Excerpt: A Cut Above the Rest

Entering a restaurant—any restaurant—for the first time was a feast for the senses to Alex Koch, and always had been. It was a symphony of sensuality, flavor blending a harmony with scent and sight. When Alex stepped through a restaurant door, he had to pause a moment to savor the impressions that each of his senses gave to him. No matter the location, there was a leap of excitement with each new threshold he crossed.

The clink of silverware and the scrape of knives and forks over plates were a testament to the way the diners enjoyed their food; the sizzle of pans and fryers, and the steady chop-chop of knives moving over cutting boards told the tale from the kitchen’s side. Alex closed his eyes as he waited for a table and savored the mingled food scents from the kitchen, and from plates in front of nearby patrons already enjoying their meals. Fried batter or melting butter, the sear of meats or caramel tang of burning sugar reached his nose and foretold the enjoyment to come.

There was too much to take in with a single glance. He could go from the restaurant’s general set up, interior décor and layout, the plates and cutlery laid out, to the uniforms the waitstaff wore. The diners in their suits and cocktail dresses told Alex a lot about the way they enjoyed the food, bent over plates or faces tipped up with expressions of bliss. Their faces were animated, gestures eager as they sent their forks chasing each bite of food. He craned his head to peer at the food, enjoying the insight into the chef’s vision, whether tantalizing or muddled. Over the years, from his first line cook job up until his recent graduation from the Culinary Institute of America, he had seen all kinds of presentation, from sloppy sandwiches heaped on platters to the most sublimely placed amuse bouche.

The glide of cheese, the textures of meat, the creamy velvet of soups; there was a different mouth-feel to each of them. Alex enjoyed handling all kinds of food, from raw produce to finished dishes. He’d handled such a wide variety of food from his first days cooking for family to his graduation day that he was sure he could be blindfolded and sort through any kind of vegetable, meat, grain, and more and identify each by touch alone.

The climax of the experience was achieved only when the first morsel met his tongue. Five tastes made up the palette. From sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami, the recently-identified ‘fifth taste’ of savory pungence, Alex had no particular favorites—he enjoyed them all.

Alex was into two things more than any in the world: food and love. His life for the past two years had been devoted to bettering his chances in the world of fine dining, and his lack of current partner placed his emphasis and appreciation of sensuality on food alone for the present.

That evening’s dinner had special significance for Alex. He’d graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, commonly known as the CIA, after two grueling years and had accepted his first job. It was the beginning of what he intended to be a prestigious career in New York City’s fine dining restaurants.

Before donning the chef’s jacket at his new restaurant, Alex wanted to get to know his first workplace from the customers’ perspective. He’d been hired at Schulze’s by Chef Schulze himself, but hadn’t stepped foot in the kitchen yet. None of the waiters or other chefs would know him, and so he could enjoy a meal uninterrupted. He wanted to get a feel for where he would spend sixty hours a week, or more, and enjoy that feast for the senses.

As the third son of influential parents, Alex had been raised to do as he liked and pursue his own interests. He would never be expected to follow his father’s footsteps into financial management, nor did he want to. Alex had been the dabbler of the family, trying a few eccentric jobs before picking up cooking because it was the one hobby besides guitar that he’d truly enjoyed. He had worked at a German pub prior to visiting some of New York’s expensive restaurants. After graduation, Alex had travelled to New York on a whim as his mother urged him to learn more about cooking, and his father had indulgently provided the means. The visit with a friend of his father had turned into a suggestion to apply at the CIA, the most prestigious of American institutions for cuisine and a guaranteed pass to fine dining.

After that two-week trip, Alex had pitched the prospect of entering the CIA to his father, who had been reluctant on the grounds Alex might try it out and decide it was too hard, or didn’t like it. It was a long way from Germany, after all, and he couldn’t simply ask his parents to come over a couple of towns and take him home if he found himself out of his depth.

With persuasion by Alex and his mother, his father had relented and supplied funding for the application and school visa on one condition: Alex was to apply himself, focus on school, and would be restricted to a stipend. There would be no lavish living if he really meant to seriously pursue his cooking.

It had been hard and sometimes his mother had sent him a little extra to tide him over, but Alex had eventually grown accustomed to modest means. He hadn’t been to see his parents in Weimar in years and he missed them, but food had become his life. He was aiming for a goal beyond the raw line cook he’d been when he had left Germany, working at a stodgy old pub in a town that had cooked their food the same way for a century or more.

New York meant opportunity, and challenge.

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