Wilfred Halder was a proud self-made man. He was lucky as he’d found his calling in life quite early albeit under not so fortuitous circumstances.
His life story had already become the stuff of legend thanks to the TV show. He was born into an impoverished minority family living in the slums of Mumbai. The father had passed away while Fred was still very young and the poor lad had to stop school and start working to support the family.
He started life cleaning the tables and floors of a little road-side restaurant near the slum. It was here that he first stepped into a ‘professional’ kitchen. He knew he was in love when he first stepped in and thereafter he spent an inordinately long time each day soaking in the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the place. Luckily for him the cook was of the same religious persuasion and soon took him into his fold and started teaching him the tricks of the trade.
It wasn’t long before he moved full-time to the kitchen. He soon discovered that he had a gift for bringing together different ingredients and making them dance on one’s taste buds. Word soon spread of the culinary prowess of “little Fred” and it wasn’t long before the proprietor and others realized that it was little Fred’s skills that were bringing in the queues.
Little Fred soon grew in to a very fine young man. And with age and wisdom came the realization that he’d outgrown the little dhabha. By then his reputation was enough to open many doors and he was soon on the highway to success.
He moved on to a resort in Goa, a bistro in Bangalore and finally to a fine-dining restaurant in New Delhi. It was here that he got the opportunity to work with the legendary head chef Mathur. It didn’t take long for Mathur to realize the talent that Fred had. The legend was instrumental in sculpting and polishing the rare coarse gem in to an absolute master of the kitchen.
Mathur encouraged his protégé to follow his passion. He coaxed him to experiment with his ingredients, to read about the different recipes and to eat and travel all over in order to become a better chef. Fred was an exemplary student and spared no efforts to learn and experiment.
It was Mathur who had persuaded him to enter the cooking competition. The competition was key. The prize money was enough for him to open his own restaurant. It would be the realization of his mother’s dream.
And now he was just one step away from his prize. He exceeded everyone’s expectations, except Chef Mathur’s, and had survived each and every elimination round to reach the finals. The final was to be a free-style round with the contestant free to choose his venue and menu to impress the judges. Chef Mathur had been kind enough to let him use the restaurant.
The only sound was the low whizzing of the refrigerators. The light from the street poured in through the window bathing a small portion of the kitchen in yellow. Fred sat in the darkness, all curled up with his head on his knee. His train of thought was broken when the clock suddenly chimed three times.
Fred looked up and scanned the kitchen. The steel and chrome counters bathed in yellow jutted out at sharp angles almost threateningly. A major portion of the kitchen was covered in darkness which made him feel small and all alone. There was a sound of sirens in the distance which for some reason only accentuated his loneliness.
This meal had to be the epitome of his culinary prowess. Everything, absolutely everything was at stake. This evening was to be the culmination of his journey from cleaning boy to master chef. Oh what a journey it had been! And now he only had to dazzle his guests one last time to claim the prize that was his right. In seventeen hours he would lay claim to his throne.
His heart was beating faster. His mind was in turmoil as he couldn’t decide on what exactly to prepare. What magic was he to conjure this last time? What miracle was he to perform? Where was he to seek his inspiration? Fred sat on the floor with his notepad beside him trying to get control of his thoughts.
Suddenly there was a sound of utensils crashing. Fred soon came back to his senses. “Must be the darn cats”- he said to himself and realized that in his confusion he had forgotten to close the door to the side entrance.
As Fred made his way to the door all of a sudden there was a bright light that shone on him. He was blinded momentarily before he heard a rough man’s voice.
“Don’t move or I will shoot”- it said.
It took a while for Fred’s eyes to get adjusted to the light and make out the features of the man. He had red-blood shot eyes, long curly hair, a thick set beard and a sharp jaw-line that gave him a very menacing look. In one hand he carried a torch and in the other a gun.
“Who are you? What do you want?”- Fred enquired nervously.
There was a little laugh before the man replied- “I have the gun and I will be asking the questions here.”
Fred could feel his body shake from fear. His knees were about to give way.
“Well, let’s see. Is this a kitchen?”- enquired the man. Fred nodded.
“That’s good. I’m so hungry I could eat a man. What do you have?”- he said looking at him menacingly.
Fred stuttered a bit before beginning his reply- “We, we have everything here. This is a professional kitchen.”
“I see. And you are a cook?”
“Great. Can you cook me-“, the sentence was broken by the loud wailing of sirens from nearby.
The man indicated silence by placing a finger over his mouth. He moved quietly across to peep out the window keeping the gun pointed at Fred.
There was a moment before the wailing sound receded. The man looked at Fred and said- “Look buddy I’m a wanted man. I’m wanted for murder, rape and extortion. Don’t you try any hanky-panky with me right, or I’ll kill you“. Fred nodded.
“Good. I’m starving. Get me something to eat and make it quick.”
This was a nightmare. Fred hoped that he would suddenly awake to realize that it had all been a bad dream. But no, this wasn’t a dream. This was very real.
The man took aim at Fred’s forehead and said- “Come on now, quickly, get your ass moving.” Fred moved slowly towards a counter keeping his eyes on the man.
It all happened in a flash. Fred looked left, saw a button and hit it as hard as he could. It turned on the flame thrower. All of a sudden there was a huge flame right next to the man which left him momentarily distracted. Fred’s eyes fell on the knife stand. He picked one closest to him and flung it at the man with expert precision. It pierced him above the left breast right through the heart. Fred then immediately went low as the man let out a loud blood curling scream of pain as he crashed to the ground.
Fred hid behind a counter and waited till the screams died out. They eventually did. He then slowly tip- toed his way to where the man lay. He felt the body for pulse and there was none.
“What have I done?”- Fred said aloud as he held his head in his hands and began sobbing.
He could see the visions of his dream come crashing around him. Everything, everything had just been washed away. He leaned back against a drawer and wept. He felt very sorry for himself.
It was late evening. The production team was all set and the cameras were rolling taking in a panorama view of the magnificent hall. The judges were seated at their table and the maître d was playing a good host. A camera was set-up exclusively to capture them enjoying their meal and making small talk.
Another camera was set-up to follow Fred as he approached the table. Fred filled his glass with wine. The director signalled the thumbs-up and he approached the table where the judges were being served.
“Salut gentlemen”- he said raising his glass while the others raised theirs.
“My boy this has been one of the most delightful gourmet experiences of my life”- said one of the judges. Fred could see the genuine expression in his eyes.
“Marvelous, astounding, stupendous! I’m out of words to describe the food today, especially the main course”- exclaimed another.
“It’s always a pleasure coming down to Mathur’s. But, this one time has out-done all our previous experiences.”- revealed the last one.
Fred bowed his head in acknowledgment.
“Yes, at this age I thought I’d tried and seen everything but today everything has been most exquisite. The soup, the entrée’ and the main course have simply blown us away.”
“Yes, I actually wanted to ask you about the main course. What dish is this?”- enquired the last judge.
The idea had come from an experience in the jungles of Orissa where he had stayed with some Adivasis. One day after a particularly elaborate ceremony a meal was served. Fred had tasted the meat and was left spell-bound. He enquired as to the origins and it turned out that it was ‘human-meat’.
Wilfred Halder smiled and said- “All in good time gentlemen. Enjoy your meal.”
PS: Special mention to Satya for helping me edit this one. Thanks a ton bro!