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A Recipe for Life (and Love)

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Le d écouverte d’un mets nouveau fait plus pour le bonheur du genre humain que la découverte d’une étoile.
The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star.
- Jean Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

First Course

{First Course}
Ryazhenka (Baked Milk) stuffed Liver with Red Delicious Apple Sauce,  Smoked Salmon with Yellowtail Sauce and Truffle Oil

In an unassuming stone front on 65th Street, just two blocks away from Central Park, stood Lilovaya Feya, fine Russian cuisine.  Three red stars hung just inside its wooden doors, the kitchen buzzing with shouts of orders, the sizzle of grills, and . . . opera music.

The knife ran precise and smooth in Victor’s hand, separating meat from bone.  He swayed along to the opera melody playing from the speakers above the pass. The cacophony of voices, the clang of dishes fell away as he seared the cuts of herring, the smell and sound of the simmering flesh filling his senses until the outermost layer had darkened by just a few more degrees.  He slid it onto a glistening plate, arranging it over a bed of bright purple cabbage and reduced beets, and grabbed the sauce from Chris, spooning it in one, two circles then once across the top.  He stepped back to admire his work, the sounds of the kitchen coming back into focus.

Victor Nikiforov loved two things in life: music and food.  They had never deserted him, had earned him two of the restaurant’s three stars.

So why did he feel as hollow as the bird in the oven behind him?

Victor Nikiforov loved two things in life: music and food.

Leo lifted the dish off the pass.  Victor watched it float halfway across the kitchen, jolt against the new kitchen assistant’s elbow, and plummet to the floor.

The plate shattered in jagged pieces, scattering beneath the counter and stove.  The fish lay equally splattered, unmoving at the assistant’s feet.

A deathly silence descended on the kitchen, every pair of eyes pointed to the new assistant as Victor stepped around the counter.

“Chulanont,” he said, “I don’t know if your eyes are working correctly.”

“Yes, chef.” Chulanont rushed to say, still eyeing the fish like it might come back to life.

“Here we only need cooks who can see.  I suggest in the future that you be more observant and remain at your station instead of wandering around with your phone out.”  Just a warning, since it was his first day.  Victor knelt and slid the fish onto another plate then into the trash. 

“Chulanont, clean the rest of this.  Everyone else, back to work!” he called as he reclaimed his station behind the counter.

Victor had needed the extra hands of a new kitchen assistant, especially after his recent trip to Hyde Park’s graduation, but that help came with a high price all the same.  Efficiency was crucial in the kitchen.  One instance of carelessness from a cook had the potential to set them behind for the entire night and cause outrageous wait times for the guests.

He dialed up the music on his bluetooth speakers, the grand voices swelling around him as he arranged three more cuts of herring and sent them to the dining area. 

“Five out!” Mila called over her shoulder.

The smells rising from the sauces carried Victor between Chris and the pass.  He arranged dish after dish, crisp clear cuts, vibrant colors gracing the plates before him.

“Chef! Uh - chef!”

Victor paused, his spoon of vibrant red sauce hovering over the plate on the counter.  It was Chulanont again.

Victor was not like Yakov.  He didn’t spit fire at his staff. 

Ice was much more effective.

“Chef, I’m not quite sure -” Chulanont paused when Victor lifted the knife out of his hand. 

“Chulanont, this is completely unacceptable.” Victor gestured to the battered salad ingredients on the counter with the knife . . . then to Chulanont’s phone.  The kitchen assistant’s eyes grew wide with terror.  “Your phone.” Victor stabbed the knife in the phone’s general direction.  “Cannot. Cook.  And you are to report to Chris, not me.  But that doesn’t matter anymore.” Victor smiled.  “For the rest of today, you’ll be stacking and mopping.  Clean the kitchen, retrieve the ingredients, help the servers if they request you. — Seung-Gil! Come take over here.”

It seemed like he would need to speak to Yakov after all.

***

As the tickets on the board thinned one by one, Victor climbed the stairs behind the kitchen to the cluttered second floor.

“What is it, Vitya?”

“How did you find Chulanont?” Victor asked, leaning into Yakov’s small, cramped office above the restaurant.

“Just like I found you.”  Yakov didn’t even turn away from the screen before him.  “He baked an award winning pirozhki for me.”

“He just waltzed in here and cooked for you?”

“Precisely.”

“I never saw him.”

Yakov sighed, turning to face Victor.  “It was just after you returned from that conference last week, Vitya.  He’s a good cook.  What he doesn’t know now, he’ll learn.”

Victor ran one hand through his hair.

Three sharp knocks rang off the doorframe, startling Victor and Yakov from their conversation.

It was Leo.

“Chef, we have a complaint from table nineteen.”

“A complaint?” Victor asked.  He never got complaints.

“Yes, chef.”

“About the food?”

“Yes, chef.” Leo pulled slightly at his collar, inching ever so slightly back into the hallway.

“Sent back?”

“Not yet.”

Victor left Yakov’s office without another word.  A complaint?  None of the food that came out of his kitchen received complaints.  It had to be Chulanont again.

He walked swiftly out to table nineteen to find a young couple, both with dark hair, dining on the ryazhenka and salmon.

“Ah, Victor!”  The man greeted him as if they were friends. 

Victor had never seen him in his life.

“Yes, thank you for dining with us, sir.” He smiled sweetly. “Is anything the matter with the dishes you received tonight?”

The man leaned back in his seat and laughed.  “It really is too good to see you!”  Victor’s fingers twitched behind his back.  “But, yes, well,” the man continued, “The fish is dry.”

“Dry?” Victor looked at the small cubes of salmon.  It looked just as perfect as any other plate that left his kitchen, smoked for hours to a beautiful red.  “Excuse me, sir, but the salmon is not dry.”  Victor punctuated his words with a perfect smile.

“Oh - no - I didn’t mean the fish is dry.”

Victor’s smile grew slightly wider. 

“It’s just dull.”  The man leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest. “I thought you would have improved it by now.  Me and my darling Isabella have been here so many times.”

The woman nodded.  “Yes,” she said, reaching for the man’s hand, “But maybe—”

“But maybe we should be going somewhere else,” the man finished, even as Isabella glanced towards Victor.

Victor had heard enough.  If they thought they could walk in and insult his kitchen— “If you want to leave,” he lifted the plate of fish, his fish, off the table, “then please, be my guest.” He slipped his hand away and let the plate plummet towards the floor.

Victor turned before the plate could shatter and swept into the kitchen, where he skewered a salmon cube into his mouth.  It tasted bland.  He spit it out in frustration.

“Vitya!” He could hear Yakov’s yell even from behind the stoves.

***

It rained as Victor drove home that night, through the high rises and across Brooklyn Bridge.

He really didn’t want to want to blow the horn at a person - in the rain at night, but, well, the idiot was standing in the middle of the road.  The man jumped when the sound hit him and scurried away, the green stoplight bouncing off his dark hair and the pavement, glistening as bright as sturgeon caviar.

Store lights flashed in succession as Victor traveled under the interstate.  A faint light shone out of the abandoned ballet studio two blocks away from his apartment.  Perhaps it had finally sold.  A woman stood outside the windows, just barely sheltered from the rain, smoke swirling around her.  She was soon blocked from sight by one dark building after another.

Makkachin greeted Victor when he stepped through the door of his Pineapple St. apartment.  Victor fell, exhausted, into the large leather couch, which was still warm from where Makkachin had been sleeping beside the lamp he left on to keep her company.  He flicked on the TV and groaned when he saw what was on.

And now Victor Nikiforov, head chef at Lilovaya Feya in NYC, and our most recent Iron Chef, appears to be cooking his signature dish, Flipped Dressed Herring - but with canned herring! 

Chopped Tournament of Stars.  It was bright and the words sharp, loud, spewing praise after praise.  Victor cut the show off immediately and stood.  He couldn’t handle it that night, still stewing over his failed salmon cubes.

Makkachin woofed and ran to his bedroom, jumping on the bed.  Victor followed her willingly and rubbed the curls on her belly.  He thought about lying down as well, but he needed to at least begin cleaning out the guest rooms for his uncle and Yura. 

They would be arriving in a few weeks for their annual visit at the end of Yura’s skating season, the one time of year that Victor looked forward to the most.  It was . . . nice to not come home to a dark apartment. 

He began with the smaller of the rooms, shifting boxes of old cookbooks to his own room, gathering his мама’s handwritten recipe cards off the bed.  He paused when he lifted the one for honey cake, the Cyrillic script faded and gray, the paper yellowed.  He sat on the smaller bed and ran his fingers over it. 

He could still taste the sweetness and graininess, how the light filling special to his мама’s recipe melted instantly, how she used to sing while she cooked and run her fingers through his hair after he took the last bite.  His eyes slipped closed, chasing the memory.

He didn’t finish cleaning the room that night.

 

{Second Course}
Borscht

Tripadvisor

The Lilac Fairy (Lilovaya Feya)

  • oooo

              1/5 stars  We have been patrons of this 3 Michelin star restaurant for many years. But the menu seems to have stagnated, most noticeably at our last visit.  When we mentioned the issue to our server, we were rudely asked to leave by none other than head chef Victor Nikiforov himself.  Will not be returning.  Stay away from the rude service here!

Silence reigned over the table as Yakov finished reading the review.

All the staff members sat around the largest table in the restaurant, where on an average day, they would review menu changes.   Instead, Guang Hong and Chulanont stared unashamedly at Victor, waiting for a reaction, while the remainder of the traitors stole brief glances his way.  Even the lilac ballerina paintings hanging from the walls seemed to be judging him.

“Well, what do you have to say about this, Vitya?”  Yakov’s voice grated across the room.  Victor immediately engrossed himself in the dish before him.

“Nothing to worry about,” he flashed a smile, “Everyone receives terrible reviews on Tripadvisor.”

“We’ve only ever had five star reviews until now.”  Yakov folded his hands.  “You’re going to cost us one of our actual stars.  Vitya.”

Victor chuckled away Yakov’s ridiculousness.  “Anyway,” he said, waving Yakov off and rising from the table, “This week’s special should be familiar.  Lobster with cream, in addition to blackcurrant pelmeni on the dessert menu.  Chulanont you’re responsible for desserts for now, just to make things clear.”  Victor threw a pointed glance to the kitchen assistant. 

“Yes, chef,” he answered, “But—”

“But?”

Chulanont cleared his throat.  “Isn’t this the same special as last week?”

“Yes, we’re using the same chef’s menu two weeks in a row.”

“But isn’t this restaurant famous for featuring new and exciting dishes every week?”

Victor massaged his temples with one hand.  “Chulanont, you are a kitchen assistant. You do not design the menu.  That is the chef’s job.”

Chulanont started as if to say something more but then looked away. Perhaps he was learning after all. 

“Now, does anyone else have a question?”

The remainder of the staff answered in the negative.

They ate the menu samples in peace, which for most served as their only lunch.  After Victor detailed the wine changes to the servers and discussed a few minor sauce changes with Chris, everyone began to clear out of the room, moving towards their respective tasks. 

Victor caught Yakov by the sleeve just as he was leaving. “Yakov, I have a request.”

“It better be about remaining in my good opinion after ruining our reputation on the internet.”

“Actually, it’s about the borscht.”

“No.”

“You haven’t even heard what I was going to say!”

“I don’t have to hear it.” Yakov gripped the back of a chair.  “You’re not changing the borscht.  It’s one of the only traditional recipes left.”

“They’re all traditional . . . just some of them have been modernized.”

Victor was surprised at the silence that followed.  Yakov had paused at one of the few windows in the back of the room, a beam of light catching on his sleeve.  “We won’t have time today, but I think I need to talk to you tomorrow.”

Well, that was foreboding.  Victor’s smile finally dropped.  “Is there something, you know, . . . wrong?”

“No, no, nothing like that.” He turned out of the light. “Go on back to work.”

 

{Third Course}
Pork Dumplings with Cabbage

A strong spring wind billowed Victor’s scarf around his ears as he locked the large wooden doors of the entrance that night.

He had stayed later than usual reworking the lobster recipe. Chulanont’s comment had irked him.  He never found a satisfying substitution either. At any rate, when he finally made it home, Makkachin was waiting for him at the door.  She needed a walk despite the late hour. 

Victor decided to make the block and try to take her out for longer the next morning. 

A block over, the dull, warm light still shone out of the ballet studio.  The abandoned storefront had been dark for more than a year.  Victor peered into one of the windows, but failed to make out much more than the wooden floors, remnants of the ballet studio once housed there.  Makkachin pulled him towards the door, sniffing.

Food.

Victor paused.  The smell of freshly cooked fish was wafting under the door.  It wasn’t the smell of the dishes that he cooked, strong, sometimes sour, and of the earth.  No, this — this had a sweetness to it but also a spice.  He felt starved, even though his phone told him it was almost midnight.

A few raindrops plipped into his hair, one sliding down his hand. 

He pulled himself away from the old dance studio and down the street. It was 2:00 am when he finally laid down, only to be plagued by thoughts for hours of how he could improve the lobster.  He needed to be up by 6:00 the next morning.

***

“Victor!”  Emil waved from the end of the market.  Victor blinked as his eyes adjusted rising sun outside to the fluorescent lights overhead, weaving through the people crowded between the stands despite the seemingly endless walls of the wide metal building, the smell of fish permeating the air.  “Look what I’ve caught for you today, they’re just stunning.”

Makkachin barked at the familiar face, pulling Victor towards a chest of iridescent salmon.  “I found you some herring too.”

“Ahh, these are beautiful.  Thanks for saving them for me.”

“Of course. How are things at Lilov—”

“—What about my sister?”  Mickey cut in, hauling another chest of salmon next to the first one.  His harsh tone bounced off of Victor’s slight headache. 

“She’s doing just fine, the best waitress we’ve got.”

“Well — we’re still waiting on her to come back to the docks.”

“I’ll be sure to tell her that.” Victor smiled at Mickey’s dark expression.  Emil just shrugged his shoulders.

Victor and Makkachin passed the dance studio on their drive home.  Victor admitted that he was intrigued since the night before.  Hammers pounded and saws buzzed .  At the stoplight, Victor peered in the windows to spot several construction workers fixing sheets to the walls.  One of them was young, with dark hair, swinging a wooden beam over his shoulder.  Just as he began turning towards the window, Victor felt oddly nervous, his face heating despite the cool spring air, and was thankful the stoplight turned before any of the workers could notice him.

The apartment smelled fresh and clean when Victor and Makkachin returned.  He had finally managed to open the windows in the two spare bedrooms to air them out. 

Victor sighed as he made sure Makkachin was comfortable before making his way towards Lilovaya once again.

***

“Mmmm, this tastes delicious.  What is it?”  Chulanont had actually set his phone on the table to completely absorb himself in the small plate of dumplings.

“They’re moose lip dumplings,” Victor said from the head of the table.

Chris paused in chewing for a moment as his eyes widened, along with everyone else at the table.

“Isn’t it illegal to eat a moose?” Chris asked.

“Probably.”  Victor waved it off.  Moose lips had been his greatest idea of the year.  His staff was giving mixed reactions, though.  Mila in particular just stared at her dish without touching it.

“I think we should serve the regular menu this week, Victor,” she said.

“Since when have we had a regular menu?”

“Since this entire last year.”  Yakov’s low voice grated through the room as he pulled up a chair.  “No moose lips, it’s illegal.  I don’t even know where you found that one.”

“This one was legal!”

“It really is good, Victor,” Sara said from the other end of the table.  “Maybe you should try the beef tongue or bone marrow like you mentioned before.”

Victor put a finger to his lips.  “Hmm, I’m having trouble with the textures on those, but they would be—”

“Vitya!” Yakov cut in once again.  “No moose lips.  Now decide on the rest of the menu and start working.”

***

The week passed with the “regular” menu again.  Victor hated it so much.  Too many of its components were standard, uninnovative, and unacceptable for the Manhattan palate.  They were all remnants of Yakov’s time as head chef, some of which he just wouldn’t relinquish and some which Victor had replaced with something of his own.

He occasionally remembered that Yakov had wanted to speak to him about something, but Victor wasn’t about to ask.  Better to let Yakov forget.

At least Chulanont had marginally improved his usefulness in the line, and the fresh fish Emil had provided that week had been a hit with the regulars.  Other than that, Victor could count his successes as few and far between.

The construction at the old dance studio buzzed through every day.  At the end of the week, a sign appeared over the building reading “Yuutopia Katsuki.”  Green and yellow light spilled from it as Victor drove home on Friday.  Maybe construction was finished.

***

“You’re retiring?” Victor asked, shocked.

“Yes.”  Yakov sat cluttered into his small desk, appearing frustratingly calm.

“Who will run the restaurant then?”

“You, Vitya.  You.”

“Me?” What on earth was Yakov thinking? Victor could barely manage one customer . . . or himself, for that matter.  The entire restaurant was unthinkable.

“Yes, you.  You’re long overdue to own your own restaurant.  I’m surprised you haven’t left before now.  And who else would I choose?”

This was a headache.  Victor liked to cook, to create, not to manage a business.  Yakov was right - he could have opened his own restaurant, or multiple of them, years before.  “Why are you choosing now of all times to retire? Hmm?”

“I’m old, Vitya.  And tired.   And it’s not like I’m retiring today.  Okay?  You have time.  I just wanted you to know.  And this will give you more freedom to create the menu that you want, to make this place greater than it has ever been.  I know you’re the one to do it.”  He reached up to pat Victor on the arm.

Except Victor didn’t know that.  At the rate things had been going, he would never create an original menu again.

“Now get to work.”

Victor stumbled down the stairs still trying to make sense of Yakov’s words.

For the first time in his memory, Victor didn’t taste the food he served.  He moved through his day in shock between the clatter of dishes and heat from the ovens, everything metallic.  He thought about the inevitable shift in his life as he spooned vibrantly red vodka sauce around pelmeni.  He eventually found himself in the freezer where the sting of the air could focus his thoughts.

Victor did not want to own a restaurant.  He could have done that a long time ago if he had aspired to, but he had never found a reason to leave Yakov.  Victor loved the food.  He only wanted to worry about the food, not the building where he cooked the food or the people who came to eat it or even the reviews on Tripadvisor. He had become quite well known, but it didn’t mean he needed his own restaurant.

The door to the freezer opened, letting in a waft of light and overheated air.

“You’ve been waiting just for me?” Chris asked, the curl of his smile barely visible in the dark room.

Victor smiled for his friend.  “What about your fiance?”

“I’ll call him now.  This freezer’s big enough for three people.”

Victor chuckled for a minute then drifted into silence again.  “Just give me another minute.”

“Ok, mon cher, but don’t be long.”  Chris opened the door again.

“I won’t.”

Victor allowed the air to freeze out the remainder of his thoughts, leaving him with nothing but emptiness.

***

Victor threw himself into preparing the new summer menu.  Sourcing the ingredients proved a neverending problem.  He could rely on Emil and Mickey for the fish but the rest . . . he had yet to find a reliable source for fresh produce.

Not to mention what was actually on his menu.  Chris had made a few suggestions, but aside from the bone marrow dish, nothing new.

Victor spent nights pouring over his mother’s recipes, flipping though all of his notes from before he moved to the U.S.  Still, nothing came to mind.

He sighed in frustration after having stayed late again to try out several recipes — none of which had worked.  The sky was dark and the wind cold for a spring day as he locked up.

The Yuutopia Katsuki sign glowed a bright yellow and green as he drove home.  Victor had been in the kitchen the entire day but hadn’t eaten anything himself.  He drew towards the sign, the light beckoning him, and decided to pull over.  His mouth watered when he caught the smell of eggs and rice just outside the door.

There was only one other couple that he could see dining in a secluded corner of the restaurant.  Floor to ceiling mirrors stretched across one wall, a remnant of the old ballet studio, reflecting back the streetlights and Victor’s dark shadow.  Victor was surprised that they were still opened so late.  But it was New York City after all.

He pushed in the door, bells tinkling over his head.  A woman with partially bleached hair approached him.

“Welcome to Yuutopia.”

“I know it’s late, but do you mind if I come in?” he asked.

“No, of course not, we’re open for another hour anyway.”  She waved him forward with a nonchalant sigh and seated him at a table near the window.

The smell of the grill from the partially open kitchen perfused the air in waves.  Victor closed his eyes and let it wash over him.  Egg maybe, fried.  Something sweeter.  None of his own dishes resembled the smell.  How could he bring out a similar flavor?  Fried pelmeni?  No . . . No.

“What would you like to order?”  The woman stood next to Victor with her eyebrows raised.

Victor glanced down at the menu he had yet to open.

“I’ll have whatever they’re cooking right now.”

Victor thought the woman just stopped herself from rolling her eyes.  She crossed the few feet through the minimal latticework decor and low lighting to the back of the room.

“Single special,” she called through the small window into the kitchen.

Whatever Victor had expected —  perhaps a fried rice dish or a bowl of ramen — it hadn’t been five artfully present dumplings garnished with cabbage.  Genius was what it was.  The presentation itself, folded neatly, vibrant colors, was worthy of a Michelin star on its merit alone.

And it smelled divine.

Victor tasked himself with the tremendous effort of savoring his first bite rather than wolfing it down all at once.  The dumpling broke crisp between his lips.  Flavors of pork, rice, egg, and some other spice that he was too exhausted to place blended without fault.  The tart flavors in the cabbage reminded Victor strongly of his own cabbage soup, but softer, fresher, yet more robust, like spiced silk.

It was the best meal Victor had tasted in a long time.

“So, I take it you like it?”  The woman strolled over from her station near the door.

“If I was a food critic, I would write a review that would send this place to the top of the charts.  Send my compliments to the chef.  It was absolutely lovely.”

A small, very small, smile broke out on the woman’s face as she handed him the bill.  “Thank you.  I will.  Please come again.”

As Victor stood to leave, he tried his best to see into the kitchen through the small window in the wall, wondering who was behind his lovely meal, but with no success.

He paused to read the specials sign near the door that he had missed on the way in.

Pork Dumplings with Cabbage

The name did not nearly do the food justice.

Victor turned back one last time to wish a farewell to the last waft of divinity from the kitchen.

Another server was already cleaning off his table, dark hair just like the woman from the front.  He glanced towards Victor, the hair falling away from his face, revealing a pair of blue glasses.

Victor’s hand faltered on the door.  He knew he was staring unnecessarily long, but it couldn’t be helped.  The man was beautiful.  His eyes were dark as truffles, the stain on his lips and cheeks as red as wine.

“Hi,” Victor said.  Stupidly.  Hi? Hi?

The server’s face turned two more shades of red, which only made him more attractive.

Victor turned and fled as he felt heat begin to creep up to his own ears.

The cold air hit him as he stepped out the door.  He turned for one last glimpse through the windows.  His table clean, the man had already disappeared from sight. 

***

Three days later, Victor found the article he had been waiting on in the Times.  Lilia’s review of Yuutopia Katsuki.  She had found the gem in record time it seemed.

Victor propped himself against the side of the counter to read through the surprisingly lengthly review in the space between the morning’s prep meeting and the actual prep.

Lilia gave the small establishment the review it deserved.  Her favorite dish being katsudon it seemed, which Victor mourned that he had not been able to try.

“Victor! What are you doing just standing around?” Yakov called as he climbed the stairs to his office.

Victor tucked his phone into his pocket before looking over the final preparations for his truly new dish — the first one in months.  Elk and cabbage dumplings.  He was using the new berries that Yakov grew outside his home on Long Island to sweeten the sauce.

The day after eating at Yuutopia, Victor had created the dish within an hour of arriving at the kitchen, completely inspired.  He already had an idea for the next week’s new dish as well.

He turned up his favorite opera playlist as they prepped for the day and delivered the first order of the chef’s special himself.

To Lilia.

“Hello, Vitya.”  She sat at one of the dark wooden tables of her namesake for the first time in years, her hair pulled into a perfect bun, refined as ever.

After Victor set down her plate, he kissed the hand offered him.

“I hope you enjoy it,” he said.

He stood at attention with his hands folded behind his back while she took the first bite.  She chewed slowly, savoring the flavors.

“It’s good, very good.”  She paid Victor one of her impossibly rare smiles. “I’m glad.”

“Thank you.”  He didn’t quite manage to keep the smile off his face before he turned back towards the kitchen.

***

Victor didn’t have time to return to Yuutopia once his creative inspiration took over.  He spent hours upon hours in the kitchen perfecting new dishes, which he could eventually use to reform the menu.

More critics found Yuutopia within the week after Lilia’s review, giving it equally stunning ratings.  It was unprecedented for a Japanese restaurant in the city that served more than ramen or sushi.

It almost seemed as if they were going back and forth.  Victor premiered gooseberry duck with caramelized watermelon on Wednesday.  Yuutopia’s special hot pot duck on Friday would make every critic’s praise in town.  Victor’s birdcherry noodles were met with acclaimed tonkotsu ramen.

“Have you heard about this Yuutopia place?”  Yakov stepped into the kitchen after they had just wrapped up service for the night.

“I actually discovered it before Lilia did.”

Yakov held up his phone.  “Look at this: ‘Masterfully new sushi roll at Yuutopia.  Fresh with a lovely combination of flavors.’ They’re making quite a stir, almost as much as you have in the past.”

“I’ve heard the chef’s quite a treat,” Chris said beside Victor, nudging him in the side.

“Well, I can attest to the food at least being that excellent.”  He batted Chris back to his station to finish prepping. 

As the weeks grew warmer, Victor passed Yuutopia every day on his walks with Makkachin. He hoped to see the genius chef at least once— but he was never so lucky.  He couldn’t help if his mind wondered towards Chris’s suggestion and mixed in his thoughts with the man who had cleaned his table that one night as he imagined what the chef might look like.

He supposed the mysterious chef had become his muse in a way.

 

{Fourth Course}
Burnt Coffee

“Victor, have you been sleeping?” Chris asked from behind as Victor arranged a plate of herring.

“Why do you ask?”

“I’m afraid your concealer isn’t working as well today, mon cher.”

Victor sighed as he began spooning the sauce over his herring.  He rubbed at his eyes with the back of his arm.  He personally thought he’d been sleeping well, better than he had in months.  Though his eyes did feel tired.  He had stayed up the night before reading one of his máma’s cookbooks for a few hours.

“I’ll be just fine.”

His phone buzzed in his pocket. “Can you get this, Chris?” he asked, handing Chris the spoon, before stepping into the freezer.  It was rare for him to get calls, especially from . . . Yura?

“Da?”

“Victor, it’s Georgi.”

Georgi? What was Yura’s coach doing on his phone?

“Where’s Yura?”

“He’s asleep.”  He paused.

“Yes?”

“Your uncle, today he — he collapsed at work a few hours ago.  He’s at the hospital now, in critical condition.  I think it’d be best if you were here.” 

Victor had to replay the words in his head a few times before he understood them.  He reached one hand for the cold shelving in front of him. 

“You need to fly over here as soon as you can,” Georgi continued.  “Yura and I are staying at the hospital for now.  I didn’t know who else in your family to call.”

“. . . There isn’t really anyone else.  I’ll be there in the morning.”

***

Victor barely remembered stepping out of the freezer and mumbling something to Yakov about booking a ticket before he found himself on the first flight to Moscow.  Mila had offered to walk Makkachin every day, and between her and Chris, the restaurant would continue running at least. 

“What would you like for breakfast, sir?”

Victor blinked out of his trance towards the attendant.  He had slept fitfully between two strangers through the longest stretch of the flight, and he knew it showed.  He swept his bangs over his face to hide his eyes.

“Just some coffee.  Thank you.”

The coffee tasted terrible.  Burnt flavored water.  Sugar and creamer only made it worse.

Victor drank it anyway.

It kept him awake enough to arrive at the hospital.  To realize he hadn’t made it in time.  To see Yura curled into a chair, asleep and alone.

The one place he had called home, he’d lost, and the last traces of his мама with it.  And now it was just him and Yura.

Victor briefly registered Georgi say something about him being Yura’s legal guardian.  About when to schedule the funeral.  About skating.  About Moscow and New York. About where to stay for the night.

But Victor didn’t know about anything.  Only that his tongue still burned from the coffee, bitter and rough.

***

 

Make it yourself{Yakov’s Borscht} - Adapted from Natasha’s Kitchen


2 large or 3 medium beets thoroughly washed
2 large or 3 medium potatoes chopped
4 Tbsp of cooking oil
1 onion diced
2 carrots grated
1/2 cabbage shredded
1 can kidney beans with their juice (optional, can also substitute beef)
2 bay leaves
10 cups water
6 cups chicken broth
5 Tbsp ketchup
4 Tbsp lemon juice
1/4 tsp pepper
1 Tbsp chopped dill

  1. Fill a large soup pot with 10 cups of water. Add 2 - 3 beets. Cover and boil for about 1 hour. Once you can smoothly pierce the beets with a butter knife, remove from the water and set aside to cool. Keep the water.
  2. Slice 3 potatoes, add into the same water and boil 15-20 minutes.
  3. Add 4 Tbsp of cooking oil to the skillet and saute carrots and onions until they are soft (7-10 minutes). Stir in ketchup when they are almost done cooking.
  4. Meanwhile, add cabbage to the soup pot when potatoes are half way done.
  5. Next, peel and slice the beets into match sticks and add them back to the pot.
  6. Add 6 cups chicken broth, lemon juice, pepper, bay leaves and can of kidney beans (with their juice) to the pot.
  7. Add sauteed carrots and onion to the pot along with chopped dill.
  8. Cook another 5-10 minutes, until the cabbage is done. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
    Serve with a dollop of sour cream.

***

Chapter Text

{First Course}
Black Currant Pelmeni

A song floated light around the kitchen as Victor’s mother swayed in front of the stove.  He hadn’t heard that one before, the tune foreign as the language.  Her voice carried the notes clear, buzzing around Victor’s ears.

Victor sneezed.  Flour puffed into the air, staining the counter and Victor’s shirt in white, hair flying over his head, and dusting the floor.  The song cut off abruptly, replaced by musical laughter, light and infectious.  Victor smiled through the powder.

They made the dough with the little flour that remained.

“Mmmm, Vitya, this is wonderful.”

Victor frowned at the poor ruined cake that his mother was eating out of a bowl, of all things.  She swept her long silver hair over her shoulder and patted her lap, smiling.  “Come here and try some yourself.”

The cake had collapsed shortly after Victor had set the last layer on top.  He shook his head.  “It looks terrible.”

His mother reached for his hand despite his protests and pulled him towards her.  “Well, it’s not the prettiest cake I’ve ever seen.  But the taste, Vitya, the taste is lovely.  Anyone can bake a beautiful cake; it’s the flavor that makes it special.”

***

“This tastes like shit.”  Yura stared at the plate of pelmeni that Victor had made specifically for him.  It looked perfectly fine to Victor, the doughy shells stained black with currants.

Yura had grown more than a few inches since the year before, and his rather interesting personality had grown with him apparently.  He poked at his food with a fork.

“It’s actually really good, Yura,” Mila commented from across the table, “It’s been a real hit at the restaurant.”  Victor had invited her to stay for dinner.  They had only arrived a few hours before to find Mila and Makkachin watching Victor’s apartment just as he had asked.

While Mila helped Yura move his few belongings into the spare bedroom, Victor had cooked dinner, the black currants leftover from one of Victor’s recipe experiments from before . . . everything had happened.

“I don’t care about the restaurant.  I’m not eating this.”  And with that Yura stormed out of the kitchen and shut himself in his bedroom.  Mila stared after him.

Victor set his fork down on his plate.  It tinked lightly against the porcelain.  He was angry.  He knew Yura had been hungry.  They hadn’t eaten barely anything with the flights and traveling that day.  Why couldn’t Yura just eat for one night?

“Is he okay, Victor?”  Mila asked, still staring down the hallway.

“I-” Was he okay? Was anything okay? “Uh, I don’t know. He won’t talk to me.”  Everything had happened so quickly.  Leaving the hospital, sleeping on the floor of Georgi’s apartment, so many calls, the funeral, faces Victor hadn’t seen in years.  And now, they were home - or at least Victor was - and he was Yura’s legal guardian, and Yura hadn’t said more than two words directly to Victor since he had first seen him at the hospital.

Potya traipsed into the hallway and scratched at Yura’s door.  The door opened briefly and shut again with a dull thud.  Makkachin rubbed her nose against Victor’s thigh, prompting him to run his fingers through her curls.

“Victor?”  Victor refocused on Mila.  She had already cleared her plate.  His was still nearly full.  “I need to go home soon, but call me if you need to.”  She reached across the table and squeezed Victor’s hand.  “Okay?”

He pulled a smile on for her.  “Oka-y.”  His voice sounded dry, forcing him to clear his throat.  “Okay.”

After Mila left, Victor spent a few more hours cleaning the kitchen and setting up a space for Potya’s litter box in the corner where Makkachin hopefully wouldn’t nose at it.  He organized the books and boxes that he had moved out of the other rooms and swept the floor . . . and mopped.  It was nearly three in the morning by the time he finished.

He needed to go to work the next day.  They’d been in Russia for nearly a week and a half - the longest amount of time that he’d ever been away from Lilovaya since he had begun working. 

He finally switched off the lights and fell into bed, too exhausted to dream.

 

{Second Course}
Orange Cranberry Pancakes

Victor rapped on Yura’s door the next morning.  “It’s time for breakfast!”

Silence answered him.  He jiggled the doorknob, finding it locked.  He knocked on the door again, harder.  “Yura!” he called, “Wake up! I’m about to leave for work, and you need to eat.”

“Fuck off! I’m sleeping in.”  Yura’s yell sounded half-hearted like he was already dozing back off.

“Okay, well I’m going to leave for work soon.  Call me if you need me.”  More silence.  Victor sighed and turned away.  He covered the orange cranberry pancakes he had just made so Yura could eat them later.  He didn’t save one for himself.  If he wasn’t going to eat with Yura, he could just down a coffee on the way to the restaurant.

***

The sun had barely risen when Victor unlocked the doors to Lilovaya.  Skipping breakfast allowed him to arrive earlier than planned.  He busied himself with prep work, organizing the stock, chopping onions, pickles, lettuce, juicing berries.  Only his music to keep him company.  By the time the other staff began to arrive, he had already finished most of the prep, and it was still early morning.  It reminded him of his first position as a chef.  The restaurant had been small and the staff limited to three people, sometimes only two.

“Victor?  What are you doing here?”  Chris stepped around the stoves at the back of the kitchen.  Victor continued grating the cabbage in front of him until he felt something wrap around his elbow, stilling his arm.  “No one was expecting you to be here today,” Chris continued.  “If you need to go home, you can.”

Victor pulled on a smile for him.  “No, it’s fine.  I want to work.”

“I know, but are you sure you can?”

“Of course.”  He turned up the music louder and returned to grating.

The morning passed quickly.  Victor allowed himself to drown in the repetitive practiced movements of the kitchen, chopping a tomato, stirring sauce, grating truffles, barely thinking about them yet completely absorbed.  The other staff gradually trickled through the doors.  Leo asked about the plane ride.  Sara asked about Yura.  Seung Gil asked about Makkachin.  The remainder kept to themselves and left Victor in a much needed silence. 

Everything ran smoothly until the guests began to arrive.  The exhaustion finally crept up on Victor.  He couldn’t seem to keep up with the orders.  His head ached and his eyes stung.  He thought back to the beginning of the month, when he was happy, new inspiration, more ideas than he had ever produced before.  And, then, where had that all gone?

Someone shook him hard on the shoulder, and he lifted his head . . . out of a plate?  Bright pink currant sauce decorated the front of his shirt.  The hand that he wiped his face with pulled away dripping in pink as well.  He looked up to see Guang Hong staring at him.

“I’m sorry, chef, but you were, uh, asleep.” The server held up his hands in apology.

Victor had never been more embarrassed in his life.  His cheeks and nose grew warm beneath the sauce.  In front of their least experienced waiter. 

He quickly schooled his expression into something more neutral and whispered a quick “take over, please” to Chris, who slipped into the line behind him.

The cool mist in the freezer was as welcoming as always.  Victor sat in the lone metal chair in the room.  He wrapped his arms around himself as the cold seeped in.  Several shelves needed to be restocked, dark and empty between half full boxes.  His ankles felt tense, legs shaking up and down, up and down, and he found that he couldn’t stop them.  Not that he really minded.  It was nice in a way, just to feel the vibrations in his muscles.  He completely lost where he was, or why, or how.  His mind was drawn back to the last time he was happy - at Yuutopia Katsuki, eating the cabbage and dumplings, meeting the server before he left.  But thinking of that only made him shake with more force.

He jumped when the door opened, spilling light into the small room.  He covered his mouth, trying to cut off the chattering of his teeth, and held his legs still with his hands.

“Victor.”  It was Yakov.  Shadows spilled over his face, obscuring the expression.  Victor didn’t have the energy to answer him.  “Go home.”  Yakov walked towards him and began lifting him up by one shoulder.  Victor stood on shaky legs, reaching out to the shelving for support.  “This is an order.  Go home or you’re fired.” 

Victor straightened his back in shock, chills running through his frame.  Fired?  Yakov had never come close to saying that before.  What about taking over the restaurant?  What about Lilia’s review?  Fired.  Had Victor really reached that low in his life?

He didn’t remember how he got out of the restaurant, just that he made it to his car, still with berry sauce covering his face and shirt.  He managed to start the engine even though his fingers were shaking.

By the time he reached his apartment, he was no longer shivering.

***

Victor’s eyes blinked open to bright light.  His neck ached before he remembered that he had fallen asleep on the couch instead of his bed.  Something -  fabric? - ripped above his head.  He looked up. 

Potya. The cat’s claws dug into the back of the couch before ripping through the fabric again.  Victor cringed.

“No.”  He pulled himself upright and picked the cat up, but not without the claws latching onto the fabric and ripping it again.  “No, bad cat.  Bad.  Cat.”  When he set the cat on the ground, Potya hissed at him and scurried away.  Sore muscles and the pound of a headache built as Victor caught his breath.  And where was Yura?  He couldn’t possibly still be in his room.

Victor walked up to Yura’s door.  “Yura!  You have to come out!  You can’t just stay in your room forever.”

Silence.

“Yura!  That’s it!  I’m coming in.”  Victor pushed on the door, only to have it push open without any resistance.  Unlocked.

And Yura wasn’t inside.

Potya meowed as he rubbed against Victor’s leg.

Victor’s first thoughts jumbled into a blind panic.  Where was Yura? Victor ran back through the apartment, flinging open doors, looking around corners, under pillows and blankets.  Nowhere.  He was nowhere.  Why would Yura just leave?  How was Victor supposed to find him?  He looked at the time: 12:17 pm.  He stared at the clock for a moment before it really registered.  How had he slept that long?

He didn’t know what to do.  He’d never thought that Yura would just leave.  He didn’t even know who to call for help.

“Chris!  I know you’re at work, but . .” Victor tried to focus his eyes on the hem of his shirt, without any success.  “Yura’s gone!  What do I do?”

What do you mean he ’s gone?

“He’s not here. He left.  . . . I don’t know where he is.”

The line went silent for a moment.  I . . . don’t have any ideas, Victor, aside from calling 911.

“What?!  But . . . I was going to look for him.”

Well, if you can ’t find him, Victor, you can call. And I can come if you need me to.

“Ok.” Victor shuttered out the breath he’d been holding.  They would find Yura one way or another. “I’ll go alone for now.”

Keep me updated.

“Okay.”  The phone clicked off, leaving Victor in silence.  Makkachin nudged at his heals.  That had been so unprofessional, calling Chris at work, but Yura was missing. 

Yura was actually missing.

“Come on Makka, we’re going to find Yura.”

Makkachin was a smart girl.  She would be able to find Yura by using his scent, right?  Victor let her sniff at Yura’s jacket, still hanging by the door, before they stepped outside, Victor still in his clothes from the day before.

Makkachin could most definitely not track Yura’s scent.  They had not walked more than a hundred feet before she pulled Victor to the side to bark at a squirrel.

Where would Yura have gone?  Victor knew the teen had to be more familiar with Manhattan (from sightseeing trips) than Brooklyn.  Would he have crossed the bridge?

There was a park a few blocks away, near the river.  Victor decided to start there.

The trees swayed in the summer breeze and sun in the park.  A couple played with their dog, Makkachin tugging at her leash to join them. 

Victor couldn’t see the blonde anywhere.  He called his name, the echoes drawing the attention of the couple and a few passersby.  Where could Yura have gone?  Victor had talked about the docks and Emil during the plane ride.  Perhaps he went to the fish market?  Although it was so far away. 

A breeze swept through Victor’s hair, disconcertingly calm.  Makkachin boofed and tugged towards another squirrel, her claws sliding over gravel. 

Skating.  Yura loved skating.  Victor didn’t remember seeing Yura’s skating bag in the apartment where he had dumped it by the door the day of their arrival.

His phone chimed.

Hey, Victor.  It was Mila.  Have you found him yet?

Victor ran a hand over his eyes.  “. . . No.”

Me and Chris are going to help, then.  Have any tips on where to look?  Her voice was so . . . steady.

“I think he might have gone skating somewhere.  I don’t even know of any rinks that are open in the summer.”  Victor’s own voice was far away, hollow.

I can think of a few.  We ’ll check the one closest to you first.

“Okay, I’m going to check the apartment for his skating bag, then I’ll start driving around too.”  Victor had already walked halfway back down the block before he ended the call.  The thought passed briefly through his mind that both Chris and Mila had left the restaurant, but he couldn’t bring himself to care.

Sure enough, when he reached home, he couldn’t find Yura’s bag anywhere.  His phone rang again as he was looking up the nearest ice rink.  Ice Castle, it seemed.

“Chris?”

He ’s here. We found him.

***

Yura glided around the rink. It looked almost lazy, his hands in his pockets, but much faster than anyone else at the rink.  He apparently hadn’t noticed Victor and Chris watching him from the top of the stands.  Although, Victor wouldn’t put it past the teen to just ignore them all.

Victor rested his head in his hands.  “Thanks Chris.  I’m sorry about . . . everything.”  Mila had already returned to the restaurant.

“No, mon cher, it’s fine.”  Chris wrapped his arm around Victor’s shoulders. Victor would have shrugged off anyone else.

“You had to leave work.”

“Only for an hour.”

“Yakov won’t be happy.”

“Actually, I think he’ll let this one pass.”

Yura continued to circle the rink.  Around and around and around.

Chris shifted beside Victor.  “So what are you going to do?”

Victor threaded one hand through his hair again.  “I don’t know.  Chris, I just . . . I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t know either.”  He patted Victor’s shoulders, while Victor let out a weak chuckle, releasing the tension in his back.

They watched Yura circle lap after lap until a woman’s voice over the intercom signaled the end of the hour.  Chris left for the restaurant as Victor made his way down the stands.

He met Yura at the boards.

“Hello, Yuuura.” Victor drug out the name until Yura looked his way.  He was well and truly angry with Yura, but he could play it off as sarcasm.

“Go away, shithead,” Yura muttered as he removed his skates.  “Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“Actually, I’m not working for the rest of the week,” he answered with a smile.

“Get fired?”

Victor’s blood ran cold.  There was that word again.  “No.”  His reply was too short, too serious.

Yura looked up at him for a moment.  “Whatever.  Why are you here?”

“You just . . left.  Without telling anyone.”

“Yeah, well, I’m fifteen.  I’m old enough to leave.  Especially when you leave me alone all day.”  Yura grabbed his bag and began rolling it towards the door.

Victor followed after him . . .  and floundered.  Yura needed some kind of discipline, didn’t he?  He couldn’t just run away.  Victor grabbed Yura’s arm. “You’ve only been here two days.  Then you just disappear.  I disrupted the entire restaurant today to find you.” 

“Memo: I don’t want to be found.  I don’t want to be here at all.  I’m missing skating practice.  I’ll be behind.  You could send me back now and be done with it!”  Yura stared through Victor, piercing green unwilling to back down.  It was scary, grave, like the conversation meant something more than he was letting on.  Victor let him go.

“You can’t go back yet.  You don’t even have anywhere to stay.”

“Georgi’s.”

“Do you really want to stay at Georgi’s?”

Yura looked towards his shoes as he stepped into the car.  “No.”  He hit the radio, tuning it to some kind of metal music.  Victor turned down the volume.  “You could go back with me.  We could have stayed longer, but you just had to come back to work at your shitty restaurant.”

So Yura wanted them to both go back together.  It hadn’t even crossed Victor’s mind.  His hands tightened on the steering wheel. 

Victor didn’t want to leave Lilovaya . . . or get fired.  He had spent too many years trying to reach his position, too much energy building it up once he made it there.  There had to be some other solution.  Georgi had promised to find some options for Yura within two weeks.  If Yura could just hold out until then. 

He still needed to skate though. Even Victor knew that much.

“How about, while you’re here, I’ll make sure you have at least part of the rink at Ice Castle to yourself three days a week?”  He glanced towards Yura, who was glaring intently at his phone.

He remained quiet for a moment, buildings, shining windows passing the car in rapid succession.  “. . . Yeah.  That would help.”

“No more running off?”

Yura shrugged farther into his crossed arms.  “Fine.”

“Okay then.”  It wasn’t a solution, but it was something.  Victor hoped it would be enough.

“Those pancakes, they didn’t taste like shit, by the way.”

 

{Third Course}
Kasha pilaf with mushrooms

The last few days of the week passed with less tension.  Victor managed to catch up on his sleep.  He hadn’t taken an entire week off in years.  He spent most of his time trying to cook for Yura.  The teen came out of his room more often, but he still only managed to eat a few bites at each meal.

Victor drove him to Ice Castle that Friday.  Yura looked so thin on the ice, like he could just blow away with the wind, but his skating had become stunning.  Victor couldn’t understand most of the details, but the power that Yura put into his jumps and the control of his other movements over the ice was evident.  Victor had never paid much attention to Yura’s skating beyond the competition pictures that his uncle used to send of Yura on multiple podiums, a different medal each time. 

Still, by the end of the weekend, Victor was glad to return to work.

Donning his uniform once again felt comforting.  The kitchen would probably be a mess when he returned.  No new dishes, none of the summer menu he had planned.  It would take so much work to make up for lost time.

***

Victor entered the kitchen through the back door, expecting to hear the familiar loud ruckus, perhaps even some opera music.  But there was only silence. 

He was shocked.  He rounded the corner expecting to see no one there, but he ran into Seung Gil’s back.  The dull thud of his misstep was the only sound in the kitchen despite the entire line running like clockwork, silently and efficiently. 

Victor had never seen anything like it.

Seung Gil threw him a hard stare before turning to his station again.

Victor looked towards the plating table, expecting to see Chris directing the staff, but it wasn’t Chris standing there.  It was someone he had never seen before.  Dark, nearly black hair, combed back from his forehead.  His words were soft, clipped, directing Chris and Mila, calling the servers.

Was he a new chef?

Had Yakov really fired Victor? No.  No.  Victor’s stomach dropped.

“Who are you?”  His voice shook more than he would have liked.  The clockwork of the kitchen slowed to a halt, the staff turning to look at Victor.

The man turned, seemingly startled.  Victor could have sworn he had seen those wide dark eyes before.  “I’m the sous chef.”  His cheeks darkened slightly after he spoke the words, but his expression remained cold, lips thin, eyes narrow.

Sous chef?  At least he wasn’t fired, but when had Victor ever needed a sous chef?  He didn’t have time to deal with this nonsense.

Victor swept out of the kitchen and up to Yakov’s office.

“What is that man doing in my kitchen?”

“Yuuri is the sous chef.  I hired him.”

“Why?”

“Because I thought you needed one.”

“Well, I don’t.”

Yakov turned his chair to face Victor.  His head rested on one hand, bags under his eyes.  “He’s staying, Vitya.  You work with him or you leave.”

Victor stared at Yakov.  There was another threat.  And Yakov seemed exhausted.  He swallowed the next words in his mouth.  “Okay.”  Was all he responded with.

***

“You, what’s your name?” Victor pointed to the sous chef.  He was still angry.  Yakov had probably hired another idiot who couldn’t even cook.  Victor tried not to even look at him.

“Yuuri Katsuki.”

“Okay, Katsuki, you’ll be over there today,” Victor said, gently shooing the man out of his place beside the pass and pointing towards the other line cooks, Chulanont in particular.  Katsuki’s stone cold face immediately fell.  Victor could feel Chris and Mila’s stares boring into him.  They all knew he was being carelessly mean.  But, he was the chef and could afford to. 

Hopefully, Katsuki would take the hint, quit, and never return.

Prep ended, the doors opened, orders poured in.

“Katsuki, clean up this mess.”

“Katsuki, you’re falling behind.”

“This still isn’t clean.”

“Katsuki, that looks terrible.  You’re the sous chef, aren’t you?”

Victor admitted to himself by the end of the evening that he had let the nagging get out of hand.  His last comment had been carelessly mean, even if he had been irritated.

“Katsuki, where are you?”

The sous chef had disappeared from his station, albeit when the orders had finally begun to slow, but he should know that he couldn’t just disappear like that.

It was also the time of the night that Victor’s exhaustion hit him full force, the one time that he could have actually used a sous chef.  Perhaps Katsuki had already decided to quit. 

“Victor.”  Chris nudged him from behind.  “Please go find Yuuri.  I wish you would give him a chance.”

Victor startled at the movement from his friend, causing him to nearly drop the plate he was holding.  He recovered quickly though and glanced around the kitchen.  His watch told him that Katsuki had been gone for nearly an hour and was still nowhere to be seen.

Victor handed the last plate of the night off to Leo.

“I can’t do anything about it if he decided to leave, Chris.”  Victor felt a pang of guilt at the admission.  He glanced down towards his hands.  They were shaking slightly.  His eyes felt heavy, nearly too much so to hold them open, and he felt hot, overheated, too close to the ovens.  And the kitchen still needed to be cleaned and prepped for the next day.  Victor pinched the bridge of his nose with shaking fingers.  “Give me three minutes. I need to go cool off.”

Victor tugged open the freezer door, relief washing over him at the familiar cold darkness - until he saw the other shadow.  Katsuki.

The “sous chef” startled, wide eyed, as Victor stepped into the room, scrubbing his face and immediately rushing past Victor and out the door.  Victor thought he heard a murmured “Sorry, I’m sorry.”

Victor swallowed thickly as he blinked in the dark, his throat tight for some reason, before he turned to leave as well.  Perhaps, it wasn’t a good idea to sit in the freezer after all.

When he stepped back into the kitchen, Victor’s eyes focused on Katsuki, hyperaware now of the other cook.  Because Victor had . . . upset him.

Strands of Katsuki’s dark hair had fallen over his face, around his reddened eyes and cheeks, softening his features.  And Victor realized then why he looked so familiar.

The server from Yuutopia.  He was, impossibly, Katsuki.  He must have worked in the kitchen at Yuutopia as well as clean up. Or something. 

The only other possibility passed through Victor’s mind, but he refused to entertain that idea. 

He turned his back towards the others as he swept off the pass.

***

And so Victor’s days of the week melded together. Indistinguishable.  He was sure he forgot some of them.

Every morning, without fail, he awoke to Potya’s claws ripping through some new fabric in his apartment: the rug, the curtains, Victor’s favorite down pillow, Makkachin’s favorite down pillow.  Yura was, well, Victor wanted to say he was better.  He no longer remained locked in his room all day.  He’d appear at the table to eat breakfast with Victor, which was all good, except that Yura wouldn’t . . . eat.

Victor tried giving him different cereals; eggs: scrambled, fried, poached; pancakes: plane, chocolate.  Orange cranberry did seem to be the true hit, Yura managing to eat a few bites each time Victor made them.  He packed Yura’s lunch every day.  Lamb pelmeni, borscht, stroganoff.  He even stooped to making sandwiches, mac and cheese, and fish sticks.

Yuri ate next to nothing.  Just enough to keep him on his feet to skate for the 30 minute sessions when Victor was able to rent out part of the Ice Castle rink.

And that was another thing in itself.  Victor missed hours of work on multiple days to take Yura skating, only to return to the steaming kitchen at the busiest time of the day.  That was their agreement. But. it forced Victor to arrive at work to set up before anyone else.  Only for Katsuki to arrive insufferably early, bringing his haughty silence and extreme compliance to Yakov’s standards with him.  It was unbearably obvious that he wanted to walk over Victor to become the chef de cuisine.  And Victor had to leave him to it for a few hours every other day.

The fourth day had been the worst of it though.  Katsuki walking in, pressed white with his hair slicked back like he was self advertising a line of his own ironware, while Victor felt wrinkled, wrung out, where he had struggled to sleep through the night.  Katsuki murmured out a cursory greeting, colder than ever, barely acknowledging Victor, before he disappeared into the pantry.  Victor needed to actually communicate with Katsuki though, actually speak to him in an understandable voice to make it through the day.   Victor fumed as he forced himself to walk over to Katsuki.

He tapped him on the shoulder, perhaps with a little more force than needed. “Katsuki, I need to speak with you.”

Katsuki jumped with a muffled gasp while the knife he was holding sliced through a mushroom and clean into his thumb.

They both stared at his thumb for a minute, watching red well up around the cut.  Then Katsuki’s quick breathing became audible.  He turned, mumbled an “I’m sorry!” with his eyes on his thumb and began to run towards the sink.

Victor stopped him immediately and pressed a clean rag around his hand.  The cut had been fairly deep, so Victor kept pressure over it for another minute, Katsuki’s eyes silently flicking between him and his own thumb all the while. 

“Ok,” Victor said as he loosened his grasp, allowing Katsuki to grab his own thumb, “I’d keep pressure on it a little longer just to be safe.”

“Yeah.” Katsuki’s voice was still too quiet for Victor’s liking, still staring at his hand, eyes wide. “I know.”

“I’ll try to find something to bandage it up.”

By the time Victor returned with a bandaid and glove, Katsuki had removed the rag, the cut dark but no longer bleeding.

“Thanks,” he said with his too quiet voice, staring at the ground. Why wouldn’t he look up? “I won’t let it happen again.”

“Of course,” Victor said, perhaps a bit harsher than he intended even with his frustration.

Katsuki looked at the ground for another moment.  Then he did look up.  His dark eyes were hard as they perfectly reflected the ring of bright lights overhead.  A challenge.

That was fine.

Victor could handle a challenge.

And so, the one dish, the kasha pilaf, that Victor had assigned for Katsuki to be completely in charge of that night was a complete hit.  Every order brought more secondhand praise into the kitchen, about the flavors, the consistency, even down to the tenderness of the mushrooms.

Victor worked his newest recipe into the ground the next day, but with so little sleep and so much exhaustion, he just couldn’t seem to win out over Katsuki, whose plates received praise after praise for the entire week.  Not to mention how Katsuki had won over the rest of the staff.  Even Chris seemed to have abandoned Victor to chat with the sous chef during breaks.

And Yura still wouldn’t eat.  Or couldn’t eat.  Victor was beginning to think it was the latter.

Georgi had called about Yuri returning to St. Petersburg to skate.  He still hadn’t found a place for Yura to stay, but he’d have to go back soon or sit the first half of the season out.  Victor couldn’t just send him back to Russia by himself, could he?  He could move back with Yura.  It was still an option.  Not one he liked to think about but still.  Katsuki could have his place at the restaurant.  Everyone would be happy.

By the end of the week, Friday, Yura ran overtime at skating.  Victor sighed, ran a hand through his hair.  He would miss the first rush of the night.  There had to be a way to make it.

“Hurry up, old man,” Yura said as he rolled his bag out the door, just as an idea occurred to Victor.

“Wait!” Yura turned to glare at Victor, daring him to say more. “Do you mind coming to the restaurant tonight?  I’d feed you there and find you a chair to sit in.”

“What kind of - a chair? That’s it?” Yura’s laugh bounced off the concrete walls of the rink. “You can’t even make it sound good.”

“Come on, Yura.  Just for tonight?”  It would save Victor so much time if he didn’t have to drive back to the apartment.

Yura let out a loud breath, blowing his bangs away from his eyes.  He glanced to the ground. “Fine, but only because I don’t have anything to do at home anyway.”

 

{Fourth Course}
Katsudon pirozhki

Yura sat in a chair in the back of the kitchen on his phone, head down, out of the way.  His dark clothes and withdrawn posture dividing him from the buzz around him.  Victor passed him a plate of herring and a fresh roll with watermelon jelly and watched him sit there and not eat any of it. 

Victor tried to keep an eye on him from around Katsuki, who was working the appetizers near the ovens and the fryer at the back of the kitchen, looking as pressed and sharp as normal, but the task proved difficult with the high volume of orders flowing into the kitchen and multiple stainless steel appliances blocking his view.

After an hour or so, he looked back towards Yura to check on him, only to find him standing next to Katsuki.  Cooking.  Yura was cooking? . . . and eating.

Victor stared.  Katsuki’s back was facing him, but he could catch the side of Yura’s smiling face.  Smiling.  Yura was helping Katsuki roll pirozhki.  He stopped every other minute to take a bite of a golden, already fried bun at his side. 

Victor leaned forward to catch a better glimpse of the scene and nearly burned his waist on the stove, dropping his spoon in the process to clatter across the floor. 

“Looks like Yura’s made a friend,” Mila said with a light laugh as Victor recovered, having noticed the pair as well.

“Yeah . . .” Victor said as he fixed his hair.  He kept Yura and Katsuki in his peripheral vision for the remainder of the night.  Yura helped Katsuki roll all of the pirozhki.  He still grumbled occasionally, but his smiles lasted far longer than any other expression.

As they worked through the last batch of rolls, Katsuki looked up in Victor’s direction, their eyes meeting.  His eyes widened, briefly, before a deep red blotched across his cheeks.  A few loose strands of his hair fell across one of his eyes as he broke the gaze with Victor.  He wore dark fitted slacks beneath his coat and apron.  They suited him.  Had he been wearing those every day?  Victor had never noticed before.

Victor didn’t catch himself smiling until he looked down.  He quickly schooled his expression blank again, though his nose and cheeks still felt . . . warm.  He told himself it wasn’t a blush.  He didn’t blush, wouldn’t blush for anything less than a berry sauce disaster.  And he had to keep in mind that Katsuki was just there to take his job.

As he finished up the last plate of the night, Victor saw Yura eat a second (or third?) pirozhki.  “Taste good?” he asked as he cleaned the counter.

“S’okay,” Yura muttered, mouth full.

“Oh really?”  Victor raised an eyebrow.

“Shut up, old man.”

Katsuki stepped out of the pantry, folding his apron, the soft swish of his shoes uneven as he approached them.  More of his hair had fallen out.  “Yura made you an extra if you’d like to try one.”  Katsuki gestured to a pirozhki sitting near the cutting boards, perfect and golden.  He wouldn’t meet Victor’s gaze.

But Victor?  Eating anything that Katsuki made?  It still left a sour taste in his mouth.  “I’m sorry, but I’m not really hungry tonight.  Ate earlier.  I’ll take it home so Yura can have it tomorrow.”  He punctuated the words with a smile.

“Oh, okay . . .” Katsuki’s eyes darted around the floor. “I’ll find something to put it in then.”

Yura grabbed Katsuki by the sleeve before he could walk away and glared at Victor.  “Eat it, idiot.”

Victor stared at Yura, hoping against hope that the teen would back down.  The glare continued.  And Victor was too exhausted to push back.

Victor took a deep breath, keeping his expression neutral as he lifted the pirozhki to his mouth.  He reminded himself that Yura had been able to eat, that it couldn’t hurt anything to humor the teen for something so trivial.  The pirozhki was near perfect, the dough cooked just long enough to achieve a beautiful golden color and sweet smell without turning greasy.  Katsuki watched him from behind his glasses, finally looking up, dark eyes wide. 

Victor bit into the bun, his teeth breaking through the sweet fluff until they hit the center.

Oh.

His eyes fluttered shut as the flavors broke over his tongue.  Rice, egg, and perfectly tender pork complimented the feather light sweetness of the bun.  At once familiar and foreign.  Victor had never tasted anything like it.  . . . Except for that one day at Yuutopia.  The flavor he had tried bringing to his recipes, Katsuki had brought to a pirozhki.  He swallowed without thinking twice, letting the flavors wash over him.  He hoped he didn’t moan.

When he opened his eyes, Katsuki’s face glowed with a smile that didn’t fade, his cheeks a deep red once more.  Victor glanced away.

Yura coughed into his arm, trying to hide his own smile. 

“It’s . . . good,” Victor admitted before taking another bite.  He didn’t smile.  He still didn’t like Katsuki, but he knew when to admit defeat.  He raised one finger to his lips, trying to decipher the flavors.  “What is it?”

Katsuki’s expression brightened more, if that was even possible, their eyes locking again.  “Katsudon pirozhki.  It was partially Yuri’s idea.”  Katsuki’s dark eyes turned nearly golden when they widened, and the thought that Victor had been trying to hold back for days formed completely.  Katsuki’s eyes were beautiful.

Yura butted in between them.  “Good thing you like it because Yuuri’s coming over to watch the stream of Otabek’s ice show this week.”

Victor nearly choked on his last bite.  “What?”  It was one thing to like a pastry that Katsuki had managed to cook.  But inviting him into Victor’s home?  He looked down towards Yura, whose glare had remained impenetrable.

Katsuki waved his hands in front of himself.  “It’s okay.  I don’t have to come over.  Yura asked and . . .”

“No,” Yura interrupted, “I invited you.  You’re going to come over.  End of discussion.”  He glared at Victor again. “Right?” he asked.

Victor swallowed.  He should let Yura have this.  It didn’t matter if Katsuki wanted Victor’s job or not, not when Yura might be able to eat again.  “Okay,” he answered, expression neutral.

***

 

 

Make it yourself{Yura’s Easy Cranberry Orange Pancakes} - From Sydney Mike’s recipe

1 12 cups fresh cranberries, coarsely chopped
14 cup granulated sugar
2 -3 teaspoons orange zest, finely minced
[1 12 cups all-purpose flour + 2 teaspoons baking powder + 12 teaspoon baking soda  + 12 teaspoon salt] OR 1 12 cups bisquick
1 egg, slightly beaten
1 cup buttermilk (or normal milk)
12 cup orange juice
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

  1. In a small bowl, mix cranberries, sugar & zest & set aside.
  2. In large bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda & salt.
  3. In another small bowl, mix egg, buttermilk, OJ & butter, then add this mixture to flour mixture, stirring until just combined [batter should be lumpy].
  4. Fold cranberry mixture into the other mixed ingredients.
  5. Heat a lightly greastd griddle or heavy skillet over medium heat.
  6. Pour about 1/4 cup batter onto hot griddle for each pancake.
  7. Cook pancakes until golden brown, then turn to cook other side.