Statistically, if you hired Chef Henri Brasseur, there was a six percent chance you were going to be poisoned. Hell, he even put it up on his website. He called himself the Ninety-Four Percent Chef.
Even by his competitors’ standards, his food was recherché, which is French for very good. His restaurant, Urbane, boasted three Michelin stars for excellence, and yes, you had to sign a waiver when you hired him.
There were rumors that Chef Henri was born without a sense of smell. He was a hired gun who relied on his sous chef to affirm that neither fish nor fowl were corrupt. But his assistant had a malignant sense of humor and sometimes let the bad meats slide through. Whether it was Sukhothai Pad Thai, or his specialty, Sesame Crusted Mahi Mahi, your guts had the final say.
I hired Chef Henri because I wanted the best for my girl’s wedding reception. I spared Judy the gristly details; she was already on warp drive. And, if things worked out, only her new hubby Wayne-O would spend their honeymoon praying for a working toilet.
Of course, Chef Henri wasn’t cheap. At sixty-eight bucks a plate, and at a hundred and thirty-two guests and counting, I was bleeding dollars. But it was my only real contribution (other than my checkbook); my wife Dianna was elbow-deep in the planning, and even Wayne-O took care of the music: some neo-punk band called Dank Skwirls. I figured a nice meal was the least I could do.
“Falafel and cucumber sauce?” I asked. “What’s that?”
Chef Henri wasn’t as mythical close-up. He was shorter than his Escalade and spoke with a light Texas drawl. He looked like he would fit right in at a cowboy camp, stirring beans. “It’s a Middle Eastern dish,” he said. “Mostly chickpeas and onion and spices fried up and stuffed into pita bread.”
“I do up a nice Indian butter chicken.”
“What’s in that?”
“Maybe,” he said, “you’d like to try some samples from my kitchen.”
“Are they free?”
Of course they weren’t.
I decided on the grilled swordfish with rosemary. My taste buds were still rejoicing when I arrived home. Dianna kissed me hard when I told her I’d found our caterer. She said she was proud of me; normally, I didn’t pay much attention to fussy details. I didn’t tell her about the six percent chance we’d end our daughter’s wedding day having our stomachs hosed out.
There was a last minute change in the menu. By last minute, I mean the day before the wedding. Only half of Chef Henri’s swordfish delivery came through, and he’d have to improvise. Would wild salmon and pearl couscous work for me?
I told him that was fine. He even knocked the price down to fifty-eight dollars a plate for the inconvenience. I told him that was even better.
I was due for a last minute tuxedo adjustment and promptly forgot about the new menu. I didn’t think that, with two main courses, the odds of being poisoning had just doubled.
The wedding went off perfectly. I know that’s a little like saying, “the bomb went off quietly”, but that’s how I felt. It was a beautiful ceremony, even though my new son-in-law was a tool. When I congratulated him by the church steps, I wanted to simultaneously shake his hand and rattle the monkey cage that was his head. But I resisted. I think Wayne-O actually shed a tear.
Judy was lovely, of course. She was radiant. I know that’s a dad-thing to say, but it’s true. If she was happy with the corkscrew she married, I would learn to live with it.
The reception hall was only ten minutes away from the church. I drove on ahead to make sure Chef Henri had things in order. I admit, I was a little nervous, but the wedding had left me in such good spirits that all anxiety was dialed way down.
The hall was festooned with black and orange streamers (Halloween, anyone?) and bright pink balloons that physically hurt my eyes. When things got into high gear, there would be black-lights, strobes, and probably more than one seizure.
Chef Henri was already there, of course, wearing his chef whites and supervising the chaos. I didn’t want to hinder him, so I simply nodded. He nodded back, distracted, and continued coordinating the final preparations.
I noticed a man who shadowed Chef Henri’s every move. He followed Henri like a sour teenager. He was much older than his boss, and walked with a permanent stoop. His eyes were shiny, and his hair was raven-black. He looked exhausted. He saw me looking at him and grinned, not unpleasantly. The sous chef, I assumed.
When the guests began to arrive, I took my place beside my family. Judy came over to me and kissed my cheek. Her face was quite pink and she looked very happy.
“Thank you for everything,” she said.
“You’re welcome, honey.”
“Mom told me you even arranged the catering. That’s just so… awesome. I know how you don’t like detail work.”
“It was easy. Next time you get married, I’ll be even more prepared.”
There was much mingling for the next forty-five minutes. I didn’t know half of the guests. Dank Skwirls were on stage, tuning their instruments, or maybe playing them, but they kept it reasonably quiet. I can’t say it was background music, because I heard the words “sugar whore baby” and “bang the patsies”, but no one seemed to mind.
When it came time for the meal, everyone faced me and applauded. It felt like a pleasant conspiracy.
The first appetizer was bacon-wrapped apricots dipped in plum sauce, followed by chicken cilantro bites. Conversations grew as I heard appreciative comments.
“Wherever you found this dude, you’re not paying him enough,” said one of Wayne-O’s friends, a bedraggled young man with bleached orange hair and multiple eyebrow piercings. “Food is awesome-tastic.”
Next up was a sautéed garlic and spinach salad that tasted like it was just been plucked from the earth. I’ve never tasted spinach so crisp, and I wondered if Chef Henri grew it in the back of his van.
Conversations became more animated as the wine flowed downhill. And I waited. I heard a deep moan a few tables behind me, but then laughter. Everyone was relaxed and ready for the main course.
I excused myself and went to the men’s room; too many Kirin’s and a nervous stomach had set me on edge.
The sous chef was the only other person in there, washing his hands like a surgeon. He smelled like fried peppers and lemons.
“Things are going well,” he said.
“I suppose,” I said. “Is it going to end well?”
“They always do.”
I cleared my throat. “Do they? I mean, will they tonight?”
He shrugged. “They always do. For someone, anyway.” He walked up to me, his back curled like a cursive letter. I could smell the garlic that probably stained all his pores. “It doesn’t happen all at once,” he whispered.
He shrugged again. “You know. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes a week. You might go home tonight and still not be sure.”
“But you are. You’re sure.”
“Chef Henri needs me for the main course,” he said, walking to the door. He paused. “Did you know that’s not his real name? It’s Billy Knotts. He’s just a hayseed. He wouldn’t know a bean sprout from a calico bean. Enjoy your meal, sir.” He grinned. “Ninety-four per cent is a lot, you know.”
Chef Henri didn’t present his main courses with any flourish. A handful of waiters methodically began setting down plates to each table. Chardonnay bottles were emptied and replenished. I ended up with the swordfish while the rest of the wedding party received the salmon. I don’t know if that was intentional. There was much oohing as the meals arrived.
“Which fork do I use?” asked Wayne-O, and everyone dug in.
I took my time with the meal, savoring every bite, but my mind painted an ugly picture of all the guests vying for the porcelain within the next twelve hours.
The swordfish was extraordinary. It was as though Chef Henri had reeled it in himself and bathed it in complex herbs. There was a hint of something smoky and dark in the aftertaste.
There were no complaints. For the next fifteen minutes, the only sounds I heard were forks scraping bone china and wine pouring into glasses.
The party started to rip after the speeches and post-meal conversation. Several people came over and thanked me, as if I had anything to do with it. Dank Skwirls tore into their set like their guitars were on fire, and the dancers moved as if they were trying to put out the flames. I stood in the corner furthest from the amps. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the kids were enjoying it, and Judy was jumping the most enthusiastically.
Dianna leaned up against me, smiling. We didn’t say anything – we couldn’t, the music was too loud – but it was nice.
The first kid to puke was a cousin of the groom. His name was Dotty and he had the frizziest blue hair I’d seen since my grandmother. He threw up after the third song — something called “My Chained Bunny” — just a couple of feet away from the punch bowl. Too much booze and jumping, I hoped.
Another kid tossed his dinner out of sympathy to Dotty, and it looked like a goblin had sprung from his throat.
The Skwirls cut their set after that, and offered to take pictures for their blog.
The third kid – really, more of the uncle-type if you dismissed the piercings and eyeliner – hurled on his expensive-looking spats.
“Lord, I hope it wasn’t something they ate,” said Dianna.
“Booze and shaking like a soda can,” I said. I walked to the kitchen area, hoping to catch Chef Henri.
But he was already gone. Some of the kitchen help was still there, washing dishes and packing cutlery. The sous chef was smoking near the counter, watching.
“It’s started, hasn’t it?” I asked him.
“You have good liquor,” he said. “That could be it.”
“But that isn’t the reason.”
“A lot of excited, happy people out there. Adrenalin does funny things.” He grinned. “When you get back home, read the fine print. I mean the fine-fine print.” And then he winked.
I went back to the party to assess the damage. I was tired of the coyness.
Three more people were heaving in front of the stage. It was starting to reek. One of the Skwirls used his iPhone to take pictures.
Wayne-O approached me, his face a study in misery. I actually felt bad for him.
“Sorry about the puking,” he said. “Someone in the band spiked the punch. I mean hyper-spiked it.”
I noticed that all the sickness involved the younger people, those with little experience with high-octane booze. The older folks were busy averting their eyes while they drank their scotch.
“That’s why everyone’s sick?” I felt better. Disgusted, but better.
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I didn’t know they’d do that.” Wayne-O looked like a kicked puppy.
“Not your fault,” I said. “Thanks for letting me know.” I almost tousled his hair but stopped myself. There was enough gel on his scalp to be flammable.
“No problem,” he said, and wandered off to attend to his friends.
Dianne: “Everything okay? It’s not the food, is it?”
“No. Too much booze, too little time.”
She sighed. “Kids,” she said, and left it at that.
The party lasted until just after one. A couple more kids were sick, but it was understandable with all the liquor available.
We saw Judy and Wayne off. They climbed into his van, looking exhausted and exhilarated at the same time. Judy and Dianne exchanged hugs while father and son-in-law exchanged handshakes and an awkward fist bump.
It was almost the end of a very long day.
Neither of us said much on the way home; we were dog-tired. I started the day apprehensive, but I felt relaxed now that it was over. Yes, we had a mess to clean at the hall, but nothing that couldn’t wait until morning.
Dianne suited up for bed, her eyes casting a come-hither-you-magnificent-bastard glance upon me.
“In a sec,” I said. I wanted to check out Chef Henri’s website one last time. Did I read the fine-fine print? I was sure I had. But I wasn’t a detail man.
I felt a ping in my gut as I scrolled down Urbane‘s home page. The site overflowed with bright, primary colors and gifs of Henri’s most famous dishes.
And at the bottom, in a tiny typeface that I either misread or didn’t notice: “Chef Henri, world-renowned chef and restaurateur, acknowledges that, while his meals are exquisitely prepared, there is a ninety-four percent chance the preparations may not meet basic culinary standards. Experience the dangerous excitement of one of Chef’s Henri’s creations today! Caveat emptor.”
I barely made it to the toilet the next morning.