Some of you may not know it, but the original first draft of Under the Knife was written from Nate/Zachary dual POV. For several reasons, during the editorial process my editor and I decided that the book would be better served by jettisoning Zachary’s POV and telling the entire story through Nate’s eyes. Thus, languishing on my hard drive are some “missing scenes” from Zachary’s POV, and in honor of UTK’s showing in the 2016 Rainbow Awards, I’d like to share one of them with you.
This excerpt takes place mid-Chapter 10, just after the chefs have been presented with the 25th Anniversary Party challenge and are on their way to the market. I chose it because it’s the origin story of how Zachary fell in love with food and cooking.
The thirty minute drive to the market was the only time they were given to plan, so in Zachary’s car at least, the trip was a silent one. Sandwiched in between Deepan and Cathy, Zachary started to think. Something told him that classic French cooking wasn’t going to win him this challenge. He’d seen the enthusiasm in Charlene’s demeanor when she talked about the party, how romanticized her vision was of food without Western European influence. Zachary tried to stubbornly ignore the internal voice that urged him to use his background as an advantage. As the minutes ticked by, he racked his brain for inspiration, but came up with nothing. The voice was getting louder and louder with every mile, so much so that he began to argue with it silently.
Don’t be an idiot. You know how to cook food from the Balkans, which is likely not something any of the others can say.
I’m not making any of that slop. Shut up.
You think Deepan’s not going to make something Indian, or at least Indian influenced? This challenge should be an easy win for a chef with a strong foundation in ethnic cuisine. You’re really going to refuse to take advantage of the same leverage?
Zachary closed his eyes. Normally, he had no problem being objective about food, almost to a clinical level. But the food he’d grown up cooking and eating was inextricably bound up with memories and emotions about his family, which he tried to avoid thinking about whenever possible. Just the smell of turmeric and paprika brought him back to his earliest memories; of being taught to peel potatoes and skewer chunks of lamb, and being shouted at for doing it wrong. Or using white chalk to cover up small stains on the tablecloths, so Dzevat could keep linen costs down. And all of his parent’s friends who came to Little Sarajevo, who would pinch his cheek and talk about how wonderful it was that Zachary would take over the place someday. Zachary firmly believed that his father had never seen his son when he looked at him; just an indentured servant who happened to also live in the same house. Given his hostility about being raised in a restaurant, on the surface it seemed like something of a wonder that Zachary had gone into the food industry. And up until he was about nine, Zachary was sure he would never want to work in a restaurant once he was old enough to get out from under his father’s thumb.
But that year, Ilina had talked her husband into finally getting a cable TV package. One Sunday, Zachary encountered an unusual opportunity to have the television all to himself, when he was left behind with a terrible cold while the rest of his family went off to church. Flipping channels, he found himself stopping when he came across a reddish-haired man with a beard, wearing a blue apron. It looked like the man was in a kitchen, but it wasn’t a real one; just a white, austere set with a prep area and some shelves with sparse food items and utensils. The man was smiling and friendly, and gesturing to a thin, white fillet of fish in front of him. Cheerily, Zachary was told that the fish was Dover sole, a flat fish that had two eyes on one side of its head and none on the other. This instantly captured Zachary’s attention, having never imagined such a creature could exist. The man then went on to describe where the fish was found, and its flaky texture and mild, almost sweet flavor. For the first time, Zachary was introduced to the idea that food wasn’t just something you slapped together during the dinner rush and served to impatient customers. Food could teach you about new things; places and items you’d never been exposed to before. It was something that could be interesting, much to his surprise. So Zachary sat up on the couch, a blanket wrapped around his feverish and aching body, and watched the man make what he called Sole a la Meuniere.
Zachary was fascinated with how different the dish being prepared was to anything he’d encountered before in his young life. The fillet was handled gently; dipped lightly in flour and then fried in olive oil in a pan until it was golden brown. After that, the man added butter, white wine, lemon, parsley, salt and pepper to a different pan, and did something called “reducing”, which turned the ingredients into a rich, pale yellow sauce. He poured the sauce over the fish, then lifted it out with a long, thin spatula and placed in on a white plate. The man talked about what side dishes you could make that would go with the fish, unfamiliar things like asparagus and wild rice pilaf. At the end of the show, the man looked right at Zachary, and said “I’m David Rosengarten, and you’ve been watching Taste. See you next time.”
From that moment on, every time Zachary had the opportunity, he would watch the programs on that channel, which he learned was called The Food Network. After his parents went to bed, he would sneak downstairs and watch for hours, learning about food that he never knew existed, and the people and places they came from. Zachary’s passion for food was ignited not by the commercial kitchen that he grew up working in almost every day; but by the chefs who talked to him each night, and taught him how much more of the world there was outside of his close-knit Bosnian community in Queens.
So what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments or on Twitter at twitter.com/laurin_kelly