Ma Cuisine a Moi

Perfect. I add the last touch of caramelized apple to the crème brûlée. Absolutely perfect. I shiver with delight as the scent drives up my nostrils into my brain, blanking out everything. I have to work not to fall off the countertop. Who would have thought that such a simple combination would produce something as marvelous as this?

Satisfied, I'm moving the spoon away when a drop of cream falls onto the countertop. The towels are never far away, and I grab one and wipe up the stain briskly. I can't stand any mess in my kitchen.

My kitchen.

The thought brings me up short.

It's too overwhelming to process, and I sit down heavily on the countertop. How long has it been my kitchen? And why does the full impact of realization hit me only today?

I look around at the stoves, the burners, the tiled walls in the brightly-lit space. Ever-present, I can hear the chatter of my family under the awning, the pots and pans and dishes… the hubbub of the customers outside, Colette and Linguini coming and going… and all this is my kitchen? How did I come from poison-checker to this?

Linguini passes, and gives me the thumbs-up. Something must be showing in my face, though, because he stops and leans down to my level. "Everything OK, Little Chef?"

I shake my head, gesturing around me at the restaurant, at myself. My friend sets down the tray he's holding, and kneels so that we're eye-to-eye. The concern in those big brown eyes seems to strip me of my every secret, and I smile weakly, gesturing round at the restaurant again, then tapping my chest. "I just can't… I just can't take it in. I suddenly realized that this is my kitchen, and I can't seem to believe it," I tell him.

My friend nods slowly, taking it in. "Yeah," he says slowly. "You're a rat, but you're the boss around here."

I just shake my head. For whatever reason, it's just not computing today.

Linguini's gentle, sympathetic. "I know what you're going through, believe me. Some days I wake up and I ask myself if this," his hand motion encompasses the restaurant, his marriage, and all of the above, "if this is real, or whether I'm in a dream and I'm gonna wake up soon."

"Uh…" My head just keeps shaking, rather automatically. The other 364 days I'm confident. Today is just weird.

He smiles encouragingly, chucking me under the chin with one finger. "Yeah, it's your kitchen. C'mon, be proud of it. You've earned it." I can't process it. He goes on. "Hey, the load can seem too heavy sometimes. I know all about that. If you want a vacation, just say the word."

"What's going on? The orders are piling up! " Colette comes driving through the aisle like a whirlwind, depositing three slips with "Special Order' on them in front of me where I can see them. I look at them, my interest sparked…

"Colette, we were just talking…"

But she's unimpressed. "Vite, vite! You can have your tête-à-tête some other time, boys!"

"He's having doubts, Colette!" Linguini says loudly, somewhat urgently.

All she does is look at me, long and hard. "You know better, mon Chef. I would expect this from Alfredo, but not from you!"

"Gee, thanks, Col…"

She sails on. "Dis-moi, mon Chef. Is the lunch rush any time for a crise du coeur?"

"Colette, he…"

The slips with 'Special Order' – bouillabaisse, if I remember correctly – sit there on the countertop, taunting me, tempting me. I should get cooking…

She looks at me and delivers the coup de grace. "One of the customers asked if he could have extra lime added to it." She looks at me rather cunningly, then walks away.

"What?!" Lime?! Extra lime? It would make it too acidic, it would ruin it!

"Little Chef?" Linguni reaches out a finger, but I bat it away, thinking furiously.

Extra lime? What next? Vinegar? I shudder at the thought. Somewhere in the periphery of my vision I sense Colette watching me out of the corner of her eye.

"Little Chef…"

Acidic… acidic… The flavor whirls around in my brain. But then again, in parts of the Mediterranean they add lime to almost any dish! Am I being too much of a purist?

"Let him be, Alfredo. He's working." Colette's retreating voice is definitely satisfied.

Extra lime? …How much 'extra' is 'extra'? Perhaps if I just sniffed out a bit of… I'm moving before I realize it.

Linguini's hand cuts me off as I'm rushing over to the pantry. "Little Chef, you OK?"

I tear myself away from my thoughts impatiently to look at him. "Why shouldn't I be?"

He's so puzzled I feel a little guilty. "Uh… well, you seemed a little worried, you know, a minute ago…"

Oh, yeah. What was it I was having that crisis of the heart about, anyway? I'll have to remember sometime. "I'm fine!" I call, patting his hand and rushing off to have another sniff at the bouillabaisse to determine whether this customer is a pretentious prick or whether he has the glimmering of an idea.

But the lost look in Linguini's eyes pulls me back. "You were feeling kind of, I dunno, funny about this being your restaurant…"

Sigh. The special order can wait another second while I put his mind at rest. Skidding back to where he's still kneeling, face level with the countertop, I grab his chin and kiss him on both cheeks, Gallic-style, and skid backwards to smile at him. "Thank you," I tell him. "I feel much better now I talked to you."

He smiles back, rising. "No problem, Little Chef," he says trustingly. "Sometimes we all need a minute to think about stuff, ask ourselves what's going on, you know?"

"I do," I gesture, giving him the thumbs-up as I rush off to work. I do, but – and it's the last I think about it before the lime issue blots everything out completely – the one thing I know above all else is that this is where I belong.