“Tasting Menu” by Kristen Koopman
Donna ran her fingers over the lettering on the restaurant’s back door and briefly imagined her name replacing what was actually written: Judith Sutton’s La Boucherie, Deliveries Only.
“The Butchery, right?” she asked, as if she didn’t already know. As if she hadn’t been salivating for the past year and a half to convince her dear old culinary-school-acquaintance-turned-wunderkind-superstar to let her visit and sample—well, anything. “Subtle.”
Judith, the aforementioned prodigy, held the door open with a smirk. “We don’t do subtle. We do amazing.”
Donna had worked in kitchens dented with cooking implements, spattered with scorch marks and stains of sauces long scrubbed out, filmed with flour and cocoa and every other spice that aerated at the slightest breeze. In this one, everything that wasn’t a dark corner gleamed with the meticulous cleanliness of a scalpel. Judith’s famed chef’s table stood in the middle, a silent sterling altar, while the traditional kitchen equipment of burners, ovens, and counters filled the left wall. The right wall instead had only counter space and a massive pegboard rack, curing the restaurant’s namesake meats.
Donna approached the table, still drinking it in. “And the food on the special menu makes people…”
“Feel things, yeah,” said Judith, following her in and looping the ties of an apron over her head.
“Well, you’re going to have to convince me,” Donna said. Stainless steel gleamed in the single, central light, and she took another look at the meats hanging from hooks along the right wall. She didn’t recognize the cuts—too thin for cow but too long for pig. As wide-ranging as her tastes were, there were apparently some delicacies that remained stubbornly beyond her reach. At least, until today.
“For an amuse-bouche…” Judith opened one of the refrigerators. “Pâté.” She set a golden baguette, still mottled with flour, on the chef’s table. As Judith moved around the kitchen, Donna silently thanked whatever stroke of luck had put her and Judith at the same catering festival, in the same line at the same restroom in the mood to let a conversation happen; in a cutthroat industry like this one, coincidences made all the difference. Donna couldn’t just ask for a job cold, but if she could turn this invitation into an opportunity there’d be no more taking insults as a line cook, no more strings of peanut-butter-sandwich days while she waited for her paycheck, no more glances through the kitchen doors at patrons who at least got to sit down to enjoy the fruits of her labor.
“I should warn you, though,” Judith added, placing a square of pâté plated artfully off-center of a porcelain plate in front of Donna, “this one’s desire.”
“I’ve never liked pâté,” Donna admitted, cutting herself a slice as Judith moved on to the next dish. It went onto the bread thicker than mousse, almost the consistency of cream cheese but with none of the appeal. “It’s always tasted like mud to me.”
“Mediocre pâté, maybe,” Judith said dismissively, followed by the whoosh of the gas grill firing up.
Donna glanced again at the curing meats hanging on the walls, weighing sheer opportunity against the reprimands from her childhood of don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know where it’s been! Then she tasted the pâté.
Rich creaminess and the slow, warm burn of alcohol filled her mouth, broken by the crusty resistance of the bread and followed by a note of fertile soil at the back of her throat. But beyond the mere taste was something else.
The skin of her arms broke out in goosebumps, the skin suddenly oversensitized. The soft inner flesh of the baguette lingered on her lower lip, and a smooth smear of spread lined the top. Her fingers itched, her jaw clenched for something else, for more, and her heart tangled in her chest with the mixed impulses of I want and I shouldn’t but I want like a window shopper catching sight of the next bad decision.
Donna nearly choked, but managed to swallow the bite.
“Told you,” Judith said, reaching over her and plucking the baguette off the table.
“It’s all in the ingredients.” Judith sliced the bread with quick efficiency, dropping the slices into a sizzling pan. Her shoulders flexed, and the motion under the skin combined with the lingering effect of desire reminded Donna that the only difference between meat and muscle was hunger. “If the butcher knows what she’s doing, the feelings linger in the carcass. Everything’s done in-house, free-range and farm to table, even the lard for puff pastry.”
A plate slid in front of Donna. “Here—prosciutto, fennel, and goat cheese crostini. Righteous anger.”
Donna looked at the crostini for a long moment, then at Judith, whose eyes didn’t quite smile with her lips. “How do you make a pig righteously angry?”
Judith’s expression turned genuine, illuminating the difference between polite customer-service humoring and actual humor. “Depends on the hog. They’re very smart, and they can be very passive-aggressive.” Jerking her chin towards the crostini, she added, “Eat up. Before the goat cheese makes the toast soggy.”
Donna lifted the crostini, watching the play of light on the jeweled red of the prosciutto, fault lines of fat rippling through it. The thought suddenly struck her that people had paid hundreds of dollars for what she held in her hand; nobody even paid tens of dollars for her food.
She took a bite. Tart and salt and licorice went to war, the scents racing through Donna’s sinuses like the air over an open fire. The salt of the ham stung her tongue, brightened with lemon juice, and the fennel slices crunched a counterpart to the sharp tang of the goat cheese. Fury brought fire to her blood and coursed sweet-sour-anise through her bones in molten indignation. She had never been so certain of anything in her life, if only she could figure out what she was certain about.
“Oh my god,” she mumbled.
“That’s why some people spend all their time arguing on the internet instead of having sex,” said Judith. “It’ll take me a few minutes to put together the next course, bacon-wrapped asparagus. Anticipation.”
Judith spun slices of bacon around the stalks with practiced ease. “Isn’t it cheating if you make me wait for it?” Donna said, trying to keep her voice light. Rapport was the key—Judith wasn’t going to hire someone she didn’t at least like.
Judith’s attention didn’t waver. “Have patience—good food takes sacrifice.” She slid a roasting pan into the oven, the motion perfectly purposeful. “You should know that. Ever juiced a lemon with a papercut?”
“Good food takes pain,” Donna said quietly, and Judith’s professionalism faltered for the first time. Then the mask slid back on.
“Not if you do it right. And besides, here, that would only make the prosciutto taste like pain. We make sure our livestock are treated very well.”
“Personally?” Donna asked, and Judith frowned questioningly at her. “I grew up on a farm. Went to culinary school to get out. And to make it,” she admitted. “I had these dreams of being the flyover-country-farmgirl made good, you know?”
“And?” Judith said. “Did you?”
Donna hesitated, then gestured to the kitchen. “Nothing like this on the farm, that’s for sure.”
Judith smiled, pleased. “Nope. But yes, I monitor the livestock conditions personally. My name goes on everything, after all—it’s not just branding.”
Good for her. Donna knew some cooks never saw a farm. They pulled chickens from plastic wrap and only saw beef when it had been stripped of its skin, a mass of potential dishes rather than something formerly living. Donna had nursed calves, milked them, helped them birth the next generation, shown them tenderness so that they would give her tenderness in return—albeit of a different kind.
But the question nagged at her: How did you get a pig righteously angry?
Judith placed the next dish in front of her.
On the first bite of asparagus, Donna’s teeth broke through the crisp bacon to the woody stalks beneath. Salt popped on her tongue even as the smokiness gathered in the back of her throat, creeping up towards her nose, and her breath caught on it—as though she could outwait whatever was coming next—even as the mix of charcoal, green, sweet, pork sealed off her esophagus as it went down, tightening the muscles behind it in expectation—
“Okay, yeah,” Donna croaked. “Not quite the same.”
Judith gave her a paring-knife smile. Donna took another bite, letting the sensation linger on her palate.
Next came veal shanks, pre-cooked but bloody with sauce in the pan before going into the oven. The shape didn’t seem like veal to Donna, something about the proportions of meat to bone, and she glanced again at the curing meats hanging on the walls. The strips of muscle looked nothing like the bodies they must once have inhabited. If good food took sacrifice, food this great must take something even more.
It was worth it, Donna decided. Food this good—art this good—was worth any sacrifice.
And here she was, savoring the result.
She kept her voice mild. “What are the shanks?”
“You’ll find out when you taste them.”
They were, at a minimum, delicious: tender marbled meat flanking a stump of still-simmering bone, presented with a swipe of the tomato-herb-citrus sauce it had been braised in. It split easily where seams of fat had rendered into nothingness, leaving behind only the deep savor of meat that dissipated on the tongue. The lightness was an odd contradiction to the heavy umami: each forkful brought a lifting sensation to Donna’s sternum, sudden tightness in her throat, sweetness to the air and yearning to her heart to escape its fleshy confines and ascend to something larger, more graceful.
“Exultation,” said Judith. “After that, anything would seem like a downer, so we decided to just lean into it.”
The dessert galette, crescents of syrup-pinked apple and blood-moon pomegranate seeds tucked into puff pastry, broke Donna’s heart. Sweet and tart balanced on a knife’s edge, and the heady pomegranate juice coating the apple cut through the crisp flake of the pastry like the last wailing note of an elegy. Tears poured from Donna’s eyes as she gasped, holding onto the table to keep from falling to her knees as the world reeled; but the feeling faded, a quick catharsis.
Judith politely gave her time to collect herself, waiting behind her, out of sight.
“That was amazing,” Donna muttered, wiping her cheeks.
“That’s all I’ve got for now,” said Judith. “But I think it’s missing something. One last bookend to drive the point home. Satisfaction. Respect.”
Donna froze with her fingers still pressed against her cheekbones. The quiet shing of a knife being lifted perturbed the quiet. Then she said, “Are you open to constructive criticism?”
Judith’s reply was a long moment of silence before a half-shocked, half-indignant, “What?”
“Put anticipation at the end. Leave them wanting more. And tone down the crostini—ricotta instead of goat cheese, maybe. You can get away with it when it’s paired with righteous anger because that’s distracting, but you can do better.” Donna turned around, looking Judith in the eye and pointedly ignoring the chef’s knife in Judith’s hand. “We can do better.”
Judith’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sorry?”
“I heard you were hiring,” said Donna. “Was that true, or just something to…lure the lambs to the slaughter?”
They stared each other down long enough that Donna began to sweat. Then Judith said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Of course not,” said Donna.
Judith turned away, walked past the refrigerator to the wall, and took down a narrow ham from its hook. “You still hungry?”
“Always,” Donna said.
“Then here.” Judith put the knife down in front of Donna and laid the meat on the table. “Let’s see what you make of this.”
A thin, lean cut that a quick whiff revealed to be brined in sugar and smoked, with a gorgeous deep sheen to it; plenty of potential there, but a ham like that begged to be breakfast. Eggs Benedict, then, and the thought nearly made Donna giggle perversely.
She rolled up her sleeves and began to cook like her life depended on it.
Kristen Koopman‘s fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Issues in Science and Technology, and GlitterShip (forthcoming). Her research for this story included making variations on each of the dishes featured.