A Dish Served Cold
Jeremy gazed around the kitchen in a daze. It was well-stocked, he’d give them that. Fancy-looking gadgets and gizmos gleamed from the racks behind him, and the worktop in front heaved with ingredients; fresh vegetables, herbs and spices, fancy oils. Oh, and a naked male corpse.
“You have two hours,” said a snooty-looking man in chef’s whites, “to create a delicious main course from the ingredients in front of you. It must be original, it must be delicious – but most of all, it must be perfectly cooked."
“Yeah,” said a man in a cheap-looking suit beside him. “’Cos we’re judgin’ you like we’d judge professional chefs. An’ your time starts – now!”
A siren honked from somewhere above, and out of the corner of his eye Jeremy saw the other two contestants bolt into action like rabbits out of a trap. He stared down at the bloated body in front of him, studying its face. It was no-one he knew, thank God – but at the same time it looked like every restaurant owner Jeremy had ever trashed in his weekly food review column. How on earth was he supposed to turn this poor sod into dinner? If push came to shove he could rustle up a mean Spag Bol, but he’d never cooked a person before…
He shot a sneaky sideways glance at the contestant on his left, who was grunting with the effort of tugging at his corpse’s head like he was trying to rip it off. As if feeling Jeremy’s gaze on him, he turned and grinned, flashing rotten teeth through his equally rotten lips. “Braaaaiiiinnnns,” he said.
Jeremy turned away with a shudder. This was not his area of expertise. As a celebrated restaurant critic, his job was to judge other people’s culinary efforts – but that didn't mean he had to know anything about the process behind them. In fact, he liked to think it was his very lack of knowledge in that area that made his damning reviews so hilariously caustic. Not for nothing was he known as ‘The Butcher’ in the world of food reviewers; featuring in his column was an ‘honour’ restaurant owners had learned to fear rather than welcome. But, as Jeremy had always maintained, he was simply giving the public what they wanted -- which was clever snark and witty put-downs, not honest opinions about the food…
“You have one hour and thirty minutes left,” said Snooty Chef Bloke.
Jeremy’s heart almost jumped into his throat. In a panic he glanced at the contestant on his right, who was clearly well ahead of the game and already sipping a glass of wine and weighing out some fava beans. Dragging his unconventional protein source towards a strategically-placed chopping-board, he tried to remember the wall chart he’d seen in butchers shops with the cow divided up in dotted lines. Could you apply that to a human? Even as he debated whether any of the meat on this particular specimen could be described as ‘lean,’ it seemed as if its dead eyes were looking into his soul. Silently mocking him -- Ha! Not as easy as it looks, is it?
No, it wasn't. And if Jeremy couldn't pull something out of the bag, he would soon be judged too. Harshly, like he’d judged others in the past. And probably unfairly. He stared down at the corpse.
Okay, he thought, I've been a tool. Sorry. But if I can win this thing I promise I’ll make it up to you. All of you.
Jeremy picked up his creation, dread creeping up his spine. So far things had gone badly; these two were merciless critics. Snooty Chef Bloke dismissed Contestant One’s dish as tacky and unimaginative, citing Chianti as being a “‘nineties” choice of wine. Cheap Suit Bloke complained he’d be the picking the bits of skull in Contestant Two’s effort from his teeth for weeks to come. And now, as Jeremy presented his dish, they looked down their noses at it with equal disdain.
His palms began to sweat as they prodded at it with their forks and lifted a small sample to their mouths. They chewed in silence, squinting as if the action was an ordeal. Then Cheap Suit Bloke put his fork down and frowned.
“You clearly know nothin’ about cookin’,” he said. “It’s bloody ‘orrible. What d’you call it?”
“The only thing I could, under the circumstances” said Jeremy. “Humble Pie.”
The two Blokes grimaced at each other in a code Jeremy evidently wasn't meant to understand, and his pulse thudded in his veins as the silence stretched into what felt like infinity. Then they both turned to him with dispassionate faces. “Well,” said Snooty Chef Bloke, “’humble’ is the one thing you should be about this effort. But since you've acknowledged that – and the other entrants’ offerings were even worse than yours – we’re left with little choice but to declare you the winner.”
“Congratulations,” added Cheap Suit Bloke. “You get to go back. But when you get there, for God’s sake buy yerself a cookbook.”
Awareness came in a rush; the antiseptic smell, the intermittent beep of a nearby machine – but most of all, the feeling of being alive. Jeremy opened his eyes to the glare of fluorescent strip-lighting and the reassuring face of the cardiac consultant.
“The operation was a success,” he said, “but we almost lost you at one point – your heart stopped beating for a full two minutes. You’ll need to make some serious lifestyle changes if you don’t want to end up back here in the future.”
Jeremy nodded. “I’ll cut down on the booze and rich food for a start,” he said.
“You won’t get any while you’re recuperating anyway,” said the consultant. “It’ll be plain hospital food here.” He arched an eyebrow as he scribbled on his clipboard. “And I'm sure you’ll have plenty to say about that.”
Jeremy smiled. “Not this time,” he said.