The Special Spoon

95

It hung in the corner of the kitchen, mostly escaping notice unless one was looking for it. It never escaped Tess’s notice, though. She had a very special relationship with that particular spoon. She hid her blush every time a new server commented on it. What self-respecting restaurant kept wooden spoons around anymore, they would sometimes comment.  For display, perhaps, though the back corner of the kitchen seemed an odd place for such a thing.

Chef never answered, he would huffily expel them from his kitchen with a firm warning that only he and Tess were allowed back there.  This rebuke was enough to keep them out. He didn’t mean to be harsh; it was just his way.  It was necessary, too; the kitchen was barely big enough for he and Tess, and Tess was convinced that her diminutive stature had played a role of securing her position.  Chef was not a large man, but he did have a way of commanding the space, particularly during dinner rush when everything seemed to be happening at once.

Tess smiled as she thought of how she used to flit about him when she had first started, ducking under his arms and squeezing around him in her attempts to turn down the stove just in time, gather more ingredients from the walk-in, retrieve another stack of plates . . it had felt like something between a scamper and a dance. In her previous position, she had been one line cook among many, with clear and limited responsibility. Here, it was just her and Chef.  He instructed her diligently over the first few weeks, though when it got busy she often resorted to whatever she felt might work at the time, which usually involved frantically scrambling about. It worked well, until it didn’t.  Tess had to admit to herself that she knew this behaviour was unsustainable. She would get more and more frazzled as the orders continued to pour in throughout the evening, and even Chef’s calm poise and stern warnings couldn’t reach her.

It all came crashing down, quite literally, in her second week when she tripped over a carrot that had found its way to the floor while she was carrying in a stack of plates that teetered over her head. She and they came crashing down in a clamour that drew the attention of every server and patron, sending far to many of them running into the cell of a kitchen to investigate the disaster.

True to form, Chef stood menacingly amid the ceramic shards as he quickly assessed the damage and ushered everyone out once he had assured himself that no real harm had come to anything other than the plates. He spared Tess an intense glare before he began to clean up the mess. Tess stooped down to help him, but had only managed to pick up a few pieces before slicing her finger open.   Chef grabbed a towel and wrapped her hand tightly before grasping her shoulders to steer her into the corner. “Stay. Watch,” he instructed as he went back to his dustpan.

Within minutes, the debris had been cleared away and Chef went back to his preparations. Tess watched in awe as he single-handedly managed the rest of the dinner rush. He seemed to float about the kitchen with a practised grace, not a moment or movement wasted, everything appearing right where he needed it.

Before she realized how much time had passed, Chef had cleared the work surface and hung up his apron for the night before turning to Tess.

“What did you learn?” he asked her evenly.

“You’re. . .you’re amazing!” Tess proclaimed.

Turning away, Chef retrieved a first-aid kit from one of the lower cabinets as he scolded, “I had hoped you would have gained some more specific knowledge from the demonstration.”  He came ushered Tess into the now-empty dining room, and gestured for her to be seated across from him.  It was only when he reached for her hand that she remembered the injury.  Chef gently unwrapped the towel to inspect the wound as he continued his instruction.

“Move briskly and deliberately. Plan ahead. Make sure you have what you need- no more, no less. Above all, stay calm.” The twinge of the applied antiseptic punctuated his words as he cleaned and bandaged her finger.

“We will not have this discussion again. You will do better tomorrow,” he declared as he repacked the kit and returned to the kitchen to store it away, effectively dismissing her for the night.

Tess trembled all the way home. She had seen Chef’s gruff manner directed at many of her fellow employees, but had not experienced it herself since he had sized her up during her interview. She had been plenty intimidated then, quivering under his glare and barely managing to answer his questions.  She had been shocked when the manager had called to offer her the job, just as she was shocked to still have a job now.  As she lay in bed, she recalled Chef’s words, and vowed to try harder from now on.

Things went well for the next few days. The beginning of the week was usually quiet, and Tess had plenty of time to remember to move deliberately, to stay calm, to assess the situation and assemble what she needed. Thursday, however, was a challenge.  Tess managed to get through the first hour or so without any significant problems, but as the evening went on, she began to make mistakes. Each dropped utensil and return trip to the pantry for a forgotten item shook her focus. Chef encouraged her, providing reminders and instructions. They helped for a while, but as she became more frazzled, she didn’t even register his words. Before long she was flitting about as she had done when she was first hired, and at one moment of panic she crashed right into Chef, spilling an entire pan of steaming gravy down his apron.

Without missing a beat, he steered her into the corner again. “Stay,” he commanded as he finished the rest of the night’s service on his own.

Chef turned to her only after he had wiped down all the surfaces and hung up his apron. “What did you learn?” he asked just as he had the week before.

“You don’t need me here. I just get in the way,” Tess mumbled to her shoes.

“This place is designed for two in the kitchen. One can manage, but it is slow and difficult.  I need an assistant to keep up with the pace. “

“I’m not sure if I can,” admitted Tess as she kept her eyes cast downwards, not wanting to see the disappointment in his face.

“You can, and you have. You just need focus, discipline, practice, and instruction. I can help you, but you need to listen.”

“I’m trying,” Tess protested “I just, it’s just, when it’s busy. . . “.

“Perhaps you need a different kind of motivation,” Chef said sternly.  He turn to the back of the kitchen, opening a drawer which Tess had never seen opened. She stood on her toes and the reason became clear.  The drawer contained a neatly arranged array of wooden spoons. In pristine condition, they had never been used, had certainly never been exposed to the abuse of a busy restaurant kitchen; they could hardly have survived.

The confusion must have shown on Tess’s face and Chef explained, “These are not for the food. They may be for you.  You have a choice.  You can go home for the night now, and take this as your final warning. If you can’t learn to maintain your focus you will be dismissed.  I’ve invested in you, and I’d hate to have to start over with someone new. Perhaps that threat is all the motivation you’ll need. Or, if you prefer, I can try a different type of instruction.”  Tess remained quiet, hoping he would continue, that he would give her another option or some other reassurance. He never gave specifics, but there was no doubt in Tess’s mind what he was implying.

Tess stared at the spoon. She had heard of such things, but always in the abstract. An offhand joke, a quip of a memory from the olden days. She had been fascinated, though she had been careful not to let it show.  Now, faced with the possibility very directly, she wasn’t sure what to do with herself.

“I think I could benefit from further instruction,” she managed to say, blushing deeply at the odd formality of the sentence she’d constructed in an attempt to skirt the issue.

“You’re sure?” Chef asked, “If we do this, it will not be a game. It will be real, and it will be difficult. It may work, or you may decide to leave. This is your last chance to change your mind.”

“I’ll do it,” Tess affirmed after only a moment’s hesitation.

“Follow me,” Chef said as he strode out into the quiet of the empty dining room.

“Do we have to do it here?” Tess asked, her eyes nervously darting around the cavernous space, almost convinced that the rest of the staff were lurking in ambush.

“No room back there,” Chef answered simply. indicating one of the larger tables with the spoon, Tess complied with the unspoken command and bent over to rest her elbows on the surface.

“Further,” Chef commanded.

Tess lowered her chest on to the table, raising up onto her toes to grasp the far edge. She squirmed in a futile attempt to make the position more comfortable, but grew still at a sharp order from Chef.

She had barely settled when she felt the spoon swat into her behind.  It took her by surprise, and she let out a brief yelp of protest. Chef made no remark as he repeated the swat on the other side, drawing another, louder yelp. Within a few more strokes, Tess began wriggling side to side in an attempt to evade the spoon.

Chef paused momentarily, “I warned you that this would be difficult. Stay still or it will take longer. Unless you’ve changed your mind and would rather leave?”

Tess shook her head, unable to utter words through her shock. She tightened her grip on the table until her knuckles turned white.

Chef resumed his instruction, flurries of swats with brief reminders and reviews of her performance that evening interspersed.

When he had finished, Tess lay on the table gasping as tears leaked out of the corners of her eyes. Chef let her absorb the lesson for a few moments before helping her up. “We will do this as often as necessary, but be warned: I expect improvement and will not be so lenient next time.”

Tess trembled under his gaze. This was lenient? Nonetheless, she nodded her acceptance.

The next day when she turned up to work, she baulked at the sight of the spoon hanging in the corner of the kitchen. “A reminder,” Chef said simply.  A shiver ran down her spine as she stepped into the kitchen to begin her preparations.  As the evening went on, she could almost forget about the spoon tucked away in the corner, but every time she brushed past Chef, the lingering ache in her behind was briefly rekindled in a sharp reminder to maintain her focus.

The spoon continued to hang in the corner, occasionally coming down at the end of the evening. Chef would shoot her a sharp look after a mistake, raising his eyebrows and reddening her cheeks. Tess would look away quickly to resume her work, knowing that they would be staying a little later that evening to address her performance.

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