Note: This is a rough draft of a story in progress.
The knife cut cleanly, swiftly. The slice was nearly perfect. All was in readiness, as it should be. Nothing could go wrong, not at this point. Henry had no words. He was silent. What else could he say? There would be no rest for him, not just yet.
Sheila was waiting. He knew that. She’d finished already and had been waiting a while. Nothing he could do about that now.
The day was blue, cool, with a sweet scent in the air. Henry could detect it — perhaps flowers, or blooming trees. It was spring. A snippet of song kept going through his mind. “Oh father of the four winds fill my sails.”
He wielded the knife with precision. Perfectly balanced, it sliced cleanly though the meat, creating a thin, tasty morsel on the carving board. Soon he’d enjoy it but not now. Now was about the preparation. The fulfillment would come later.
The occasion was the county fair. Neither had been before, but they’d long heard of the competition. This was not some local yokel event, though. It drew the best of the best, chefs and bakers from all across the region, people well-skilled in their craft. For two unknowns, without reputations behind them, it was almost unheard of to even be considered, yet here they were.
Henry had been cooking most of his life. His mother had no daughters so she instilled in him the lessons she’d learned from her mother and grandmother. He had been a keen student, and mastered every recipe. Soon, the student exceeded the teacher, and he was trying out new combinations of spices and herbs. After a while, she just let him do the cooking when he was around. It just made more sense. When he discovered he could actually make a living at cooking, it was like a dream come true.
Baking was another matter, something Henry had not mastered. Cakes and cookies were not his domain. That’s where Sheila came in. She knew her way around pastries and muffins, yeast, flour, cinnamon and the like. Again, they complimented one another in these skills. Henry the master chef, Sheila the extraordinary baker.
She had won him over with her raspberry tarts. The key lime pie wasn’t bad either but it was the tarts that sealed the deal for him. He wasn’t even a fan of raspberries, but the way she prepared them made all the difference.
The room was abuzz. Probably forty or fifty of the best cooks and more than three hundred spectators. This was the big time, or as close as either had come to the big time. They were pretty sure they were in over their heads, but neither cared. They were here, that’s all that mattered.
Sheila knew as well as anyone what needed to be done. She was very efficient in her own way. Not meticulous like Henry, but thorough. She made a good match for his intensity. They were from different neighborhoods in Cordele but didn’t meet until their families had come to Atlanta and had moved across the street from one another when both were just toddlers. Neither could remember their home town, other than just a few vague flashes of a playground or the sound of a train whistle off in the distance. Neither were certain what prompted their families to come to the city, but they were both glad it had happened. Otherwise, they might never have met.
The show was under a large tent, like a circus without elephants or clowns. Inside, there was a festive atmosphere, but with an undercurrent of seriousness. They’d have an hour to work their magic, then it was up to the judges. Once all was done, the crowd could partake.
Dinner for three hundred? Not a problem, Henry thought.
First course, appetizers, second, soup, then the entree, and at last, dessert. They’d planned, measured, argued over every element until it was nearly perfect, or as close as they could come. There would be no room for missteps.
He wasn’t there just for him, but for her too. If they failed, they failed together.
First prize was the cup. Second prize was a plaque. Third place was a ribbon. At best, they hoped for honorable mention, which was a write up in the local paper, which was, at least, an acknowledgement that they’d been there, done the best they could. There were no fifth prizes. If they were lucky, they’d get a photo with the judges, who were all cooking superstars. If not, maybe they could at least make the front row in the group photo.
The front-runners were from Gainesville, owners of their own restaurant. The husband, the chef, was flashy and theatrical. He kept juggling his utensils, tapping out a beat and encouraging the audience to clap along. He put on a good show of confidence. Henry secretly hoped he’s nick his finger or accidentally pour his shrimp on the floor.
Now was not a time for flashy shows. Leave those to the ones who lacked confidence in their culinary skills.
The team to worry about was the couple from Savannah. They seemed too cool, too sure of themselves. It wasn’t what they said, it was how they didn’t say it that told Henry all he needed to know. They’d be the team to beat.
The team from Savannah was different. The man was the baker and the woman the chef. It happened that way sometimes. There weren’t any hard and fast rules, just a fundamental knowledge of how to cook.
Then it was done. It was finished. There was nothing else left to be said or done. It was over. Whatever happened now was out of their hands. They’d done the best they could. Henry always found, in times like these, it was best to put it all out of his head and not think of it further. No need to worry, otherwise, he’d just drive himself crazy. Everything was plated. Now all that was left was to wait.
Henry and Sheila found themselves in a waiting room with the couple from Savannah, Paul and Ruth. Turns out they were nice folks, a brother and sister, who’d grown up cooking together. Ruth, didn’t much care for the chef from Gainesville either. She’d been up against him before and had not been particularly impressed then either.