Michelin Star

Joshua Isard

     
   

           

                As I pulled into my parents’ driveway I saw a car I didn’t recognize on the street. My family always spends the high holidays together, just the four of us, and no one had said anything about changing that.

                I walked in and saw my cousin Jessica and her parents sitting on the living room sofa. This was the extended family for us, the people we only saw at each others’ bar and bat mitzvahs and at Thanksgiving. A few weddings. The occasional funeral.

                No one seemed to notice me even as I stood right in front of them for a moment and wondered why they were there, so I went to the kitchen where I found my mother. “Hi,” I said, “I didn’t realize you invited so many people.”

                Mom gave me a hug, and I was hit with all the sprays of perfume she'd used. "Oh, it's just Jess and her parents," she said. "I got a big tray from Ben & Irv. I hope that’s OK with you, I know it’s maybe not as good as the food you eat all the time, but this is lighter. Better for breaking the fast.”

                I have grilled cheese for lunch three days a week, and I love those little cups of Jell-O pudding. Most other chefs I know eat in a similar way.

                “I didn’t realize Jess was in town.”

                “It never happens, so when Aunt Karen called me and said she was here, I had to have them over.”

                “All right.”

                “Did you hear about her new show?”

                “I did not. What's it all about?”

                “I’ll let Karen tell you, so exciting. You're going to love it.”

                I walked out and to the living room where my dad had appeared and was now talking to his brother. Jess was sitting on the couch typing away on her phone, and her mother was next to her, looking over her shoulder as if proofreading Jess's Facebook comments.

                “Hi,” my dad said as he gave me a one arm hug.

                My uncle said, “Good to see you, Caleb,” and then shook my hand with his hairy paw.

                “Yeah, surprise,” I said. Then I looked over at Jess and said, “Hey.”

                “Hey, Caleb,” she said without looking up from her phone. Her hair was in a pony-tail and fell over her shoulder, the tips nearly grazing the screen. She wore a pink t-shirt, spandex running pants, and sneakers.

                My dad and uncle each had on khakis and polos. I wore jeans and a button down with French cuffs. My mother wore a dress.

                High holidays must mean something different on Twitter.

                “Caleb!” My aunt stood up and gave me a big hug. “So glad we get to see you over the holidays. You said hi to Jess?”

                “Well, yes. Just a second ago.”

                “She has to keep up with her fans.”

                “Fans?”

                “She has so many fans since her new show came on this month.”

                “Right, my mom told me about it. What exactly is it all about?"

                Jess had been the traffic girl on some cable network up in New York City for the last few years. Not even the weather girl, because that would require a degree.

                “It’s a cooking show.”

                “What?”

                “She has all these celebrities come on and share recipes with the audience. You would love it. Natalie from The Today Show was on with Jess last week and made these chocolate cookies to die for.”

                “Really.”

                “Oh, it’s tremendous, I have clips on my phone, let me show you.”

                As she brought out her phone, which was in some sort of bejeweled case, I said, “Thanks Aunt Karen, maybe in a minute, I just need to excuse myself.”

                I walked past my dad and uncle and upstairs to the bathroom. I locked the door, turned on the fan, and splashed water on my face. A lot of water, like they do in the movies. I soaked my skin, and when I looked up into the mirror a few wet locks of hair were hanging down over my forehead and there were dark patches on my shirt. This is why no one does it in real life.

                Fucking cooking show.

 

***

 

                Earlier that day, before getting in the car to go to my parents' house, I walked through the empty dining room of my restaurant, sweeping up anything we’d missed last night, just as I would if we were opening at the usual time. But then I did another walk through, swept again. All for no one.

                I’ve always closed the restaurant on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even though I don’t go to shul and I don’t fast. It just feels right.

                After sweeping I set the tables by the street side windows, in case anyone looked in. I even considered lighting candles on them but figured that if the place burned down insurance wouldn't cover it. I went outside and looked at them, came back in and tugged at the tablecloths a little, then went back out and saw that they didn’t look any different.

                Last week, between the two holidays, my place had been written up in The New York Times. They’d said that if Michelin went to Pennsylvania, The Grouse would get a star.

                I hadn't told my family about this. I knew what my mom would say: “Michelin? The tire people? They’re here, I have them on my Altima.” It wouldn’t be worth the explanation.

                When I left I locked the door and shook it for a few seconds to make sure it was bolted. Then I stepped back and looked at my place, my gastro-pub away from things. I knew every employee by name, and several customers as well. I used every culinary skill I had for that menu, taught myself the economics of restaurants to open it, and built a small but loyal following of local foodies.

                But when I got in the car to go home I felt my stomach tighten at the thought of telling my parents about my greatest accolade to date.

 

***

 

                Once Aunt Karen told me about Jess, though, I knew that no review could compare.

                I opened the bathroom drawers and found a comb to put my hair back into place, then dabbed a towel at my shirt so it would dry as quickly as possible. I went downstairs to the dining room, where my mother was putting down the place settings.

                “Mom, where is Jordan?”

                “He had a surgery today,” she said. “He’ll be here.”

                “OK.”

                I went back to the living room and poured myself a generous Hendricks and tonic. Then I sat on one of the chairs in the corner of the room, the ones there more for decoration than anything, and tried to subtly fan my shirt.

                My mother came in from the kitchen and sat on the couch next to Aunt Karen and Jess.

                "So," my mom said, "tell me how Hoda was in person."

                "Oh, her scone recipe was wonderful," Karen said. "And she was so nice. Right, Jess?"

                Jess looked up and smiled. "Oh yeah.  A beautiful person. And the energy she had was just amazing."

                I wondered if Jess even heard who my mom had asked about.

                "I knew it," my mom said.

 

***

 

                That old joke about the first Jewish president, how his mother looked at the person next to her and said, “See him taking the oath? His brother’s a doctor"—it’s out of date. My brother's a doctor and my mother doesn’t care about either of us.

                He’s just another Jewish thoracic surgeon.

                And I’m just another self loather. Except that I’m not. My mother thinks I am because I don’t serve matzo ball soup at The Grouse, at least not her idea of it. I include a touch of cayenne pepper in the matzo meal and serve it in a miso broth, but that doesn’t count for her. That’s not real matzo ball soup.

                No one ever orders it anyway. I put it on the menu every April more out of guilt than anything else.

                Mom thinks that my brother and I haven’t done anything newsworthy.

                Except that the BBC wrote a feature on Jordan when he worked on a way to perform lung lobectomies without having to keep a drainage tube in the patient’s chest, which cuts post-op infection rates.

                Even before the Times article, my restaurant was described by several sites and blogs as a deconstruction of traditional Pennsylvania country cooking. All I did was look at the local ingredients in north Montgomery County and think up the best dishes I could. They’re venison heavy, which I thought would be a problem, but it's become my specialty.

                My brother’s a doctor, my uncle’s a lawyer, all my parents' friends have grandchildren… no one seems to care about that.

                Jess, though, she’s on television. That’s where the pride is now.

                And as I watched Jess type on her phone I thought about what my father once said, that I ought to make my website more elaborate than a listing of the restaurant's hours, address, and menu. That I should be on Facebook and Twitter, that I should place a Google ad. He thinks the goal is filling tables, and an empty seat on a Wednesday night is revenue lost.

                But that's not it.

                I'm not into becoming a restaurateur, or all the reviews, nice as they are.

                I'd say it's happiness, but that's like saying the most important thing about food is its goodness—totally meaningless.

                My favorite moment so far while owning The Grouse was when I was having a beer at the bar and a customer came up to me and said, "I have never had a sauce like that with any type of sausage. What's in it?"

                "Old Bay."

                "No."

                And then I talked to him about preparation, searing the sausages, getting a feel for the spices as I worked on the dish, how the first time I made it I couldn't even finish the food but by the fifth or six time I knew there was some proportion where the spice and the meat fit together perfectly as gears in a clock.

                He asked about technique, utensils, temperature, and I offered to buy him a beer and discuss it, but he said that his wife was in the parking lot and he had to go. Another time then, we agreed.

 

***

 

                We each made a bagel with cream cheese, lox, whitefish salad, and various vegetables. I made mine, pressed it down, then cut it in half. My mother did the same. My father and his brother didn't even try, they stretched their mouths open wide and bit into their sandwiches, ended up with bits of whitefish and tomato seeds on the sides of their lips.

                Jess didn't eat a bagel. She took small portions of the fish and some vegetables, arranged them in a circle on her plate, and ate with one hand while she held her phone with the other, scrolling through something with flicks of her thumb.

                No one really conversed. Their cheeks were like pouches, the kind I've seen on rodents, but as I thought that I caught myself doing the same thing, stuffing bite after bite into my mouth until I had to concentrate on chewing and swallowing. I thought that it must be the food—without rich flavors what's the point of taking your time? But I couldn't convince myself of that. It's just how I am around my family.

                I didn't know who Natalie from The Today Show was and couldn't be quite sure if Hoda was a foreign name or a rapper's nickname. I had to look them up when I got home that night. But I knew neither of them could bake. I can't bake. There's this baker in Brooklyn who started off making amazing breads, just had a knack for it, but she wasn't satisfied. She started taking science classes at community college and designed the perfect brick oven, made her own fan layout in a custom design to improve convection. Now she makes a living selling her breads to five or so restaurants on the east coast. I tried to get some for The Grouse, but her secretary told me I'd be in the forties on the waiting list, then quoted me a price that would throw off my profit margin.

                When I finally tasted her breads, it would have been worth it. They're so well baked that the hard crusts break almost without crumbs, and each bite melts when you chew it. I didn't know grains could do that.

                But I'm sure Natalie's chocolate cookies are fantastic.

 

***

 

                Jordan came in and slammed the door behind him, not out of anger but because he rushed.

                "Sorry," he said. "People are dying on holidays too."

                "You lost your patient?"

                "We'll see," he said. "She's alive for now. Where's the food?"

                My mother took him to the dining room and showed him the tray. He had an overflowing bagel on his plate in a few minutes and sat down on the couch next to Jess, then took a huge bite. He seemed to get more of it in his mouth than even my dad and uncle.

                "Nothing gives you an appetite like having your hands in some poor girl's lungs for a few hours, right?"

                "Come on, Jordan," I say.

                "Sorry," he said, then he took another big bite. "Oh, and Jess, I heard about your show."

                Jess looked up at Jordan for a second. "Thanks," she said. "Have you seen most of the episodes?"

                "Haven't seen any," Jordan said. "I'm at work during the day."

                "Oh, well, lots of people DVR it."

                "Yeah, I have like four seasons of Archer I'm not willing to part with quite yet."

                "OK," Jess said, then turned back down to her phone.

                "She has a lot of Twitter fans," Aunt Karen said. "How did you find out about the show?"

                "Your gynecologist works at my hospital," Jordan said. "Is that what you do there, kvell about your daughter? Because I'd hate to tell you what'd come out of my mouth if someone stuck a speculum anywhere near me."

                "Jordan," my mother said. My dad laughed a little and tried to hide it by taking a sip of his drink.

                My aunt held it together, with obvious effort. "I'm very proud of her," she said.

                "I'm sure you are," Jordan said. "Hopefully celebrities are easier on food than they are on their marriages."

                He took another bite and smiled at me. Then, with his mouth still half full, he asked, "When's Caleb going to be on?"

                I felt myself sink into the cushion of my chair.

                "Oh," Karen said, "that's an idea."

                "Sure," my mom said, "That might be good promotion for your restaurant. What do you think, Jess?"

                Jess's thumbs stopped moving for a moment, then started again, then she looked up. "Caleb," she said, "on the show? I don't know, I'll have to ask the producers." Then she smiled like she'd practiced doing it, which she probably had.

 

***

 

                Jess and her parents left right after we had dessert: an assortment of pastries that came in a plastic container from the Acme down the road. As they walked out the door we all gave each other hugs, restrained ones, the single arm around the shoulder indicating the desire to seem polite but also the regret at ever having come in the first place. Jordan smiled wide the whole time like a child who knows he's done something wrong and is happy about the mischief he caused.

                Mom and Dad then went to the kitchen and started cleaning up. Jordan went downstairs to turn on the baseball game, but I followed and stopped him before he picked up the remote control.

                "What the fuck is the matter with you?"              

                "What?"

                "You're such a jackass," I said. "When it's just the four of us, whatever, but when we have guests at least one other person in this family ought to act civilized."

                "Oh come on, lighten up, it's just the cousins. We haven't seen them since Zayda's funeral, who cares what they think of us?"

                "Well why should they think badly of us?"

                “Look, I'm sorry that my superego takes a break some days, or rather, that those days are awkward for my little brother."

                "Some days?"

                "I spent my afternoon cleaning the blood out of some fucker's lung so that in a few months she can breathe normally again, and then maybe look both ways when she rides her bike across a five way intersection. My attitude comes with doing that all the time."

                "It comes with your fucked up mind."

                "The job fucked up my mind. Or fucked it up worse. Welcome to the front lines of medicine, Caleb, you should hear the shit we say when someone dies. Maybe the next time we lose a patient I'll take the whole surgical team to The Grouse."

                "I'd appreciate it if you didn't."

                "Yeah, well, gas prices are a little high at the moment to drive out to you anyway. Can I watch baseball, now?" Jordan then grabbed the remote from the arm of the couch and let himself fall into the seat.

                "How am I a part of this family?"

                "What?"

                "Between the way you guys eat, the celebrity worship, your mouth—none of it makes sense to me."

                "Oh, the poor, misunderstood chef. Sit down. Sit your aching fucking balls down and take a breath."

                I did, I sat in the middle of the couch. Then I grabbed the remote from him. "I don't get baseball, either."

                "Uncivilized," he said.

                We sat in silence for a moment. Jordan started twiddling his thumbs, then reclined and put his feet up on the coffee table, then started to whistle.

                “Shut up.”

                “Hey, you won’t let me watch the game.”

                "I know I'm not under the same pressure you are, but you know what, I do feel a little misunderstood."

                "Pressure? My job isn't a Queen song, there's no pressure. I just love fixing people. And not so they can live full happy lives, I love having done it. When someone walks out of the hospital who would have died without me I feel like my dick's as long as an eighteen wheeler."

                "That's great, but it's not what I'm talking about."

                "No, you’re talking about your own unfathomable complexities without thinking about whether or not you understand someone else—your brother, even. You want to be liked, and appreciated, and told how good your sautéed pig colons are, and you feel like shit because Mom and Aunt Karen can't get enough of Jess's lavish celebrity chef lifestyle. But you won't even tell them about your New York Times article.  You’d rather be misunderstood than give them a way to understand."

                "How did you know about that?"

                "I have a Google news alert set up for you."

                "That's creepy."

                "It'd be creepy if you were my new intern. You're my brother, I want to know what's up with you."

                "Thanks."

                "So why don't you tell Mom and Dad? It'll stop the Jess kvelling."

                “Yeah,” I said, “that drives me nuts."

                "Clearly. Do you know how many Twitter followers Jess has? A hundred and twelve."

                "How do you know that?"

                "Because I'm one of them. It's hilarious, her tweets are hardly in English."

                "I've never seen a tweet. I don't even have an account."

                "I know, get with the fucking 21st century already or move out to Amish country and make some gourmet butter. At least do a web search of Jess. The first thing that comes up is this blog called 'Jessica Schumer’s Insane Outfits.'"

                "So?"

                "So her biggest internet presence is dedicated to how she's got the same ability to coordinate clothes as a colorblind autistic child. You saw what she was wearing tonight. That was an insane outfit for atoning."

                "None of that is really the point."

                "Yes it is. If running your restaurant and making the food you do doesn't make you feel like you can rape and pillage through the whole state with impunity, let alone forget about your cousin's daytime TV segment who’s biggest demographic is head trauma patients, then what the fuck are you doing?"

                "Nothing makes me want to rape and pillage."

                "It's a metaphor, Caleb."

                "I know."

                "Well there's your problem. When you put a new dish on your menu you ought to feel like that. When I finish a good arthroscopic wedge resection, I feel like I took that whore of a tumor and had my way with it so well that it asked to go again."

                "That's disgusting."

                "Whatever, I love it, and I just want it again and again. People think its great that I save lives, and I've used pickup lines about how wonderful it is to just see the patient live, but it's not about that. It's me versus the disease, and nothing's better than a victory."

                "I doubt I'll ever have one."

                "Then you're in the wrong line of work."

 

***

 

                When I was back at The Grouse that weekend I looked at how many of which dishes we'd served in the last few weeks. Almost a third of our customers ordered the venison steak. That dish has never come up in a review. There's nothing special about it, the sous chef and I just decided it would be a good, simple dish, easy to prepare, hard to mess up, fill out the menu a bit. It’s been our most popular dish.

                My instinct was to make a sauce, a rub, a seasoning for it, something to make it more than a glorified piece of meat hacked off the side of a dead animal. But then, maybe people wouldn't order it.

                Eight people in the last two weeks have ordered the terrine appetizer. I spent half a year getting that the way I wanted.

                I walked back into the kitchen and asked one of the cooks to make me one.

                Eight. It probably shouldn't even be on the menu in that case.

                When mine was done, I took it out to the bar and poured myself a draft of Chimay to go with it.

                I'm not taking it off the menu. Screw it that most of my customers order the salad or crab or garlic bread. This is good. It's so so good.

     
        return to fiction
 

Joshua Isard is the author of the novel, Conquistador of the Useless (2013), and the director of Arcadia University's MFA program in creative writing. His short stories have appeared in numerous journals such as The Broadkill Review, StoryChord and Northwind. He lives outside of Philadelphia.