was dying to scratch his nose. But the music was playing,
and he was expected to remain motionless while the gaze of
millions crawled all over him like so many insects.
mystery ingredient is "
the MC, paused dramatically, as she always, always did. Turcotte
loathed her. Polished, poised, delicate, and brittle she was
everything he both dreaded and detested. The face of Battle Chef.
sport-cooking shows had set the tone, with their camp, sequined
hosts and gleaming sets. Soon it was no longer enough that the chefs
battle each other by producing their bizarre dishes. It escalated
into "bonus point" quiz rounds ("Chef Turcotte, what was the main
ingredient of the medieval dish frumenty?"), scavenger hunts for
ingredients and specialized equipment, and even hand-to-hand combat
to determine who got a five-minute head start. Turcotte's nose was
now permanently crooked, but he'd never lost a match.
season had seen an innovation that brought the viewers in their
millions. The chefs now had to corner and kill their mystery
ingredient. It wasn't so bad on the vegetarian episodes; those,
alas, were the exceptions.
Up on the
platform, Turcotte began to sweat as he waited for Angela to
announce the ingredient. Lion? Braised lion was all the rage since
they'd been cloned off the endangered list. That would be all right
there was something about cloning that made them a bit more
sluggish than their natural-born counterparts. Still a challenge,
mind you. Or maybe Tassie tigers delicious once you caught them,
if you still had any hands left to stir the pot.
zoomed in on Turcotte's sweating face as the tympani rolled. He kept
utterly still; it was what the viewers expected.
felt faint. Ordinary wildebeest he could have coped with. Version
Three, though, was an experiment or, as the geneticists called it,
an "initiative" gone desperately, terrifyingly wrong. Not for the
first time, Turcotte was glad he had no wife or children.
other platform came the sound of Turcotte's opponent whimpering. The
microphones picked up the sound, the cameras followed to catch the
visuals, and now the poor bastard was crying on international
television. But Fouad Turcotte couldn't cry, not on camera. It was
in his contract: he was the stoic one. He'd wanted to audition to be
the boyish rogue, but his agent had told him to cut the crap.
splendidly costumed Ring Attendants were now before him, ready to
escort him to the Battle Cage.
cages stood side by side. His was appointed in his battle colors,
red and gold, matching his apron and toque respectively. The
challenger's cage was draped in blue and white. Inside each, pacing
and slavering, was a prime Version Three bull. Turcotte curled his
fingers around the handle of his favorite knife, stuck with careful
nonchalance into his belt. The pulse in his thumb quickened against
the imported hardwood handle. At least there would be good eating at
the end of the show. Version Threes had been modified for exquisite
quality of meat. Pity the genotype came with a nasty side order of
mindless, unstoppable rage. And fangs. No-one had predicted the
brace of Attendants escorted the challenger to the gate and into his
cage. They had the knack of making it look on camera like he was
walking bravely, but Turcotte knew they were working hard to keep
him upright. At the gong, the two gates sprang open as one, and
Turcotte stepped (and the challenger stumbled) through.
drew his knife with the characteristic flourish that the viewers
loved. He crouched, knife at the ready. No telling what a Version
Three would do; his best bet was to wait for an opening, rather than
try and force one.
ingredient grunted, a low, wet sound, and bared its fangs. It sank
its weight just a fraction onto its back legs, and Turcotte stepped
sideways as it launched itself at him. He imagined the viewers in
home theatres around the world, gasping and cheering when he flicked
the knife out as the ingredient passed. He waited for the blood to
start from its neck; ah, there it was. It flowed in spurts. Turcotte
sighed, relieved. Lucky cut. It would die soon, and with little pain
to either of them. He'd still be able to look himself in the face.
More importantly, the meat would not be spoiled by the animal's
distress pumping through its body, and Turcotte would have just that
much more time left to butcher it, grab the cuts he wanted, and rush
to the kitchen area to start cooking. They only got two hours all
up, gate to plate.
ingredient was already starting to stagger, blood soaking the carpet
in the cage. Turcotte risked a glance at his challenger, who was
pinned in a corner, slashing at the nose of an increasingly annoyed
animal. Paramedics were standing by.
ingredient made a second, stumbling pass, and he made a second cut,
under the jawbone. On the third pass, it collapsed at his feet. Good
television, that. Turcotte bent to his work. He'd need flank, rump,
and round. Over his shoulder he called for his assistant to bring
the meat tray.
rushed into the cage. "That was fantastic, Fouad."
he said, not looking up as he skinned and sliced. He didn't do this
for the admiration. He did it for the money, so he could retire. He
tried not to let the dream rise before his eyes and distract him
from the butchering, but it hovered: the vision of himself, at his
local bookstore, seated behind gleaming piles of his just-published
cookbook. He even had a name for it: Food by Fouad. Or maybe,
Fouad on Food.
put the meat he needed in the tray; the Attendants would finish the
butchering quickly, as gourmet meat killed by a Battle Chef would do
a lot on the open market to offset production costs. He and Milagros
hurried to the kitchen area to begin work.
honey-and-chilli marinade, please, two cups, usual recipe, except
add a teaspoon of powdered cinnamon," he said. "When you're done, I
need you to julienne three carrots and grate 50 grams of ginger. Did
they give us any corn meal today?"
there's plenty of cold butter and flour."
quickly can you make fillo?"
quicker, if it doesn't have to rest."
hundred grams, then, please."
always worked like this: quickly, clearly, efficiently. Mila had
shown up for Assistant auditions eight months ago, and Turcotte had
taken to her right away. She was the reason Turcotte was the most
successful Battle Chef in history. The viewers didn't know that, but
Turcotte did, and so did Mila.
felt his pulse slowing, his movements becoming more smooth, as he
calmed down from the kill. The food began to shape itself when
things were going the way they should, he never felt he did much of
anything at all, just
let the food happen. And at the end, he got
applause, which was not very useful to him, and money, which was. A
few more kills, a few more wins, that would be enough for him to
quit and start work on the cookbook. Losses, though nobody got
paid when they lost. It ensured that the challengers would be wild
and impulsive. Frantic. Better television.
minutes ticked away, and he finished at the closing gong, as he
always did. The challenger had recovered his composure and done
better than most, plating his food in charming, even artistic,
stacks, with impressionistic drizzles of particolored sauces, and
finishing with a minute or two to spare.
precariously full and steaming dishes were whisked up into the
special viewing room where the judges sat at table, the cameras
following closely to catch the Attendants' every step and if the
viewers were lucky stumble. In the old days, the shows had been
edited to a tight, utterly predictable hour, including the tastings.
These days, the viewers wanted every tedious detail, in real time.
Television was no longer a stage, merely a window.
swallow, ponder. Pompous comments from the judges. More of Angela's
flowery speeches and dramatic pauses. Then, as always, Turcotte
striding, stone-faced, to the podium to accept the challenger's
concession and make the ritual bow. And, as always, Angela's
congratulations, ringing in his ears like a spoon on a tin pot.
Hypocrite. She hated him as much as he did her.
lights cut out, and the cleaning staff descended like locusts onto
the set. Turcotte said, "Thanks again, Mila," and nothing more as he
left for his dressing room. He felt as much at home here as anywhere
which was to say, not at all. Someday, he'd have a studio of his
own, with the kitchen of his dreams, better than the Battle Chef
kitchen, and a huge wooden desk in the next room to write at. No
time soon, though: the money was slow to accumulate, and quitting
was out of the question, as the Battle Chef producers would make
sure anyone hiring him went out of business very soon thereafter.
The last Turcotte had heard of Jimmy, the one they'd actually hired
as the boyish rogue, he was waiting tables in a family restaurant
and glad of the privilege.
left his uniform on the couch for the cleaning staff, showered,
changed, and permitted himself one sigh before he stepped out into
the night to go home.
later, the press was billing that night's show as something special,
a mystery rules-change. The real-time ratings monitor at the start
of broadcast was spiking at a new high, and so were the dynamic
advertising revenues the digital ads passed in a blur as the ad
department sold time in smaller and smaller blinks for more and more
felt more than a little uneasy. Even this week's ingredients
(goanna-like reptiles that spit poison he'd have to try and keep
the poison sac whole during kill and butchering) were noticing the
tension. They threw themselves against the bars and screeched as
Turcotte and the Attendants approached.
a disturbance, a struggle, over by the MC's podium. Sequins flashed
as Angela flailed her stick arms. "What! I you have got to be
kidding! Marie! Kostya! What the hell no no!" Her cries grew
louder and deteriorated into squeals.
gripped Angela's arms and dragged her up the steps. Turcotte noticed
that the wall of bars shared by the two cages was gone, making it
one big cage. The Attendants pushed Angela through the nearest gate,
motioned the two chefs inside frantically, and slammed the gates
shut. She started to scream, and the cameras rolled smoothly right
up to the bars.
earpiece Turcotte heard the producer. "New rules, guys. You have
kill the ingredients, and you have to keep the ingredients
from killing Angela. If Angela gets mauled, the refs decide whose
fault it was, and that person gets penalized twenty minutes of
cooking time." Twenty!
television, eh?" came the voice in Turcotte's earpiece.
took his knife out and started to evaluate the ingredients' ferocity
and tactics. The sac was positioned in the hollows behind the jaws,
so trying to slit their throats was out.
Angela was screaming again. Now he'd have to waste precious time
rescuing her. The challenger was quicker, though, and ran to her
side before Turcotte could dodge past the ingredient in his own
cage. She simpered at the challenger and lay a trembling hand on his
broad shoulder. Since when had they started hiring bodybuilders as
challengers? Could he even cook? Well, let him have his moment.
checked to see that his ingredient was keeping its distance, then
watched the challenger take on the other lizard as Angela cringed
against the bars. Turcotte had never fought one before; maybe he
could learn from the challenger's mistakes.
challenger had an enormous knife with a blade curved like a
boomerang a kukri. Show-off. Idiot. Turcotte had already realized
that knives weren't the right strategy. Hard, scaly hides, with the
only soft bit right over the poison sacs. The challenger was in
front of Angela, facing the ingredient in a bush-hunter crouch. He
shuffled left and right, feinting with the knife. God.
ingredient shot a burst of flame out of its mouth. Everyone jumped
back, including Turcotte, the camera operators, and the Attendants
waiting safely outside the bars. The challenger jumped back so far
he tripped over Angela and sprawled backward against the bars. His
head hit the metal with a clang.
shrieks had now reached the point where she was overloading the
microphones. The ingredient took a step toward her. Oh, crap, if it
burned her while the challenger was so clearly out of action,
Turcotte would cop the penalty.
past his own ingredient, hoping it wouldn't flame his pantlegs; he
had a nasty vision of globs of molten polyester clinging to his
flesh. He saw the challenger's ingredient expand its sides as it
breathed in, and he figured it was about to belch more fire. Right
at Angela's scrawny legs. Without thinking, he picked up the
ingredient by the tail and swung its back into the bars, once,
twice. The thing had to weigh 50 kilos at least. He heard its spine
snap and let it dangle from his hands. It did not move.
one's mine," he said to the challenger, who was staring, wide-eyed,
from where he slumped. "You go kill the other one. Mila, the meat
tray, please." As he butchered, he heard the challenger get to his
feet and, stumbling and grunting, clumsily imitate Turcotte to kill
cooking went as it always did. He had a bit of a job hiding the
muddy taste of the meat, but you can do a lot with the right spices.
It was going to be a whole chapter in his cookbook. Maybe two.
He won, as
always. But as he performed the victor's ritual, the music stopped
abruptly. Angela, makeup refreshed and clothing changed, looked in
confusion toward the judges' table. An Attendant trotted up, bearing
a piece of silver-colored paper. Angela took a moment to read, then
looked up dramatically. The camera operators, sensing good
television, closed in. She found the one with the red light, and
spoke directly to it. "The judges have determined that since Chef
Turcotte used the challenger's ingredient instead of the one
assigned to him, the results of this contest are void. Nobody wins,
and Chef Turcotte will be suspended from the next two matches. His
assistant, Milagros Compton-Huatepec, will fill in as Acting Chef.
The judges regret that Chef Turcotte must take this break from the
show, but rules are rules. They wish Acting Chef Compton-Huatepec
all the best for her upcoming matches."
cameras turned toward Turcotte. If they wanted stoic, stoic they'd
get. He stayed impassive, even though the financial hit was a hard
one; it delayed his dream by many months, as he'd have to live off
his precious savings. He knew in that moment that this was why
they'd invented a new rule for him to break: to keep him in their
thrall. He'd be back after Mila's two matches, he'd have to be.
Then, just as he was on the brink of escape again, they'd find some
other infraction to charge him with.
were off the air, he turned to go, but stopped as he felt a hand on
his arm. Mila said, "I'm I never "
put his own hand over hers. "It's all right," he said, then gently
Turcotte got home that evening, he unplugged the phone. Then he shut
down the emailbox, the vid-mail, the instant messaging, the
television, and the radio. He drew the blinds, locked the doors
(front and back), and activated the alarm system. He didn't want
commiseration. He didn't want righteous outrage. Most of all, he
didn't want interruptions.
the playlist of all the shows he'd done over forty of them. He
started watching them with a new eye: not bothering with the
cooking, or the increasingly outlandish stunts he and the
challengers had had to perform as the audience got more and more
jaded. Instead, he watched for camera angles, cuts, commentary. He
took notes. He reversed and rewatched. Hours turned into days. Once
in a while he boiled up some rice, squirted sweet chilli sauce on
it, and ate. He had a vague impression that he made himself cups of
tea from time to time, and (consequently) used the toilet. He was
pretty sure he slept sometimes. A week went by.
evening, his body told him it was time for Battle Chef by shooting
great waves of adrenaline through him, as it did every week at this
ingredient was a large, flightless bird similar to the emu, except
that its aggression gene was far worse than the original model's, as
this made better television. Mila dispatched hers sloppily, but with
speed. Turcotte was disappointed she had learned so little about
finesse from him.
show wore on, Turcotte paid close attention. Ah-hah, this was how
they made her look heroic and skilled. Here's how they made the
challenger look sullen. Oh, yes, now it was time for the challenger
to surge ahead the thoughtful pause and renewed vigor, the
dramatic profile shot and the swell of music only to be dashed
down again as Mila rallied.
always saw what the viewers saw, watching from their special
soundproof room on a massive screen, "to help them concentrate."
Their decisions always came after they'd watched through the
producers' filters. When Mila won, Turcotte knew it had nothing to
do with her cooking, which he could see was inferior (again he was
disappointed). It was because it made good television.
Turcotte knew what to do.
the next week working out, eating properly, and refining his plans
in his head. He'd always taken care of himself, and it didn't take
him long to regain his air of fit, glowing health. When competition
night came around again, he was ready.
wouldn't do to look slovenly. He took meticulous care with
showering, shaving, ironing his best checkered pants and white
jacket; the stiff, white cotton had always reminded him of a
fencer's jacket, and today he enjoyed the idea. Parry! Cut!
He took a
simple white toque from its stand. One hundred pleats. There was
some ludicrous story they told everyone in the first week of chef
school that each pleat stood for one way an egg can be cooked.
Everyone knew there were at least three hundred ways to cook an egg,
maybe more. Research was ongoing.
belt, now. The leather had precisely the right look of wear yet
constant, conscientious care. He thrust his favorite knives into the
sheaths, and they hung perfectly.
one final look: coolly casual, yet immaculate. Utterly simple, yet
elegant. He raised one eyebrow, a gesture he'd practiced since
adolescence. Now was the day of the rogue. He would be stoic no
longer, but dashing! Bold!
take long to get to the studio. He grinned cheerily at the guards,
adrenaline making him jaunty and confident. "Got a reprieve I'm
back a week early."
great, Chef Turcotte," said a guard earnestly, and let him in.
footsteps echoed as he marched along the hallway. He lingered
outside the studio door until exactly the right moment in the music.
Then he flung the door open with a mighty crash and strode onto the
dais and into the spotlight.
cameras had whipped around at the noise and followed him up.
challenge!" he cried in ringing tones. "A challenge!"
you fuckwit," whispered Angela, but because she couldn't risk moving
her lips, it came out "Houad, you huckwit." She had never been more
irrelevant, and Fouad could sense she knew it.
three-way contest," he continued. He'd learned a lot during his time
off about playing to the cameras, and he used it all now. He posed,
but so subtly that he gave off only that vital hint of passion and
courage. He pitched his voice in the precise range that worked best
with the microphones. He'd gambled that his simple, yet quality,
attire would show the costumes for the flimsy, gaudy playclothes
they were, and he could see on the monitors he'd won that gamble. It
was too late to stop him, too late! This was live television, damn
them all! He exulted as he waited for his next moment.
predicted, the cameras had cut to get reaction shots from the
judges, who looked appropriately scandalized on the monitors. Three,
the cameras were back on him, just when he knew they'd
win back my place in this kitchen " He turned full-face to the
live camera, and reached out imploringly "and in your hearts!"
it. The real-time ratings were starting to soar as people messaged
each other: "Turn on Battle Chef! No, now! That can wait! You have
GOT to see this!"
said weakly, "But we only have enough ingredients "
first fight for the right to ingredients!" He jumped down into the
arena and pulled a knife. "I am ready," he cried as he crouched.
Mila. "There is plenty for all!"
Mila, thought Turcotte. She now had the cameras and the
challenger tried pathetically for his share of both. "Yes, let Chef
cheated a quarter turn back to the dais and bowed gallantly. "I
thank my colleagues for their generosity. To cook is my deepest wish
except for one condition."
"Condition?" said Angela sharply, but all the cameras stayed on
judges must come into the studio. They have been far from the human
drama of the cooking, kept away from the heights and depths of raw
emotion that mark the truly great chefs and that is the most
important ingredient of all!"
"Absolutely not," snapped Angela.
waited a second, as if shocked, then simply raised one eyebrow.
from the producers dashed onto the set. Turcotte knew what she would
be saying to Angela: ratings were shooting off the scale, she should
go with it, go with it. Angela's murderous look confirmed it.
a bit of a swagger, Turcotte moved toward the cages. He needed to
fill just a few seconds while Attendants brought the judges into the
studio, so he scrutinized the ingredients. Uh-oh, a complication.
This time they were fluffy little lambs, distressed and crying for
around with exactly as much of a flourish as he could get away with.
"Ah, honored judges," he said. "I beg your indulgence. I cannot bear
to harm such beautiful, defenseless creatures. Can we not better
show our inventiveness, our resourcefulness, by sparing their lives
and cooking solely with what lesser chefs would consider only
garnishes?" Even though the sentence was a little convoluted for the
average viewer, his tone of voice and pleading gestures carried the
the challenger dared not object, but the challenger was starting to
whined, "But there are only two kitchens in the arena, and three
chefs. How are we supposed to work that, huh?"
share," said one of the judges, feeling emboldened now that he was
right there in the action. The others said, "Yes, let 'em share."
challenger threw down his sparkly toque. "They won't have to share,"
he said loudly, and stalked off the set. This was getting better and
better, as far as the viewers were concerned.
his eyes for a long moment. Then, silently, she turned to her
kitchen and began to work. Turcotte watched her: she'd practiced
hard this week, he could tell. Her movements were more assured, her
choice of ingredients more imaginative.
risking individual carrot souffles. It occurred to Turcotte that
those would go great with green beans and a sauce of honey, butter,
and pecans. Without thinking, he whipped the sauce up and left it to
keep warm on the stove; the beans he'd cook at the last moment. Ah,
what was Mila doing now? He couldn't quite see directly, but the
monitors showed her working with saffron and chicken broth. Turcotte
could actually taste the dried-cherry rice pilaf that should follow
such a soup. He checked the clock: plenty of time for rice.
And so it
went, dish after dish, a wonderful dance of flavors and forms. Mila,
so attuned to how he worked, quickly caught on to what he was doing.
She stared at him again, her eyes wide with wonder. They gave each
other opportunities, thanked each other with joyful dishes and
gong sounded time was up.
had brought a table into the main studio, and the judges sat,
enchanted, waiting to eat. By unspoken agreement, Mila and Turcotte
presented their food together. The judges were confused how would
they keep track of which food was whose?
playing to the cameras (she had learned a lot in a week), "We
offer you a new competition. We ask you to judge not which of us is
the better chef, but whether we have together created for you
the perfect meal." She stood next to Turcotte, and conspicuously
took his hand. Her wrist was touching his, and he could feel both
their pulses pounding. Not that he was at all worried about the
food. No, something new was happening, something between him and
Mila. Something that didn't have a damned thing to do with
shit!" This was Angela, harsh and dictatorial. "Fouad, what do you
think you're doing? Did the two of you set this up? This is supposed
to be a competition, not some stupid daytime-drama fairy tale."
hell," said one of the judges. "Is this what she's really like?"
Attendant nodded sadly.
seemed so nice when we were up in the booth. Well, we're the judges,
and we say she can go now." The other two judges said, "Yes, she can
their chance, three Attendants ushered her gracelessly out of the
studio as the judges fell to eating. The cameras and the microphones
came in close to catch every ecstatic expression, every smack of the
lips and flick of the tongue, every moan and gasp.
was when Mila said quietly to Turcotte, "They're giving me all sorts
of ideas," and squeezed his hand. He felt his knees start to buckle,
but caught himself just before he actually sagged.
did not keep to their customary demure tastings; rather, they
devoured with abandon, and only just stopped short of licking the
plates. They declared the meal a triumph although one of them did
say wistfully that he missed the whole win-lose thing.
show was unique," said Turcotte. "And my last."
in the studio cried out. Turcotte raised a hand for quiet. "The time
has come for me to leave Battle Chef. I know now, after working with
Chef Compton-Huatepec this evening, that the food is best when the
journey is shared. And so, to share it with everyone, I retire from
Battle Chef to begin my cookbook." He'd figure out a way to live in
the meantime. Rice and sweet chilli sauce was not such a bad dish.
producers were tearing their hair out one of them literally.
Turcotte knew he'd done what he came for: he'd put a bullet through
the head of the whole Battle Chef franchise. But it didn't matter.
There would always be another show to take its place, on and on.
to leave the studio, but Mila wouldn't let go of his hand. "Fouad?
I'm coming with you."
there, cameras still rolling, signal still going out live to the
entire world, she pulled him close and they kissed.
went through the roof.
"Turcotte's Battle" was first
Wet Ink #19, July 2010.
Laura E. Goodin lives in Wollongong with her
husband and child and writes science fiction, fantasy, plays, and
A martial artist, fencer, and equestrian, she has Warrior
Princess aspirations. She is a graduate of the 2007 Clarion South
That's what she told me, as her
biography, but she didn't mention that she has a growing
list of stories published, the latest being:
Bicycle Rebellion" published on
Fiction, November 2011 (read
She also hasn't mentioned that she also
editing service and teaches writing at fantasy and
science fiction workshops.
Goodin didn't mention, but I will, that she is a terrific
It is a sad truth that the average writer has a
voice for print, but Goodin knows how to project. She threw
of Turcotte's Battle at an audience, to startled
croaks and messy explosions of laughter. Then she sat, and
it was clear from their dropped faces, that she'd incited
gluttony. So I asked her for permission to reprint the whole
meal for you here.
Laura E. Goodin's
A motley coat