It was a crisp spring morning in San Francisco when the first of the delivery trucks started pulling up in front of an elegant building on California Street, home of Sato Grill, voted top restaurant in San Francisco two years running and a recent recipient of its second Michelin star. The front door was propped open by a young man in crisp chef’s whites, striped pants, and bright orange clogs. Door secured, he stepped back and a seemingly endless stream of crates, bags, and boxes began flooding into the kitchen. Standing in the center of the kitchen a second figure in chef’s whites stood at attention with a clipboard, carefully checking off each delivery against her list, occasionally murmuring friendly greetings to familiar faces as they deposited their loads onto counters or into the waiting hands of the prep cooks. The shelves of the walk-in cooler were swiftly filled, mounds of vegetables were carefully cleaned and piled on counters, and the sounds of knives slapping cutting boards soon filled the kitchen with a peaceful percussion.
The young woman with the clipboard retreated to the small office attached to the kitchen, hung the clipboard on its hook next to the door and pulled a fresh printout off the printer, double-checking the menu for the day.
She looked up to see Kai standing in the doorway, looking anxious as he bounced on his orange clogs.
“Um, we’re having a situation with the beef stock. Just caught Wu near the pot.”
Opal sighed and stood up, thinking irritated thoughts about this latest batch of interns from the nearby cooking school.
“And why was Wu anywhere near the beef stock? I thought it was clear he was delegated to vegetable prep only?”
“I think he was hoping to redeem himself on the sly or some shit like that, but I caught him adding ingredients before he could get away. We are in the process of explaining the error of his ways.”
Opal gasped when she turned the corner and saw Wu, eyes bulging out of his head, his gray student chef’s toque stuffed into his mouth, his body bound tightly to a nearby support post with duct tape. Several prep cooks stood nearby, idly playing with cleavers and putting on quite the menacing act for the hapless culinary student. She bit her lip hard, trying desperately not to laugh. She glanced sideways, catching Kai’s eye. He shrugged, not bothering to hid his grin.
“Okay Wu,” said Opal wearily, “you were apparently caught messing with the beef stock. Which, I might add, is going to be an ingredient in two appetizers and an entree tonight. And I might also add, you had no business being anywhere near the beef stock because of last week’s little escapade. So, let me ask you this: after working so hard to even get this internship, are you now trying to get expelled from cooking school? You know better than to mess with anything without permission!”
Wu tried desperately to explain around his toque. Opal let him suffer for about twenty seconds before giving up and nodding at Kai to un-gag him.
“Oh god, please don’t tell Chef! I was trying to do it the right way and when I saw it on the list for tonight I thought I could do better and oh god I’m so gonna get expelled…”
Wu dropped his head miserably. Opal raised a meaningful eyebrow and the prep cooks rolled their eyes collectively and headed back to work. The pot of beef stock bubbled merrily as she approached it. She could see herbs floating haphazardly along the surface of the broth and mentally groaned.
“Wu,” she said, not looking at him, instead continuing to stare intently at the pot, “what am I looking at here?”
“Um, parsley and thyme and…” he trailed off.
Open took a spoon and carefully skimmed some green bits off and brought it to pale and shaking prisoner.
“And do you recall how such herbs are supposed to be added to a pot of stock? Maybe in a bouquet garni or sachet?” His eyes were fixed on the spoon, and he gulped. “Certainly not just dumped in loosely making it exceedingly annoying if not impossible to fully extract it from the stock later?”
Wu closed his eyes, beads of sweat visible on his forehead.
Opal tossed the spool into a nearby sink and rubbed her temples.
Kai was at her side instantly.
“New batch, and make it fast.”
“You got it.”
Opal grabbed some kitchen shears and cut Wu loose from the tape.
“Wu? I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to tell you to get out of the restaurant now, before Chef shows up. What she decides to report back to the school I can’t really say at this point, but I can guarantee that the safest course of action for you is to not be here when she arrives, because do you remember what she always says, Wu?”
Wu shrank back, a hunted look on his face as he whispered, “Order and discipline make for a good kitchen.”
Opal beamed at him.
“Exactly. Order and discipline, which you seemingly fail to appreciate on a regular basis. Honestly,” she continued, putting a hand on his shoulder and pushing him firmly through the main dining area towards the door, “do you really want to work in a restaurant like this? There are a whole lot of other types of places where you can make food that might be better suited to y-”
She abruptly ran into him as he stopped in his tracks, whimpering.
“Good morning Opal, Wu,” said a quiet voice.
Opal winced, and shook her head ruefully.
“Good morning, Chef. Um, Wu isn’t feeling so good so I’m sending him home. Say goodbye, Wu!”
Wu sprinted for the door and disappeared.
Opal looked up at the raised eyebrow of Asami Sato, executive chef of Sato Grill, one of the youngest ever recipients of a James Beard award, and a notorious stickler for details.
“He did look ill, but he certainly ran fast,” Asami commented drily as she headed towards the kitchen. “Anything I should know about?”
“Unfortunately. Kai caught on fast enough so there’s no problem recovering.”
They pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen, and Opal hid a smile at the sight of spines straightening everywhere. She looked over towards the stoves and caught Kai’s eye. He tilted his head towards the fresh pot and winked. Asami glanced around the bustling kitchen with a practiced eye, and nodded with approval at the careful choreography of food preparation.
“I really need to give Lin some grief for this. This is the third batch of interns she’s sent over that had at least one person utterly unsuited for this kitchen. Good morning, everyone!” she added more loudly.
An answering chorus of “Good morning, Chef!” followed her into her office. She sat down at her desk and powered up her computer. Opal appeared a few minutes later with two perfectly pulled shots of espresso. She handed one to Asami and then sank down into a second chair next to Asami’s desk.
Asami sipped carefully and sighed.
“You know, your espresso is one of the reasons I made you sous chef.”
Opal stuck her tongue out.
“Ha, you’re funny. So, any adjustments with the menu I should know about or should I just plan on being surprised? And by the way, I think the line cooks have a betting pool going on how long you can keep doing last minute switches before I kill you.”
Asami chuckled, taking a second sip of her espresso while she browsed her email. Two requests for interviews that she continued to avoid, another offer from Varrick to open a restaurant in his new hotel that she definitely was going to ignore, and then her hand froze, spotting a lone email sent late last night from someone she really didn’t want to talk to. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Then she turned brightly back to Opal.
“As it so happens, I found some good stuff at the farmer’s market this morning, but I’ll let you decide what you want to do with it. How’s that for generosity?”
She reached into her duffle bag and pulled out a package wrapped in paper. Opal unwrapped it curiously then gasped when it was revealed to be a large mason jar full of fresh golden honeycomb. She held it up to the light reverently and blushed as she caught Asami watching her affectionately.
“Is this the only jar you got?”
“Sadly yes. I managed to get the last one, and I almost caused a riot in the process. And honestly, this is a gift for you for your birthday.”
Opal leapt up to give her a hug. “You are the best boss ever! But you know what, I’ll let Kya know I have it in case we get a special customer that needs their world rocked tonight.”
Kya was Sato Grill’s pastry chef, and loved to do custom deserts on the fly for favored customers. She was the most seasoned chef in the kitchen and had owned several restaurants herself, but now considered herself happily semi-retired in Asami’s kitchen where she was allowed to do whatever she wanted when it came to deserts and not have to worry about anything else.
Asami laughed. “Well, it’s yours to do with as you will, or Kya’s will as the case may be, but I do hope you save yourself some. I know it’s your favorite.”
Opal downed the last of her espresso and stood up, cradling the jar of honeycomb carefully in the crook of her elbow.
“Okay, I’m back to terrorizing the interns and other important aspects of kitchen management. Thanks again for this lovely gift! Nobody will believe me when I tell them you actually got me a birthday present.”
“No need to tell anyone. I’d prefer to keep my reputation as a raging bitch intact, thank you. Nobody would take me seriously otherwise.”
Opal shook her head. “Asami, you’re one of the kindest people I know and that is no crime.”
“It is in the culinary world, I’m afraid.” Asami sighed, knowing she couldn’t put this next bit off any longer. “By the way, and speaking of raging bitchiness, did you see the article on Sato Grill in this week’s City Dining?” Asami asked, referring to San Francisco’s local restaurant-focused magazine.
Her sous chef paused at the door. “No, haven’t read it yet. Not good I take it?”
“It included a cute description of Sato Grill’s secret cocktail menu.”
There was a long pause. Opal pinched the bridge of her nose between thumb and forefinger. “I didn’t know… Do you want me to talk to him?” Opal finally asked, her face clearly dreading the prospect.
Asami waved the offer away. “No need. At least it was complimentary. You just know how much I like those kind of surprises.”
Opal sighed heavily and nodded, then quietly left.
Asami blew out a breath and turned back to her computer. She tapped her finger irritably on her desk, hesitating. She looked again at the glowing screen and the unread email that awaited her. Finally she cursed softly and shut down her email, bringing up her inventory spreadsheets instead. It was Friday and it was going to be a packed house and the last thing she needed to read was an awkward email from her father.
The high pitched screams of Back In Black were playing loudly from speakers propped on boxes as an olive-skinned woman with short brown hair stood working over piles of onions, garlic, peppers and fresh chilies. A pair of glitter encrusted googles protected her eyes from the fumes and she bounced slightly as she worked.
“Korra, I got the perfect thing for you!”
Korra lifted her head from where she was mid-dice of a jalapeño. She tossed her knife down on the table and peeled off a pair of bright purple latex gloves as she went to greet her friend, turning down AC/DC in passing.
“Hey Jinora, what did you get?”
Jinora glanced at the cutting board. “Sauce day I see.”
“Yeah, starting to get low. Come on, give. What did you get?”
Jinora looked around conspiratorially as she swung her backpack onto the counter next to the cutting board, then drew out what at first glance appeared to be a stale loaf of bread, but after a moment Korra realized it was covered with some kind of waxy textured substance.
“Your next secret ingredient!” Jinora handed Korra the strange item and beamed expectantly.
Korra turned it over in her hands, completely mystified. She took a cautious sniff and was rewarded by a hint of sour tanginess, and not a familiar one. Then she rubbed her thumb over the surface. It sort of felt like a cheese rind, but not one she’d ever seen or heard of…
“I give up. What the hell is this?”
Jinora laughed, pleased at Korra’s confusion.
“My friend Yaz just got back from trekking in the Himalayas and snuck a couple of these back for me. It’s some kind of cheese. Chirpy or Chim-chim-churree or hell, I don’t remember what the name is but he said it’s made from yak’s milk and it’s really good. He also had to sneak it past like a thousand customs people so you owe him.”
Korra rolled her eyes.
“I seriously don’t know what it is with you finding me new secret ingredients. It’s like you’re obsessed. Also, thanks for putting me into debt with a food smuggler named Yaz, you wench.”
Jinora moved her backpack from the table to a nearby chair before reaching in, pulling out a second log of himalayan yak cheese, a bright blue bandana, and her own set of googles. In her case they were dotted with multi-colored rhinestones. The bandana went over her long brown hair and the googles went over her beautiful dark eyes. She rubbed her hands together enthusiastically.
“Okay, so what am I prepping and where are we taking the Nagamobile today?”
Korra twirled her googles around her finger and looked at Jinora speculatively.
“Well, you could take over the stuff for the sauce or you could get the meat out of the cooler,” She paused for the inevitable and wasn’t disappointed when Jinora sprinted to the cutting board and grabbed an onion. “I seriously don’t know why you took this job when you’re a vegetarian. I make like, nothing vegetarian, ever.”
Jinora grimaced, her knife turning a large onion into tiny, precisely-sized chunks.
“I don’t mind it once it’s cooked, I swear. It’s just when it’s raw…” her voice trailed off and she visibly swallowed. “Anyway, that’s totally not true, you make vegetarian things. You just pretend you don’t to annoy me or something.”
Korra laughed and shook her head as she wrestled open the lid to her large camping cooler. Inside lay an assortment of carefully selected slabs of pork and beef sealed in plastic containers, each soaking in a deep red marinade. She grabbed a couple of containers and sloshed them around a bit, checking to see how much marinade had been absorbed.
“I’m going to go see if the grills are ready yet,” she announced. “These babies are ready to rock and roll. Also, we’re going to Fort Mason this afternoon. We got called to help feed some crazy event thing they’ve got going on — there’s going to be about six or eight food trucks I guess. The good news is that you don’t have to take payments, we’re getting a lump sum. The bad news is that it’s going to be a mob and we’ll have to work even faster than usual.”
Korra grabbed the handles on the cooler and gave a grunt as she lifted it up to carry outside.
Jinora looked over at her disapprovingly. “Korra, seriously? You’re going to kill yourself lifting that thing. I thought we agreed you were going to use the damn cart already?”
Korra groaned. “You’re too young to be my mom. It only weighs about a hundred pounds, sheesh.”
“Show off.” Jinora threw a piece of bell pepper at her as she passed. “Speaking of working hard, you said you were going to get somebody else to help you, what happened with that?” She raised her voice as Korra disappeared around the corner towards her grill pit. “Most of the other trucks have three people, and I can’t help you when I spend all the time taking orders.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Korra called back good naturedly. “Maybe you could spend some time finding somebody we would want to have help us instead of tracking down bizarro food items from the middle of bum fuck wherever.”
Korra grinned as she heard Jinora sigh heavily.