencontrer le créateur de cette nourriture merveilleuse,” she chirruped in perfectly accented French. Not that Henri knew the difference.

“Uh. Oui. So, Ms. Tanner, my wonderful hostess Charlene tells me you want to speak to me. I confess we’re having yet another of our smashingly successful Fridays here at Maîson, so I only have a few minutes before I must return to the kitchen and make magic.” He hoped she bought his line of bull.

“I understand. I’ll keep it brief. It’s about the straws.”

Henri looked at the woman as though she’d slipped into French again.

“I’m sorry?”

“Straws. They must go. Terrible things. Get up the noses of turtles and cause all manner of havoc.”

“Tortugas?” Henri said, forgetting himself for a moment.

“Yes, of course. By my account, Maîson runs through about a thousand straws a month. Small straws in mixed drinks, bigger straws in iced tea. Where does it end, Chef? Surely an establishment such as Maîson can see they must take the lead in sustainability. My firm, Cooper, Langham, and Tanner, can help you phase out straws entirely. We can also help you start composting and save electricity with better light bulbs!”

“You mean the squiggly ones? Nah, those make people look jaundiced.”

“Take my card. We can negotiate reasonable rates for an end-to-end assessment and implementation of best practices. And a joint PR statement. We can make Maîson eco-friendly in six months!”

“Six months. Eco-friendly? Wait, you want me to pay you?”

“An investment in the Earth’s future.”

Henri paused. His right eye twitched. His throat yearned for a splash of scotch. He briefly wondered if he was being pranked.

“Well, Ms. Tanner, I can’t thank you enough,” Henri said, taking a step back and holding out his hand. “It’s certainly something to consider. I do hate to cut our conversation short, but I must get back. I hope you can understand. I’ll keep your card and maybe we can talk when I have more time. Please enjoy your meal tonight, compliments of the house. Charlene, please see that Ms. Tanner gets anything she wants. Again, it was such a pleasure to meet you.”

Henri turned quickly and walked away before he could hear another word, before he could say another word. He strode with a purpose.

“Manny!” Henri bellowed as he blasted through the twin doors into the kitchen.

“Yeah, Boss?” Manuel shouted, eyes never leaving the perfectly searing prawns in his pan.

“Do the thing we talked about, Manny.”

“What?”

“Your cousin. Do the thing.”

“Really, Boss?”

Henri didn’t respond. He’d already jumped back on the line. The ticket contraption was spitting orders. While his body worked like a machine, his mind pondered the possibilities of never doing this kind of work again. Ever. 

And turtles.

* * *

As the cryptos did their currency dance, Henri found that having an escape plan meant something inside of him had shifted. He worked with a new sense of joy. It warmed his heart to think about all of those computers whirring and beeping in the cooling room, somehow making something like money while he toiled over the fire. 

He had no idea what was happening in there and how much money he was making, but he just knew this was his lottery ticket, rich uncle, and sugar mama all wrapped up into an incomprehensible computer…thing. 

Finally, he had purpose. He saw a path to a better life. His anxieties quieted.

At the end of one year, Alejandro reported they had made some of the money thingies that were worth about five thousand dollars. It wasn’t much, but it was something. 

“Keep going, yeah? Let’s see what we can do,” Henri said, perplexed but pleased.

Over the next year, Alejandro swapped in more equipment, brought in his electrician friend to tap electricity off the hotel next door to feed the machines, and went, in Manuel’s words, “all in.”Knowing that money was being made took a load off Henri’s mind and reinvigorated his dedication to Maîson. He managed to streamline, cut more costs, and secure a loan to fix up the place. Plumbing, a new coat of paint, and modern décor were all addressed. He worked with his line guys to come up with new dishes, some lighter fare, and more trendy meals. The customers noticed. 

Both Maîson and Henri were making money, albeit slowly.

Enough to pay Isla for her end-to-end whatchamacallit turtle straw assessment and some other eco updates. The joint PR release led to an article on the front page of the lifestyle section about how Maîson cared for the environment.

Maîson’s clientele got younger, Henri got happier, and the cooling room kept chugging along.

Henri Laurent remembered why he loved to cook.

* * *

Henri sat heavily in the worn leather chair, pulled it up to a battered desk, and groaned. His feet, back, hips, hands, shoulders, and head ached. It had been a good night at Maîson and he was feeling expansive.

A sharp knock made Henri look up. 

“Hey, Boss, can I talk to you?” said Manuel.

“Yeah, come on in. Have a seat.”

“Can I have some of that scotch?”

“Sure, why not?” Henri said, pouring two fingers in a clean glass. “What can I do for you?”

Manuel took a sip and Henri noticed his hands were trembling. 

“What’s going on? You okay?”

“Chef, I just got a call from Alejandro.”

“Yeah?”

“Our little operation in the cooling room? It’s doing good. The market for those things is up.”

“Really? That’s great!” Henri said, taking a satisfied sip.

“You don’t understand, what we’ve got back there? It’s worth five million dollars.”

Scotch screeched to a halt in the back of Henri’s throat.

“Say that again.”

Manuel nodded. “Five million.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.”

“I know.”

“We gotta…we gotta think about this. We gotta go slow.”

“I’m selling my share. Alejandro knows a guy.”

“Wait, no. Let’s be cautious here. We have to plan. We can’t just pull the trigger.”

Manuel drained the last of his glass, stood up, and put out his hand. “Okay. I quit. That’s it. Thanks for making this happen, Chef. For the cooling room and stuff.”

“Wait!” Henri leapt out of his seat. “Let’s talk about this.”

“Nah, I don’t want to think. For once, I’m going to cash out while I’m up.”

Henri spent the rest of the night alternating between joy and panic. He planned and plotted, made notes and lists. He thought about next steps and what it meant. Then he got roaring, blackout drunk.

The next day, after several glasses of water, a plate of runny eggs, and a shower, he called Alejandro. He started talking as soon Alejandro picked up.

“I want out. I want my third. Make it happen. One point six million,” Henri said, deadly serious as he spoke.

“Nah man, not now. That was yesterday.”

“What?”

“Yesterday your third was worth over a million. Today not as much.”

“What do you mean not as much?”

“It’s a fickle market. There was a sell-off, something about regulatory issues. Your third is worth about, let me see,” Henri could hear Alejandro tapping the keys of a computer. “Thirty grand. You still want me to sell?”

Henri stared out the small window of his apartment. Downtown Yonkers stayed the same, but he had changed.

“Nah, let it ride,” he said quietly, and hung up the phone.

After a solid hour of staring into space, Henri knew what to do. He had a plan.

Two days ago he was a head chef. 

Yesterday he was a millionaire. 

Today he was a head chef.

And that was okay. 

That was his raîson d’etre. It always had been.

🍃


Born with the eye of a writer and the heart of a story-teller, Karen Fayeth’s work is colored by the Mexican, Native American, and Western influences of her roots in rural New Mexico and complemented by an evolving urban aesthetic. Karen has been published in Columbia JournalHeadway Quarterly, Glint Literary Journal, Switchback Journal, SLAB, and more. Now living in the San Francisco Bay area, she can be found online at karenfayeth.com

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