New things happen every day in a restaurant, part of the unfolding scroll of time. But when one thinks about it, does anything ever really happen for the first time? Aren’t we all actors in roles that human beings have been playing for thousands of years? Thus it was that, when I heard a long conversation taking place at staff lunch one afternoon between Chef Vishnu and the young washerboy Mansingh, suddenly the door seemed to open up into the distant past, and I saw in their place two shadowy Chinese figures: the royal chef Bei Lu and the washerboy Fang Yun-si of the Song Dynasty. It is in the voices of those ancient souls that I present this story of apprenticeship and ambition, of education and emulation, in the China Dragon kitchen.
Master Bei: (looking up from his afternoon meal as a shadow falls over him) Fang Yun-si! What is it, boy? I am drinking my soup.
Fang: Master… how are you? Are you busy?
Master Bei: By the grace of god and the eternal yet ever-changing Tao, I am well. And drinking my soup.
Fang: Master—if you don’t mind, may I eat with you today? There is something I want to…
Master Bei: Is everything well with you, boy? You look anxious. Sit down. How is your mother back in the village?
Fang: She is very well, Master.
Master Bei: Are you sending money back to her every month? It is very important to give back to our parents for all their labours in bringing us up. The sooner a man starts out on this most sacred of all tasks, the better.
Fang: I send her half my salary every month, Master. I also send her presents at New Year.
Master Bei: This is good. It means your future is bright. Can one ever—wait, are those a few hairs I see on your chin, young Master Fang? How fast time passes! When you first came to work in our kitchen, you were just a slip of a boy. But now you stand at the gates of manhood. Your mother is in for a surprise when she sees you next. You don’t need to eat so fearfully, boy. At the end of a long day’s work, it is all right to slurp one’s soup. If this was your wedding day, obviously that would be a different matter.
Fang: Thank you, O Master. In fact, that was what I wanted to talk to you about…
Master Bei: Your wedding? This is a surprise. I know the fashion today is for early marriages, but isn’t it a bit early for you to be putting your cucumber in a lady’s pickle-jar?
Fang: No, Master—I meant I wanted to talk about my future!
Master Bei: What about it? It looks fine enough to me. Are you not happy? Are the other boys troubling you? Ignore them completely.
Fang: No, Master, all that is fine. But the thing is…
Master Bei: What is it? My patience is running out, boy. Standing above the stove is hard work.
Fang: IamtiredofbeingawasherboyMaster! I… I would like to do something else.
Master Bei: Tired of being a washerboy! At the age of fourteen! Why, how long have you been at work in this job, Master Fang? It seems like it was only yesterday that you started.
Fang: Next month it will be two whole years, Master. This isn’t for me, sir. Shall I fetch you some more soup?
Master Bei: No, I have eaten enough. This is confounding business. It’s not every day that someone turns up asking for a demotion from the most important job in the kitchen.
Fang: Washing dishes, the most important job? Master, no!
Master Bei: Of course!
Fang: How so?
Master Bei: Two things come together to make a meal. Fresh food, old dishes. By its very nature, beginning in the field, ending in the shithouse, food comes and goes. But dishes, even those of the richest king, must last for scores of years. They ask for nurture by the gentlest and most caring hands. People are rarely made unhappy for long by a bad meal. But the breaking of a single precious dish can make them burst into tears. Our dishes are royal treasures. They must be scrubbed, polished, dried, stacked, with the greatest care. A gleaming metal brazier, a beautiful plate of porcelain, a delicate tea pot with a spout like an elephant’s trunk, a filigreed tray for serving thin-sliced meats—these are the real riches of the kitchen, as the wife is the real wealth of any household. Further, cleanliness, as we well know, is godliness. And cleanliness in the kitchen is the domain of the dish-washer, who begins his work in a mire of dirt and grease, half-masticated bones and food-encrusted platters, and emerges victorious and resplendent from a storm of steam and suds. It is he who sets the standard for those around him, and so it’s always the keenest and the sharpest lads who are entrusted with this sacred task. All living creatures eat. But only human beings eat on dishes. Therefore, dishwashing is verily the essence of what it means to be human.
Fang: Yes, Master, but…
Master Bei: The saying has come down through the ages: no kingdom prospers where the dishes do not sparkle. Clean dishes reveal a well-run kitchen, as smiling faces testify to a capable sovereign. Imagine sending out a fine feast in smudged or cracked tableware! All my good work, my hours of shopping and planning, steaming and broiling, frying and braising, would be of no consequence if I did not have a reliable boy—man—commanding the dish-station. And although I have never actually said it to you for fear that it would turn your head, Master Fang, you are one of the very best dish-washers I have seen in my thirty-five years of kitchen life! Why do you want to give up your envied sinecure for the common task of serving-boy or table-hand? For nearly two years now you have worked at a few hands’ remove from me and I have enjoyed watching you grow in poise—and facial hair. Why do you want to find another master?
Fang: No, Master, I want to work with you, that’s for sure.
Master Bei: Good. That’s settled then. Go, see if there is something sweet for you to eat among the leftovers.
Fang: (wringing his hands) No, Master… you don’t understand. I want… I want to work with you.
Master Bei: Fang, what dream-world have you been living in? You already do!
Fang: No Master, I want to work with food—while it is being made, not after it has been eaten!
I want to become a chef, Master!
Master Bei: What?!
Fang: That is my dream. Please make me your apprentice from tomorrow onwards. I promise I will never disappoint you.
Master Bei: This is a most audacious demand, like the earth asking to be turned into the sky, or a potato an onion. Boy, do you know what you are saying?
Fang: I do, Master! Cooking is where my heart lies. I think about it day and night. In my dreams I am often cooking, never washing dishes.
Master Bei: What’s so great about cooking? It’s a job to be done four times a day to please the most obdurate, the most unforgiving master of all—the enemy within the gates, the suction pump beneath the soul: the human stomach. And if there’s anything more annoying than the howling stomach, it’s food itself, which must be prepared in a thousand ways, for fear that the king will get bored, and watched every moment of the way as it is being cooked. A good meal takes hours to cook, but brings only a few hours respite—then the accursed cycle begins all over again. I myself have lost all appetite for food from thirty years of cooking and now I only drink soup. Even that is too much for me sometimes. Just some steam would be enough. It soothes my eyes.
Fang: Master! No, Master!
Master Bei: What no?
Fang: Please do not deride your holy calling, Master. My ears cannot bear it. On the contrary, you possess the key to the greatest treasure of all: the human heart. There is no happiness to compare with that of eating well, no ties so enduring as those forged by food. Don’t we owe everything to our parents because they fed us when we had not the capacity to fend for ourselves? Because he has you, Master, our sovereign is able to run a flourishing kingdom. All the wealth of our realm begins with your soups and stews, your forests of dimsum and your racks of roasted meats dripping with fat, your fragrant broths and your honeyed desserts. Even the way you fry minced ginger has something special about it! (hisses like ginger frying and makes a waving motion to imitate Master Bei’s flourish with his ladle)
Master Bei: Really?
Fang: Yes! As the sun nourishes the entire world, Master, so you do the king and the court. I have been watching you from the corner of my eye for so long now, Master. Actually, in a way I have already been your apprentice for two years! Without you knowing it, I have learnt so much about the job. Please take me under your wing.
Master Bei: If you have observed so much, shall I take a little test of your knowledge?
Fang: For sure!
Master Bei: Can you tell me how to make heaven’s garden soup?
Fang: Yes. Get up in the morning and arrive at the kitchen garden just as the first rays of the sun hit the cabbage patch, then choose the head with the greenest and glossiest leaves, then come back and blanch them in boiling water while…
Master Bei: Blanch them for how long?
Fang: For exactly three sips of tea! Then finely mince a finger-joint’s worth of ginger and four pods of garlic with a cleaver and crush them with the side of the blade to ‘wake them up’, heat a spoonful of oil until it simmers but does not smoke, slice the blanched cabbage into a mix of long shreds and small bits for contrast of shape and texture…
Master Bei: Enough! Enough! You have been watching me so closely, Master Fang, I feel next you will be telling me all my thoughts. I don’t know whether to be impressed or shocked. It’s a miracle you were also able to wash dishes so well at the same time.
Fang: I am sorry, Master. I just felt I should make use of my lucky position to learn as much as possible… even if I should never have the chance to use my knowledge. If you wish, I will remain at the sink with my steam and suds. Why should one expect that one’s dreams will be understood by the world?
Master Bei: Hmm. Are you sure, young Master Fang, that this is not just a childish whim that will meet its own death after three days of being fulfilled? Let me tell you, what you suffer as a dishwasher is nothing compared to what you will suffer as a chef’s apprentice. A chef’s apprentice has to sweat at small chores for years before he is even allowed to make a pot of soup for the kitchen staff, let alone a feast or banquet for the high and mighty. Even the simplest tasks have subtleties that cannot be fathomed by those who have merely watched them being performed, as you have done. When I started out as a chef’s apprentice, my only work for the first three years was dicing vegetables—hundreds of carrots, turnips, potatoes and radishes a day. I longed for respite—and then the next turnip came along. My fingers became as calloused as a sky full of clouds. That’s how I was taught, through my very body, that great kings and artists can afford to make a mistake, but never a cook. Our job is to achieve perfection and then stay there day after day, like a snowy mountaintop impervious to the changing of the seasons.
Fang: I understand that perfectly, Master!
Master Bei: In my twelve years as head of this kitchen, no one has ever asked me to be my apprentice. I have always chosen them myself.
Fang: I am sorry if I have been disrespectful, Master.
Master Bei: But if I should tell the truth, I myself began as a chef’s apprentice forty years ago in the very same way, by asking. Sometimes rules are there to be broken, Master Fang. Contrary to what we are taught, things are given not to those who hold back, but those who ask. The meek shall not inherit the earth—or if they do, it will be only mud. All right. You may take your place at the fourth chopping board at the beginning of next month.
Fang: (falling at Master Bei’s feet) Master!
Master Bei: Now, now, control yourself, boy. We are not like those Indians from the other side of the high mountains, who simper, sob and swoon at the slightest pretext. So far your life in this kitchen has been a breeze. From next month, it really starts to get tough.
Fang: I can handle all that, Master. I want to learn how to become a great chef!
Master Bei: All that is in the distant future. It may never happen. Oh, and there’s something else you will have to do. You will have to find someone among the staff to replace you at the dishwashing station.
Fang: Oh, no need to worry about that, Master. Shan Yufa of the Soup-Bowl Division has already agreed to take the job whenever it opens up.
Master Bei: Already agreed? How remarkable. How on earth did you persuade him?
Fang: Why, I told him all those things about dishwashing, Master, that you told me right now!