Diran Adebayo
The Unknown Chef
It was only when his lawyer got a court order against the lady that Rami began to feel easy again. That mammy munckin of a woman who’d been harassing him around the place this last fortnight; there when he came to the office, there when he left. Untold calls, culminating in her muttering dark threats to his receptionist yesterday about how she was gonna get her man or her boys or something to see to Rami, and him deciding to take serious action.

Well he’d put paid to her now. No more loitering and no more calls. Rami sighed with relief and turned to the McDonalds takeout on his desk with new gusto. Littl;e bitch!, he chomped resentfully, she’d almost been putting him off his food. And Rami was a man who loved his food..

Rami locked up, belched a little smellily – he could taste the gherkin in it – and made his way, with just the odd nervous look around, to his ride. .Moments later, he was easing his new BMW convetible into the mild evening’s town-bound traffic. It had been a bit greedy, possibly, that quarterpounder when he had a dinner engagement already. No matter. He’d make space for both. He always could.

Life, mad munchkins apart, aside, was doing pretty fine by young entrepreneur Rami. ”I’ve had a little bit of success,” he’d casually mention, if he thought you didn’t know. Wheeling, dealing, frequent tax-deductible lunch-meetings, his work suited his nature well. London-bred of comfortablish immigrant stock, race had been of no interest to him until, when his customary mediocrity had had him facing his latest falling off the corporate ladder, it occured to him he might be able to sue his then employers for discrimination. He hadn’t gone through with the plan in the end, it not being his style to make enemies of powerful people, but the fat figures a lawyer had talked about had vividly alerted Rami to the concept of race and money. And as Britain’ s Race industry had blossomed, so had he. He’d set up on his own and begun firing off proposals to image-conscious companies and government agencies for funds for inner city business initiatives and conferences. And when the monies flooded in, Rami minimised performance and maximised profit. He was the King of the grant-winners, the Sultan of the so-called symposium. He’d had a bit of success, oh yes, yes, yes.

And now he wasn’t even having to approach people – benefactors were coming to him.Like this businessman tonight. Some foreign-sounding geezer had called in the morning to wish Rami luck in his upcoming third annual People of Colour Awards. The now-televised, sponsors-delighting POCAS were the jewel in Ramii’s portfolio, and the man had said that his people were most interested in investing in its future. Could Rami join him for some dinner tonight at his hotel, the Royal London? Now Rami knew of the Royal London – very swanky, and he wasn’t even thinking with his business head when he instantly agreed. He loved it all, but posh nosh was the best. 

He slowed to change lanes as he approached the hotel forecourt, and nearly got bashed by an Audi full of blackheads impatiently overtaking on the wrong side. ‘Typical!’ he growled as they sped away. Now if they only served food as quickly as they drove cars, there might be a happening black restaurant scene.

He should have said as much to that munchkin that first time she turned up, he reflected as he stepped into the Royal London’s well-appointed lobby and took a pew. Instead he had been relatively patient with her. 

He’d bounded down only too readily that first time when his receptionist had said there was a chef, a ladychef, no less, there to see him. Rami had had visions of some leggy Cordon Bleu-trained cutie – it would be the girl of his dreams – only to be confronted by a wizened ebony pixie with a headscarf, a nasty bag lady’s coat and a limp. She had burnt his ears about how he should have a category for chefs in his awards, and that there were plenty of good black chefs out there, and this would raise their profile and blah. As she spoke she’d chewed incessantly on something that left black stains on her tongue.

Rami had yawned. All these losers who imagined he was running some kind of community service! He was running a TV show, for God’s sake. To keep the TV boys and his sponsors on side, to get the newspapers interested, he needed stars, simple. Was she a potential New Britain poster-girl? Were black cuisines setting the West End alight? He didn’t think so.

“What restaurant d’you work at,” he’d tested her.

She’d spat out what proved to be some shelly black-eyed nut into her hand and kneaded it, actions that had Rami thinking how he’d never eat a meal from this woman, “I do my own thing, really. Mainly in Deptford.”

Deptford! That benighted corner. Said it all. 

“Plenty of good people like my food,” she’d added, slipping the nut back in her mouth and contemplating him strangely.

Well, good for them! He’d hurried her to the door, taken her details and then immediately thrown them away.

And that, unfortunately, hadn’t been that. 

“Mr Rami, I presume.” His host’s manner was genial, polished, and his handshake firm. “So glad you could make it.” 

The pair walked through the lobby, down a soft-carpetted corridor, to the restaurant. A tuxedoed pianist tinkled away, and exotically scented flowers in crystal vases decorated the little section they were swiftly seated in. The waiters seemed most attentive, Rami was gratified to see. Perhaps his host was a regular here. 

“I hear you’re going great guns,” said his host.

“I’ve had a bit of success,” Rami confirmed. 

“So tell me. All your many projects – is there an, an underlying philosophy, an ethic, so to speak, that you bring to them?”

Oh dear, thought Rami , the guy was one of those ethical types. He might have to soft-soap him with some ‘community’ spiel. But not now. Right now, he was peckish. 

“Food first,” Rami grunted, picking up the menu, “then ethics.” 

“Quite,” his host chuckled and held his gaze.“Quite.”

Under ‘Starters’ ran an orthodox range of selections – your pates de fois gras and your prawn cocktails – but the card for the main course bore only the solitary listing: ‘Chef’s Special’. 

“The Special?” his host leant forward enthusiastically. “Oh, I can recommend it most highly. The kitchen here does this quite superb Soul food.You know it?”

Rami shook his head. 

“The term was coined, I believe, by the slaves,” his host bowed his head a moment, “upon their arrival in the Americas, to describe food that came straight from the heart. In those days they had to make do with any scraps from the fields they could find, and they’d stir and season these bits until they’d found a way to make it all remind them of better memories. Oh don’t be alarmed, “ the man added quickly, for Rami was frowning – this sounded like poor man’s grub to him, “the ingredients have moved on a bit since then. But there is still no official recipe. Each chef brings their own heart, as it were, to the dish. Here, the je ne sais quoi is in the spices. Spicy, magic – mmwahh!” he kissed his fingertips. 

“You mean to say,” Rami gestured astoundedly around him, “that everyone here is eating the same thing?”

“Kind of, but it tastes different to everyone. No two palettes, no two souls, are the same, are they?” his host turned to the waiter. 

“So I am given to understand, Sir.” the waiter replied, cocking an impassive eye at Rami. 

Rami was still underwhelmed by the prospect, but what could he do? He ordered all six starters, to cover himself as best he could, plus the Special. 

He asked for them all to be brought together, as he liked his digestive juices to be fully briefed, and was pleasantly intrigued to find, when all the dishes arrived, that he could not tell one course from the other, so full of surprises was everything. Some dishes, or rather elements therein, he recognised from his order, or dinners past, but there was plenty of stuff that he didn’t. Never mind, they all tasted distinctively, spicily, saucily succulent and he mixed and matched with relish. 

“Did I lie?” asked his host. 

Rami shook his head and grinned. He was fast developing a strong fondness for this African. He would be bringing his dates and his top sponsors here from now on, no question. This “soul food” was the best kept secret in town. 

The only thing, and it was only as he gulped down a long cooling draught of lager that he properly began noticing it, was this aftertaste. Or an afterheat, to be more accurate: a temperature that was coming from the pits of his stomach,then spreading to all points of his bodily compass.It was odd. Normally, with spicy food,he would feel it only on his temples.But his temples felt dry enough. He could feel the heat coming, though. Now in his chest. Soon it would be at his throat; then his forehead and his fingers…

“Are you alright?” asked his host. 

Rami muttered something about feeling hot and gratefully accepted his host’s request for the chef’s special iced tea. But all the tea and beer and water that he drank, and all the shirt buttons he undid, did not help. He only felt hotter. The heat had reached his extremities, and then split two ways. Through his pores, so that his skin felt covered in a horribly slick,tropical ooze, and back inside, further scalding the same routes.

His host though, like the others at the tables around them, chewed and chatted easily on, seemingly feeling no ill effect. And Rami too, so loathe was he, even now, to give up on this dinner, and still hoping for the antidote that would allow him full return, could not restrain himself from the odd mouthful. He took a big slurp of some cold broth, thick with bits, that he had left until now and almost gagged at the unexpected bitterness of it. Eeurgh! He spat out a vile-tasting nut in disgust and reached for his water. The brown nut – something familiar about it – spun on the plate in front of him before coming to rest, a The shell had opened a little down its middle. Inside was a white fleshy material and in its middle, staring up, a beady black eye. 

Rami spilled his glass and his body jerked forward in shock. It was the munchkin nut. The munchkin eye! 

“Mmmm!” his host sighed, leaning back. “So good. That was just too fine.” He reached into his pocket, brought out a couple of nuts, and tossed them into his mouth. “The only meal I’ve had that comes even close was in…yes, I think it was Deptford.”

And the man cackled. And his tongue was as black as tar. 

Palpitating, Rami gawped wide-eyed at him, and at the waiter, arriving to dab Rami’s front. Then he barged the waiter aside and he ran. 

But running, very shortly, proved imposible. As with the heat, so now with the food, spreading, up and across, dragging him down so he could only totter. Diners looked up at the sound of a trouser-belt snapping to see a worryingly overweight figure, drenched in sweat, clutching his tummy and casting anxious looks behind, staggering past them. 

Rami collapsed groaning by the restaurant entrance. What was happening? His body – he’d put on five stone in fifty yards. All the food he’d had that day, that week, felt reconstituted inside. The quarterpounder was back in its bun, the fois gras was tissue in his brain, and herbs and spices were sluicing all over. And the heat – Jesus! it was as hot as hell in there! Oven-hot. Like someone was cooking him. 

“Voodoo stew! Voodoo stew!” he moaned, using sheer survival instincts to clamber up. For his host had wiped his mouth with a serviette and was now strolling his way.

Leaning on the corridor wall for support, Rami dived through the first door he came to. He was hoping for the rest rooms or a path to the exit, but found himself inside a giant banqueting hall, with yet more diners, eating. As he panted his way past,it seemed to him that some of these people were dimly familiar, but it wasn’t until he was a good way across that he could finally put memories to faces.

Wasn’t that the busker, who had so begged Rami to play at the POCAS last year to show the world his skills, and the photographer, who’d organised that boycott of POCAS 1 because of the lack of visual arts, up ahead? In every room he stumbled through in this maze of a hotel it was the same: cutting-edge comics, too slangy for crossover appeal, abstract sculptors, too elusive for the TV age, local heros, ghetto secrets, all the ones whose POCA submissions had met with a fat red cross, they were all here, enjoying voodoo stew, wrinkling their noses at the puddles that trailed him and sniggering at his ever-expanding girth. 

Finally, Rami found a passage with a ‘Rest Rooms’ sign and, crawling now, propelling himself forward on his now mighty stomach like a beached walrus, he struggled down it. The noise and smells of a kitchen were wafting down from a turning to his right, and he took a peek as he passed it. There, beyond the open doors, marshalling operations with various white-hatted assistants in attendance, stood a certain ebony pixie with a red scarf on her head.

The shock was great but by this stage, not as great as it might have been, and certainly less than the terror which so inspired Rami he made the last few metres to his refuge in record walrus time, only to find an attendant with a folder now barring his way. If Rami had been standing he would have strangled him. 

“Did you enjoy your meal, Sir?”

“What!” Rami croaked.

“If you did, Sir,” the attendant leant down and handed him a piece of paper, “can I ask you to sign here. Otherwise, could you fill out this other form explaining what you didn’t like?”

Rami looked anguishedly down the corridor. He thought he could hear two pairs of feet, approaching, one with a long drag to its beat, as if its owner had a limp. He turned back, signed on the line, and hauled himself through the door. 

He took the first cubicle, locked it, tore off his clothes, and sat on the toilet. He was so full, so hot, he thought if he could just expel this stuff he might be alright again.

He heard the opening of the rest-room door and two pairs of feet a moment later. Rami whimpered and cowered where he sat, his heart beating and jumping so hard he thought it wouild leap through his head. And whether it was this, in fact, that happened, as the knocking on the door intensified, or whether the meal that was roasting in him, now cooked , demanded to be born, or whether it was simply a freak of nature, we may never know for certain. The two witnesses said all they saw was a flash of light and then the sound of a thunderous explosion. And when the staff broke down the door of the cubicle, all that remained of Rami was the Chef’s Special, and bits of burger and gherkin, spattered on the walls. 

The third People of Colour Awards was a somewhat muted affair. Its new benefactor spoke movingly of this tragic loss they all shared. He said that not many people knew, but dear departed Rami was a man who had loved his food just as he loved his people, and how fitting then, that his last act had been to establish a trust to provide grants for ‘ethnic’ chefs. The benefactor returned to his seat to a standing ovation. Beside him,a small lady smiled, and spat a black-eyed nut into her hand.

© Diran Adebayo 2000