I really should not have hired him, but he seemed like he could fill in for my regular cook. Schneider had called in sick it seemed like it could drag on, so I took him on without too much fuss. He was a stocky, small man who could speak only broken German. At the end of the day, business had to go on, and the guests were hungry.
The complex relationships that you maintain often are unclear, even to yourself. So too the code that goes along with them. It is hard to decipher. It is only when things go off the rails that you recognize how well the self-regulation mechanisms were working: how Schneider would organize his purchases, how he would talk to the staff, how he put together the ingredients, and how truly he was interested in keeping business humming.
On the surface, the assistant chef worked in the same manner. He went shopping himself. He was an excellent cook, and people heaped praise on me for the unexpected tastes that assistant chef Waldemar revealed to my guests. He had a special talent for subtly improving the dishes that my guests already knew and loved. Moreover, I attribute what was a noticeable improvement in my financial standing to the too-long unchecked rule of my temporary chef Waldemar—well, that was not actually his name, but we could not pronounce the real one and the whole kitchen thought it was hilarious how similar Waldemar sounded. Of course, at the beginning I checked on the new cook from time to time: on whether he was keeping clean so I would not have problems from the health inspectors, on the ingredients that he sourced, on his style. But when the restaurant became a small hit due to Waldemar’s subtle changes in flavor, I ceded control to him, and gave him the freedom of managing his own budget. Who would not have done the same in my situation? Do you always have to fear the worst?
My first inkling came from the coq au vin. It was not the meat at all, but the sauce’s aroma that harbored a disturbing melody. From the first night that Waldemar prepared it, the coq au vin never left the weekly menu. When I tried to pull it after 14 days—I had given it an extra week’s grace period—there came protests from the guests, who politely but firmly requested for the coq au vin to stay on the menu. That is how I found myself with a slew of regulars who came at least once a week to eat our coq au vin. Of course, I was a bit surprised when some guests started coming more and more often. There was an older couple who ate a chicken almost every day, usually without saying a word. My staff dubbed them the coq junkies. I was still laughing back then. As business was going so well, and because Waldemar presented himself as so independent and so apparently trustworthy, I allowed myself an escape from the daily grind and went to relax in Southern Italy. A mistake. One of many that I made.
Waldemar evidently enjoyed pushing the coq au vin into realms of taste that were more and more absurd. That was clear to me right away. Not from its flavor—no, I had stopped eating the coq because I am by nature shy and because of a certain unconscious aversion—but from the make-up of the guests, who upon my return from Italy had become a single, nearly unchanging group of regulars. They were coming more and more frequently. It dawned on me that Waldemar had turned them into addicts. In my restaurant, which was once known for its exquisite, varied cuisine, all that people ever ate now was coq au vin. On the one hand though, it was just an addiction to a food and it was not dangerous to the body or mind. On the other, I was making extraordinarily good money from my coq junkies. So I became Waldemar’s beneficiary, or to be honest, his accomplice and let the thing go for far too long.
One night an unmarried woman who was in her late thirties demanded a coq au vin quite forcefully. To my surprise, she was treated by the other guests with great understanding. I then asked Waldemar directly: “What in hell are you putting in your food Waldemar?”
“Very special ingredient,” he replied. “Very special. Is good, is very good for you,” he said emphatically. I only made a dismissive gesture. Waldemar was like a slippery fish.
“I am magician, you know. Trick is secret. Trick is special secret.”
I should have stepped in there, because when I eventually tried to take the chicken dish off of the menu I was met with something beyond outrage. Some of the women—there was a large feminist’s group that had moved their meetings to my restaurant—reacted with absolute inhibition. The coq junkies openly threatened me with the cutlery and jeered, “Bring back the coq! Put it back on the menu!” as if that was where it came from instead of from that god-forsaken sorcerer’s galley.
I think that even Waldemar was surprised by the power and effect of his coq au vin, but that did not keep him from going even further. The chicken became inedible to the uninitiated’s palette. Once, I only dipped my finger into the sauce and was so thoroughly disgusted by the pink, viscid substance that I immediately washed my hand thoroughly. What this meant for business was that the guests were now tightly bound to my establishment. Waldemar had them in his power. With an innocent face, he told me, “Now you have to raise prices.”
“Now you have to raise prices, they will pay whatever we demand.”
Oh how easily people are led astray! I actually thought, why not? Why not jack up the prices a bit? It was too easy. Of course, I noticed that my guests’ behavior was becoming sloppier and sloppier, so I put in tinted windows to protect them and myself from the neighborhood. One of Waldemar’s burly friends was hired to be a doorman. He was paid a pretty penny.
Unfortunately, as time passed, my guests’ financial capacities, especially the womens’ group’s, began to feel the strain. Waldemar and I had underestimated what a huge machine we had built, especially when the assistant chef had upped the dose.
It was a Monday evening. I can still see how the guests were sitting in their chairs, delighting in the appetizer— nothing more than cheap sandwiches smeared with the sauce. They were licking their fingers and lusting after Waldemar’s coq au vin. The older couple grunted quietly in the background as Waldemar came up to me and whispered: “No coq today, have no secret ingredient today. No secret. Understand. Not well.”
I saw the fear in Waldemar’s eyes and felt a wave of nausea. When I left the kitchen and entered the dining room, the guests stared at me greedily. With great politesse I explained that I was very sorry but the coq au vin had run out. I said that they would have to make do with something else and that we had a very good schnitzel. This was, to be perfectly honest, a lie. We were not shopping for anything else anymore. But I could not finish what I was saying because the women’s group gave a piercing shriek, vengefully racing for the kitchen. They went at Waldemar, undressing him, pulling off his pants. I can still hear his screams. They fell upon him like a pack of hyenas.
Waldemar bears the scars to this day. He lost a testicle, and it was only through the valiant intervention of our doorman that it did not come to something worse. I had to close my restaurant. I can only chalk it up to the embarrassment of all the parties involved that I avoided a lawsuit and am now able to live relatively comfortably. I even granted Waldemar a meager, I must admit an intentionally meager, pension.