“Of all nights, he had to come tonight,” Robert Paulsen said to the head chef at Trio Italian Market and Grill, Marc Gottfried, as they stood in the darkened kitchen.
The doors at Trio had closed a half hour previously. The last customers of the night left satisfied, their bellies full of a fresh-made Italian dinners and a fair share of vino. Business hours on the door read 12-10:30 for this particular Tuesday. The wait staff had already tidied up, dishes were cleaned, tables cleared. The kitchen staff prepped the food that would marinate overnight, and everyone left out the back door. They were relieved to be released. They didn’t want to stick around to see what would happen next.
Everyone except Paulsen, Gottfried and the two men who entered the restaurant at precisely 10:29.
They were greeted by the hostess who recognized them immediately. She knew that with less than a minute to go before closing, if they were anyone else, she would turn them away, but not these men.
“Good evening, sirs,” she greeted as they shook the rain from their umbrellas and tucked them away. “Two tonight?”
“Yes, two,” the man on the left said tersely.
The hostess went to grab two menus from behind her. Her hands shook as she reached. She hoped they wouldn’t see her nervousness. These two men, particularly the one on the right, could spell trouble for Trio.
“That won’t be necessary,” the right man said. “Just show us to a booth near the back.”
“Will you need tableware?”
“Yes, that will be fine.”
She grabbed two sets of tableware from a basket and turned to scan the well-appointed restaurant. It had a Mediterranean flare that made patrons feel as though they were having dinner in an Italian countryside. At this time of the evening, the lights had been dimmed for the few diners who remained wishing for a more intimate meal. She spotted an empty booth near the back, and led the men to that table.
When they reached the table, she laid the tableware on the table, the men sat down heavily and said “Thank you” to the hostess as she walked away to the kitchen.
She burst through the kitchen doors. The staff was in the process of cleaning up for the night. They looked up in surprise at the now disheveled looking hostess.
Chef Gottfried saw her and asked, “What’s the matter?”
She opened her mouth, but it took her a moment to find her voice. “They’re here.”
He knitted his eyebrows. “Who?”
“Them,” she said, shaking her head in exasperation.
She saw the lights go on in Gottfried’s eyes. “Them? Now?” She nodded. “What do they want?”
“I don’t know,” she said apologetically. “They just said to show them to a table. No menus.”
“No menus?” he asked, perplexed.
“Okay,” he said, looking over at Paulsen in the corner, who took in the entire conversation. “Let’s go out and greet our guests.”
Paulsen took a kitchen towel and wiped off his hands. Not sure what to expect as he followed Gottfried into the dining area. He was hired as the sous chef at Trio two months ago after graduating from Johnson and Wales in Charlotte, NC. He had a lot of potential, and Gottfried was an incredible chef to learn from.
As they entered the dining room, the last of the patrons headed for the exit at the front. The hostess showed them out and locked the door behind them. She rushed through the dining room, past their two guests without a word.
“Goodnight,” she whispered to Chef Gottfried, then hesitated before adding, “Good luck.”
“Thank you,” the chef said, his eyes locked on the two men sitting alone in the booth.
The hostess went through the doors to the kitchen. A moment later, Paulsen heard the back door shut. They were alone with the two guests.
Gottfried swallowed and approached the booth. “Good evening, gentlemen. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
He already knew the answer.
“We’re here for a tasting,” said the man on the left.
“Of course,” Chef Gottfried said. He noticed there were no menus on the table. “What would you like this evening? Did the hostess tell you our specials?”
“No, she didn’t, and we didn’t ask,” left man said.
Paulsen stood by silently, waiting to be introduced. The man on the left was much younger than the man on the right. They had similar profiles and looked like they could have been father and son. They wore expensive looking suits. Paulsen noticed neither wore a wedding band.
“Ok,” Gottfried replied, “what would you like? I know you’re well acquainted with the menu.”
“No, nothing on the menu,” the older man sitting on the right said. “I want to go off the menu tonight. Make me something entirely new. Something you’ve never made before.”
Paulsen watched as the look on Gottfried’s face went from concern to something akin to fear. He gulped, “You mean, you want made with …”
“Yes,” the older man cut him off. “With that.”
“Absolutely. Yes, sir,” Gottfried bowed and walked back to the kitchen, grabbing Paulsen as he went. Leaving the two men to sit alone in the dimly lit restaurant.
“Who are they?” Paulsen asked in a hushed tone as the kitchen door closed behind them. Gottfried stopped and looked at Paulsen, deciding on how to answer. A breath later, he revealed their identities. Paulsen gasped, considered for a moment, now knowing the seriousness of the situation, “What do you want for me to do?”
The Chef looked at the ceiling for a moment, thinking. “Fire up the Viking Range, saute about ten shrimp and prepare one of our oversized meatballs.”
“Yes, sir. No problem. What are you going to do?”
“I’m need to go get something out of the fridge in my office. Be right back.”
“Yes, sir,” Paulsen said as Gottfried ducked into his corner office.
Paulsen set to work preparing the two dishes as Chef Gottfried asked. He returned a few minutes later carrying a plastic container with a strip of blue duct tape stuck to it with the number “9122” written across it. Paulsen couldn’t tell what it contained. It looked like pickled ginger, but when Gottfried set it on the counter and opened the lid, it smelled like anything but ginger.
“Good work,” Gottfried said of the two separate dishes Paulsen had almost finished preparing. He was adding the final few shrimp to one plate as the Chef garnished both dishes with the mystery ingredient.
“Stay here,” the Chef said as he picked up both plates to take to the mystery guests. “Thanks for helping me with this, but I alone have to serve them. I hope you’ll understand.”
Paulsen feared the answer, but finally asked, “What is in that container you brought out?”
Gottfried smiled sardonically, “It’s …”