There once lived a man named Francisco. Francisco was a world-class chef, having decided at the age of 16 that the culinary world was his calling. He started looking up obscure recipes and experimenting in his parents’ kitchen, and soon everyone in the neighborhood was trying to get invited over for dinner at his family’s house. He read about the histories of French cooking, Asian traditions, Latin America. By the time he attended the Culinary Institute, he had already developed his own unique style, and was the envy of his peers.
Everyone expected big things from Francisco.
Francisco opened a restaurant soon after, L’Unica, and reservations were booked months in advance. He was the toast of the town. Even other chefs were leaping at the chance to taste Francisco’s cooking.
Francisco was thrilled. All of his talents were being used to their fullest ability, and he was bringing joy to hundreds of people every day. He was interviewed by top restaurant critics, given offers to host his own TV show. But for now, he just wanted to make sure his restaurant was the best it could be.
Everything changed when he met Lara.
Francisco was asked to cater a banquet for a rich, local politician. At first he declined, but eventually the offer was too good to refuse. So he set about planning a grand menu, thirty courses of seafood, exotic meats, the freshest produce, and pastries of his own creation. He hired a serving staff of one hundred and trained them himself, so they would all be as knowledgeable of the food as his own sous chefs.
The banquet was a sensation. The guests were there for the politician, in name, but soon he was an afterthought. No one could stop talking about Francisco. He was the man of the hour, the name on everyone’s lips. Francisco. He shouldn’t let it go to his head, he thought. There was so much more he still wanted to accomplish.
He heard a woman’s voice. Sultry, feminine, knowing. He turned and looked upon a beautiful woman, who was older than he had expected. She had an air of dignity and class about her.
“I…” he stammered.
She smiled. “Lara.” She reached out her hand, turning it up so he would kiss it. He did.
“Who?” She laughed. “I know that, of course. The man responsible for all this.”
Her eyes were alight with fire. She had barely said a word, and Francisco already knew that he had never before met a woman like this.
“How can I help you?” he asked.
“You can cook for me,” she replied.
It turned out that Lara was a princess. She was a distant cousin of the royal family, but she still had an estate that was grander than any Francisco had ever imagined. Acres of manicured gardens extended as far as the eye could see. Clay tennis courts overgrown with beautiful vines. A line of Rolls-Royces and white-gloved drivers waiting to take Lara or her guests wherever they wanted to go.
Francisco turned down her offer the first time. And again months later. He was a young chef in his prime, still out to prove himself. Why would he become a private chef cooking only for one woman? Every night he met interesting new people, shared laughs and stories, and felt that the whole world was revolving through the doors of his restaurant.
A year later, things had started to change for Francisco. He was exhausted. He had opened a second restaurant, and it was also acclaimed. But the constant stress of trying to top himself and keep innovating was wearing him down. It must have been fate that Lara came to him one more time, at his most vulnerable moment.
It was the end of a Saturday night. A festival in town had brought a high-end art crowd to the neighborhood, and Francisco had prepared a special, seasonal menu to wow them. The night had gone off without a hitch, but Francisco’s head was throbbing. He wiped his face, and sat down at a table in the empty restaurant. He exhaled deeply. Then, Lara walked in.
She made him the same offer again. Cook for me, she said. You will have every ingredient you need, from anywhere in the world. Money is no object. You will live like a king, with servants waiting on you, making your bed, doing your laundry. We will travel together to interesting places. And your salary will be richer than you could ever spend.
This suddenly sounded more tempting to Francisco. Wouldn’t it be nice to slow down? He wouldn’t have to constantly impress the critics; this woman was already his fan. The constant grind of masses of people coming in and out of his restaurants, trying to make a profit while keeping his quality high, it was all becoming more of a burden than a thrill.
And so, he said yes. His life would never be the same.
The first years were what Francisco had hoped. Lara was elated to have finally won him over. She said that every meal tasted even more delicious because she knew that no one else in the world got to taste his cooking but her. He was pleased to make her so happy.
It was relaxing to have this stable arrangement, one patron to support him. He experimented and made delicious new recipes, catered to Lara’s refined tastes. Thankfully she was an adventurous eater, and Francisco did not feel stifled. He had no expenses, and his bank account grew astronomically. In his off time, he could swim in one of Lara’s pools, play tennis or golf, even go hunting for fresh game.
But as time went on, things changed. “You know, I don’t care for beef much,” Lara told him one day. She doesn’t like beef? he thought. Who doesn’t like beef?
She was aging and her temperament was changing. She preferred the same dishes over and over, and soon Francisco was being asked to cook chicken almost every day. His assistants were able to do all the work, and he sat in his chair lazily overseeing. Francisco grew despondent. He didn’t want to rock the boat, but one day he finally confronted her.
“My darling,” he began. “Are you sure you would not prefer something different? Fish? Veal? I can bring you anything here from around the world. Are you sure you want chicken again?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’m sure.”
“Lara. My princess. I am a world-class chef! If I’m only making chicken, the same dishes again and again, my skills will wither away. I want to cook everything! There are foods and recipes I haven’t even discovered yet! This requires variety. Perhaps I should travel more to learn, and bring you back what I can find.”
“Out of the question!” she screamed. “If you leave and travel around the world, what if you find a patron richer than I am? What if you abandon me for someone else?”
He smiled. “I go so that I may be better for you.”
She was not having any of it. She stormed off. Francisco was dismayed.
He had promised her his service, and he didn’t know what to do next. Should he quit? It had been years since he ran a restaurant. What if it was too much for him now? He had been exhausted before, and that was in his prime! There were younger, hotter new chefs on the scene now, and he wouldn’t have the enthusiastic support he did the first time around. It was possible, but nothing was guaranteed.
This is still a good arrangement, he tried to convince himself. I have everything I need. I don’t need to worry about anything.
But there was a second voice in his head, arguing with the first. Of course you should worry! You’re not being challenged! You’re too comfortable, and it’s killing your soul!
Why couldn’t Lara compromise with him? Didn’t she understand that he just needed a little variety to reinvigorate himself? If he was able to travel, sample some new dishes, find some new inspiration, his time with her would be so much happier. But he knew in his heart that she would never understand. She wanted him all to herself.
Francisco felt overwhelmed by the decision. So he put it out of his mind.
Another five years passed.
Francisco had put on some weight and slowed down. He spent his days checking in on the kitchen staff to make sure everything was proceeding as normal, and then he sat down to read his newspaper. He distracted himself with books, and slept most of the day.
Every once in a while, a stray thought would pop into Francisco’s head.
What are you doing?! it would silently scream. You might be the greatest chef in the world! You don’t belong here! Run away! Just get up and go!
So he would take another sip of his scotch, and the thoughts would fade away to a whisper again.
When Francisco was 45, Lara died. Her health had been failing, and she suffered through a hard last few years. She probably would have died sooner if it hadn’t been for Francisco’s delicious chicken soup maintaining her strength.
He was heartbroken to see her go. But he was also terrified to think about what it meant for him. What was next?
The royal family decided to sell off the estate, since Lara did not leave any heirs. Francisco was an extremely wealthy man now, but he hadn’t lived on his own in many years. He had become accustomed to having the servants around; they were his only companions.
He found a small house and moved back into the city where L’Unica had been. The partners he had sold the restaurants off to had run them into the ground, and they were long closed. Walking the streets, he thought someone might recognize him. Are you Francisco? he thought they would ask. But nobody ever did.
Francisco did befriend his neighbors. There were a few families on his street, and over time he got to know them. One day, he worked up the courage to ask them over for dinner. “Maybe next week,” the husband said, “we’ve got a lot going on right now.”
“No problem,” Francisco smiled.
Do you have any idea who the fuck I am?! he thought. The most powerful people in the world fought to have a chance to eat my food! And you “have a lot going on”?
But a few weeks later, they finally agreed to bring their kids over for dinner.
Francisco was elated. He went shopping for his ingredients– no chicken, of course– and even though he was a little rusty, it was still the greatest meal that any of them had ever had. The family’s youngest son eagerly devoured the brussels sprouts. “He hates them!” his mother exclaimed with amazement.
At the end of the night, they thanked Francisco sincerely, and said they would gladly return any time he invited them. Francisco was proud to know he could still bring joy to others with his cooking, even just a few neighbors.
That night, Francisco lay awake in his bed. Is there anything more for me to do in this world? he thought. Surely this can’t be my destiny. I am meant to do something greater.
He pulled the scotch out of the drawer near his bed, and took a sip. Soon he drifted off to sleep.
The next day, he heard a knock at the door. It was Pierre, the father of the family who had joined him last night.
“Francisco,” Pierre said. “Last night’s dinner was unbelievable.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Francisco replied.
“I was stunned. None of us could believe how good the food was.”
“An old man like me should have learned how to cook by now…”
Pierre continued, “I was thinking about it all last night. And then I remembered years ago, when I was a kid, my father had taken me to a restaurant in town. L’Unica. And he was going on and on about the chef, this guy named Francisco. And… I just thought it was a strange coincidence.”
“That is quite strange.”
“Well… was it you?”
Francisco hesitated. “Yes, it was me.”
Francisco didn’t know what to say. What happened? How could he even know what had happened… put it into words…
“I fucked up,” he finally responded.
“What do you mean?”
“I left it all behind. I was on the right path, and I gave it up.”
“I wanted to take a break, and the break never ended. It was a mistake.”
“It couldn’t have been a mistake.”
“What do you mean, Pierre?”
“You did it for a reason. I’m sure you believed it was the right thing to do.”
Francisco paused. He couldn’t argue with that.
“Francisco, how old are you? 50?”
“I’m 48,” he replied.
“What are you going to do next?”
“Nothing. I’m done, finished. What more could I do?”
Pierre laughed. “You’re 48, man! You have decades ahead of you. I tasted your cooking last night, it’s better than anything I’ve ever eaten. Besides the last time I ate your cooking! You still have gifts. People would pay for this, people might kill each other for this.”
“I’ll think about it,” Francisco replied.
He shut the door. Then he went and found his scotch in the drawer.
He finished the whole bottle.
Another few months went by. Francisco didn’t go outside much, and he didn’t invite the neighbors back over for dinner. He spent his time reading the newspaper, drinking, and making himself world-class meals. It depressed him to realize how delicious each meal was; it seemed the more talent he believed he had, the more he knew on a deep level that he had squandered his gifts. What was the point of any of it?
He thought about killing himself. He had some rope in the basement and could easily hang himself. He sometimes thought about which room he would do it in. What he would wear. What time of the day. Would he eat beforehand? What would his last meal be?
He could never decide what his last meal would be. That was probably the only thing that stopped him from actually doing it.
Food. Just the word made his heart jump. He had loved it for so long. It was his singular passion. It was everything to him. It was synonymous with being human. It was his art, his medium of expression, his way to feel alive. His way to love.
What are you doing? the voices said again. You ruined your life. You had it all and gave it up. For what? It’s all over now. Just give up, you’re done.
They’re right, he thought.
But then a third voice answered.
Fuck that, it said.
Who was that? he wondered.
Would you quit it with this bullshit?
Every day you sit around, doing nothing, for what? It doesn’t matter. You could stop any time. Stand up, go outside, and get a damn job. Tell someone who you are. You’ll have a new restaurant by the end of the week.
That’s not true, I’m washed up. I’m a loser.
Bullshit! And you know it. What’s the difference? You might as well try. Better than sitting around here rotting, waiting to die.
Hmm, Francisco thought. He makes a good point.
He stood up, put some clothes on, and went outside. The sunlight hit his eyes hard, and he squinted in pain.
Francisco walked to the center of town, to the site where L’Unica had once been. It was a chain coffee shop now. He looked up and down the street, and wondered which way to go. He finally picked one direction for no apparent reason, and kept walking.
Further down the road he noticed a fancy-looking restaurant, just bringing in tables and chairs from their outdoor lunch seating. He walked up to the busboy in front.
“Is the owner here?”
“No,” replied the busboy. “Giuseppe, the manager. He’s here.”
“Thanks,” Francisco said.
He walked inside and saw a tall man wearing a tie counting money from the registers.
“Are you Giuseppe?” he said.
“Yes. How can I help you?”
“My name is Francisco. I am a chef from the area.”
“Francisco?” Giuseppe’s eyes lit up. “Francisco of L’Unica? The same one?”
“Yes, that’s me,” Francisco smiled.
“My God! An honor to meet you!” Giuseppe shook his hand. “I grew up around here, and your restaurants inspired me to get into the business too. What are you doing here?”
“Just going for a walk.”
“We re-open at six. Did you want a reservation?”
“I was actually looking for a job.”
Giuseppe laughed. “Here? This is a nice place, but for you? Why?”
“I haven’t worked the last few years. I need to start again.”
“The owner is my brother. I will call him right now. If you are serious.”
Francisco thought about it for a moment. “Yes, I’m serious. If he is willing to have me. I can work with him on the menu, maybe bring in some of my own style, but I can also work with what you already have. Whatever you prefer.”
“How can I reach you?”
Francisco wrote down his home phone number. “I’m ready to start immediately. Let me know.”
“I will,” said Giuseppe.
They shook hands, and Francisco left.
He got to the end of the block. What now? he thought. I guess just head back home.
Francisco felt proud that he was taking a step to get back on track. He could have just stayed home and killed himself. He could have given up. But even though he wasn’t on top of the world, he was going to be cooking professionally again.
He reached a busy intersection and paused to wait for the light to change.
All those smiling faces again, he thought. He imagined the families, parents and children, grandparents, all breaking bread and delighting over a meal at his new restaurant. The light changed and he stepped into the road.
It will be a new beginning. I will work my way up, however long it takes, and perhaps one day I will have acclaim again, I will have my own restaurants, and the world will love me.
Francisco walked on, smiling. He never saw the red sedan coming late through the intersection. But he felt it. A thunderous smack to his side. And then all was black.