Chef De Cuisine

Brian Le

        I knew by the end of dinner service at C’est La Vie, anything cooked with salt, butter, oil, or pepper would make me feel nauseous. The restaurant was going to be busy that night, I knew the Bastille Day celebration would continue through the weekend. Busy restaurant means busy kitchen. I didn’t begin to stress until my dainty black and white wristwatch hit the twentieth hour.

        “Six covers, table twenty-two. Two New York strip, two salmon, two risottos! Got it?” commanded our executive chef.

        “Oui, Chef!” I replied with my synchronous kitchen staff.

        “Thirteen minutes, then walking to pass!” the executive chef called out. “Re-call timing at two minutes till pass!”

        I began prepping my station, garnishing, for the six plates. Chopping the earthy green chives, caramelizing the lemon slices, and julienning the onions. I had to ensure the garnishes would be ready to be plated once the dishes were cooked. I took pride in my timing — impeccable and precise as all good things should be. That was one of the many lessons my father left me. 

        “There is nobody in this world who wants to see you succeed, Reese.” he informed me. “You have to leave them no choice. If I can do it, you can do it.” 

        My late father’s words ran deep in my blood and on my skin in the form of a tattoo on my left forearm. “Leave them no choice” says the quote stained on my smooth skin. Growing up in Vietnam during the war really took a toll on me and left me with nothing. My family had been victims of collateral damage and war bombings. My village, my home, and my mother… gone. Our family had never blamed anything that happened in life on anybody, but ourselves. We believed in karma and believed that everything happens for a reason. The loss of my mother and home was the only time my father had ever blamed anybody other than himself. 

        Before the destruction, our family owned a boat market that made and sold “bún bò huế,” a beef noodle soup dish. Boat was a very common way of transportation and business in the southern rivers of Vietnam. Prior to the war, locals would exchange produce, meals, and even clothes on the river. I was only fourteen years old when I started working on that riverboat — this was my first exposure into the culinary world. 

        When our village was destroyed and my mother was killed, my father knew we had to escape. The boat that once was a source of joy for the family was now an escape vehicle. We rowed as far away from the war as possible, hoping to survive. We were not the only family fleeing from the war and the Viet Cong knew this. Hundreds of paddleboats and people scurrying away from the coast like fish fleeing from a predator. As the Viet Cong patrolled the seas, they had an order to kill on sight, leaving me and my father questioning every decision we made on the sea.

        We rowed for what seemed like ten hours towards Malaysia when we noticed we were coming up on a docked patrol station. Four soldiers stood on the edge of the dock looking for any fleeing civilians. Three of the soldiers were a part of the regime, but one was a farmer who was forced to join their army after they burned down his village. We knew that there was no way to get around without being spotted, so my father made one final decision.

        “Reese, I need you to promise me one thing. Leave the world no choice but to accept you for who you are. You have been my angel for the past fourteen years, and now it’s my turn to be yours. Don’t worry my dumpling, Mom and I will always be watching, and we will always be proud of you.” my father’s final words were unforgettable and heartbreaking. 

        I was tossed into the cold waters of the South China Sea by my father immediately after he spoke, leaving me unable to utter a sound. As I was rising back up in the waters, the officers took three shots, murdering my father on our family boat. The three officers who shot and killed my father took a boat out to retrieve my family’s riverboat as I swam desperately towards the dock. Luckily for me, the only officer who didn’t fire a shot, the former farmer, recognized that our boat was a local riverboat which meant we participated in riverside markets. The same type of markets he sold produce out of when he was a farmer. He pulled me out of the chilling, bloody sea, and brought me to a refugee camp. 

        After spending a month in the Northern Vietnam refugee camp, my custody was in the hands of my last living family member, Aunt Ella Monfils. She lived in Nice, France and the last time she had seen me was when I was two years old. She moved to France shortly after I was born because she had fallen in love with a French man. She adopted me and brought me home to her lonely little house in Nice. Ever since her husband’s death, Auntie Ella has been looking for some company. She was a beautifully black haired, brown eyed, fashionable woman. Working at a Charcuterie Shop, she always brought home boards full of the most stinky cheeses and the most decadent meats. I really miss her bubbliness. She was a wonderfully supportive second mother to me and without her, I would be nothing.

        I graduated high school all while struggling to learn both English and French in the process. After graduation, Aunt Ella asked me a question that I could answer almost instantaneously. 

        “What do you want to be” she angelically asked me once at the dinner table. 

        “I want to be a chef, Auntie.” I stated proudly.

        “A woman in that industry? Impossible, especially in France of all places” she replied.

        “You’re right Auntie, that’s why I am not only going to be any chef. I will be the chef.  I will be Chef De Cuisine one day, I promise you.” I adamantly proclaimed. 

        Aunt Ella granted my wishes and helped me enroll in a local culinary school where I got to experience firsthand what it felt like to be in a professional kitchen. My ambition and drive were second to none. As the only female student in my graduating class, I knew that I had to leave this industry no choice, but to accept me. And that they did, as I graduated on top of my class and received recommendation and scholarship to attend the world-famous culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. Past world-renowned chefs like Julia Child, Lanshu Chen, Peggy Porschen and many others gained their skills and knowledge from this prestigious school. It was a true honor. Getting to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu, however, was the final accomplishment Aunt Ella got to celebrate with me. She passed away from a sudden heart attack shortly after. I cooked Aunt Ella’s favorite meal, Bouef Bourignon, at the wake. 

        “Two minutes till pass!” I called out as my blade made its’ final cut through the Spanish onion.

        The chefs responsible for the steak, salmon, and risotto followed me to the pass as the executive chef plated the final dishes. While the other chefs sometimes hold their breaths when awaiting the head chef’s approval, I know to return to my station and get ready to work on the next ticket. Garnishing station is a repetitive, but necessary job. A common phrase used in culinary arts is “the eyes eat first” so that was the executive chef’s excuse for never letting me reach my full potential. I had been working at this same station for almost ten years and have not been able to present my talents anywhere to move my way up the food chain. As the only female chef in this kitchen, I knew if I spoke out, they could easily replace me. I sluggishly returned to my station which was in the far back corner of the kitchen near the three large multi-cook ovens. My station was always clean, and I always ensured that my stainless-steel countertop remained spotless. 

        Just as dinner service was over and the kitchen began cleaning up for the night, the head waiter burst into the kitchen with engorged eyes and a soft smirk. 

        “Col-Collette. She is… here! In the restaurant!” he squealed like a young child receiving gifts. 

        Collette Dubois was a highly respected and highly read food critic. She wrote in the widely popular “Taste of France” magazine, and she finally made her way to our restaurant after years of neglecting it. “C’est La Vie” would make history by becoming the first One-Michelin star restaurant to make the magazine, if Collette decided it be worthy. She made sure she was the absolute final customer in the restaurant to judge the food with no distractions. There was a lot of pressure, but I barely nudged. I knew that if I did my job properly, Collette would never know that I existed. The garnish station was a thankless job, you only notice it when something’s wrong. 

        “This is Collette’s ticket, no mistakes!” barked the head chef. “She is having the New York Strip with a side of glazed carrots and fondant potatoes! Got it?” 

        “Oui, Chef!” replied our kitchen staff. This time I did not respond, I was disappointed when I realized that I would never get recognized by a top food critic.

        I knew that Collette was testing the chefs. While steak is a difficult dish, for a professional chef it is like a college student making instant ramen. Collette only ordered this dish because of its’ simplicity and focus on craftsmanship and precision. Steak, especially the restaurants’ cut of the New York strip, requires perfect timing to compliment the sides. Everything on the plate is to be a part of the dish as a whole.

        “Make sure you do a batonnet cut on those carrots! No mistakes on this dish! We will never get this chance again” ordered our executive chef to the sides station.

        Just as the chef du partie of the sides began cutting his vegetables, he must’ve felt the heat of the pressure because his knife slipped off the smooth skin of the carrot and plunged into his marriage finger, leaving a large gash. The whole kitchen stood in silence. Only the sizzle of the hot sauté pans flooded the room. 

        “What are you all waiting for? There is a mouth to feed and if it is not happy, I will leave a larger gash in all of you!” the executive chef threatened. “You!” he pointed his hairy finger at me. “You take care of the sides on this dish! No mistakes! Don’t make me regret this decision.” he challenged. 

        Blessed with my first opportunity to prove myself, I quickly slid over to the sides station and began prepping four russet potatoes and three carrots. Taking my damascus steel knife, I began peeling both root vegetables with swift precision. Although my heart was beating like a drum, my movements were as cool as the sea. As I began heating up my pans, I took a moment to reflect. That one second felt like a thousand. I remembered my roots, my father, and my mother. I remembered my luck, my aunt, and my experiences. I knew that life had never been on my side before, but tonight, I needed to leave life no choice but to let me win. I then moved like a symphony, not a motion wasted. I orchestrated and performed this dish like a ballet. I was not going to let anyone take this moment from me. With two saucepans reducing away for my glaze, I made my first call-out.

        “Five minutes to pass and not a moment later! We need that steak to rest before service.” I commanded the chef on meat station. I knew the timing on this dish needed to be flawless. As steak cools, it reabsorbs its’ juices and will absorb the vegetable glaze.

        As I moved over to the pass, the corner of my eye caught a glimpse of a beautiful and ferocious woman in the corner of the kitchen. Collette Dubois was let in secretly by our head waiter through the side entrance. Her dark hair met her shoulder and she was wearing sunglasses indoors to shield her eyes from attention. I did not let this get in my head, after all, she was once in my position I presumed. I read her “Taste of France” magazine a handful of times and I knew that she didn’t accept anything less than the best.

        We plated the dish with the steak on the right side of the white porcelain dinner plate, in order to contrast the beauty of the dish. The glazed carrots I made were put next to the cut of steak and the glaze was smeared on the plate creating a crescent-shape. As the executive chef presented Collette with the dish, she requested the head waiter to escort her to the dining floor and to pour her a glass of 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon to compliment the dish. 

        As I was wiping down the pans and cleaning the countertops, my wristwatch read midnight. Collette Dubois marched in.

        “Listen up, I will not repeat this. I ordered this dish because I knew that if this restaurant was anything more than an overpriced and outdated tourist destination, you would not fuck up a steak. Congratulations…” Everyone paused. “for cooking me the worst steak I have eaten in Paris.” The embarrassment was palpable and circulating. 

        “However.” Collette spoke up again. “The only thing on this plate I could actually consume were the two sides. And young lady, I noticed you were the only one who cooked those, is this correct?”

        “Yes, Madame. That was me.” I said as I quickly put down the washcloth.

        “Before I write my final review for the restaurant, you will cook me this dish again. You will cook the entire dish, alone. Every grain of salt and pepper shall come off your fingertips.” commanded the food critic.

        The kitchen was stunned. All the other chefs gazed at me like they had seen a goddess amongst them. They knew that not only was this the most important dish for me, but also for the fate of the restaurant. All these doubtful men’s fates lied in the hands of me, Reese Nguyen.

        As I began to cook, Collette observed my every move and took note of the finesse and raw talent I possessed. Collette had been in this industry for over thirty years and her intuition about me could not be ignored. I was performing like no other critic ever had the privilege to see. As I was completing the dish, I gave a final touch up of the glaze when some got splashed onto my left forearm. As I wiped it away, I saw the quote that stained my heart from my father. As I handed Collette the plate with that very arm and as Collette ate, I could only think of my family. I wished they were there, in that moment, eating that dish, seeing their little girl make it. A part of me knows they were watching that night. 

        “What is your name, madame?” Collette asked as she turned in the cleaned plate. 

        “My name is Reese Nguyen, madame. It was an honor to get to cook for you this evening.” I proudly stated.

        Collette said with a smirk, “You don’t belong here. But it is my understanding that you are already aware of this. Come with me.”