Theo knew how to cook. Not just swirl ingredients about in a mixing bowl and set an oven timer. He could produce mouth-watering meals that even his younger sister was unable to resist, and she was the region’s pickiest two-year-old. His Greek Cypriot grandfather had shown him the basics in his fast food café, a business his father had refused to join, much preferring the less greasy environment of an office. So Theo’s grandfather carried on in anticipation of the youth losing his aspirations to become a cordon bleu chef and rejoining the real world in time to take his place. With each more ambitious recipe his grandson thought up this seemed increasingly unlikely.
Theo had set his sights on an upmarket restaurant that catered for an elite clientele his grandfather would never encounter over his well-scrubbed, laminated counter. He never mentioned this to the old man, of course, in case he had a heart attack. But grandfather was a pragmatist, still able to view the world in the clear Mediterranean light he had been raised under. Life had the knack of levelling things out in the least expected ways, so he was happy to let Theo contemplate the colour scheme and seating in his small, exclusive restaurant, which would have intimate seating and a patio overlooking a small lake. If his grandson ever realised his aspirations, he would be the first to book a candlelit table and order something he could not pronounce.
At that moment, apple pie was Theo’s piéce de rèsistance. He could turn this ordinary desert into something so delectable his grandfather had tried to persuade him to make batches of it to sell in his café. Theo would have none of it. His time was firmly focused on the cordon bleu recipe book he was determined to write before his 16th birthday. Time was getting short if he was to satisfy that ambition, and the final of the Regional Young Cook of the Year Competition was coming up. His delectable apple pie was bound to win it for him. Perhaps then he might let grandfather sell it in his café to bring in the more discerning clientele, unlike the current ones who sat over a mug of tea for two hours and set the world to rights in voices that could be heard two streets away.
As well as being a talented cook, Theo was an appalling snob. No one in the family knew where this had come from: they were all down-to-earth and easy-going. Attributed to adolescent hormones, it was assumed he would grow out of it before the big, wide world knocked it out of his teenage skull.
Joining the line of hopeful competition finalists, Theo mentally dismissed the others as inadequate to the task in hand. One was dumpy with a pasty complexion, probably the result of eating too many of her own deep-fried concoctions. Another was thin and looked malnourished; the type that fretted so much about the creation of his meals he hardly dare taste them for fear of being disappointed. The third was bound to prepare a curry, her brightly coloured hijab shrieking jalapeno and hot spices.
Theo’s hors d’oeuvre went well: poached salmon on a bed of finely grated fennel. The main meal was an unpretentious wild mushroom pilaf with wholemeal bread.
Then it was time for Theo’s classic apple pie.
The ingredients were carefully weighed and mixed, flaky pastry gently rolled to line the ceramic dish, and apples lightly poached with cloves and nutmeg. The mixture was allowed to cool before being drained and placed on the partly cooked pastry bed. It was then covered with a sprinkling of demerara sugar and the crust laid over it before being baked. After coming out of the oven, the crust received another sprinkling of demerara. It was then ready for the finishing touch.
Theo lit his blowtorch.
Given his proximity to a very flammable roller blind, the judges looked worried and jalapeno girl tucked her hijab into her kameez.
Everyone stopped to watch this culinary artist at work, more in apprehension than admiration.
It was accepted that dangerous implements were necessary in every kitchen, even in adolescent hands, though no one had taken into account that one pair intended to use a blowtorch.
Everyone held their breath as Theo began to caramelise the crust of his apple pie.
A sudden gust of air from the open window fanned the flame. Happily oxygenated, it did what all fire aspires to do and flared enthusiastically, so enthusiastically it set fire to the roller blind before Theo could do anything about it.
The gasp of horror was like air being sucked out of a vacuum. Judges, audience and competitors hurtled this way and that, either trying to escape or put out the fire. Theo tried to beat out the blaze with his apron, which immediately went up in flames. The roller blind was well alight so the tall, emaciated competitor yanked it from its fixings with the hook on a window pole.
A pan of boiling vegetable oil was knocked over in the confusion and ignited by the gas ring.
In the ensuing pandemonium the competitor with the pasty complexion seized a BCF fire extinguisher and brought the fire under control while one of the judges disconnected the gas and electric.
By the time the fire brigade arrived it was all over. They seemed quite disappointed. Having attended within minutes, they expected to have more to do than ventilate the stench of burnt sugar and cooking oil from the kitchen.
Theo was mortified, despite the manager of the hall reassuring him that it was well insured and needed redecorating anyway. The aspiring chef was still in shock when he was taken home by a police officer who hoped he would recover sufficiently to make a statement before the end of his shift.
Theo took to his bedroom... and stayed there.
Threats, pleading and promises could not budge him. Apart from brief forays to the bathroom and kitchen when no one was about, he remained gazing at four walls. All he appeared to eat were crisps and the cheap ginger nuts that he previously had so much contempt for. This worried his parents more than the strains of melancholy music coming from the bedroom. So they persuaded Theo’s grandfather to go up and hammer on his door.
“You will open up right now, young man! This is not good behaviour!”
The one voice Theo always paid attention to was enough. The bolt was drawn back and the family elder found himself confronting the pale, drawn face of devastated youth.
“What is this?” his grandfather demanded. “You look really sick, boy?”
Theo was on the verge of tears. “I’ve lost my sense of taste, Granddad.”
His grandfather took a deep breath. There were a few things that could be worse for a chef.
“It will return, Theo. These things happen.”
“I’ve been eating cheap biscuits and cheese and onion crisps... And they all tasted the same as my apple pie.”
“Forget your apple pie. Most people eat with their eyes and sense of smell, not their taste. Look at McDonald’s; they throw out odours and bombard customers with ridiculous pictures of their meals to fool them. If everyone knew how their burgers were really produced they would be bankrupt in a week. It is all illusion. Taste is nothing.” He struck his chest. “This is where it matters. You cook with your heart and people will eat.”
Theo knew what his grandfather was saying. Understand the customer before thinking about the ingredients. One person’s nectar could be pretentious and tasteless to most others. He had spent his young life looking in the wrong direction.
So there was no culinary degree for Theo. He went to work for his grandfather, getting to know customers, and cooking chips and garlic bread.
Fortunately, his sense of taste never fully returned.