By Monique Hayes
The yells for creations surround Yoshi as he learns the little things. He observes the chef chopping the onions, the silky folds falling from the orb, his fingers wandering down the length of the cleaver. The chef has a muted melancholy while steam rises above his hat. His apron, covered in bruschetta crumbs and bits from basil leaves, is the result of putting his able skills to the test.� There is always calm, a timely temperance the chef uses for his seldom seen profession while he creates. The surface of the oven simmers, a small fire underneath.
It is this culinary craft that stokes him. Yoshi watches when the chef’s wrist raises to massage the dough, the way he rolls it to construct the crust. The odor of olive oil and tomato sauce finds his nostrils and he flinches from a fondness he has yet to understand. Next door, the neighbors are less enticing. Their dishes leave in simple styrofoam cases, but the smells still seek him. The tailor-made Thai food is too pungent, the accompanying paper fan a gaudy gimmick. The sculpted Swedish desserts are attractive, near ambrosia for his friends, but he never cared for cheesecake. He passes on the baked Alaska, Mississippi mud pies, and Texan barbeque, without a sliver of attachment to their scents. The mixture is beautiful, but his favorite foods have stayed the same.
Maybe, simply, it is a mixture of who and why. Who he wishes to be would make up the bulk of his culinary school application. Why he’s considering it can be found in this room, as his fellow employees race around. Some days, he imagines he has students as the red sauce drips from his ladle over thin noodles. They eagerly anticipate any flourishes Yoshi will grant them. He’d cut the pizzas in perfect triangular slices, situated into a circle, and top it off with a piece of parsley in the center. They will take written notes and wait for whatever wonder comes next. Other days, perhaps he would get wind of a critic coming from a worker. The sticky green peppers will coat his hands as he sprinkles corn niblets into the garlic risotto. He’d peer through the square window of the kitchen door as the food touches the critic’s lips, and the critic would kiss him through words in a rapturous review. Then, he will wash his hands, the dewy sweat of work disappearing.
He makes his usual return to the recipe box, where the label of “recipe” has faded. Inside, the four-by-six cards list the ingredients. They’re hidden. The print is similar to that on his grandfather’s green card, a document that tells the world where he lives. He can hop to other nations, and still be an American, nobody questioning it. The recipes have the titles of delicacies, though he knows his grandfather would say that his document is more delicate. His grandfather wants a more firm footing for Yoshi.
Books on mechanics started to appear on Yoshi’s bed. Yoshi gathered them together and set them on a desk he didn’t use. His grandfather was giving hints for his future before he could say anything. No discussions followed, though he did follow his mother’s instructions to clean the garage. This is where he found the kare-pan recipe, wedged between gyoza dumplings and miso soup recipes in the box. When he first saw the dumplings, he thought they looked like tiny bruised packages. The miso soup was too mild after the second taste. He put the kare-pan at the beginning of everything.
Yoshi mentally views a valley in black and white, as the recipes flip through his fingers. It is before he is born and his grandparents are teenagers like him. His grandmother washes her glossy black hair in a bowl of fetched water as his grandfather searches hungrily for a lick of firewood. They return to their tar-paper home, shared by many, and make a pitiful fire. His grandfather blows on the flame, sees the embers float. It is his silent sedition for a country that holds him so close. The dish is kare-pan, Japanese curry bread. They warm the bread on a board held over the fire. The curry is a luxury his grandmother had tucked away when the soldiers moved them to the internment camp. Neither the softness nor the sweetness made up for the five years they spent there. His grandfather told Yoshi about it when he was fourteen, and told him he’d never lived in a house without an oven or a toilet. He wondered aloud why there weren’t more Japanese engineers back then. Yoshi privately wondered why he couldn’t love kare-pan after hearing that.
He offered his grandfather his first attempt at garlic bread, even setting it down next to the chopsticks his grandfather wouldn’t eat without. Soy sauce-covered rice dotted its golden surface. Yoshi was careful about putting in too many cloves; they competed with the taste of the butter, a trick the chef swore by. His grandfather bit it, frowned, and then put his lips together, Yoshi viewing his tongue swirling near the roof of his mouth. Yoshi guessed he was trying to pick the remnants of the bread from his sharp teeth. He said it was the recipe’s fault it was so hard, and not his, because they never get it right, do they? Yoshi didn’t answer his question.
Since then, the order has changed. Everything at the beginning eventually became more exotic. First, there’s the card for egg drop soup. The chef manages to beat the cheese in the right places, the broth bubbling faster than his mother’s miso soup. There is the gnocchi. The chef seems gallant when making it, despite its grease staying on his fingertips. Yoshi writes and types the recipes until his own fingertips are red. If he is going to learn something different, he is going to learn it loyally.
He thinks of where it might take him as he sticks his head in the refrigerator to get a waft of icy air, embracing the cool comfort after hours in the thick of cookery. After completing culinary school, he’ll go to Venice and take a long look at what inspired the Italians, what inspired their cuisine. There are stucco buildings, with plenty of canals. Streams point the way instead of streets. His mind can wind like the cool rivers, and a singular path will show up, leading him to clarity. He’ll return to cook a single meal for his grandfather. They’d cross chopsticks and dine. It will be spaghetti, so soft as it slides down their throats. His grandfather will hug him as he digests it, and urge Yoshi to share his own recipes, a sentence that shows his flowering pride.
He washes his hands, his study done for the night. After the soap slithers off his hands, he places the recipe box under his arm to take home. He’d pour over the application with the box close, this his prompt. He looks down and picks a piece of garlic from his apron. It glints under the fluorescent lights. It feels unusual to love it.