Thwap! Thwap! Thwap!
The knife reverberated through the hollow kitchen as it struck the cutting board over and over, fiercely cutting away at some particularly stubborn sweet potatoes. Its owner was being reckless and hurried, attempting to keep up with the other students around him. The knife had finally had enough of this forced use and found its way into the fleshy piece of the forefinger, just next to the fingernail.
“Ahh! Son of a—”
“Mr. Burke! Please exit the kitchen to take care of that, and watch your language.” A matronly voice with a slight accent instructed. Leon made his way to the hall outside the kitchen and went into the office where the first aid kit was kept, along with other lifesaving devices. Working in a kitchen was not a safe job, by any means, and this room with all its apparatus proved that. A burn station sat in the corner, along with eye saline, an AED, and other metallic utensils that were for unknown usage.
Leon fumbled through the drawers looking for the kit, unable to find it. He sat in the chair at the desk and swiveled around, spotting it high up on a filing cabinet, obviously not in its proper location. He threw the blood-soaked towel in the waste basket and opened up an antiseptic wipe. He winced as the infection-fighting elixir coursed through his throbbing finger. He dabbed some liquid stitches onto the open wound, making sure not to leave any piece of the raw flesh exposed, preventing it from opening up again.
“Idiot” he said aloud, mocking himself. He was four weeks into culinary school and already casting aspersions on himself for not being perfect. At seventeen, he was the youngest person in the academy pursuing a degree as a chef, but that was not enough. He had to prove that he was the best. He wasn’t going to do that cutting his finger off.
Leon made his way back into the kitchen. The slicing lesson had stopped and now the instructor was lecturing on knife sharpening—the number one reason why people cut themselves in the kitchen.
“It is important to keep your blade as sharp as you can. A crisp, clean cut is always more beneficial than the alternative. Invest in a solid knife sharpener and you will not regret it.” Leon looked around at his classmates, frustrated that no one was saying the obvious.
“I’d like to point out that using the freshest fruits and vegetables is also helpful in that process. These sweet potatoes are ridiculously stale, an accident waiting to happen!” Leon interjected rudely. The instructor briefly smiled and continued her lecture.
“As Mr. Burke has delicately pointed out, having a proper arsenal of crisp food is essential to preparation. When you and your tools are at odds against the food you are trying to perfect, the results are often unsatisfactory.”
“Unsatisfactory?” Leon piped up. “Seriously?! I just cut my finger wide open and you call that, ‘unsatisfactory?'” He was letting his pride get the best of him.
“Mr. Burke, may I see you in my office, now?” The instructor said, rather forcefully. Leon was not shaken by her tone; he knew he was right. “Students, please continue timing your slices. I want all of you to leave this room today having sliced each sweet potato in forty seconds or less.”
The instructor left the room briskly and led Leon down the corridor to another office, second from the last. She sat in her chair and pointed at Leon to assume the guest seat. He glared at her with the indignation of a child caught stealing his classmate’s pencil.
“Did you want to explain to me why you thought it necessary to interrupt my lecture?” She said with bitterness, “Twice?” Leon began to doubt his original intent, but did not want to deny himself the satisfaction of this moment, of proving himself to this woman.
“I, um. I—”
“Where do you come from, Mr. Burke?” she asked, almost like she was setting a trap.
“Sonoma County, California” he said proudly.
“And is it common for students in Sonoma County, California to rudely interrupt their teachers in the middle of a lecture?”
“Look, I just think—”
“Probably not.” She said resolutely. “So why do you suppose I let you take over?”
“Because I was right” he said with determination.
“Wrong.” She paused, thoughtfully. “I let you chime in so that your peers would see that you are just an impetuous boy with a quick temper and an overwhelming sense of self-importance.”
The load of bricks could not have been heavier if they had actually been dropped on him. Leon felt like his chest was caving in as he searched for something to say, something to prove to her that he was right. The pain in his finger was causing his brain to throb, the blood rushing to his head. If he didn’t cool it, he would say something stupid and regret it. He took a deep breath and quietly apologized.
“What? I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you” she goaded.
“I’m sorry.”He actually meant it.
“If you interrupt one of my lectures again, I will report you to the Dean. And he is not as gracious as I am, believe me. You came to this establishment to learn, not to badger and belittle. You may be the youngest student in that room, but you are nowhere near a professional chef. A good dose of humility and life experience should cure you of that, I hope. Now, are we done here?”
“Yes ma’am” he said, with the gravity of a wounded puppy.
“Good. Get in there, sharpen your knife, and prove to me that you are better than the Mr. Burke who walked into this room five minutes ago.”
“Yes ma’am” he said this time, smiling.
She followed him back down the hall and into the test kitchen. Looking around at all her students, she smiled and said, “Forty seconds. Who’s ready to slice?”
The students gathered their knives and sweet potatoes, eagerly ready to perform their task to the best of their ability. Leon looked up from his station and smiled an impish grin, nodding to the instructor that he would behave himself from now on. With his knife at the ready, his fingers flew over that sweet potato with a renewed vigor.
He didn’t have to prove he was the best, he simply had to be himself.