Paul Carmino found himself discreetly studying the figure seated opposite him, avoiding the obvious stare, yet needing to know the energies that drove a great chef – what motivated that ample frame, those fever-bright eyes?
The two men had been seated together now for almost an hour; questions and answers, and Carmino thought that Bruno Toledi’s replies had been honest, although it had not escaped his attention that he was the audience, Toledi the only player. The stage was his.
Slightly perturbed, Carmino checked his recorder’s battery. It was, as he suspected, almost spent. He must wind up their conversation soon. Opportunities such as these were rare; to be prized. He should miss nothing.
“Bruno. How did your love of cooking begin?”
Instantly Bruno Toledi’s face became alive. He thrust his weight forward in his creaking, protesting chair. His hands began to talk.
“It is from my childhood, you know? It is from my blessed mother. She showed me to cook before even I could read! I am little…” He measured from the floor with his hand. “She sit me on the table and she teach. Young man, you should never underestimate teaching: its power!”
“So you cooked a lot when you were a child…”
“All the time!” Bruno waved toward the window, dismissing the intrusive rays of evening sun. “Others, they go out to play. Me, my playground is a kitchen. I cook all time!”
“Didn’t it worry you?” Asked Carmino. “Did you never think you might be missing out on a childhood?”
“Now you offend me with clichés? Miss out? No. No!” The chair leather squeaked beneath shifting pressure. “I learn. At twelve years old I am making food you could only dream about.
“You know what? What is at the heart – the very beating heart – of my genius? It is discipline, my friend. As a child I learn discipline. A simple thing! Look at me now – a restaurant in a perfect place, two Michelin Stars – the world treads a path to my door, my friend. And at the heart of my kitchen? It is discipline!
“But now I tell you – there is more!” An expressive hand dived beneath Bruno’s jacket so violently Carmino almost jumped with alarm, but all that emerged was a photograph. “This I show to you, to make you laugh. Most people keep pictures of their childhood, yes? Their mammas, their papas, uncles, aunts? I have only this. This is all I keep!”
Carmino found himself studying a snapshot of an impressively lumpen piece of Victorian kitchenalia, from which there sprouted a formidable wooden handle.
“This I still have in my kitchen. You would probably think of antique; which I suppose it is, really, you know? And it might not seem too hygienic, no matter how clean I keep it.
“But you cannot get the machines these days, and if you want to use meat in a good pasta you must grind it yourself. Must! The bought stuff – no, no. It is a travesty, a punishment, that stuff. No.”
Carmino felt an obligation to laugh. “Us youngsters, eh, Bruno? We don’t know nothing, do we?”
“You learn! Good ingredients; first lesson! Loyalty to your suppliers – first lesson! Massano, he knows what I like. I get from him, always. And the same with all suppliers; only the best. The pasta – best flour. The same the tomatoes, sun dried and sweet; and if I have to import them in this pig of a climate, and they are expensive, this I do. It is for perfection, this, you know?
“Then what I cannot buy I must prepare for myself. Nothing wasted – I make my own stock, the pot on the range all the time, working. Reduce, reduce, reduce. No matter what the art I paint onto a plate, the taste is always unique; always my own.”
“And always quite exquisite.” Carmeno acknowledged. His battery warning light was beginning to blink. “Tell me about Miss Mountjoy. You took her under your wing, didn’t you?”
“Selina? It’s true. It’s true! She is such lovely girl.” Toledi sat back, his smooth features furrowed by a frown. “You said you want my story. Why you ask about Selina?”
“Because she learned the arts from you? Her genius was born of yours.”
“Si; yes.” The mighty maestro of cuisine heaved himself heavily from his chair, running his fingers through lank, untidy locks that seemed to fall forever forward. The view from the window took his eye for a moment and he ambled towards the glass.
“Genius is not something even I can create. It is a gift – some little drift of golden dust that floats through a window somewhere on such a day as this, to land maybe upon the brow of a birthling child. It is chance.
“Selina, I see from the moment we start to cook together she has that gift. She has the touch, she honours food, she needs only to gain the knowledge…” he tapped his forehead … “my knowledge, and she will do wonderful things. So what could I do? Of course I teach. Learn as I did once – only from the best, the best will come.”
“And so she becomes a great cook.”
“As you say. If I tell you – and this is my little secret thing – that no-one is without fault? If I say I cannot always find perfection in my raw materials but I must rely on others like Massano, and then I will say to you that Selina is a greater reader of ingredients, she needs no-one to help her judge, you will see what I mean, yes?”
“I think I do.” Carmino nodded. “She’s a very good buyer, as well as an excellent preparer of food.”
“Exactly so! The suppliers, they fly to her like birds. They take the grain from her palm, she makes the best deals, she bargains…”
“But you said everyone has a fault – there is always a weakness. What about Selina Mountjoy’s weakness?”
“Ah,” Sighing, Toledi returned to his chair. “Yes, she has fault.”
“In her cooking?”
“Perhaps. If you say discipline has a place in our art. If you say patience is greatest lesson you learn, then yes. She has not patience to stay, and to learn all I have to show. It is surprise to me!
“I am surprised when I learn she has bought that house in the village; and I have to see with my own eyes the kitchen equipment, the tables, the seating she has had delivered there, and I have to hear with my own ears when my suppliers who I have known so many years are no longer loyal. It is sad.”
“Really? Doesn’t it make you angry?”
“Angry? No! Well, yes, maybe at first.” Toledi spread his hands. “Disappointed. It is life. What can you do?”
The light on Carmino’s recorder was telling him his battery was dead. Reluctantly, he shut it off. “Well, that’s it.”
Toledi smiled bleakly. “You will be kind to me, yes?”
These were other chairs, and this was another room. In the background the clinking of glass and murmurs of conversation around a bar, not busy at this early evening hour. Between the chairs, a table. On the table, two drinks – one of whisky, one of deep red wine.
David Murchison caught Carmino’s pensive look. “What did you make of him? I mean, as a man?”
Carmino studied his glass, swilling the amber liquid within it idly to catch reflections. “If I was unkind I would call him fanatical, but that isn’t a term one uses lightly these days, so I’ll settle for ‘perfectionist’. I couldn’t separate him from his cooking. He doesn’t stand up by himself.
“But if you want a diagnosis I have nothing to offer you. I wouldn’t say he’s ill. Actually, knowing I was going to interview him, I booked a table at his restaurant. The pork dish I had was – well, lacking a more adequate word – sublime. Absolutely sublime. There’s no doubt, I suppose?”
“None.” Murchison said. “Selina Mountjoy hasn’t been seen since Wednesday. Her parents have lost touch with her, she hasn’t appeared at her new restaurant venture, and there are supplies rotting on the doorstep.
“Above all, though, the test results on Toledi’s kitchen stockpot have come in. They show traces of human tissue. I’d say an arrest is imminent.” Murchison looked concerned. “Are you okay, Paul? You’re as white as a sheet.”
“Did you say ‘Wednesday’?”
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Republished with special permission. Originally published here.
About the Author
Frederick Anderson lives in Weardale, UK, where the hills are high, misty and always, always wet. He writes lively stories with a twist or two, and fast moving thrillers. His other works include The Butterfly Man and Dreamcake.