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Kitchen Chemistry

Page history last edited by Ann Vipond 3 years, 2 months ago

This is an award-winning story that also featured in a fund-raising book for arthritis

 

Kitchen Chemistry

 

They came, she knew, as much for the spectacle as the food, though that too was superb, meriting three coveted gold stars in the Ethnic Gourmet Guide.  Now they stood in fascinated expectation, beyond the shining steel and glass barrier which separated her world from theirs.  ‘East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.’ How many times had her father said that, unaware of the irony in a Chinese lawyer quoting the very British Kipling.  

 

Behind her, in the darkened kitchen, other chefs fired up gas jets and cleaned the woks, relegated to a mundane servitude for now.  Their turn would come,  if they were dedicated enough. Dedication and not a little determination was what it took to run the restaurant and carry off, with undeniable panache, this nightly cabaret. Pei-shan was nothing if not determined, though rarely had she turned this particular talent to rebellion.

 

Lights in the restaurant dimmed and  the ‘Old China hands’ edged nearer, expectant and eager to see the show. Dressed in a simple, high-necked black silk gown, Pei-shan did not look their way, her concentration all on the food. Later she would accept their accolades, moving graciously from table to table smiling her thanks. Within the bright spears of light from overhead spots, she now arranged the crisp green bok choy, snowpeas and the elegant white Daikon turnip, laying them meticulously on the ebony workbench.  Straw mushrooms, Cloud Ears and fat, pink shrimps to the right, a silvery nest of bean sprouts, blue prawns and lacy, luxuriant lotus root on the left.  As always, making an effort to control her delight in the moment,  she began by sharpening the cleaver; stroking it sensuously against the steel, her expression dreamy and distant. Backwards and forwards, like a lover’s caress; metal against metal - an amorous sigh. This moment was designed to lull the audience into thoughts far away from kitchens.  Pei-shan in perfect control. Swiftly the blade fell on a pearly half-onion. Chopping. Slicing. Faster than the eye could follow but leaving the vegetable apparently intact, until, with a flourish, the lustrous crescents were fanned along the steel.  The presentation sometimes evoked applause but tonight brought only an awed silence. Pei-shan reached for a pepper.

 

The fax from her father had left her in no doubt that he was highly displeased with youngest daughter.  Had she lived fifty years ago, he reminded her, she would have received no education, let alone been allowed to study at a university in a foreign country.  It still hurt, this knowledge, forever present in her heart and mind, that she was not, in her father’s eyes,  the equal of her brothers. They never needed to ask for anything, what they required, they could have, without question.  Pei-shan had often wondered what would happen if she were to follow her brothers' pattern.  But she did not want to hurt her father, even though he always wounded her deeply by reminding her she was always second best. A female.

 

With a swift movement of the wrist, she spiralled the silver cleaver, windmilled it once, twice and positioned it fractionally above the vibrant red pepper, its colour identical to the long, polished nails with which it was held. The aristocrat waiting beneath the guillotine.

 

Hadn’t she been a good daughter? Hadn’t she gone along with every arrangement her father ever made for her? Studying accountancy, though she loathed it, spending a tedious three years working for his old friend in a city office?

 

The blade descended and instantly it seemed,  the bench was alive with scalloped scarlet circles, bright as blood.  Green and yellow followed, the succulent capsicum sliced and spread like a hand of cards across the black wood.  This time the customers did respond, their delighted laughter and applause muted behind the glass as they exchanged wise comments about the remarkable display.

 

Pei-shan remembered how she had pleaded with her father to be allowed to do what, even as a child, she had set her heart upon - become a chef.  He had flown from Hong Kong to New Zealand, determined to see for himself if she was insane, as he suspected and accused.   Anticipating the scene, Pei-shan had wisely brought in an ally, the well respected and wealthy owner of  the Old China group of restaurants, the most prestigious in Auckland.  Her father, unable to lose his temper before this stranger, had, after the preliminary compliments and gestures of respect, listened as Mr Au proposed that Pei-shan receive the finest training, under his personal tutelage. Nothing would be lost, he assured, everything gained. The possibility of an international reputation was suggested, the potential for wealth almost a foregone conclusion. Amazingly, her father had agreed and retreated - angry but accepting.  It had been her first victory.

 

On the work bench, matt black beneath the piercing lights, the slender blanched turnip awaited its fate as she ran one red nail slowly along its pristine length.  The spectators drew breath and waited, as her fingers reached the tapered end of the root and halted there.  Then fast, in a glittering arc, the cleaver came from the right, to scythe unmercifully, ten times and twenty until translucent white disks clouded the counter. Again the blade flashed and made fragments of black fungus. Spring onions were sliced half down their length and tossed to curl in a blue porcelain bowl filled with iced water. Tattered brown lotus root, fat cloves of garlic with purple skins, slivers of scarlet carrot, crisp water chestnuts, all covered the dark surface.

 

Tomorrow her father would come raging into the restaurant, righteously indignant, determined to have his own way. And this time, gentle Mr Au would be able to do nothing. This time it wasn’t a career change Pei-shan wanted. This time it was life.  Kien Chi had been an added and unexpected bonus to the joy of her training. She was half-way through her first year before she even knew Mr Au had a son.   He had been teaching traditional cooking skills overseas and returned to New Zealand, to take over one of his father's biggest restaurants.

 

Twisting the shining handle of the cleaver between thumb and finger, Pei-shan spun it, point downwards like a top, allowed it to slow, then tossed it into the air, where it described a flashing parabola beneath the spotlights. Even before it had begun its descent, she had arranged the prawns and reached upwards to catch it. She pounded the flat blade against the flesh, removed the carapace, then sliced horizontally, to open the seafood like butterflies.  A hum of wonder came from the crowd.  Onto each prawn she placed a sliver of ginger and a curly frond of scallion then moving them to their place on the bench, arranged the other ingredients into an edible depiction of a classical Chinese watercolour.  A final flourish and the performance was completed.  Pei-shan gave a small bow and retreated, enjoying the rapturous applause.  

 

In the back room, where the smell of aniseed and Szechuan pepper reminded her she had not yet written to her grandmother, Pei-shan looked at the clock.  Almost eight-thirty.   Kien Chi would be supervising the kitchen at Old China, Ponsonby, striding from bench to bench examining, tasting, making sure everything was perfection. She could imagine his slender, exquisite fingers dipped first into cleansing water, then taking up a cerise radish, a lychee, a bowl of warm egg noodles.   On the day she had become head chef at Epsom’s Old China, Kien Chi had proposed marriage. Her first thought had not been joy at this declaration by the man she loved but fear of her father.  There was absolutely no question of his giving permission for her to marry.  Kien Chi had pointed out gently that at twenty five, she had no need to ask anyone for permission.  Anguished, Pei-shan  explained about the arrangement with the wealthy son of a Chinese banker, long-ago brokered by her father. She had defied him once, how could she rebel again?

 

Pei-shan pulled on chef’s whites over the black silk dress.  East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet. For more than eight generations Kien Chi's family had lived in New Zealand, this Land of the Long White Cloud and though unquestionably proud of his culture and traditions, to all but the immediate family he was simply David Au, urbane professional chef  - and thoroughly westernised.  To her father he would be a barbarian.

 

In the steamy kitchen, full of noise and aroma, the pungency of ginger brought tears to her eyes.  A pot of water bubbled energetically above a blue flame as an assistant brought a tray of won-tons for her inspection.

Pei-shan, turned one or two carefully then nodded.  The trainee shuttled them into the water as she moved on.

 

Kien Chi was quite right, she did not need her father’s approval and yet it was the habit of a lifetime, ingrained not just from filial duty but fear.  But what did she owe him? He had insisted on accountancy and marketing because it would be useful to him, his associates, and the family into which she was supposed to marry. He’d had no concern for what she wanted.

 

On a side bench a large copper bowl full of peaches blushed gently and Pei-Shan took one absently, biting into the suede cheek, catching with her little finger, the trickle of juice which threatened her chin.

 

Her father had, as he frequently reminded her, spent a considerable amount of money on her education - but none of it had been for her sake. He had sent her, lonely and afraid, to learn both a new language and the drudgery of numbers. Far from home, where nothing was familiar or comforting -  there had been times when she had come close to despair.  He had refused all her requests to be allowed to return and only her sense of duty had forced her onward, the knowledge that she was a good daughter and owed it to her father to obey.  Her recalcitrant brothers were regularly paraded as perfect sons and rewarded for every small thing, whilst she was the constant disappointment and embarrassment to a hard-working, long-suffering father.  And now he was coming here, probably with every intentions of insisting she return home with him where she would be better under his control.  His tempers were legendary and people always gave in because there was simply no other way.  But this time there was Kien Chi.

 

Pei-shan returned to the back room where she hung her white jacket on the peg, brushed her hair and prepared to meet the diners.  Smoothing her fingers down the fabric of the silk dress, she held them for a moment against her belly. Nothing showed yet but it wouldn’t be long.

 

The phone rang and she held it to her ear. Everything would be just fine, Kien Chi assured her, she mustn’t worry.  Easy for him.  He didn’t know her father like she did. That wasn’t the point, he countered, her father didn’t know him or how formidable a determined Chinese Kiwi could be.  Pei-shan could only remember the towering parental rages, the cowering fear he had always engendered in her.  No more, Kien Chi  promised her, never, ever again. This time, he will not get his way.

 

‘But east is east….’  she began.  He cut her short, reminding her how the quotation went on. 'But there is neither East nor West, border nor breed, nor birth, when two strong men stand face to face - tho' they come from the ends of the earth.'  For the first time that evening, Pei-shan smiled and taking the wedding ring from its chain around her neck, replaced it on her finger and went out into the restaurant.

 

Copyright (c) Lynda Finn 2000

 

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