The chef’s dead

Publicado: 26/03/2012 en El Chef ha muerto

1. Cheek baked in salt.

Bernard van Leer, executive director of  the International Congress on Gastronomy, settles down in front of the microphones intended for the Chef.

But there’s only him. Him alone.

The cameras start recording just in case.

He takes a deep breath, parts his lips and lowers his gaze.

Nothing comes out.

The words get stuck in his throat.

He awkwardly stretches his neck and his body tenses up head to toe.

More than six hundred eyes are watching his every move. Journalists from all over the world have come to the opening especially to see the Chef.

Van Leer clenches his fists under the table and brings his mouth closer to the microphone:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Chef is dead.”

A tear baked in salt slides down his cheek.

2. Humiliation in green sauce.

Ven is having a coffee in Sito’s bar like he does every morning. He leafs through the bar’s newspapers. He hasn’t wasted a penny on a newspaper for years. Papers are destined to die and he doesn’t want to contribute to the last breath of the press. He enjoys commenting on the headlines with the bar’s regulars and making inane small talk. This morning, all the front pages are covering the same story.

“Shit, did you hear that, Sito? That guy who did fancy things with food has died.”

“God, you’re not telling me you just found out, Ven. It’s been all over the news since yesterday on TV. The best thing about it is they don’t know how the hell he died. The worst thing is he died in…Where was it he died?”

“Korea,” Pepe the mechanic pipes up from the other side of the bar . “I remember because that’s where the World Cup was. Last night I thought what a drag to have to go so far to die. He seemed an all right geezer and he worked his socks off. I saw him a couple of times being interviewed on the box. So Ven, shut your cake hole, I bet you’d have given an arm and a leg to go to his flashy gig.”

“Tut,” Ven replies from the other side still leafing through the newspaper. “What a whole lot of crap, as if nothing else has happened in the world.”

“You moron,” Juan the butcher utters, “Didn’t you know this guy has made Spain big? This morning the radio said he has done more for the country than our very own prime minister.”

“That’s not hard,” says the mechanic.

Ven pulls a skeptic face and turns to his favourite part of the newspaper. He secretly reads it every morning and never says a word about it.

“Pisces. Good time for work,

                                               love on the horizon, but careful,

                                               halitosis could make a loved one run.”

                                              

He folds up the newspaper, leaves some coins for the coffee on the bar and says goodbye while mulling over the possibility that he suffers from halitosis. There’s a good side to not having a sense of smell or taste. Well, if it was true he should’ve done something about it a long time ago. He never understood why horoscopes always wrote about couples given that most people who read them were divorced or widowed. He hopes the horoscope has at least got the part about work right and Mr Fresh gives him a case today.

He waits at the bus stop. He takes the number 18 to the centre, gets off at the Plaza Mayor and walks to Mr Fresh’s office. The entrance is watched over by the same two prostitutes as always: Cristal and Lulu. With their butts pressed up against the wall next to the front door they give Ven the once over, but they no longer run their tongues around their lips or ask him to come upstairs with them. Maybe they’ve known him for too long time or maybe he really does have halitosis.

The corridor leading to Mr Fresh’s office looks like it smells worse every time. It’s deserted and there’s very little activity in the few offices that remain in business. It has always been a mystery who owns the building, this phantom of the seventies. He stops in front of the metal door with frosted glass and a sign saying “Insurance services”.

In Ven’s opinion, his friend Mr Fresh may be a genius at many things but not at coming up with company names. He opens the door and acknowledges the secretary with a small nod. Mr Fresh is at the back in a spotless suit and with his hair greased back. He looks almost the same as when he met him twenty years ago.

“Hi, Mr Fresh.”

“Ven, good to see you at last and don’t ever call me that again in public.”

“Come on, as if Maria didn’t already know!”

Ven almost let what could be interpreted as a smile creep onto his face. Mr Fresh earned his nickname when they were in the Spanish intelligence agency, the CESID. After the dictatorship they needed new faces and they didn‘t pry into your past. Ven had spent months as an undercover agent working as a kitchen assistant in the university kitchens. Mr Fresh was the last to arrive, a youngster who knew how to slack off, there was always somebody who could do the work for him. In the end everyone knew him as Mr Fresh. Everyone that is except Maria, the enduring secretary of badly kept secrets. Not a lot has changed, including María’s platonic love for this gentleman from Cadiz who continues to flirt with the office’s cockroaches even though they’ve known him for ages.

“Thank God you’ve come, Ven, I’ve something to get to the bottom of urgently. It’s a job for you.”

Mr Fresh stands up and starts walking around the office with an envelope in his hand. Another old obsession that has stuck with him. Walking around with from one side to another with a piece of blank paper in his hand. Another trick to make him appear stressed out by work when really he’s been sitting around on his arse waiting for something to turn up.

“Thank God, Ven, you’ve showed up. When are you going to buy a bloody mobile phone?”

Ven doesn’t even bat an eyelid. He’s still standing.

“When you pay me what I deserve. What have you got?”

“It’s big but simple”

“Like me?”

“It’s serious, Ven.”

When Mr Fresh describes a case as being “big”, “simple” and “serious” at the same time, he really means one thing: he has no idea how it will be. So Ven takes a seat to focus better on the assignment he’s about to receive and to relieve his feet. His shoes seem to have shrunk over the last two years. And to think that shoes used to last up to four years. Nothing is made how it used to be. Not even Barbies.

“An insurance company wants a report on the death of one of its VIP clients,” Mr Fresh announces with an executive’s tone, “It’s the chef of a restaurant who has a level of life insurance that was more befitting of a footballer.”

Ven doesn’t hold back.

“Did he knock out dishes with his feet?”

Mr Fresh ignores him and carries on.

“They want to know if they have to fork out for the policy or not, if it was an accident or suicide.”

“Or murder. These fancy chefs who think themselves artists are capable of doing anything for a recipe.”

“We have to rule everything out. The police are already on the case.  The dead man was famous, one of those you see in the newspapers and on TV. ”

“There‘s no need to go on, it’s the Chef,” Ven said showing his displeasure with a contortion of his moustache.

“That’s right. I knew you would be perfect for the job.”

Ven’s expression still conveys his reluctance.

“You’re my hero in the kitchen!” Mr Fresh replies without letting him answer. “I’m still waiting for you to make that green sauce that made you famous in the Basque restaurant in Caracas, but please not the specialty of the house, you nearly screwed up big time there.”

Ven makes a clicking sound with his tongue and winces in another gesture of disapproval. It was all because he used a stock cube. He has never understood the Basques. They spend all day talking about food. You’d think they only lived to eat. Ven made his name in the kitchen for a sauce that had no other secret other than a couple of packets of “green sauce” and a stock cube or two. Lupe sent it all from Spain in order to pass him off as a top chef in that terrorist den. Everything was going according to plan. Ven cooked at home claiming he didn’t want to disclose his secret, but the more mystery that shrouded the sauce, the more curious everyone became. The head of the group followed him to discover what the secret behind the sauce was. And instead of finding the recipe he came across the ingredients from the CESID telling him how to follow ETA terrorists in Venezuela. Ven had to make a quick getaway and after roaming through the jungle for a few months, getting malaria and nearly dying in the process, the government thanked him by withdrawing his position and salary because he hadn’t handed in the forms on time. When he got back to Spain, Lupe, fed up with waiting, had moved without leaving a trace. The only thing the Green Sauce operation taught him was that to be a good chef you had to be able to lie and most of those who pay for a chef’s special sauce are a gang of suckers who think they are connoisseurs when really they haven’t a clue.

“Venezuela was a long time ago, Mr Fresh.”

“Your experience with the CIA was even before that and you’re still remembered for your hot dogs.” Mr Fresh replies with a smirk.

“The worst thing about friends is they’ve known you for too long. I can muster up a story or two about you, like when you…”

“Ven,” Mr Fresh interrupts glancing towards María, “There’s a time and a place for petty rivalry. Let’s get to the point, we have a dead body and you’ll have big bucks in your pocket if you get to the bottom of this quick sharp.”

Mr Fresh gets up and moves towards him. He lays his hands gently on his shoulders and invites him to stand up with that charming smile of his, while slipping him a bulging envelope. Then he goes back to his chair and says out loud:

“María will give you the dossier.  Oh yes, don’t forget to go by the police station. A new junior chief inspector is in charge of the case, he’s called Koski.”

Ven opens the envelope and sees a wad of fifty and hundred and euro notes. This case must be big. He puts it in his coat’s  inside pocket, picks up the file on Maria’s desk without saying a word, and gives her the same nod to say goodbye as he had to greet her. The CESID was a long time ago but María has not lost her cleavage. He turns around to look at Mr Fresh, who lost a large part of his hair a long time ago. Now he’s got a paunch and even in winter he wears tasseled moccasins bought by his wife.  Maria’s still waiting for him to get a divorce. Ven has no doubts that love is a baffling thing. From the corridor he opens the door again and bellows out:

“Hey Mr Fresh! What did you say the new copper was called?”

“I told you not to call me that, Ven! Read the nameplate : Juan Diego Amestoy! The chief inspector is called Koski.”

Ven breaks out into a smile. He has been successful in making Mr Fresh lose all his charming ways and in making María want to stab him with the letter opener for driving her boss crazy. The policeman’s name amuses him. It reminds him of a corny sweet nothing shared between lovers, something like “coochy coo”.  That must be what Mr Fresh says to Maria when he takes off his tasseled moccasins.

In the doorway, there’s only Cristal and he feels really disappointed because he prefers eyeing up Lulu. The police station is not far away.

Ven feels for the envelope in his pocket and allows himself to feel a flicker of euphoria, which simmers down in an instant, as he buries himself in former defeats that Mr Fresh has just reminded him of.

Like so many other times, he suffers from an intense feeling of humiliation.

Humiliation in green sauce.

3.Puff pastry kiss.

Koski stretches out his hand. He’s young, well-mannered, immaculately dressed and fiercely handsome. He shows him through to his office. An ipad glows on his desk and next to the waste paper basket there’s a sports bag  with a silver puma logo.

“The case is a tricky one, Mr Cabreira. Korean police maintain there are no signs of violence in the cabin where the body was found, even though they can’t understand how such an absurd accident could happen,” the police officer said without any introduction.

“And exactly how absurd was the accident?” Ven asked while examining Koski’s perfect haircut.

“He choked while devouring a live giant squid. It’s a common tradition over there, I mean eating live giant squids, not choking to death, however it’s not unheard of. That’s what is written in the report in English by the police in Seoul and it is confirmed by the police from Jeju-do, where the body was found. In fact, it was really found nearby on Udo Island.”

Ven is forming a mental picture while the police officer speaks to him with the meticulousness of a bureaucrat.  He feels like he’s back in New York in his friend Luis’  Puerto Rican grocer’s shop in First Avenue. Luis was a war veteran and didn’t stop talking about Korea. Ven visualizes the Peninsula divided after the Second World War. Seoul on one side and Busan on the other and so close to each other. Jeju is only a boat ride away, a paradise that American soldiers dreamt about. Udo was the island of women because all their men were fighting and most of them were dying. Chatting with Luis in Spanish made him almost feel at home after hours of carting hot dogs around every CIA office in town. “You’re our man in New York,” they’d told him before leaving Madrid.

“The Chef was alone in his cabin,” the police officer continued, “There was no one to help him. We’re talking about a media celebrity here, so we want everything to be carried out with utmost discretion, even though we’ll have to communicate the causes of the death to the press. The civil funeral will be held tomorrow in the Royal Palace. The body is on it’s way.”

“On it’s way to the Royal Palace?”

Koski wonders whether the insurance company has sent the most moronic of their investigators.

“To Madrid. The funeral will take place in the Plaza de Armas.”

Ven remains silent and evaluates what makes him feel more dumbfounded: all this pomposity for a chef who died under stupid circumstances or this with-it, young police officer whose voice reminds him of a plate of mushy peas.

“Koski,” Ven says as if he were talking to himself, “Very strange indeed, Koski.”

Now it’s the police officer’s turn to be quiet and wonder if the stupidity of this badly dressed, overweight man with surplus grease on his scalp is going to cause him problems.

“I trust you will attend to your professional duties and will stand by until you receive information from the police. And evidently there must be no contact whatsoever with the press.”

Ven agrees with a nod bringing his moustache to his nose while lifting his upper lip. He nods goodbye to the police officer.

Once again he’s in Calle Montera going towards Sol Square.

The gentle downhill slope is swamped with workers at this time in the morning. Those unwillingly unoccupied lean against the slender tree trunks. Fluorescent green waistcoats blare out their urgent message: “We buy gold”.  They seem to be from another time, sandwich-board men and battle-scarred husbands who sell their wives’ rings and their daughters’ gold chains. So much struggling and in the end it’s just like the fifties when people pawned even their bed sheets.

He carries on down and passes a multi-screen cinema on his right, where a clothes department store used to be. Every time he goes past it his hair stands on end. In this very place ten fire fighters died in a fire, and right there a few months before in the same spot he had said goodbye to Lupe without even being able to tell her the truth. He was going to Venezuela. It was a risky business. The members of ETA were reorganizing themselves there and he wasn’t allowed to give anything away to his fiancé. To her he was an ordinary chef who hated his job and believed the ready-made food revolution in the eighties was going to wipe out every restaurant in the world. Lupe laughed and proved him right by always buying the latest products: cans of soup, frozen food and the sadly notorious packets of green sauce. When he left for Venezuela,  she gave him her support. She wrote him letters filling him in with the local gossip and asked him for what she most longed for: another Barbie for her collection.  And in return she would send him packets of sauce with the instructions how to make recipes on them.

Ven stops dead and turns around.

Every chef wants to immortalize his discoveries in a book and maybe in a big bookshop he could find one by him, the most famous chef in the world, now dead under ridiculous circumstances.

He goes back up the street while contemplating farcical deaths. To drown in a sewer only half a metre deep always seemed completely absurd. Then there’s electrocuting yourself by turning off the old washing machine with wet hands which is also up there among the top ten stupid ways to kill yourself. One of the most common is suffocating with a plastic bag on your head while having a wank. This is one of the best in his opinion. It’s like dying in ecstasy. That’s why politicians and actors favour it. Maybe it’ll become fashionable to suffocate from a live giant squid.

By the entrance of the bookshop in Gran Vía, a man is asking for money in exchange for poems. Ven looks at him through the corner of his eye. He’s wearing thick glasses and jeans. “One euro, one poem”, he hears in the distance as he goes through the turnstile into the bookshop. “Even poetry has caught on to capitalism”, Ven thinks as he looks absent-mindedly at the mountains of books. He doesn’t see any by the Chef. He thinks it’s strange because the news of his death on the television would make any book with his name on a sell out. Is it a show of respect from the bookshop managers or is it just another testimony of how apathy reigns in times of crisis? He studies the expression of boredom on the shop assistant nearest him.

He asks and the lady tells him they are on the second floor and goes on to explain that they are not going to change all the display just for the Chef: “It’s hardly worth it for the little they would sell.” Ven had been right: apathy.

Ven goes up the stairs which reminds him he has to buy new shoes sooner rather than later. They’ve shrunk a little more since the morning. He reads the sign “Gastronomy”. That word makes him think of stomach aches and he feels something like that by the time he gets to the shelves. A dark curly haired girl is bent over looking for a book and he catches a glimpse of the pale skin of her cleavage sprinkled with freckles. Her hands are slender and flawless.

On the table between the shelves there are some books about the Chef. He notices  an authorized biography written by a Canadian. He looks back at the girl. She has stood up and is holding another book in her hands. Her fingers skim through the pages.  Suddenly her tempo changes. She quickly flips the book over to the back cover and swiftly rips the price tag off where the electronic antitheft device usually goes. She purposefully puts the book in her bag and strides off.

Ven looks away to another shelf. The generic label says “Spanish omelettes”. He has a closer look and sees there are more than twenty books about this irrelevant dish. He looks back again but there is no sign of the cleavage. He decides to leave from where he came in with the authorized biography of the Chef. “The first and exclusive biography,” according to the flap, ignoring the fact there will be many more. The girl who is all cleavage and cascade of flowing hair is about to walk out through the exit. Ven quickens his step, he is less then a metre away from her, but he still hasn’t seen her face. As her hips go through the turnstile and his foot takes a step forward towards it, the alarms go off. The security guard comes forward as the girl steps out onto the street. Ven keeps him busy apologizing for his absent-mindedness for leaving with the book in his hand. The security guard ruffles up his nose in disbelief and shows him to the cashier where he must pay for the book.

Ven scans the street for the girl. He wants to pursue her cleavage but he can’t make up his mind, which is so typical of him when a woman is near. He remembers Lupe and her thick, black, wavy hair and the short time he enjoyed her because he couldn’t make up his mind in time whether to take her with him or to stay with her.

A sentence from that morning’s horoscope  leaps to mind: “love on the horizon”. He makes up his mind to look after his halitosis, even though he doesn’t have it. And on top of that, he crosses his heart not to break another promise.

“Sir, I’m asking you to go to the cashier”, the security guard repeats.

Ven´s legs are held by the turnstile, but his head’s almost out of the door. He continues his search and finds her just about to cross at a traffic light to the right. At that very moment, the girl turns around and, from afar, blows him a kiss so light it could be made of puff pastry.

4. The caress of an incisor

JP runs his right hand through his graying, wispy hair while holding his mobile in his left.

“Is there a problem in France?” he says while nodding his head, “Then I’ll get in touch with Sarkozy.”

While keeping the telephone pressed to his ear he goes to kiss the cheek of one of the female chefs who has just arrived at the Patio de Armas in the Royal Palace.

A heavy mid-morning winter’s mist begins to shroud Madrid. Brenda is on the verge of tears and looks for someone to have at her side to hold on to and to snivel with in bereavement. Similar scenes of sadness are echoed amongst the chefs who are wearing their white jackets in honour of the deceased. There are also journalists who are wearing badges of a grieving  fried egg in the shape of a heart, fans holding photos of his dishes and politicians dressed in deep mourning. Some take advantage of the moment to express their sadness to the umpteen news media for the loss of a genius and the irreplaceable talent of a man who was always on the crest of avant-garde on the global gastronomy scene.

Brenda comes up to JP again who has just put his telephone away in his trouser pocket.

“What happened, JP?”

“We don’t know much yet, but we think he choked to death by accident.”

“How terrible!”

“Sometimes we forget how important it is to chew,” JP says.

Brenda is still consumed by her sadness and nods in agreement. A few steps away from them Ramiro Pleito, three Michelin stars, makes his entrance wearing a Trilby and a violet in the buttonhole of his jacket. He unleashes his verbal diarrhea to the nearest microphone:

“We‘ve lost, more then anything else, a comrade in the kitchen. And although it wasn’t expected, here I am to pay my dues.”

“What do you think your main rival at the hob would think if he saw you at his own funeral?” the journalist asked.

“It’s time for reconciliation and bidding farewell. In any case, I should like to point out any differences I had with the Chef were never personal and every time I criticized him, I did so constructively and to his face. Not like some cowards who sold tons of books by slandering him.”

“Are you referring to Vicent Sofriti, who wrote Don´t be deceived by the molecular scum?”

“I’ve no intention of promoting anyone who doesn’t sign their slander with their real name.”

“What’s going to happen now?”

“Well, the Test tube empire has crumbled that’s for sure. No more jellies or foam. The time has come for traditional Spanish cuisine to reign.”

Several chefs are listening. Others are whispering.

“Good old Ramiro doesn’t waste an opportunity to promote himself,” a two-star Michelin chef remarks.

“You must admit he’s brave to show up,” another two-star chef digs in.

“And especially to talk about traditional cuisine. We haven’t come this far to go back to stews and soggy bread,” another chef with no stars adds.

No one pays him any attention.

The journalist continues to ask Ramiro Pleita questions.

“Did you ever go to the Chef’s restaurant?”

“Listen here, we all know what the others are up to.”

“But weren’t you archenemies?”

“That’s what you’ve made us out to be.”

“And what do you think will happen to the Chef’s restaurant The

Test tube?”

“Without the main attraction, the show’s difficult to keep up. And trends are not on its side. The trend of offering three peas on a plate is coming to an end. Anyway, I’ve come here to pay my respects, not to foresee the future.”

A photographer asks him to pose for a photo. Pleita leans forward on a wall resting his chin on the knuckles of his right hand. Ven is surprised to notice how his little finger escapes from the clutch of his clenched fist.

Bernard van Leer, who has squeezed himself into a long black Armani coat, quickly strides up to JP. His International Congress on Gastronomy has been postponed. Journalists from all corners of the world who have come to listen to the Chef are hanging around expecting to console themselves with the mute images of his dead body. The executive director of the Congress whispers something into JP’s ear, who makes a gesture to reassure him:

“Don’t worry, the King will see them all off after I’ve given him a few words of honour.”

“Better sooner than later,” Bernard replies, “I’m losing money every second with the Congress at a standstill. Do you know if Moutarde and Kastrup are coming? We need a successor for the Chef and everyone knows it will be one of the two.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, Dutchie,” JP retorts with contempt and he turns around and gets his mobile out of his pocket again.

Bernard van Leer goes up to a group of journalists with his head hanging low. They all want to ask him questions, but he insists:

“Unfortunately I have no idea, I can only tell you how sad I feel.”

A French journalist comes up to Bernard with a camera in his hand and asks him what is going to happen to the Congress, if it is going to go ahead without its main attraction. Van Leer stands up even straighter and calmly replies with that phony French accent spoken by those who can’t speak the language very well.

“Without a doubt. The Chef has left a whole legacy behind him and we will honour him in our International Congress. We’re upset, but we’re calm, avant-garde cuisine will be an even greater force and we‘ll prove it here in Madrid. This congress is still the most important meeting place for chefs from all around the world.

“And who will take over from the Chef?”

“There’s no shortage of candidates. There are many great chefs who are just as innovative as the Chef. Louis Moutarde in France and Kristof Kastrup in Denmark are likely contenders and soon we’ll know which of the two will be the successor to the throne of the haute cuisine.”

Ven has just listened to Bernard. He takes out a small, blue notebook similar to those that many journalists use and a Bic biro. He asks the reporter next to him what the name of man who was talking is and jots down his initials: “BvL”.

There is a sudden stir scattering the tight cluster of journalists who are brandishing their microphones around Van Leer. The actress and singer Marujita Velasco has just showed up with an entourage of paparazzi. She stands still. Cameras and flashes envelop her. Out of curiosity Ven takes a closer look at her as he thought she had died years ago.

“The Chef was a dear friend, a whiz in the kitchen, a philosopher, but above all, he was a true artist. That’s why the art world is mourning today as well. Personally speaking, the experience of eating in his restaurant changed my life and I have come to lament this great loss.”

A bashful journalist asked:

“What did you eat?”

The actress raised her eyes to heaven. There was a slightly uncomfortable prolonged silence before she answered.

“A dish that made me feel the passion of youth.”

Ven struggles to hear and glances around the journalists surrounding him. The fingers of a skinny grey haired fellow who is gripping his pen too tightly, the smile of a blonde TV reporter who is disparagingly holding a microphone and the trembling hands of a young student with a digital recorder.

“What was it that made you feel so youthful?”

“His passion…”

“I mean what did you eat?” The journalist didn’t let up.

“Let me think… It was red…”

Ven gives another sweeping glance around him. He just manages to lip read the words of a journalist who murmurs: “She hasn’t got a fucking clue.” He continues to look around. A perfect cleavage with a smattering of tantalizing freckles. A cascade of wavy brown hair. It’s the girl form the bookshop. Ven stops making notes and ogles at the valley between her breasts. Slowly he surveys her curls until he arrives at her eyes. She lowers her eyes. She too was giving him the once over.

They’ve recognized each other. They look at each other again. She forces a smile without letting her lips part enough. Ven goes back to his notebook and pretends to take notes, even though he is really only drawing a straight line.

The jostling of journalists now turn their attention to the left. The Prime Minister has just showed up.

“Our ambassador in the world has disappeared and Spain is grieving, that’s why we have called for three days of national mourning.”

Some technicians start to carry out sound checks. Silence descends and the hearse creeps along. The Chef’s team moves forward to pick up the coffin onto their shoulders. The kitchen staff are dressed in white and the waiters are dressed in black. There’s only one wearing a corduroy jacket who sticks out.

The photographers and camera operators are elbowing each other and they’re scuffling to get passed the red rope separating them from the procession. Journalists are uttering under their breath. Ven finds out that the one wearing the cord jacket and who is leading the procession is the Chef’s associate, Anthony Castel. The King is waiting for them on the stage. The Prime Minister is to his right and JP is to his left. Ven asks a reporter who he is:

“Don’t you know? That’s Juan Pérez de Idiazabal, marquis of Montignac”, answers the guy who looks like he eats microwave pizza, “He’s known as JP. He’s one of the most important gourmets in the country and the world.”

Ven runs a mental check but he doesn’t remember his face, even though his name rings a bell. He jots down his initials. They sound very familiar. He has written down these initials before. Could it have been in a CESID notebook?

The official speeches bore him, so he tries to remember where he had come across the initials of the Marquis. He has little success so he lets his eyes wander in search of the freckled cleavage. To no avail either. The cortege place the coffin down on some aluminium. Ven does another round of lip reading. From one journalist he catches: “They won’t open the coffin. The body must be decomposed.” The one to his side adds: “The face of someone who died by suffocation must be gruesome and even more so if it was by a giant squid.” The first one is pensive: “Do you reckon he still has the squid in his throat?”

The formalities of the funeral service continue. The Chef’s sous-chef lays down his hat on the coffin. Castel, the dead man’s associate, does the same with the world’s most famous cook’s knife.

Ven studies the man who will be in charge of the Chef’s empire and jots down his initials in his blue notebook: AC. An associate is usually the first suspect, but this one seems harmless and also he’s the one who is worse affected by this absurd death. Ven draws a circle around his initials, to rule him out. At this moment, Castel stumbles and the coffin nearly falls to the ground. Ven shakes his head and draws another circle around the associate’s initials.

Ven turns his attention to the two journalists again, who are holding back their giggles. He tries to understand what they are saying. One of them is having a hard time putting a sentence together: “Imagine if they open the box and he isn’t there.” “Or maybe there’s only the giant squid,” the other one laughs.

An hour has gone by. The official service has drawn to a close.

Ven has acquired several names and very painful feet. His shoes continue to shrink. There are initials and straight lines in his blue notebook. He puts it away in his pocket and looks at his watch. It’s time for lunch. The journalists go through a door into the Royal Palace along with the celebrities. There’s an aperitif waiting for them inside. Ven follows the group, but a man wearing a tie stands in front of him. He makes out as if he’s looking for an invitation or an identity card in his jacket pockets, but he only finds the Chef’s book.

“If only he could have written me a dedication.”

The man wearing a tie gets more severe and inscrutable. Ven continues to go through his pockets and then brings out his blue notebook.

“I’m a journalist,” he says trying to justify his presence.

The man wearing a tie begins to relax his stance, but he still won’t let him past. He needs something else to get past him. He puts away his notebook and continues to rifle through his pockets. There’s only the envelope of money from Mr Fresh. Then from out of nowhere, a lady with a dark, wavy mane, a freckled cleavage and a mellifluous voice comes up to the man who continues to block the way.

“Juan, this guy’s a critic from The New York Times. Please come this way, Mr Thomas.”

Ven is rejoicing to see the cleavage again, and also to not have to resort to bribing the man. A case that starts off with flashing banknotes, never ends up a very profitable one.

He follows the brunette up the stairs. His heart’s beating so hard he doesn’t know if it’s because of the swinging of her hips or he’s getting on a bit. Two steps more and his feet are throbbing. The expression of his face doesn’t change. He has only one thing on his mind, he must get new shoes.

Once upstairs, the girl turns around.

“Hi, I’m Lucy Belda.”

Ven replies holding out his hand.

“I didn’t think you were a journalist.”

Lucy looks down slightly ashamed and starts babbling until they get to the room. Canapes are being handed out. Ven reaches out for one. Lucy stops him in his tracks.

“I find it surprising the Chef dies and they give the catering to the most rancid company in Madrid. These dim sum come from Thailand and the batter of the prawns is more like armour.”

Ven scrutinizes the groups who start chattering in hushed tones. He squints his eyes and lip-reads.

“What a shame they weren’t allowed to open the coffin. I’d have liked to have seen his last expression, though I understand why of course,” the chef with three-stars says.

“How do you imagine the face of someone who has suffocated?” the chef with two-stars asks.

“I’ve no idea, maybe purplish?” the chef with three stars replies.

“Listen here,” another chef with three-stars butts in, “apparently there wasn’t a body in the coffin as they’ve donated it to science.”

“Really?” the chef with two-stars responds.

“Well, I think it’s incredible they let medical students do their training with the Chef’s body,” intervenes a chef with one-star.

“It is only a corpse after all,” the chef with two-stars points out.

“Yes, but an exquisite corpse…” replies the chef with no stars slightly unsure of himself.

Nobody listens to him.

Lucy sidles up to Ven and whispers in his ear:

“Let’s get out of here. They are unbearable.”

Her black hair moves in time with her step. She blows a kiss that could have been made of puff pastry to the man wearing a tie who let them in. Ven feels a stab of jealousy.

“I didn’t have an authorised pass either, but you know how it is, to get in with the VIP, you have to make friends with the DIP, the Deep Independent People. It’s always worth making friends with the bigwig’s secretary, the famous person’s bodyguard and the sous-chefs of the top kitchens.

Lucy races on ahead as if she was trying to shed a heavy burden. Ven watches her from behind and fantasises about between her legs.

“Let’s go to this tapas bar on the corner. I noticed it on the way. It’s new. Let’s see what it’s like,” she says looking behind her swishing her long hair from side to side. Ven´s stomach is making a rumbling sound and he struggles to keep up. As well as getting some new shoes, he must lose weight. He misses those morning jogs around Central Park. It was the only healthy thing he had done in his life, of course it was his work that made him do it. You had to be fit to dish out those hotdogs at the rate they were eaten at the CIA. It wasn’t until then he understood the real meaning of Fast Food. On this assignment, it looks like he’ll be made to eat, however with nouvelle cuisine he suspects he won’t burst at the seams. There must be something positive about a big plate with three microscopic things on it.

The doors of the bar open for Lucy. Inside, designer furniture and micro tapas are exhibited as if they were jewels in a display cabinet.  She sits down on a stool at the bar while pulling down her miniskirt.

“A whole lot of design, a whole lot of fuss, but let’s see if it’s all just a facade,” she says to Ven, who sits down while looking at her legs, however not too obviously in case her militant feminist side comes out.

“Do you want a glass of wine?”

“I’d prefer a whiskey”

Lucy’s taken aback and waits expectantly. Ven asks the waiter for a White Horse. She looks disapprovingly: a very mediocre whisky. Ven’s aware of her disappointment, but takes a gulp justifying his choice: ”Why bother asking for another brand, when everything tastes the same, of nothing.”

Lucy asks for the wines served by the glass.

“What would you prefer, red or white,” the waiter asks.

“Do you have anything French?” asked Lucy.

“We certainly do. In fact we’ve just opened a Château Enchanté to serve by the glass.”

“What a treat, that’ll do perfectly.”

The waiter pours her a glass and Lucy brings her nose close while letting out a “hmmmm” of approval.

“Ripe red berries with a touch of mint and hints of almond from the cask,” she pronounces.

Ven is left speechless by the description, he could never have imagined that a wine could taste of such things. The waiter bought some mini spicy sausages. Ven scoffs one down between sips of whiskey. Nothing, no change at all. Everything smells the same, everything tastes the same.

“Are they good?” Lucy asks.

He nods his head and downs two big gulps of his whiskey.

“Are they fried or roasted?”

Ven has no idea and he pops another one into his mouth to avoid answering. Lucy watches him slightly surprised by his ferocious appetite. Ven feels self conscious and picks up the designer toothpick that spears the last spicy sausage and asks:

“Do you want it?”

“No, thanks,” she replies slightly haughtily, “I’ve lost my appetite. By the way, have you ever in eaten in the Chef’s restaurant?”

Ven shakes his head while chewing and contorting his moustache.  After knocking back some more, he blurts out:

“I don’t think I’d have liked to either. And you?”

“Me neither, but I’d have loved to. I know his dishes off by heart. The subtle gesture of Jerusalem Artichoke, the oyster with an aroma of soil, the enchanted forest.”

The Enchanted Forest? I didn’t know he was inspired by novels.”

“Well, I’ve no idea if he ever actually read it, but the dish is both as simple and baroque as the characters from the novel.”

“I hope he didn’t include the plate of flies.”

Lucy can’t avoid letting out a shriek of laughter, but she quickly jumps to the Chef’s defence.

She gets the feeling she’s with another antagonist of vanguard cuisine.

Even though he wanted to please her, Ven couldn’t resist going a step further and asking her how she could be so sure that the Chef was so hot in the kitchen if she’d never tried his cooking.

“Well, I’ve read about it and I’ve seen how it’s done. There are many different kinds of gourmets. I’m the down and out sort for the time being. You have to be rolling in money, have a millionaire husband (though a financially secure lover can serve its purpose) or publish in one of the three best known newspapers, even though people read them while munching on a sausage sandwich. Alternatively, you can make your breakthrough with some mega news  and get yourself known. In this case, you’re at least invited while your fame lasts.”

Ven remains pensive. Nothing new. The same goes in all professions. Lucy takes a sip of her drink and leaves the glass on the bar. She sits up while carefully rearranging her miniskirt.

“Well, I’ve got to go.”

He polishes off his whiskey and she pretends to rummage around for her purse in her big, black bag. He whips out a ten euro note and hands it over to the waiter.

“That’ll be 18 euros, sir”

Ven raises his moustache.

“That’s twelve for the wine and six for the whiskey.”

He pulls out a 20 euro note and tries not to brood over the incomprehensible. Since when was a wine twice as expensive as a whiskey? “Snobbery” is the only word that comes to mind.

The waiter’s hands are wet. Ven can’t help thinking that the place might well be chic and sell wine that’s cher, but it’s still a bit like Sito’s, the bar where he has his breakfast. He hands him a plate with two soaking wet euros. When he puts the change in his pocket, Ven feels the sticky humidity of the waiter’s hands inside his trousers.

“What book did you steal in Gran Vía?” Ven asks the young girl.

Lucy lowers her eyes, she opens her bag again and shows it to him: The years that changed cuisine. With a vacant look in her eye, she downs the last of her wine. Lucy begins to speak in almost a whisper:

“It’s a book about the Chef written by a journalist who worked with him for  a year and now thinks she knows everything. It was a question of ethics, I couldn’t have bought the book.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jennifer Picantó.”

“My God, she sounds like a hooker.”

Lucy bursts out laughing. “He may drink a crap whiskey but he seems an all right guy,” she thinks.

Lucy pulls out her card from her black bag. Ven pretends not to notice.

“By the way, I work for the magazine Eat less.”

He formulates his answer in silence while studying the green letters on the little piece of cardboard she’d just given him.

“Strange name for a gastronomic magazine.”

“Well, not really. Nouvelle cuisine made small portions fashionable in the West and it was partly due to Michel Guérard, who started cooking in a spa for people to lose weight.”

Ven holds back the spontaneous snort that would normally burst out of his mouth on hearing such a stupid remark and doesn’t bother asking who this Guérard is. Lucy carries on talking about her magazine, but notes the expression on Ven’s face.

“Don’t you think this is a worldwide phenomenon already?”

Ven replies like a robot with an answer that can’t fail:

“Perhaps.”

After sitting in silence for a few seconds with empty glasses, Lucy wants to confirm her intuition.

“You’re not from the world of gastronomy, are you?”

“Nope, nor from the world of spas.”

“So who are you covering this story for?”

“I’m not a journalist.”

“Writer?”

“No.”

“So what then?”

Ven thinks quickly as he raises his eyes from her freckled cleavage to her eyes, where he discovers a beautiful olive colour. He’s already come up with his answer. And he spells it out as if he were ruffling up Koski’s slick fringe with his words when he forbade him to speak to journalists:

“They’ve asked me to do a routine investigation on the death of the Chef for his insurance company.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Ven. Ven Cabreira.”

Lucy’s eyes are shining and her incisor nibbles a caress on her lower lip.

Here you are four chapters of the thriller The chef’s dead, written in Spanish by Yanet Acosta and translated into English by Ione Harris. If you want to read more, please leave a comment down.

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  1. […] the only author I’ve found in Spanish to cover the letter “y”. As an added bonus you can read HERE the first chapters of her book translated into English by Ione Harris. Bon […]

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