Thursday, November 23, 2006

Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake

By Rumaizah Abu Bakar


Chef Chen sat calmly at the round table. His hands clasped in his lap. He looked distinguish in his tall white hat and matching uniform with his initial neatly sewn above the pocket. He waited patiently as the lady and two gentlemen took their seats at the table.

Seated on his left was the Communications Manager, Mimi, looking cheerful in her light gray suit and pink buttoned down-shirt. Her short wavy hair framed her youthful round face. With her Indian blood, she was dark for a Malay lady. "Hi Chef Chen, I can't wait to taste your lovely desserts," she chirped. That brought a smile to his lips. "And I can't wait to serve you, Ms Mimi," he quipped, equally good-naturedly. In her early 30s, Mimi was much younger than the others.

Max the new Director of Food & Beverage sat on Mimi's left, looking slightly nervous in his round glasses. He had on a formal navy suit with a light blue shirt and aquamarine tie. "Good afternoon, Chef Chen," he greeted the man with a faint hint of a German accent. "I'm sure you have a surprise dessert to dazzle us."

Chef Chen smiled widely, "Yes, Sir. I hope you will be pleased," he said with a slight bow.

At last, Justin, the Swiss blond curly haired gentleman in the black suit and mustard tie took his place on the Chef's right. The Chef got up and bowed courteously to his last guest before sitting down again. "Chef Chen, how are you today? All ready?" he looked at the chef and flashed his famous childlike smile around the table.

"I'm good, Sir. Thank you."

I stood quietly in the corner of the restaurant's private dining room. This is the best spot to observe the group. Chef Chen turned to look at me. "Chef Francois, shall we start now?"

"Yes, Chef Chen, whenever you are ready. It is your show, you are the boss!" I did not smile, I seldom did anyway, but I could see that my words had increased his confidence.

"Very well," he looked at the waiter. "Lim, please bring out our surprise," he patted the young man's shoulder.

"Certainly, Chef," Lim replied politely and tiptoed to the kitchen. He reappeared a few minutes later with two plates filled with the chef's dainty sweet creation. A waitress followed closely behind him, balancing a plate in each hand. They served the group.

"Ladies and gentleman, this is dark Belgium chocolate mooncake filled with chestnut and orange peel filling," he gestured for them to start.

"Hmm…this is good," Mimi put her thumbs up. "It is sweet and crunchy on the outside, and then the moment you bit into it, you'll be enticed by the softness and sourness within the crust," she said a bit dreamily. I quickly took out my notebook and jot down her comments, so did Chef Chen.

It was Max's turn. "It does look sexy on a plate," he winked at Mimi.

"Hmm..." she mumbled.

"However, the presentation can be improved," he commented. The packaging-man, they nicknamed him. To him, appearance or wrapping was more important than the content. "The colour is dull, there is no highlight. Perhaps you can include a tiny ice sculpture next to the mooncake. That will make the dish more elegant," Max added, obviously pleased with his idea.
I sighed. After years of working together, I could sense Chen's quiet discomfort, a painful expression in his eyes.

Justin did not seem amused. "How many of this do we need to serve?" he raised his eyebrows quizzically. Trust their Resident Manager to rescue them.

"We are serving 500 pax, Sir," Chen answered.

"For God sake! We can't make 500 miniature ice sculptures! Our staffs will not be able to do anything else. There will be like twenty functions happening at the same time. It is a busy day for the hotel, we can't afford this." Irritation was clear in his voice. "No, Sir, we can't afford it," I said curtly and immediately signaled to Chen.

"So, are you happy with this, Sir?" Chen asked Justin gently.

"Very good, Chef Chen. You have a winner," he complimented him. "No more food tasting after this. For the big gala dinner, Jade Restaurant's very own Chef Chen will present his Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake!" Justin chuckled, looking like a satisfied kid. He raised his cup of Oolong Tea for a toast, the others followed suit. Chen smiled slowly and nodded.

After finishing their tea, they quickly got up and left the room. It was a hectic day. The kitchen team has taken enough of their time and they were all eager to get back to work.

I pulled a chair at the table and sat next to the chef. "Don't worry, Chen, we are doing the right thing," I assured him. "I don't know, boss. I still don't feel comfortable doing this," he sighed. Chen was a man of integrity. He was brought up the old fashion way by his dim sum peddler father and dish washer mother in a village in Malacca. Come to think of it, I had the same upbringing by my retailer parents back in my hometown Lucerne. Only that we had turned out quite differently.

He seemed so troubled that I felt like patting his shoulders to assure him. However, that was not my style. I was known as a man of few words and even fewer sugary gestures. I have been told that our colleagues from the other departments feared me. However, my brigade of sous chefs knew me very well, and to them I would show a side of me that most people did not get to see. I wanted them to succeed. I care about their future and I would do anything it takes to see that they get the recognition that they deserve.

Unfortunately, doing anything it takes also mean camouflaging the truth, as Chen put it. I would simply pass it off as taking teamwork to a higher level. It was unavoidable. To succeed, one needed to make sacrifices and this included one's own pride.


***


I recalled the day Max broke the news to us during a daily kitchen operation briefing three weeks ago. "We are hosting a fundraising gala dinner for the cancer foundation. Four renowned Chinese chefs from prestigious hotels in Asia Pacific have been selected for this occasion. Each of them will prepare a dish for a four-course fusion dinner next month," he looked at the whole
kitchen team. "The good news is…," he paused for effect, "Chef Chen is one of them!" he hit the table in front of him with his hand.

A few quiet moments passed and then they started to cheer, "Chef Chen, Chef Chen, Chef Chen…" The jolly Chinese chef was everyone's favourite, he was the sunshine after the rain.

I looked at Chen, he was blushing. I smiled. "Chef Francois, can I see Chef Chen and you in your office now," Max asked me.

"Sure," I answered coolly. Generally, I could not stand the sight of my new superior but this time I was curious to hear what he had to say. He followed Chen and me to my tiny office located at the end of the main kitchen. I opened the door and closed it behind them.

My secretary was seated near the door, busy typing away. She looked up to wish Max good morning and then resumed her work. "Okay, gentlemen, you heard my announcement just now," Max begun, a slight nervousness in his voice. We both nodded. "We are expecting 500 guests. As the gracious host, I have requested that Chef Chen do the honour of closing the ceremony with one of his wonderful desserts. The committee has agreed to my suggestion. They have assigned the other dishes to the other chefs." He smiled happily at both of us.

I could not believe what I have just heard. "Did you say dessert?" I asked icily.

Max seemed startled by the coldness in my voice. "Yes. Is there a problem?" he asked me. He pushed his hair behind his ears nervously.

Chen stood timidly next to me. After a few seconds, I spoke, "You should have consulted me first. There is no masterpiece of a fusion Chinese dessert that we can prepare for 500 guests!" I retorted angrily.

Max seemed genuinely puzzled. "I don't understand," he mumbled.

"For maximum quality control, our hotel policy states that we are to prepare hot dishes no earlier than three hours before an event. This means that we are not able to serve a decorative Chinese fusion dessert for a large size dinner!" I glared at him.

Max cleared his throat "Well... I see. I'm sure we can work it out somehow," he laughed, his enthusiasm sounded faked. "What about chilled desserts? I'm sure these can be prepared earlier," Max persisted.

"Delicious as those may be, none is attractive enough visually. Our chilled desserts are definitely not meant for a showy dinner!" I snapped. Max did not say anything. "Max, if the other three selected chefs are going to use our kitchen on the same evening, we have to deal with triple egos, on top of everything else. That is not possible!" I insisted.

"Use your creativity; open up your mind a bit. Do it differently." Max urged on. "Come on, Francois! A man who made Executive Chef at the age of 29 should know what to do. I know you won't disappoint us," he swiftly dismissed me with his right arm, nodded at Chen and opened the door to step out.

I was fuming. The moment he was out of sight, Chen spoke, "What do we do, boss?"

"Hmm...I think we may have to resort Chef Philipp's Western fusion dessert. That can be prepared in advance," I said.

Chen looked shocked. "What? Really?" he asked me in disbelieved. "That means we need to ask Max to present Chef Philipp instead," he reckoned.

"No!" I said firmly. "This is your show. The Pastry Chef will have his turn.We shall pass Philipp's recipe as yours," I decided. "Max did ask us to use our creativity and do things differently."

He shook his head to the left and right in disagreement. "I'm sure this was not what Mr Max meant, boss."

"Oh, come on, Chen. This dinner only stages Chinese chefs, remember?" I reminded him further.

Despite Chen's repeated protests, I managed to convince Philipp to agree to my idea. We were close friends and Philipp trusted me. Moreover, he was still relatively young and had a long way to go. Chen, on the other hand, was meant for bigger shores; he was too talented for a small sea like this. The cancer foundation fundraising gala dinner was a prominent event. It would be graced by the country's top connoisseurs. Esteemed members of high society and celebrities
from Asia Pacific would be present, the Who's who, and with them came the regional media. There would be mass exposure on all the chefs on show. Chen would be noticed. One of the bigger fish would offer him a job at a renowned kitchen elsewhere. Although I valued Chen and knew that it would be tough without him, I had to do it. This was for the man's best interest. A genius in the kitchen like that should not be stuck here forever.

So, I asked Philipp to create a few of his magnificent fusion desserts, something with a touch of oriental. He slaved in the kitchen for a week, while Chen watched guiltily. "Don't worry, Chen. This is your day, I'll scratch your back and next time you can scratch mine," he winked at the man. Chen laughed. Slowly, he started to warm up to the idea. As the day got closer, miraculously we managed to get Chen's full consent

***

The dinner was a huge success. It was a memorable evening of glitz and glam. The four famed chefs took turns parading on the stage and bowing to the guests. In return, all the guests stood up and gave a thunderous applaud. Shortly after, the organiser invited the four gentlemen to step down and adjourned to the next function room for the press conference.

Mimi was already waiting for Chen near the door. She looked chic in a black evening dress. "Nervous, Chef Chen?" she teased him.

Chen smiled, "A little bit, Ms Mimi. Don't worry, I remember what we have discussed," he assured her as they proceeded to the next room. After briefing him in detail a few days ago, she had made him go over the answers to her anticipated questions over and over again. She knew only too well how important the event was to the hotel. There had been wide news coverage with feature articles on the chefs published in several publications in the region.

Chen noticed me walking quietly behind them. My presence was significant to him. It boosted his confidence when I was around. The chefs sat down behind a long desk, their white hats stood tall in unison. Placard with their names were placed in front of them. One by one the hungry media fired up their questions. Their main target was the charming award winning chef from Perth. He had a chain of fine dining restaurants in Perth, Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.

I watched them carefully. The journalists tonight were an aggressive bunch, unlike the usual Malaysian press. Perhaps most of them were from other countries, I observed their accents and complexions, Australian, Hong Kong, India, among others.

Finally, the interrogative Indian broadcast journalist directed his question at Chen. His cameraman immediately zoomed in onto the chef's face. "Chef Chen, tell us how did you get the inspiration to create the Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake?" I watched Chen moving his eyes slowly around the room. I held my breath. "You can do it, Chen," I mouthed silently to myself. Why was he taking so long? My heart started to stammer.

I was relieved when he finally moved his lips; alas he was going to speak. "Ladies and gentlemen..." he began. "I'm afraid I can't take credit for the Chestnut Chocolate Mooncake." "It was actually the creative invention of my colleague, Chef Philipp Hanns," he continued in a small voice; he then shifted his gaze to the floor.

I felt my heart in my mouth. The audience gasped. The room was dead silence.

"No!" I saw Mimi, Max and Justin turning to look at me. In fact, all the people in the room were staring at me.

To my horror, I had screamed out loud. The chilling images continued flashing on my mind. I pictured Chen's 20 years of culinary career being flushed down the toilet; and with that went my own as well.



4 comments:

W.O. said...

A good attempt at tackling this story. However, in my opinion, the plot lacked excitement and at the end of the story, I didn't really feel for the characters. Perhaps it would have been better to have less characters and focus on the main. You don't have to take it too seriously, it's just an opinion. :)

Anonymous said...

I liked the read and interesting setting but I find the ending a little flat. Maybe Chef Chen's insecurity, moral choices could be developed a bit more. Keep going! SL

Rumaizah said...

Thanks for yr thoughts - very helpful. Appreciate it.
Have also gotten quite a lot of feedback offline e.g. fasten d plot's pace, better characters development, change point of view.
I'm in the midst of re-writing the story, more thoughts are welcome:)

Anonymous said...

I don't have anything different to add but I thought you might like to know one more viewpoint. Well, I like the hotel setting and you write as if you know a thing or two about what goes on in a hotel kitchen - research or personal experience? But I do find the story rather busy overall and I wasn't able to focus on the plot. I think in a short story, we need to find our 'centre' a lot quicker than in a novel, for instance. Zu