His Last Dinner
published February 19th, 2004 :: issue 4
The dining room waiters at the F.Point Room were busy setting the giant table for twelve with polished wine glasses of crystal, each with distinct curves and different bell or tulip shapes. The students of the Culinary Academy, in this case acting as the wine staff for the week, had been divided into two teams. Team one was responsible for steaming and polishing the glasses, and team two then carried them, in hands protected by linen napkins, to be arranged around the table. Because the table was being set for the president of the Academy, they all tried diligently to place the glasses in the exact same spot at each of the twelve places. The front waiters were adjusting the silver utensils with equal assiduity. The goal was to have a floral charger plate in the middle, with rows of silver coming out on either side, with three more pieces at the top; a line of wine glasses contrasted the lustrous silver with almost invisible transparency.
Chef Stolz was in the kitchen directing his students as they prepared their stations, checking their assignment sheets dutifully. The chef had planned a meal that was beyond the nascent talents of the students in the school. He was preparing a seven-course extravaganza for the president and his guests from Europe. The two of them worked together in Europe before coming to America, more or less as a team. Their relationship never felt personal to Stolz, but he had a great deal of respect for Wahnsen and certainly owed him for getting him the job as an instructor at the school.
Josef Wahnsen had worked himself into a bundle of stress over the dinner at the Academy. He did not feel altogether comfortable entertaining the Wine Consortium, because he himself had at one time trafficked in illegal, or at the least unethical, sales of wine when in Europe. The circumstances, he felt, had somehow contrived against him. The wine industry representatives were promoting a new worldwide system of accountability for the labeling of wine bottles, and a dinner at the Culinary Academy was a planned stop for them while in the United States. The only person who had any inkling that Wahnsen bought and sold illegal black market wine was Leon Stolz, who now ran the restaurant at the school.
As the students worked in teams to set up the dining room and organize the stations in the kitchen for the dinner, Chef Stolz sat at his desk and went over the menu. He hoped they would be able to pull off the spit-roasted wild duck, a dish he had never before tried with the students. The idea was for the birds to be mounted onto antique swords and carried into the dining by the students, and then flamed with cognac tableside and carved for the president and his guests. He devoted himself completely to the meal, seeing every course, each garnish, including wild mushrooms he foraged himself from the woods behind the school during the week, as a gratification to Wahnsen for bringing him to America to teach at the Academy.
Wahnsen spent most of the afternoon stuck in traffic. He planned to meet the wine team at the Academy at seven, give them a short tour of the building, and then lead them to the flagship restaurant for dinner. Business had been booming for the school’s restaurants, with weekend reservations filling up far in advance. He hadn’t had time to visit the restaurants lately, since he spent most weekends in the city at the apartment of a single lady he met some months back, and when that wore off with another lady, a secret he managed to keep from his family. He never read the memos from Stolz about the menu and the dishes, and when Stolz wrote again and asked if they were okay he told his assistant to reply with a yes, they looked delightful. Stolz had been putting far more time and energy into this dinner than he wanted him to. Wahnsen hoped he could get it over with as quick as possible. They were coming to him for an endorsement from the school for their new labeling system, and he would oblige them, be diplomatic at the dinner, and hopefully never have to hear from them again. Stolz had embraced the opportunity to prepare a special menu for Wahnsen and some overzealous wine merchants, and he acted as if it were the high point of his career. The problem was that as Wahnsen got older he looked back on his life and the decisions he had made. He made a lot of money during the wine scandal back in the 1970’s, and at the time it didn’t bother him at all. But now he saw it as something that could jeopardize his position at the Academy, and it would surely come out in the press, as well. After a long career in the hospitality business, both in Europe and America, his name would be ruined. He would never be able to work again with any respect from his current peers. When Stolz, who at the time of the scandal was below him in rank at the hotel, came across the wine bottles hidden a basement storage room he immediately started asking questions. He got too close to Wahnsen and his own idea of how things worked, and the only solution at the time was to wave a job offer at the Academy in front of his face. It got Stolz out of Europe, and it focused his attention on other things, like students and teaching, and improving the industry by shaping its future leaders. In retrospect he should have hired someone to just make him disappear. But instead, Stolz came to the Academy with him. Now he couldn’t get away from him, and it was cracking his confidence slowly.
Stolz ordered his students to open the oysters for the president with extra special care. He didn’t want a single drop of the precious liquid that tasted of the sea to be lost. They were opening the shells and setting them out on a salt tray in the kitchen, to be carefully stored in the refrigerator until Wahnsen and the party arrived. The rest of the dishes were proceeding as planned. On each station in the kitchen there was a different component to the meal. The students who made the soups had prepared a special consommé of red beets, into which they would place small-diced cooked beets, and a dollop of sour cream and minced chives. All of this final garnishing would happen in the dining room, tableside. On the fish station they were preparing the Dover sole course. They had the fish already cleaned and portioned into individual pieces, they were just waiting for the chef to give them the signal to lay them gently in the poaching broth. Stolz was most concerned with the meat course, the wild ducks. They were already turning slowly on the rotisserie in the kitchen. When they were finished they would be transferred carefully to the swords. It was important that they be handled in such a way as not to break them in pieces during the transfer, so the crispy skin and luscious meat was in one piece as it began its journey to the table. Stolz had already painfully instructed the two waiters who would serve the duck on how to pour the brandy over the birds in an even fashion. The highly flammable liquor could burn them badly, or even catch the table on fire, ruining the meal and embarrassing Stolz and the young cooks and waiters he had so proudly trained. The birds would then be turned slowly on the swords, back and forth, as the waiters walked around the table for each of the guests to see. Each guest would receive a half of a duck, and separating each bird into two halves while mounted on a sword in the dining room in front of the president provided a challenge in and of itself. Stolz hoped the guests would recognize this dish as what it really was, and ode to the Italian Carvers of the royal court of the Medici Family. It was an ingenious way to combine the history of a European dish into an exciting preparation that appealed to and stimulated the senses. This was his way to show Wahnsen and the wine merchants that he understood what they had all devoted their lives to, the promotion of European food and tradition.
When Wahnsen met the guests in the foyer to the Academy, he hastened his greeting of the large group. He hustled them down the main hallway towards the two display classrooms that were the first stop on any tour of the Academy. He thought if he could get this part over with as quickly as possible, they could enter the dining room early and begin the dinner. Stolz had assumed the dinner would begin at 7:45 pm, and timed the completion of his dishes with this in mind. He found that when executing dishes of this caliper, especially when dealing with students who lacked a great deal of experience, it was not possible to change plans at the last minute. The other, regular guests of the restaurant that night had already begun to trickle in, and now Stolz and his students were occupied with preparing the standard menu items. All of the dishes for Wahnsen’s table were either already in progress, or the ingredients were sufficiently organized such that when the dinner began the students could easily assemble them as the other diners’ meals continued, but all were based upon a specific timeline.
Around the table a group of students fussed with the linen napkins, folded atop the charger plates, and moved a wine glass a half an inch to line it up, or slid a chair back just a hair to be in line with the rest of them. The dining room manager had assigned six students to watch over the president’s table and insure that everything that should be there was. Wahnsen was working his way down the hallway towards the restaurant when one of the guests, who oversaw the wine industry in the Bordeaux region of France, walked ahead of the others he was with in the tour, and came up next to him.
He asked him, “So I understand the F.Point Room is under the direction of Leon Stolz. I found his contribution to last month’s Wine Connoisseur fascinating. Will there be an opportunity for us to meet Chef Stolz personally?”
“His contribution to the Wine Connoisseur?” Wahnsen responded his question, hoping he didn’t sound too alarmed.
“Yes, he wrote an insightful essay in which he spoke of the nature of the illegal wine trade that existed in Europe during the 1970’s. His knowledge of the subject is of particular interest to our consortium,” the man said. He spoke of Stolz as if he found him terribly exciting.
Wahnsen continued alongside the man as they approached the doors to the restaurant at the end of the hallway. “Well, Chef Stolz is very busy here at the Academy, tonight may not be the best time to disturb him. His hands are quite full running our restaurant, and keeping all the students in line,” Wahnsen faked a smile and laughed nervously. “Perhaps on another visit there will be more time to visit with Chef Stolz,” he added.
Wahnsen wondered what this paper was, and how Stolz had the time to submit an article to a wine magazine while running the F.Point Room. He wished the party were smaller. A group of eleven guests expecting to be treated to dinner was quite rude, he thought. He felt outnumbered, and hoped they could get in and finish the dinner without anymore questions about Stolz, or talk of the black market in the 1970’s. He had no idea Stolz was still concerned with the wine business, either.
When they got to the double doors, the restaurant’s dining room manager-instructor greeted them with a warm smile, and bent to receive a kiss on the cheek from the president. She waited for him to oblige, and he looked at her in her black evening dress, trying to remember her name. He had to interview her as part of a panel when they had hired her two years before. His contact with her since had been minimal, and as he saw the shimmering diamond wedding band on her finger he felt guilty for having entertained thoughts of an affair with her after she started.
“Welcome President Wahnsen, and to all of you with the Wine Consortium, we are delighted to have you as our guests here in the F.Point Room,” she said. There were two students at her side whose job was to hang the coats of the guests as they arrived. “Chef Stolz has planned a very special meal for you tonight, and if you will follow our student dining room captain for the evening, Jeffrey, your table is ready,” She pointed to a young man who waited at the entrance to the dining room. He smiled and opened his arms in a gesture as if to say please, come this way, I am here to serve you.
Wahnsen looked over the student’s shoulder and saw the rectangular table in the middle of the dining room. It stood like a barge floating in the middle of a sea of smaller tables, whose guests behind cross-backed chairs watched like foreign sailors leaning over railings as the distinguished crew entered the room. There were tall white candles already burning at the table, and each seat had an impossible number of glasses. How many courses were we to be served, he thought to himself. The dining room looked full. He searched desperately for an empty table; some signification that tonight was an off night, one not as busy as the restaurant had been every other Friday for months straight. The student host led the president and the others to the table.
Stolz had momentarily left his command post in the center of the kitchen to look through the round window in the double doors that went between the kitchen and dining room. He watched Wahnsen walk into the dining room wearing a navy blue suit, followed by the large group of Europeans, all men. He hoped he would have an opportunity to visit the dining room later and introduce himself. He considered this a personal touch that he performed each night in the F.Point Room, stopping at each table and thanking the guests for their patronage. Wahnsen had been hard to reach for the last several weeks, and Stolz had even went upstairs to his office at the beginning of the week. Stolz didn’t know if Wahnsen expected him to approach the table after dinner, and he thought he would just play it by ear and wait to be asked. As soon as they were seated, Stolz waited at the window for another moment to make sure the waiters began their wine service of the table, his cue that it was time to send the first item from the kitchen. He walked back to his post happily, and anxiously ordered the first course for the president.
“Okay guys, let’s pull out the oysters. Remember, just like we talked about. One oyster per plate; it’s only a small taste, a gift from us to them,” he talked to the whole kitchen of students, and he expected everyone to join him in his enthusiasm over the execution of his masterpiece meal. “Okay, that looks good,” he said as the two students placed each diminutive half-shell on a small white plate. Next to them were twelve demitasse spoons, which he instructed them to place diagonally next to each shell, so that the round end of the spoon rested flat on the plate, with the handle sticking off the edge. “Put the sauce on the tray, and they’ll finish it in the dining room,” he instructed them. A cruet of a sauce of shallots and vinegar was placed on the tray as the two student servers carried it into the dining room.
The students went conscientiously through the doors and set the tray on the rolling cart next to the president’s table. The six servers placed the plates, one at a time, on top of the pastel charger plates. Jeffrey followed with the sauce and filled each spoon. He then recited the description of the dish that he had practiced each night before going to bed. “Chef Stolz welcomes you to the F.Point Room tonight, and he sends you this small taste from the kitchen to excite your palates for the meal. It’s a pacific oyster, served with a sauce of champagne vinegar, cracked black pepper, and minced shallots, please enjoy.”
The guests admired the miniature plate with the spoon balanced just right so as to not spill the sauce. Everyone was clearly impressed, and Wahnsen watched their expressions and they poured the spoon over the quivering muscle and speared it with the matching miniature fork provided at the side of the place setting. What kind of techniques was he using now? He had never seen an oyster served with a spoon of sauce before. He didn’t think a raw oyster, no matter how good it was, was appropriate for a dinner at a culinary school who prided itself on teaching its students the most advanced techniques in the world. Wahnsen picked up the oyster fork and tried to spear the oyster, missing and jabbing into the shell. He tried again and caught it just by the alluvial edge. He brought it to his mouth hanging off a single tine of the fork and dripped juice on his chin. He wiped his face with a napkin and stuffed it back into his lap. The first wine was a California sparkling wine, and he took a sip, thinking they should have served real champagne. Well Stolz may have been able to write an article about the wine industry, but he knew nothing of enjoying it, clearly.
In actuality Chef Stolz prided himself on his dedication not just to food and cooking, but also on his appreciation and knowledge of the wines of the world. He wanted to be more than just a chef who was aware that wines served to complement food, or someone who had some perfunctory knowledge of different kinds of wine. He knew that true gastronomes spend as much time with wine as they do food, and he had studied appropriately his whole life. The article he submitted the previous year spoke to his desire to be seen as a leader in the worldwide hospitality industry. He was familiar with the issues the industry faced, such as truth in wine labels, and had clearly dedicated himself to the world of culinary arts by teaching at the Culinary Academy. His conscience wanted him to police the industry for fraud, but his heart told him to just cook, and to look for the secret to life in the perfect preparation. He was in search of the perfect balance, between ingredients, and in his own life.
The guests at the table were delighted with the single oyster. Several had commented to the president on the austere, yet brilliant dish. They were also positive about the wine served, and seemed diplomatic about the American sparkling wine. The dining room manager, Julianne Moore, was checking in on the table every so often to make sure things were going okay. She walked by and watched as the students cleared the first course. They were doing a great job. They opened two bottles of the sparkling wine for twelve people, and had more on ice just in case. Everyone’s glass was almost empty, meaning they had successfully poured equally sized glasses, which was a triumph in her eyes. The only person who had already emptied his flute was the president. She hoped that was because he enjoyed the wine so much, not because he had not been poured a full glass. The kitchen had already timed the next course. The oyster plate and the first row of dirty silver had been removed. The six servers, led by Jeffrey, set down the twelve appetizer plates, and two of them picked up the already opened bottles of wine and began pouring. Chef Stolz had prepared a torchon of foie gras, with a row of black truffles in the middle of it. Rather than slice the cold terrine in the kitchen, he had the students bring out the long cylinder in one whole piece, on a silver platter. Jeffrey carved a slice for each guest from the rolling gueridon that another student pushed behind him. Stolz had worried that a student wouldn’t have the steady hand to carve so delicate an item in front of guests in the dining room. It was the sort of thing that could be hacked quickly into a sloppy, misshapen piece, ruining the presentation and the elegance of the meal. But it went off gloriously. Each piece landed cleanly on the plates, and each of the tulip-shaped wine glasses was filled with a golden, crisp Riesling from the Rhine region of Germany. The course was Stolz’ homage to the modern continent where he spent the first half of his life: he paired a French preparation with, instead of a rich complementary French wine, or even a sweet wine, a dry and refreshing German white designed to contrast, yet support the rich liver dish. He saw the two countries as now working together, and their symbols he presented here in the United States, an adjunct characteristic to this course that he found incredibly subtle. Stolz was aware of the identities of the members of the wine advocacy board; he had read about them in industry publications and press releases about their ambitious union and project. His obsession with the wine industry, and desire for dishes that had meaning beyond just the palate was evidenced in his cooking. He only hoped it was apparent to the guests.
As the guests dined on the second course, one of the student servers handed Chef Stolz a small tasting glass of the Riesling. Although he had tried the combination countless times when planning the menu, he wished to enjoy it one more time, at the same moment his guests did, hoping to replicate what he thought they might be feeling as they swirled the buttery terrine in their mouths, rinsing with the acidic and full bodied wine.
After the second course countless compliments were aired around the table to President Wahnsen about the school, the restaurant, and specifically the food. The gentleman, Mr. Deseaux, who asked Wahnsen about Stolz in the hallway, said, “What was it like, when you and Leon were at the Sternen, in the seventies, to have discovered corrupt bottles of wine in your own hotel?”
Wahnsen took a big gulp from his water glass and looked back at Mr. Deseaux. “Well that was a long time ago, and things were different then. I remember that we were all very distressed to find such bottles in our own cellar, but Leon and I took care of the problem. We tried to be more careful after that. That’s really all you can do, you know?” he said. He laughed as if he were trying to expel a foreign object in small uneven spurts.
“As Leon said in his article in the Wine Connoisseur, it was never clear where the bottles came from, something about the receipts were shredded, by accident. Can you speculate what might have really happened?” Mr. Deseaux had drawn the table’s eyes to Wahnsen.
“Well, it was a long time ago, and I cannot remember exactly what conclusion we came to, just that somehow we were receiving deliveries that were fraudulently labeled. As Leon stated in his article, the records had been terminated accidentally, so I guess we’ll never know what really happened back then,” Wahnsen was trying not to look at his peers. Instead he focused on the burning candles on the table. They had reached their stride, burning down to the thickest part and producing tall orange flames. As they spoke the servers were clearing the plates from the second course. On the geuridon sat a large porcelain soup bowl full of the blood red beet consommé. The garnishes were next to it in silver bowls; small soup pots, matching in design to the bigger one, were placed in front of each guest. This was the first warm course, and after the two first courses being so rich and unctuous, Stolz intended for their palates to be deepened and relaxed for the increasing flavors of the dishes to come. The beet consommé was light and flavorful, with underlying hints of vegetable and mineral. His chosen wine was a gewürztraminer from the Alsace region of France. He was moving in a broad swath across Europe now, highlighting specialties as he went. As the glistening soup was poured, the diners could almost see their reflections in the candlelight that reacted with the soup’s surface. Wahnsen already felt full. The sight of the bloody soup waterfall as the server poured it from above sickened him. He counted the courses so far, wishing he could get out of the last four. It was just a soup, he thought. Why did it need another wine pairing? He swallowed his and closed his eyes with each gulp. The beet flavor nauseated him. How could he have ever wound up in such a position? It felt more unbearable than countless other dinners he had been forced to sit through in his career. He had risen quickly to management in each of the jobs he had had, and had always handled situations with the utmost success, showing the sheer confidence of a leader. This was just another dinner, and there was nothing to worry about. These people were prying into his past though, and it had nothing to do with the present. Wahnsen made a silent promise to himself that night. He finished his consommé as he did it, and he secretly rewarded himself for having the strength to complete both at the same time. It was a small victory on a sustained plateau of success. He finished the ungodly soup and told himself he would never have to worry about the wine board and Chef Stolz or any of it after tonight. He wasn’t sure just how, but he was certain he would never go through this again.
Stolz was joyous at the efficiency with which his students executed the meal. Nothing had gone wrong, and the servers had reported to him that the table was full of praise for his meal and the wines. Stolz could have just danced in his own kitchen. The students were staying focused. Two, sometimes three students ran each station. In the real world it would have been one chef per station. No one could have afforded to pay three people to slowly do the job of one trained professional. Stolz realized that, but he loved that each dish could be poured over by three attentive heads and six hands. It was the way things were supposed to be. He congratulated the students in the kitchen, but told them it wasn’t over yet, don’t get too full of yourselves, he said. He had the dessert students scooping the next course for the president and his guests right now. It was designed to mix things up a bit, to let them know he wasn’t just going to continue with such time-honored preparations as terrines and consommés. He was now sending a refresher course of watermelon sorbet. There was no wine to be served. The guests would clean out their palates before he brought out the bigger dishes and heavier wines. He triumphed inwardly as the students carried the martini glasses of sorbet to the table.
Wahnsen had turned his personal fears about being discovered as a fraud into anger, and he saw the light at the end of the tunnel. They served the sorbet, and he got mad inside. He wore a smile on his face, but his laughter and smiles were the thin veil over a secret madness. He chomped the sorbet in his mouth as if it were a cracker. Red, syrupy sorbet melted at the corners of his mouth. Stolz can cook for me any time, he thought. That’s all he will ever be, a servant to the rich and powerful. These guys will go on to somewhere else tomorrow, and that will be the end of it. Wahnsen was now sweating across his forehead. He hadn’t shifted his posture for a long time, and when he straightened himself up in his seat he felt his entire back soaked to his dress shirt and suit jacket. The others seated just beside him noticed his skin was pale and bloated looking. He was sweating profusely.
“Are you feeling okay, President Wahnsen?” the negociant to his right asked.
“Fine, just fine,” he said. “Just a little warm in here, no?” he wiped his forehead with his linen napkin, and the guest next to him smiled and agreed. Wahnsen stood up awkwardly and removed his jacket. He draped it over the back of his chair and looked up at his guests. They were looking down the table at him, and he suddenly felt embarrassed. He wiped his hair back and smiled, and said he was so happy they were able to make it to the Academy for dinner. He worried that he would be found out. They would somehow find out that he had intentionally bought and sold fake bottles of expensive wine and pocketed the money himself. Where was Brooks, the general manager of the Sternen who had suggested the whole thing in the first place? Why weren’t they dining with him, or tracking him down? He just faded into the woodwork, but Stolz never did. He just stayed behind like a conscience. But he was the president of this school, and who did they think they were? He would fix things later. He just wanted to finish the dinner and say his pleasantries as he wished them well on their tour. And then he would fix Stolz and his stupid articles in the Wine Connoisseur.
The men seated around the table with President Wahnsen were all feeling good and warm after so many delicious specialties from the chef. The students serving the table had been just wonderful so far. They acted as if they had done it a thousand times before. Many of the men at the table, some of whom bore secret prejudices against dining in America, all of whom were seasoned diners with advanced palates honed after years, some a lifetime of tasting and making wine in Europe, thought the servers and the cooks rivaled true professionals with years of experience. There was a harmony to the meal so far, a sort of balance that was the benchmark of the world’s finest restaurants. The silverware had been shifted quickly, and the larger bell-shaped wine glasses pulled forward to suggest the bringing forth of the main dishes. One of the men, the outspoken Deseaux, felt that the service was good, but had they waited any longer to begin with a larger course it would have been too slow. Stolz had the students in the kitchen placing the large copper fish steamer with its lid onto the gueridon, which had been brought temporarily into the kitchen. The wild ducks had just finished, and were resting briefly before they would begin to transfer them to the swords. The students were bringing the cart with the fish out of the kitchen as the others poured the white wine. It was a big, buttery wine from the Burgundy region in France. Stolz wished not to beat around the bush at this point in the meal. He devoted a great deal of his budget for the meal to these final two courses, and he knew the enjoyment of such lavish ingredients could charm even the most skeptical or jaded of diners. He knew the wine would play back in forth on the tongue with the fish for several minutes after each mouthful. It was a combination that piled on layers of complexity in subtle flavor nuances. It was one of those perfect pairings in his eyes. Each item brought more and more out of the other flavors than was ever possible, had they stood on their own. Stolz was on the meat station with many of his students gathered around him as the fish was being presented at the table. He had the two swords out of their sheaths; they lay on the table radiantly. They were of silver with steel handles engraved in gold. They were magnificent, and Stolz was simply giddy over his creation. The swords were hard to find, but not that hard to find, he thought to himself. Those who have a goal in mind are rarely sidetracked by circumstances. The ducks were finished, and the skins looked nice. They were evenly browned. He personally mounted the two bottom ducks onto the swords as two students held them. He knew that part of teaching is that you have to let the students do something, too, so he stepped back and let them mount the rest. He looked on with joy as they replicated his gestures as best they could to finish the job. Another student had already gathered the other items Stolz had called for. He now needed to sauté the wild mushrooms that would garnish the ducks. He stood over the round copper pan and shook it gently over the fire with a steady hand as a group of students surrounded him and watched. His technique was honed after decades of work. His hands were wrinkled. He had the perfected skill of one who makes a job look simple to an outsider. A student would hurry the sizzling caps and stems to the table in a polished copper pan and finish them tableside. Stolz felt he had finally achieved altruism by letting others perform the glorious acts he would have preferred to reserve for his own hands. The completed dish was spit-roasted wild duck with a marchand du vin sauce of wild-forested mushrooms, with pommes dauphinois and wilted spinach on the side. The wine was aged Bordeaux. The dinner had already gone too far for something to go wrong. He was plating the duck and making the sauce right now, it was almost over, but at its sweetest moment, and he stopped to savor it. He was standing back from his cooks as they handed the swords to the two white-gloved students from the dining room. The pot with the mushrooms was moved forward, and everything was in place. He peeked out of the circular window to the dining room. Everyone at the table looked happy, and the Dover sole course was almost completed. The rest of the dining room had started to empty out, and there were but few people from the public left. Most of the service staff was hovering on the environs of the president’s table. Everyone worked together day in, day out, and waited for this precious day for some time. They all knew of the wild duck preparation and what it meant to Chef Stolz. The two students who would present the swords were overachievers, and some of the other students harbored jealousy over their choosing for the special role, but after time realized they were the appropriate people for the job. Special uniforms had been made for them in the embroidered style of the Italian Carvers of the 15th Century. They wore them proudly. The guests around the table, except President Wahnsen who was still angry and defeated looking, beamed with happiness over the meal and the suspected climax evidenced by all the students gathering around. They had enjoyed the meal immensely to this point, and they knew this talented and ambitious chef in the kitchen was sure to wow them with a finale.
The two students paraded the swords into the dining room as the guests at the president’s table looked on. The two boys hid smiles beneath stolid concentration. They brought the swords to the table and waited for the gueridon to pull up between them. All of the Europeans admired the row of dark birds as a server handed the carvers a glass decanter of cognac. There was a candle on the cart, and the two boys doused their three birds with the brandy before waving them in front of the flame. The first caught fire and then the other, and the two looked back and forth at each other as they waved them wildly in the air for all the guests to see. The bluish flames burned intensely as the alcohol evaporated, and lingered on for several moments and the students circled the table. When it had finally subsided the birds were more darkened and filled the room with wonderful aroma. The rich and gamy smell lulled everyone into a deep state of relaxation, and gave one the euphoric body sensation induced by food and wine. Chef Stolz was standing in the opened doorway to the kitchen in his tall toque and the long European apron that was as a part of his skin. Now that the sensational element to the dish was completed the students began the practical task of separating the meat and putting it on the plates for the people to eat. On the gueridon they were busy finishing the wild mushrooms with fresh herbs, and others were transporting the individual dishes of spinach and potatoes to the table.
President Wahnsen was very tired by the end of the meal and wished to be home in bed. He sat with his jacket off, tie loosened and the sleeves to his shirt rolled back in bunches to his elbows. He picked at the duck and chewed on single mouthfuls until it became dry and tasteless in his mouth. The guests ate the duck and sipped on the red wine as the chef stood back in the doorway to the kitchen. After making eye contact with members of the wine consortium and receiving smiles from them, he came forward into the light of the dining room. He walked first over to the two carvers and clapped them on the back and smiled. He then went to the president and held out his hand with his whole body bent out towards the end of his arm. President Wahnsen shook his hand and looked up at the chef. “Thank you very much for the dinner,” said Wahnsen. “It was wonderful.”
“You are quite welcome.” Stolz looked down to the rest of the table. “I hope all of you enjoyed it as well. It was my pleasure to serve you.”
“The ducks served on a sword was brilliant,” a man sitting at the table said. “It was truly a spectacular course, Chef Stolz.”
At this comment the chef motioned for one of the carvers to come over to him with the sword. He handed it him and he wielded it above his head. “I wanted to take us back to another time in history, when the world didn’t move so fast,” Stolz said to the table. They sat silent for a moment and nodded ponderingly. The chef walked around the long side of the table with the sword in his hand. He pointed it out in front of him and jabbed silently in the air bouncing his feet back and forth with his other arm held out behind him in the stance of a fencer. He drew smiles and laughter from the table.
As everyone got up from the table they stretched their backs and arms. They each thanked the chef and shook hands as they made their way out of the restaurant. Chef Stolz made his way back to the kitchen to help the students clean up. It was after eleven o’clock. Wahnsen bid his guests farewell at the entrance to the school. He went upstairs to his office to take care of a forgotten piece of business.
He opened the locked door to his office and went through the front room into his private office and sat behind his desk. He turned on the small lamp. In his desk was white bond paper and he put a sheet in front of him. His pen sat in a marble stone on the corner if his desk and he opened the lid. He wasn’t sure where he should leave it, but on his desk at the school was as appropriate a place as any in this situation. He addressed it to his secretary and dated it. When she found it on Monday morning it read:
I am terminating Leon Stolz from his position at the Culinary Academy immediately. In accordance with the Academy’s at will employment policy, please notify him right away.
He left the note on his desk and reached into the bottom drawer. There was a small carved wooden box in it. He opened it with a small key from his key chain, and inside was the Luger pistol his father was issued in the Second World War. The magazine was underneath the felt lining, and he loaded the weapon and cocked it, sliding a bullet into the chamber. He turned his chair around to face the windows and put the gun in his mouth and fired.
Chef Stolz was in his kitchen directing the students as they put away the food and scrubbed down the ovens. The hood ventilation system was still on and they never heard the gunshot from upstairs.
The next week when the cleaning lady found the body she screamed and called for the campus security. The secretary Meredith found the note and gave it to the trustees of the school. They decided that the president was not in a normal frame of mind when he wrote it, and they never told Stolz about it. He continued to teach at the Academy.