I plated the stew, one small serving on each of our plates. I cranked the heat under the root vegetables and then under the green beans. When I saw there was some activity, I plated those, too. I carried to cups of soup to a surface near the evaluation table. I had put the plates into the oven to heat up, and I took a side towel, grabbed the side of it, and carried the food over to the instructor’s area. I was 30 seconds early and I took slow, shuffling steps. When I reached the instructor, he was still evaluating the young woman who’d cooked right before me. The 30 seconds passed. Then 30 more passed. Then a minute, and then another.
I was getting a little peckish, verging on annoyed and soon to be irritated. I wasn’t quite close enough to hear what was being said, but the woman was doing most of the talking. As she spoke, she gestured a lot with her hands, and kept worrying her fingers.
I had been waiting for 4 minutes at this point, and she showed no signs of stopping. I could tell my food was cooling. Now I was pissed.
And she kept going. It became obvious she was arguing with the instructor. He bore an expression of solid patience, an almost kind look, and made no effort to cut her off.
I started tapping my foot. Then I shifted my weight from one foot to another. I kept putting my plate down and picking it back up. I slapped a stuttering rhythm against my leg. I cracked my knuckles. I had a sudden vision of upturning my food over her head. Six minutes late now.
The instructor turned and looked at me. We made eye contact and he held it. The woman turned to follow his line of sight and I saw that her eyes were red and watery.
She’d failed. This was her third time.
Everyone else who had finished was at work cleaning the kitchen.
Abruptly, the young woman stood, turned and walked with quick steps over to the kitchen door. She gathered her stuff and walked out.
The instructor watched her leave then motioned me over. I sat and slid his plate towards him.
“My food’s cold,” I said.
“Yes, I’ve kept you waiting. My apologies. It couldn’t be helped. I know you were ready, so no penalty. Now,” he said, reaching for clean utensils, “Let’s see what we have here.”
He took a bit of the stew. He chewed for a moment and looked up at me. He smiled, but it seemed rueful. He took a bite of the potatoes, then another. He nodded to himself. He took one forkful each of the root vegetables and the green beans. He tasted the soup. Then he pushed his plate away.
“So, Jonathan.” He leaned back and crossed his arms behind his head. He still seemed kind, almost friendly, but I was beginning to detect a slight hue of pity to his bearing. “Jonathan, what happened here tonight? I watched you at the beginning of the test and you were so efficient. I thought for sure you would ace this. But something...something went bad, no?”
“Yes.” He waited for more, but I couldn’t think of any way to elaborate.
“Well,” he said, finally. “What went bad?”
“I...I...I burned something. I had to start it over and I never got the time back.”
“Yes, you burned your roux.” Shit. He had seen that. “Also, your station looks like a pig sty, yes? Why didn’t you bring your dishes to the sink instead of just leaving them?”
“There was no room.”
“Then why didn’t you put them on someone else’s station? Someone who was done? No room? What kind of answer is that? That’s just silly. Come on.”
He stared at me. I figured this was, in essence, a rhetorical question. I shrugged. He held the stare.
“Alright then. Your stew is terrible. This is...it’s...edible. That’s about the best I can say and that’s not saying very much. The meat isn’t quite tender enough. Your braising liquid is thin, sour. This is not what I want to eat for dinner. Not at all. But I very much like your potatoes. Your vegetables are cooked perfectly. Really perfectly. But I cannot get past this stew. Edible. Edible. Passable. That’s it.”
He tallied up my score and wrote it down on a piece of paper that he slid across the table to me. I looked. I had passed. Not by much of a margin, but I passed. Obviously, I felt no sense of triumph, no sense of accomplishment. Every piece of me, every cell, felt flushed with mediocrity.
“Thanks,” I said, and stood up. He shook his head.
“You have talent,” he said. “This was disappointing.” He pushed his plate to me. “You have quite a mess to clean up. Get started.”
I walked back to my station. One of the others came up to me. “How’d you do, Jonathan?” he asked.
“What did you get?”
“I’d rather not say. I passed, though.”
I thought for a second. “Yeah, I’m pissed.” I grabbed some dishes and started carrying them to the sink. “Not at him, though.”