Top Transformer: “Off the Menu” by John Frain

In June 2016, the STL Scribblers participated in a 800-word writing challenge on the theme of Transformation. After a democratic vote, John Frain's twisty and wonderfully Columbo-esque story "Off the Menu" was determined the first-place winner. John received a $25 gift card to Half Price Books in University City and the glory of publication on this blog. Congratulations to John--we're very honored to present his story here.

Off the Menu

Sosuke Tanaka’s license said he understood the intricacies of preparing pufferfish. Overcooked, you lose the taste. Undercooked, you retain the poison. Two years of training, a rigorous certification test and impressive credentials landed him in one of Tokyo’s finest kitchens.

Before going home, he always studied the upcoming reservations list. The restaurant was a destination for tourists and dignitaries, and Tanaka keenly understood his patrons. He’d pick up special ingredients from the farmer’s market. Hit the docks to reel in fresh seafood. Collect herbs from his own garden. All to tailor a meal for a favorite diner or visiting VIP.

One name leaped off tomorrow’s list. Tanaka checked twice. Took the unusual step of confirming with the hostess. Before stopping by the docks, he crossed the street to a bar. Enjoyed twenty-two-year-old scotch that wafted down his throat as smooth as warm, melted chocolate.

He greeted no one upon arrival at the restaurant Friday afternoon. Walked directly to the kitchen to create the evening menu. At eight p.m., he peered through the doorway window into the dining room.

Tanaka recognized the customer at Table 12, tan jacket, patches on the elbow, regaling his guests with a story. Jonas Webster, chief editor at CollinsHarper. Tanaka, not needing his superb memory here, had submitted his flawless cookbook manuscript to Webster six years ago. He’d received a one-sentence rejection: “Sorry, didn’t make it past the appetizer.” An editor who thought he was a fucking comedian.

Took six years, but Tanaka finally uttered his reply, albeit under his breath, as he stared through the glass. “Tonight, Mr. Webster, you don’t make it to dessert.”

Tanaka prepared his specialty appetizer, a teriyaki crusted beef wrapped around asparagus and mushrooms. He had served the dish once to the prime minister of England. Rave reviews. He drizzled a raspberry sauce around the edge of the dish to resemble a hardback book cover. Special for his audience. A last supper should be exquisite.

Webster selected the wine, sloshed it in his glass and dabbed a sip across his lips before allowing the waiter to fill glasses around the table. For the meal, however, he did as important guests here did: allowed the chef to choose the menu.

After the appetizer left the kitchen, and as the sous chef worked on salads, Tanaka focused on the tiger puffer that lay before him. He left the liver inside, an act that could cost him his job, his lofty salary and his future. An act that would most certainly cost Jonas Webster his future.

Tanaka appreciated the fact that preparing the puffer incorrectly – some might say illegally – was even more difficult than a correct preparation. It’s the way it should be. Nothing worth this much should come easy. So engrossed in the moment, he didn’t hear the waiter call him twice. Finally, his masterpiece complete, Tanaka set out the entree for Table 12. He joined the waiter to ensure the correct plate found the man with patches on his elbow.

“Ah, here he is now,” the general manager said, addressing the table, but saving his longest look for Webster at the head. “Allow me to introduce Tokyo’s most awarded chef, Sosuke Tanaka.”

Applause from the diners, smiles all around. Webster leaned back, held out his hand to shake, then, remembering the customs of the country he was visiting, stood to bow.

“A more delicious meal I have never enjoyed,” Webster said.

“Was my pleasure,” Tanaka said. “Special for you.”

“Tell me,” Webster began, “how long have you been at your craft?”

“I’m a recent convert, sir. Indeed, I’ve been a master chef only the past decade. The gift was revealed to me later in life than most.”

Addressing both the chef and the general manager, Webster was effusive in his praise. “I’m sure I speak for all your guests when I say we’re fortunate that whatever you tried first did not pan out. This, my friend, is your true calling.” A toast, and the table drank in agreement.

For Tanaka, this was all unexpected. He wanted to hate the man. He wanted to enjoy seeing the man succumb to the poison in the puffer. His plan laid out so well, and now the victim was spoiling his effort by demonstrating his honor.

The puffer waited on Webster’s plate. The general manager, beaming, leaned in and said, “Please, sir, enjoy your dinner while it is hot.”

“Your hospitality is beyond reproach. I don’t know how you’ll beat that appetizer, but I’ll enjoy finding out.”

“Your kindness overwhelms,” Tanaka said. “There is only one way to save my honor.” Tanaka pulled the puffer fish from Webster’s plate and swallowed the liver, chasing it with a full glass of water.

He bowed toward Webster and returned to his kitchen for the final time.

John Frain is working on his debut novel and enjoys writing short stories and flash fiction. You can follow him on his website.

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