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Cocky Chef(14)

By:J.D. Hawkins

"You wanna hear a secret?" he says, taking my restraint as a sign to carry on. "I don't tell this to many people. It took me too long to figure out for me to hand it out freely, but you … I think you should hear it."

I fold my arms and ignore Cole's eyes flickering down to my cleavage for a second.

"Sure. Go ahead."

"It's three secrets, in fact. Three secrets that can make any dish taste infinitely better. Doesn't matter what it is. Starter, main, hell, even a fucking sandwich."

"I'm all ears."

Cole looks at me as if he's judging whether I'm worthy, then, after a dramatic pause, starts to talk.

"First one," he says, waving a finger, "make the dish look good. Lot of people underestimate how powerful the eye is, but the thing is … we taste with it. A great dish doesn't start at the first bite, it starts when the waiter brings it to your table and puts it in front of you. You see those Titian reds and Cezanne greens of a salad and you already taste the freshness-even if it isn't actually there. Never serve a potato that isn't golden brown and you'll never get a complaint. We taste with our eyes first. The way a dish looks is a promise, a prelude, it's like foreplay-"

I almost spit out my drink.


"Exactly like it," Cole continues, without missing a beat. "Years ago, when I was starting out, working in catering with my partner, we perfected this recipe for ribs. Beer and honey cooked, just right. To this day I doubt anyone on the planet could do them better than us. But every time we put them out and waited for people to try them, all they'd say is ‘they're good.' That's all. ‘Good.' Well, ‘good' wasn't good enough for us. These things tasted flawless, but nobody seemed to get it. Then we figured it out-they tasted exceptional, but they looked like any other rack of ribs you'd find at a backyard cookout. Uneven tones, congealing juices, streaky grill marks."

Cole shifts in his chair with the vividness of his story.

"So the next time we cook them, we fucking sculpt the things. We treated them like museum pieces, got those burn marks just right. Chopped them up a little to show off that texture, set them next to a chunk of golden cornbread and a pinch of cilantro to make those reddish-browns pop. And you know what happened the next time we brought them out?"



"There were gasps," Cole says, with a sense of aggressive satisfaction. "You bet your fucking ass people had more to say than ‘good' after that."

I sit back and look over at the waiter, pointing at my empty glass when he looks over.

"I believe it. What's the second secret, then?" I say.

"The second one is simple: Charge ridiculous amounts of money."

Now I'm the one laughing dismissively.

"Come on, seriously?"

Cole's stern expression leaves no doubt that he is.

"Seriously. You're right that there's a problem in the restaurant business-but it's not the cooks-it's the diners. You seen people eat lately? They taste the first bite only, and the rest is just filling a hole. Doesn't matter how good your food is, if you're giving it away cheap it's just fuel. You charge a hundred bucks a head for a couple of lamb chops, though? People are gonna savor every bite."

"I get what you're saying." I nod, running my finger around the rim of my glass. "But is it ethical?"

Cole just grins. "Ethical? Hell, I'm performing a service. They're gonna sit for an hour talking with each other about how complex the flavors are, how aromatic it is, how perfectly cooked it is. They'll try their hardest to figure out the seasonings like they're solving a jigsaw puzzle. I'm giving them an experience they'll never forget. You see, you gotta make people work for something to appreciate it, and if you hit them in the pocket, they're gonna make damned sure they find something to appreciate."

My fresh drink arrives but Cole doesn't tear his eyes away from me, lost in the momentum of his own arguments. He doesn't even need prompting for the third secret.

"And the last one," he says, leaning over the table now, his voice low and directed, as if uttering a conspiracy. "You wanna leave your customers wanting more. Now I'm not saying leave them hungry, but you wanna leave them a couple of bites short of completely satisfied. The meal lingers then, so they don't just forget it and start thinking about work or traffic or their taxes. Think about it: people will love a single bite of caviar more than they'll ever love a plate of it."