Chef Jon is the king of Australian gastronomy, the inventor of new-wave interactive fusion cuisine, the author of ‘Cooking with Cotton’, the first person to put coq au vin on pizza, and the first to cook with sulphuric acid. His first restaurant was Italian-Korean-Tex-Mex with heavy Russian influence. The signature dish, Kimchi Bolognese Taco Soup, put Chef Jon on the map. At his second restaurant, the entire menu was liquefied and served in shot glasses. The signature dish was called Zing – blended raw beef, lime juice, and a quick lick of an electrical socket. At his third location, he just gave you the ingredients in reusable shopping bags and charged you $72 to cook it yourself.
‘Reinventing the restaurant industry’
‘Not a meal, but an experience’
He was a culinary legend and my new boss. I was one of the three apprentice chefs chosen by Chef Jon to work in his new restaurant, Gastronomica.
“I will call you Tiro,” he said. “You are my Latin idiot and errand boy.”
“Of course, Chef. Whatever you say.”
I’m not Latin. I’m Lebanese and my name is Elie. But Chef made me legally change it before he would give me the job, so I guess that doesn’t matter now. At the time I didn’t know it meant ‘young novice idiot boy’. It was my first day, and I had already sweat through the shirt underneath my apron. Chef Jon had me chopping onions — one-thousand onions to be exact. I have been chopping for three hours and he has thrown away every onion I’ve chopped.
“Faster, Tiro. Don’t worry about the blood, the dish is red.”
“Of course, Chef. Whatever you say.”
Gastronomica hasn’t officially opened yet, but Chef Jon has been doing pop-ups around Brisbane to test the new menu. So far, he’s opened in the Specsavers in Queen Street Mall, the second lane of the Centenary Motorway, the men’s bathroom at the Beat and Pauline Hanson’s childhood bedroom. One diner, after tasting Chef Jon’s new menu, literally died at the table from the food being so good. Ever since that happened, the waitlist has gotten even longer. Tonight, we are opening on the back of a City Cat. Me and the three other apprentice chefs have been working since 3am. I have been chopping onions since 3am. I don’t care though; I am a part of history. This is the future of food.
Once everything is prepped, Chef makes us leave so he can add his secret ingredient. He has installed large iron roller doors in the kitchen, and heavy-duty military grade panic room doors that lock from the inside. It takes around an hour for him to spread, sprinkle or scoop the ingredient into every dish and when we return everything is plated and ready for service. Fatuus (def: fool, jester or simpleton) says its truffle, Servus (def: servant, slave boy) thinks it’s saffron and Parvacoles (def: little dick) swears it’s MSG. I don’t tell the others that I think it’s love.
The City Cat was Chef Jon’s most successful pop up yet. The boat began to sink during the second course from all the extra weight. It went down bow-first — titanic style — and the tables and chairs were sucked down into the murky water. People held their plates above their heads and let their belongings sink to the bottom of the river. In the end it was one-hundred diners bobbing about just off eagle street pier, treading water and eating their amuse bouche between gulps of brown river water. The waiters swam each course out to them from the shore and provided pool noodles to those who needed them. Everyone agreed that it was Chef Jon’s best work yet.
‘The river water paired beautifully with my steak tartare. It was clearly intentional’
‘At one point an old wet sock found its way into my tiramisu. The tangy flavour and chewy texture took the dish to a whole new level’
After that, a lot of people thought the secret ingredient was Brisbane River Water. It started appearing on menus across the city. Brisbane River reductions and Brisbane River glazed wings. It was dehydrated and sprinkled on hot chips, it was whipped into cakes and pastries, and at some cafes you could get two pumps in your coffee for 50c.
We knew that wasn’t it. We knew it was something far crazier, because one day we arrived at work and Chef had sound-proofed the entire kitchen. Big thick noise-cancelling foam was stuffed under the doors and glued to the walls. None of us said anything. At this point it was me, Fatuus and Servus. Parvacoles quit after Chef made him remove the bones from seven hundred fish fillets with a pair of tweezers and once he was finished, asked him to put them all back in. He broke down crying after the third fillet.
We are all prepping for tonight’s pop-up — I am killing the live lobsters one by one. Normally, you would insert the knife into their brain and cut, killing them instantly. But Chef prefers that we choke them by hand. It takes longer, but is better for flavour development. Tonight’s pop-up is in a public toilet in Albion. There is a line snaking around the street. One person eats at a time, sitting on the silver toilet with a set table in front of them. Flush when you’re ready for the next course.
‘The odour provided a funky faecal note to my dishes. 10/10’
‘Easily the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. Loved the exposed brick décor.’
The next day we lost Fatuus. Chef wanted to find the next veal and brought in a box of live ducklings. Fatuus looked into that box for four hours before picking up his knife and leaving the kitchen. Servus and I looked at each other from across the kitchen and pretended not to notice the fuzzy newborn ducklings chirping from the cardboard box. Chef just took them home at the end of the day and they never made the menu.
“Would you have done it?” I asked Servus as we walked home.
“No question mate. The man’s a genius, who gives a fuck about a bunch of ducks?”
I’m glad Servus didn’t ask me the same question. I would have to lie and agree with him. Show no weakness. When I arrived at work for the next pop-up prep day, the kitchen was closed and there was a note on the door.
RAN OUT OF
The last pop-up was meant to be at a Centrelink in Chermside. People still showed up, lined up in the parking lot and waited hours for the doors to open. Many waited all night, determined not to lose their place in line. By morning someone got hungry, went to the servo and bought some Mentos and a packet of mixed nuts to share.
‘Another amazing pop up from the infamous Chef Jon. The dragée’s were to die for’
‘An ode to the servo snack. Chef Jon takes away the courses but brings the flavour’
Servus is fired the next day for telling the Courier Mail the secret ingredient is caviar. They paid him well, but it was disproven quickly, and he’ll never work as a chef again. I am shucking oysters with my fingernails — makes them creamier — when Chef arrives and signals for me to stop.
“Well done Tiro. You’ve done very well to make it this far.”
“Just doing my job, Chef.”
“I would like to formally appoint you as my sous chef, Tiro. You will have your own young novice idiot boy, and one dish on the menu to call your own.”
I wipe the blood from my sliced fingers onto a tea towel and shake Chef’s hand furiously. My stomach flips with joy.
“I would love to, Chef. Thank you so much, Chef. I promise I won’t let you down.”
“Gastronomica opens tonight. I will need plenty of my secret ingredient.”
“Would you like me to wait outside, Chef?”
“No.” he says. “Help me pull down the doors, Tiro.”
The doors click, click, click downward and seal off the kitchen. Chef twists a large metal handle and locks both of us inside. My hands are sweating, and blood is still spewing from my cuticles into the grey tea towel. Chef Jon fishes a set of keys out of his apron pocket and leads me down the hall toward the storage area. He stops in front of an old freezer room with a padlock on its handle; I can tell it’s broken from the temperature reading on the front. A balmy twenty-eight degrees. Not caviar. This is all I’ve wanted for months. My fingers are stinging from the cuts and the salt. He jiggles and twists three different keys in three different slots. The freezer lining unseals and opens toward us. I don’t know if I want this anymore.
The freezer walls are lined with wallpaper, sky blue with ducklings all over it. There are toys strewn across the floor and a cot in the corner with a mobile spinning above it. There’s a toddler in the middle of the room, he’s wearing a nappy and sucking aggressively on a pink pacifier. He has big blue bloodshot eyes and splotchy skin. His hair is so blonde it’s almost white, and it sticks up in different directions on his head. My blood has soaked through the tea towel and is dripping onto the floor now. I haven’t said anything yet.
“This is Tommy,” says Chef Jon. “He’s new.”
He walks into the freezer and picks up the little boy.
“He’s my secret ingredient,” he says.
“Watch,” says Chef, stopping me.
He pulls out what looks like a pen. He removes the cap to reveal a tiny syringe.
“Chef I –”
“Just watch,” he says.
That’s when I notice the little boy’s arms and legs, littered with tiny red dots. Small little holes. Bile rises in my throat. Chef pokes the boy just above the knee with the syringe. He immediately starts to cry, a wailing high pitched scream that echoes through the kitchen and rings in the ears. Chef quickly grabs a small glass vial out of his apron pocket and places it under the boy’s eyes, catching the tears on his little red cheeks. Sick. This is sick, sick, sick.
“Whose child is this?” I ask. “Is he yours? I don’t understand.”
“None of that matters, Tiro. All that matters are these.”
He holds up the vial filled with warm children’s tears. Tommy tries to wriggle out of Chef Jon’s arms, but he’s done this before, and poor Tommy is trapped in his grip. He tries to move his little neck, but it is trapped under Chef Jon’s large forearm. His little face is bright red. More tears. The sound of his cries are still bouncing off the freezer walls. Chef looks up from his meal and sees the horror on my face.
“What’s the problem, Tiro? Do you not like my secret ingredient?”
I remember I’m locked inside his stainless torture chamber.
“No problem here Chef,” I say.
“Because he’s perfectly fine. And this right here,” he says, holding up the vile.
“Is going to change the culinary world as we know it. Starting tonight.”
I watch horrified as he fills three more vials. He puts Tommy back in his crib and leads me back to the kitchen. I pack up my stuff as quickly as I can without seeming too rushed. I am going to tell everybody. I am calling the police and he is going to jail for kidnapping and abuse and probably a multitude of other offences. Sick, sick fuck.
“I will see you tonight,” he says. “At the opening.”
I watch him pour tiny drops of Tommy’s tears into a mustard aioli.
“See you tonight,” I say.
I look back at him, whisking his emulsion, equal parts suffering and canola oil.
“Don’t call the police until the opening has begun,” he says. “You will see.”
I throw up in the alleyway as soon as the door locks behind me. Sick, sick, sick. I need a minute — a minute to understand what I’ve seen. I see Tommy’s eyes, blue and unblinking, his little mouth contorting with pain. The hundreds of jabs in his chubby arms and legs. Sour bile spews out and splatters on the pavement. I’ve got that sweaty light-headed thing you get after spinning in circles or drinking too much. I have tasted his food, licked plates clean. Sick, sick fuck. Call now. Why not call now and tell them everything? They’ll arrest him, he will be put in jail for a long long time, and Tommy will be saved.
I don’t call.
I wait because that’s what Chef Jon told me to do.
I will wait for the opening to begin, for the red rope to go up, because that’s what Chef told me to do. I get ready for the opening and catch a bus into the Valley. I have the three zeros typed in, my finger hovers above the call icon the whole ride over but I never press it. Two words keep replaying in my head over and over – “he’s new.” Once I arrive, I see the line is already snaking down the street and into the next suburb. People are already inside.
I go to the front of the line and flash my employee ID. My finger is still poised over the button. The maître d’ lets me past the curtain and the bile creeps back up my throat.
The furniture from the freezer has been moved into a plexiglass cube that hangs from the roof at eye level. Tommy sits in the far-right corner, playing with a stuffed animal. He is wearing a bright blue onesie that covers his teeny tiny stab wounds. People are eating around him, sipping cocktails and watching him play with his toy. There is a screen explaining the ingredient, the nuance of its flavour, the potential health benefits and how Tommy’s diet affects the final flavour profile. There are canapes being handed out around the room. He is baked into quiche, spread with pate, layered into pastry and shaken in cocktails. He is everywhere. People stab him with their forks, masticate him and swallow him down and they are all completely okay with it. Tommy is giggling and grinning at his onlookers, he looks cleaner and happier than he did two hours ago in that freezer. His hair has been combed and his cheeks are no longer blotchy and dry, they are plump and pink.
“A shot, sir?”
A waitress offers me a shot glass filled with nothing but Tommy’s tears. The flavour profile card says:
PURE AND UNDILUTED
DRY WITH A SALTY FINISH
She places a shot glass in my hand. I watch Tommy press his face against a stuffed bunny and pat its cotton ears. The crowd lets out a communal aww.
“How adorable,” one-woman cries, before taking another sip of her Tommy Collins.
“What do you think, Tiro?”
He appears next to me holding a shot glass as well, although his looks like a double.
“It’s fucked up, Chef”, I say. “It’s not right.”
He takes a salmon pancake off a passing tray and eats it in one big bite. He licks Tommy flavoured crème fraiche off his fingers.
“If it is so wrong, Tiro, how come everybody is acting like it’s right?”
I watch a group of people knock back six shots of Tommy. A man makes funny faces at him in the glass, a canape in each hand. A woman on the other side of the cube hugs a bowl of broth that I assume is mostly Tommy. The amount of tears Tommy would have to cry to produce one bowl of soup, hours of suffering slurped up in one sitting.
“Surely they know how you’re getting these tears — how you source your special ingredient.”
“Out of sight, out of mind, Tiro.” he says. “Now stop being so mopey and join the party, this is your night too, you know — sous chef.”
I look out at the hundreds of people everywhere enjoying the food. Enjoying my food. I see Tommy hugging his rabbit friend and laughing at the funny man. He seems happy.
“Of course, Chef. Whatever you say.”
Chef Jon clinks his glass against mine and we both shoot back pure undiluted Tommy. It tastes good.
Tully Grace is a writer from Townsville currently studying Law and Fine Arts at the Queensland University of Technology. She writes short absurdist fiction.