TOBRU and War On Hunger are usually located next to each other. Not always, because War On Hunger is on wheels, but usually. TOBRU is one of the only restaurants in Manhattan that hasn't run the War On Hunger food truck out of its territory, and Steve in his gratitude usually leaves them some chickpea chocolate cake or a plate of locally-made pasta to eat after closing time. Steve's presence in the kitchen, sneaking in to stash food in the fridge, has become a regular occurrence.
The first time Steve fed Tony, Tony looked at him and said "Why are you such a fucking hipster?"
"Beg pardon?" Steve asked. He isn't a hipster. Yes, he owns a food truck and wears suspenders, but that's because he likes food trucks and suspenders.
"Why are you running a food truck? Come work for me. We'll find something for you to do. How did you learn to cook like this?"
"Oh," Steve said sheepishly. "Well. I'm classically trained."
"Michelin-star classically," Steve said.
"Fuck, you're that Steve Rogers, the freak who quit his star chef job to make bran for the poor."
"I don't make bran," Steve said, somewhat offended. "I make healthy meals for an affordable price."
"Whatever. Come work for me."
"No, thank you, Mr. Stark," Steve said politely.
"Then come park in our parking lot. I can guarantee you a crowd of people who don't eat enough at our restaurant."
"You could serve bigger portions."
"You offend my mission statement. Call me Tony."
Steve smiled. "Whatever you say, Tony."
There was a crash from inside and the sound of someone yelling in French at the top of his lungs.
"That's just Bruce," Tony said dismissively. "He's probably having trouble with the hydrogen canisters again."
"Should I keep my distance?"
"No! He's really nice, you'll like him. Except when he's cooking. You wouldn't like him when he's cooking."
"Come again tomorrow, send me your menu, we'll work out something that coordinates. I'll tell people to bring you their stub from TOBRU and you can add ten percent to the price of everything they buy."
Steve watched Tony go with a mixture of amusement and confusion.
"And if I find you cheating with those Shield bastards, I'll beat the Michelin Star out of you!" Tony added over his shoulder as he disappeared into the kitchen.
Steve isn't worried. Shield is nice, but a little creepy. He's heard of places where you eat in the dark, but apparently their head chef, Nick Fury, makes everyone cook in the dark too. That can't be healthy.
Which is not to say that Shield is all bad. Yes, Clint and Natasha (saute chef and butcher respectively) are weirdos, but they're nice weirdos, and they always stop by War On Hunger on their way to work to get a sandwich or a granola bar. And they overpay, so Steve has that much more leeway in handing out snacks to the people who can't pay at all.
"Have you met Thor yet?" Clint asks him, about a week before everything hits the fan.
"No, but I had one of those crunchy crab things," Steve answers. The crunchy crab things at Mjolnir are famous. They have no name, as far as Steve can tell; they're just crunchy and crabby and you get them if you order one of three specific drinks or two specific meals on the menu. Steve didn't know this when he ordered a Swedish-sounding beer there after a really long day in the truck.
Mjolnir is the new brewpub down the block, about whom Tony has ceaselessly whined because Thor is apparently large and friendly and very difficult to hate (Tony will still try, Steve has learned, if only to be perverse; he's jealous he hasn't been able to replicate the crunchy crab things). He's heard that Thor is like the nordic Mario Batali. Mario Batali has apparently not been polled about this, but Thor is not reported to mind.
"Coulson ran over to ask him to stop by Shield sometime and have a bite," Clint continues, chewing on the rhubarb-pie-on-a-stick Steve has invented. It's very popular with bike messengers. "He's like two of Coulson in every direction and he's kind of a hugger."
Steve considers this. Coulson is a small, tidy pastry chef who likes precision and seems overly impressed by how neatly arranged Steve's truck is. Nobody knows much about him except for how once he beat a would-be mugger unconscious with a pie tin. No professional chef has much of a life outside of their work, especially the ones still establishing themselves, but Phil Coulson's off-hours hobby appears to be badassery.
"Did anyone die?" Steve asks carefully.
"No, but it was an interesting moment in my life," Clint continues thoughtfully. "Anyway, you should go introduce yourself, he's interested in that tall fellow in the truck who gives free food to vagrants and students."
"I'll stop by once I close down the truck for the night."
"I'll let Tasha know you have the pie onna stick today," Clint says with a wink, and wanders off towards Shield, where people are already lining up for a shot at a table. In the dark.
Steve shakes his head. He loves cooking, but the line between genius and madness is especially thin when it comes to the restaurant business.
From inside the kitchen of TOBRU, there's an explosion and a puff of smoke. Steve used to worry when this happened.
"IT'S FINE, I HAVE IT UNDER CONTROL," he hears Tony yell. "IT'S JUST THE CHIPOTLE LATKES."
Steve considers that chipotle latkes don't sound half-bad, really. Then he realises there must be more to them than that, if they're exploding.
The way things are situated is like this: Mjolnir is on the corner, then there's some boutique shops, then the tiny parking lot for TOBRU which is now taken up with the War On Hunger food truck at least three evenings a week once Steve gets done with his lunch rounds. Then TOBRU, and across from TOBRU is Shield, and there's an empty lot next to Shield.
This area of Manhattan is still, as it were, gentrifying. Bruce gently explains to Steve one day over some leftover mini eggrolls that this is why TOBRU is so popular, because you have to go somewhere kind of excitingly dangerous to get there. But with the arrival of Mjolnir, the third classy joint on one street, Steve knows this will be the up and coming new neighborhood sooner rather than later.
When he pulls the truck up one afternoon, he catches sight of Nick Fury standing on the roof of Shield, looking down into the empty lot next door. The lot itself has been fenced off with chicken wire and opaque plastic. Bruce is standing next to him, looking pensive.
"What's going on?" Steve asks, flipping up the service window on the truck.
"What's going on is I want a damn bowl of your raw milk macaroni and cheese, is this too much to ask?" Tony replies, hefting himself up so that he's propped on the counter, looking Steve in the eye. "I've been waiting for you since three, where were you?"
"Are you always this demanding?" Steve asks.
"Did my manners get TOBRU where it is?" Tony retorts.
"I think we both know the answer to that. I was dishing up soup in the park."
"Why are you so....you?"
"Born this way. Get off my counter unless you know why Bruce is conferring with the weirdos," Steve replies, pointing at where Bruce and Fury are now pitching pebbles down into the lot.
"Did you know Thor has a brother?" Tony asks.
"No, Thor Johnson who delivers the linens, how many Thors do you think I know? Mjolnir Thor has a brother who's some kind of real estate speculator, he bought the lot on the corner. Bruce is trying to find out if Fury knows what he's doing with it because Loki The Brother Of Mjolnir Thor For God's Sake is trying to steal Clint from Fury."
"Then it is likely," Steve says, in his driest tone, "he's building a restaurant."
"Gee, I see why you got that Michelin star. What kind of restaurant, hipsterface."
"Who cares? You already got two other places on this street and most nights three isn't even enough, or I wouldn't sell out when people can't get a table at Shield or Mjolnir or TOBRU."
"I care! Everyone cares. Haven't you spoken to Thor?"
"Never met the man."
"Ugh." Tony seats himself on Steve's counter, and then yelps when Steve shoves him off and cleans it with an antibiotic wipe.
"People are served food here," Steve scolds.
"Gimme my macaroni then."
"It's illegal to serve raw milk foodstuffs," Steve informs him, passing over a small tinfoil tray of what is definitely not his special secret raw-milk macaroni and cheese that he only serves to regulars who don't pay for it but tip him extraordinarily well.
"You're a decent man," Tony replies, yanking off the cardboard top and digging in. "As I was saying, apparently Thor and Loki trained in their dad's kitchen, some little back-of-nowhere diner called Asgard Grill. Loki got Thor kicked out, then got kicked out himself and went into real estate. That's why Thor's here being a pain in my ass with his bold whatthefuckever nordic fusion stuff. I've never seen so much cured fish in one place."
"I like gravlax."
"You would. Anyway, I'm telling you, that little fucker's up to no good."
"Well, we'll see," Steve says complacently. After all, it's not like he can't drive away if he wants to.
He really doesn't want to, though.
"Tony!" a voice yells, and Steve waves at Pepper, his maitre'd, who is brandishing a menu like she's fully prepared to beat Tony with it. "Get your ass and Bruce back in here, we should have started up the grill ten minutes ago."
"Exothermic chemistry!" Tony yells back. "We're cooking at the table tonight! Actually we're making other people cook at the table," he adds to Steve. Steve has the vague sense that Tony is sometimes trying to impress him, which is baffling. "You serve the meat and two chemicals and the patron mixes the chemicals together over the meat and boom. If nobody sets their tie on fire by the end of the night I'll be very surprised."
"Fire is nothing to play with."
"Whatever, all the waiters are standing by with fire extinguishers."
Steve rubs his face. "Go, make your powdered cake and glow-in-the-dark mushrooms and stuff. If anyone wants a slider cooked on a real grill with no chemical additives you know where to send them."
The building, whatever it will be, goes up fast. Steve watches its progress for weeks, while Fury gets crankier and Tony becomes increasingly nervous. As much as he enjoys his evenings outside TOBRU, he's seriously considering the fact that if the tension keeps up, he may have to move. He had enough stress in his last job.
He's considering it on a Monday morning, which is the start of his weekend proper, at least in the summer. The real weekend, people are out in the park or walking around shopping and they want good food cheap from his truck, so he usually takes Monday off since everyone's broke on Monday anyway or something. Steve has learned the rhythms of how people buy food on the street, but he doesn't claim to understand them.
Monday morning he gives War On Hunger an extra-good scrubdown on the inside and then on the outside, soaping and polishing the bright blue truck until it gleams, paying extra attention to the big white stars on the sides and back. He might not be a gourmet chef at a high-tone restaurant anymore, but he will always be proud of the fact that he earned his first (probably his only) Michelin star before turning thirty. Erskine, his first chef, trained him well, and he still misses him.
Enough of that; he has to get the truck clean, and he's just finishing hosing off the tires and drying the windshield when someone says, "It's a crying shame, watching a chef like you do that."
He turns, startled, to see Nick Fury standing there watching him work. Most chefs wear white in the kitchen; Fury wears black, just to make it harder to see him in the dark, Steve supposes.
"I enjoy it," he replies.
"We have a problem," Fury announces.
"Yeah, you're watchin' me work," Steve says. "Slightly creepy, chef."
"Get past it," Fury advises him. "Come to Shield after closing tonight. We're having a summit meeting about this Loki character."
"You too, huh?"
"Not all of us cook on wheels. But you're there often enough this is your issue too."
Steve studies him. "How'd you find me?"
"Stark stalked you."
"Be there tonight."
Fury gives him an eyeballing, which is interesting given he only has one eye. Steve's heard rumors about how he lost the other one; his favorite is that someone hit him in the face with a geoduck.
"Thor's making the crab things," he says.
"I will be there," Steve replies.
When Steve was fifteen, he had a fight with his best friend Bucky about food. Steve was still weedy and almost underfed, and Bucky was yelling at him to eat his salad for Christ's sake, and Steve retorted that he didn't like the taste of the lettuce.
"It's iceberg lettuce!" Bucky said. "It has no taste!"
"It does to me," Steve replied sullenly, and a hand fell on his shoulder, and he looked up into what seemed like miles and miles of starched white chef's coat.
"Come with me," Chef Erskine said.
Erskine was the one who worked out that Steve was a supertaster, and the reason he'd lived on bread and potatoes and cheese for years was that he couldn't tolerate a lot of other food, at least at first. Erskine recruited him as a line cook and began teaching him to ignore whether the food was pleasurable to him and instead concentrate on the complexities of the flavor, the way texture and temperature played a role. In six months with Chef Erskine, Steve shot up six inches and put on twenty badly-needed pounds and started eating things like broccoli and cinnamon and lamb. In another six months he was sent to France to study under the masters there, and he never really looked back until he found himself standing in the kitchen of his $200-a-plate restaurant on the Upper East Side, talking to Sandra Lee, who was pitching him for a Food Network show. And he realized that he'd come full circle. He hated food again.
So he quit, and now he runs a food truck with healthy, delicious, simple local fare that helps to fund his habit of giving away sandwiches to people who don't have five bucks to buy one. And he's happy, mostly.
But he will never not be a supertaster, so he tends to treat food differently from other people.
When he walks into the dining room at Shield, he can't help but notice how eerie it is to see it lit up, even if the lights are dim fluorescents. The walls and floor are painted black, with little bits of glow-tape stuck here and there, and there's no decoration; even the chairs are sleek, ergonomic, and ugly, because nobody's going to see them.
Laid out on a central table are a platter of the crispy crab things (which Steve genuinely does like because they're mostly crab and texture) and a basket of green cookies, which he's seen sometimes at TOBRU but never eaten. There's also a large plate of grey objects, presumably Shield leftovers. He's glad he brought a tupperware tub of homemade cheddar crackers to add to the feast.
So he sets down the crackers and picks up a crab thing, inhales the smell and licks the outside and then eats it in very small, tidy bites, occasionally licking again to test the flavor. And he's just reaching for a glass to fill with water (wine tastes like nothing but vinegary alcohol to him, always has) when a giant man looms out of nowhere and demands, "Why did you do that?"
"Mary mother of Christ," Steve manages, startling backwards. "Don't surprise a fellow when he's swallowing!"
"Sorry!" the man replies, looking aghast. "I didn't mean to startle you!"
"It's fine," Steve says, calming down. "You must be Thor," he adds, because he's giant and blond.
"I am indeed. I own Mjolnir. And you are Steve Rogers," Thor replies, offering his hand. Steve shakes it, intrigued by how gentle his grip is. "The man who runs the food truck."
"That's right. War On Hunger," Steve says.
"My staff like your coffee."
"Well, tell 'em thanks," Steve replies. "Everyone likes these things," he adds, picking up another crab thing just as Clint arrives and steals the plate. Natasha is right behind him; she takes one of Steve's crackers and nibbles on it, settling in next to Clint. Steve gives them an awkward wave.
"They are a tradition of my people," Thor intones.
"At...Mjolnir?" Steve asks.
"I brought the recipe from Asgard, my father's place."
"The one he never shuts up about," Tony adds, entering the room. Bruce is behind him, Fury and Coulson trailing them; Tony and Bruce beeline for the open bottle of wine, while Fury takes up a position where he can see everyone. Coulson slaps Clint in the back of the head, relocating the crab things back to the table before giving Steve an awkward smile and taking some of his crackers.
"I still would like to know," Thor continues, "Why you licked the food before eating it."
"It's just a thing I do," Steve replies, a little defiant.
"Well, I'm so glad we got that out of the way," Fury says, crossing his arms. "Now, I got bad news and I got stupid news. Which do you want first?"
"Is there such a thing as objectively stupid news?" Bruce asks.
"There is when it's this stupid," Fury replies.
"Then bad news first, I need a buzz before I deal with any more stupid tonight," Tony answers, settling in at the table. Steve hastily, belatedly, takes a seat. In a kitchen or a market or a truck he's fine; put him with a crowd of his peers at a social event and he's never quite sure what to do. He's so much happier when there's a metal wall between him and the rest of the world.
Everyone is watching him now, waiting for him to lick something else. He picks up a cookie and carefully does not lick it before biting into it. It tastes faintly of rosemary.
And pop rocks, he discovers, as one of them explodes in his mouth. He shoots a betrayed look at Bruce, who is hiding his amusement by sipping some wine.
"We've managed to determine what Loki is building next to Shield," Fury says, giving Steve a scowl. "It's a chain."
Steve frowns, putting the perilous cookie to one side. "What kind?" he asks. "Chain" can mean anything from a McDonalds to the second branch of a high-class downtown establishment.
"Chili's," Fury announces.
The reactions are immediate and diverse. Tony and Bruce groan dramatically. Thor and Clint look guilty, though Steve suspects for different reasons. Natasha maintains her poker face. Coulson looks like he's trying to mask his disgust.
"Well, that's not so bad," Steve reasons. "I mean, it isn't great food, but it's decent and edible for a good price."
"It's a Chili's," Tony says.
"Don't be a snob," Steve answers.
"Don't give me that, I've heard you talk about how chain restaurants are destroying the planet," Tony retorts. Bruce is growing more livid by the second, Steve can see. "We've all read The Omnivore's Dilemma, Steve, and everyone knows your thoughts on corn-fed beef."
"Was it Chili's or Applebee's that served a Kahlua mudslide to a three-year-old?" Natasha wonders aloud.
Steve is torn between not wanting to appear like an upper-class elitist asshole, the way Tony and Bruce look right now, and not wanting a damn Chili's to move in next to Shield. A little voice inside him is willing to admit, however reluctantly, that he understands their dismay. A place like that will lower the tone.
"We haven't gotten to the stupid yet," Nick reminds them.
"Oh my god," Tony groans.
"He's convinced the zoning commission that the....new restaurant," Fury says, as if he can't bring himself to say Chili's again, "will draw middle-class dollars and middle-class attention to the area. He's been quietly making offers to our landlords."
This is more serious than a chain restaurant. Steve can see Bruce and Tony exchange a glance.
"It's possible at this time next year there may be an open-air shopping center where we are now sitting," Fury says.
"Open air shopping center," Steve repeats.
"He means a strip mall," Natasha says, startling everyone. "A gentrified strip mall."
The horrified silence that follows is complete.
"How did you find all this out?" Tony asks, giving Fury a suspicious look. Fury looks to Clint, who looks at the floor.
"Loki's offered me head chef," he says softly.
"Of, and I can't stress this enough, a Chili's," Tony remarks. "A Chili's, Clint."
"You're not seriously considering it, are you?" Steve hears himself ask.
"See? Even Steve Of The People agrees with me," Tony points at Steve.
"Steve's a hipster, of course he thinks chain restaurants are evil," Clint retorts.
"I'm not a hipster!" Steve protests. Again.
He's not. Liking fedoras isn't a crime.
Hipster Steve, with fashion glasses and a reusable coffeemug made out of bamboo, by tumblr user Chibiesque.
"Of course he isn't taking the job," Natasha says, and Steve watches with interest as a silent communication passes between the two. He can tell Clint was considering it up until this moment. Natasha saying it just so, like it was already decided -- well, Steve would have put up his hackles and protested, but Clint accepts it calmly. Maybe he just needed someone to tell him before he'd really believe he didn't have to take the job.
Steve can see now why they work in the dark. They don't need to see each other anymore. They just know.
"I have a plan, if anyone's interested in doing something other than slagging on baby back ribs and seasoned fries," Fury drawls.
"Crime against potatoes," Bruce mutters.
"A cookoff," Fury says. Natasha tilts her head. Tony looks perplexed. Thor, who has been quiet this whole time, grunts thoughtfully. "Retail development is expensive and risky. If we prove we're a better investment, we can swing this our way. Easiest way to prove that is a very public, very visible cookoff with whatever ringer Loki wants to bring in."
"A cookoff. Like Iron Chef," Tony says. He was on Iron Chef once, Steve recalls. He beat Morimoto, which is not easy to do.
"More flair. More publicity. Local attention," Fury says. "We plaster Manhattan with the challenge. Shield, TOBRU, and Mjolnir against Loki's team. Winner gets the street. Loser moves on."
"Could work," Bruce says.
"I like it," Thor adds, baring his teeth.
"We're in," Clint murmurs. Coulson nods once, curtly.
"Look, no offense," Steve says, because he can't hold it in any longer, "but you guys are sort of...avant garde."
Everyone looks at him.
"It's good food," he hastens to add. "But you know, it's...weird. If you want to win a cookoff, you have to serve food people want to eat without being too weird about it. Like, you can't set up a booth with blackout curtains and make people eat in it."
"Excuse you?" Fury asks.
"And you can't make, I don't know, floating mashed potatoes," Steve continues, determined. "Or base what you feed people on what beer they want. If we're going to do a cookoff, all together, we have to do it right. On the street. Grills and hot plates. I know this because I did the fancy no-prices-on-the-menus thing and people like me a lot more when I just give them a sandwich and a smile."
"We?" Tony asks.
"It's my street too," Steve says. "I park there."
"So, what, you want to be team captain?" Fury asks.
"I'm the best qualified for the job," Steve shoots back. "Show of hands, who here has ever actually worked a street food fair or participated in a cookoff that wasn't sponsored by Food Network?"
He puts up his hand. So does Natasha. Everyone else looks mildly sheepish.
"You want to run this?" he asks Natasha.
"Jesus, no," she says. "I think it's all going to end in tears."
"Then why....?" Bruce looks at her. She shrugs.
"Seems like it'll be fun in the meantime," she replies.
"Well, all right, Captain," Fury drawls. "You got a battle plan?"
Steve formulates one.
Their second meeting at Shield sees Thor bringing juniper-basted venison kebabs.
"Go ahead," he says, crossing his arms and grinning. "Lick one."
Bruce and Tony have brought slices of rice-flour bread which steam when you dip them in oil. Steve has fried cheese curds. He is, admittedly, gratified by how many of them everyone eats.
He puts Bruce on crowd control, mainly because Bruce is terrifying when he cooks and they only want to scare people into eating, not while they're eating. Bruce considers this, then nods.
"I'll do prep too," he says.
"Then you'll be working with Natasha. You're on the grill," he adds to her. "Get Bruce to do the weird grilled fruits and stuff."
"I'm all right with that," she agrees.
"Tony, you're on sides. Nothing that flies or explodes and limit the amount of gratuitous chemicals you use."
"You can shatter things if you want," Steve adds graciously.
"I do like shattering things."
Coulson nods, but looks pleased.
"Fury, menu," Steve says. "You've got a good patter. Sell people on this."
"And you're head chef?" Fury asks, the others looking expectant.
"No," Steve says. "Clint is. He's got the best eye."
Everyone looks startled, nobody more so than Clint.
"You're either all in or all out," Steve tells him. Clint rubs his face.
"In," he agrees.
"Good man. I'll be roundsman, and cover pantry. Thor's on beverages. We want your local brews only and maybe one or two cocktails."
"I have heard from my brother," Thor says, "that his chefs will be magnificent. Should we be concerned?"
"No," Steve says. "We're going to avenge our honor here. Desperation gives us an edge."
"How magnificent are we talking?" Tony asks.
"Bobby Flay," Thor replies.
Tony dissolves into laughter. So do Clint and Natasha. Bruce and Fury look more worried. Flay might be kind of a dick and more than kind of a hack, but Steve's with them -- he also knows how to make food people really want to eat.
"Jesus, was Emeril Lagasse busy?" Tony bursts out.
It takes a while, of course, to pull together a foodie event, even one as simple as a cookoff. They have to get all kinds of permits. And Loki starts slinking around or sending one of his millions of more-or-less identical waitstaff to spy on them, which puts Bruce in a positive state.
Steve's network of bicycle messenger customers, however, are avid publicists. They take flyers to every office building in Manhattan and probably to every rave, so there should be a good turnout and a nice mix of people. Some of the food trucks who caravan with Steve promise to show up outside the cookoff, in solidarity and because they know some people will wander over to buy their wares as well.
And finally the day has come. The tables and cookware are set up outside, the barriers blocking traffic from the street are in place (Bruce takes his job on crowd control seriously), the food and beer tickets are laid out, and Bobby Flay has rolled up with a camera crew.
"Son of a bitch," Tony says, sounding almost admiring. "Look at the cojones on this one."
Steve, who feels naked without his truck and exposed in the blue chef's uniform he hasn't worn in two years, nods. "We'll beat him, though."
"You sure about that?"
"Well, if we don't, I'll buy you dinner at Chili's," Steve says, patting his shoulder.
"I hate you so much," Tony replies.
Flay bobs his way across the street, from Loki's cook-tables to theirs, and offers his hand. Tony looks at him.
"Do you seriously think I'm doing that?" he asks.
"Hey man, I'm just making a tv show," Flay answers. Steve gently nudges Tony out of the way and shakes Flay's hand, because after all, he's a gentleman.
"May the best chef win," Steve says, squeezing hard.
"Sure thing," Flay replies, and walks away, covertly rubbing his hand.
"You think he knows Paula Deen?" Steve asks, just to annoy Tony. "Hey, where's Bruce, anyway?"
Tony flaps a hand. "He'll be here."
"Where is he now?"
"I don't know, but he'll be here, trust me."
"Well, I'm taking his station until he is," Steve declares, stepping up next to Natasha, who is doing something obscene with a ceramic knife in one hand and a chicken in the other.
"Tony sure has a hate-on for anything normal people might like, huh?" Steve asks.
Natasha looks up at him, a faint smile on her face. She's still working on the chicken.
"Do you know what Tony did before TOBRU?" she asks.
"No, I thought that was part of his mystique."
"Hardly. He was head chef at the test kitchen for Big Star Pizza."
"The delivery chain?" Steve asks, stunned.
"His father owned it. Tony was expected to take over the business. He studied chemistry at MIT, but he'd already been training under his father in the kitchen, before he died. Eventually he realized he didn't like the business; he didn't like the way they treated their employees, the fact that the food had little nutritional value. He signed the company over to his father's partner, and with the buyout money, he founded TOBRU. So yes," she says, spatchcocking the chicken with a loud crack, "he has some issues with chain restaurants."
"I didn't know."
"When I came to this country, I had nothing," she continues, taking another chicken out of the cooler where five or six are awaiting the knife. "I had no diploma, I had no Cordon Bleu, I had no formal training. I knew how to cook, but that was all. Clint and Coulson found me catering weddings without a license. They took a chance on me. Clint says he saw himself in me, back when he was cook for a traveling circus. Why do you cook?" she asks, seemingly out of nowhere.
"I..." Steve bites his lip. "I hated food because I didn't understand it. Once I did, I didn't see how I could do anything else."
She sets down the knife, turning to him.
"We all believe food should nourish the soul, not just the body," she says. "I don't have any grudge against the chains. Sometimes a hot meal you didn't have to cook, that's all you need to feed the soul. That's fine. But I don't believe food should be an excuse for some land developer to line his pocketbook."
Steve nods. "Let's get those chickens on the grill."
"As you say, Captain," she answers with a grin. "You learn how to baste in that fancy restaurant you used to have?"
"I do all right," he replies.
Once the public is allowed past the barriers, once the cameras are rolling on Bobby Flay, there isn't much time to think. Steve plates food madly, grilled chicken and sous-vide ribs, Tony's "spherified" french fries with Clint's special Arrow Dipping Sauce ("shoots your tastebuds in the face!"). Thor is passing out shots of his beer like this might be his only chance ever to do so, and madly frying as many crispy crab things as will fry in a ten-gallon vat of oil at once.
Bruce shows up five minutes late and elbows Steve out of the way with a curse, while yelling at Tony that his lemon-infused foam is not foamy enough and demanding to know where Clint got these ribs, were they from starving horses?
Steve is grateful it's mostly in French.
Across the street, Loki's team of ringers and his celebrity chef are luring people in with good old-fashioned hamburgers, fried chicken strips, monte cristo sandwiches and endless seasoned fries.
"You have to admit," Steve says, hipchecking Tony out of the way so he can put some real muscle into the foaming canister that Bruce keeps complaining loudly about in French, "they know comfort food. And by the way, this looks really creepy. I thought we talked about no creepy food."
"But it tastes amazing," Tony replies.
"We're going to get slaughtered if nobody wants to try it."
Tony, who has been watching the crowds just as hard as Steve has, clearly knows this is true.
"Okay," he says. "Cover me. I'm going kamikaze."
"You're going wh -- Tony what are you -- "
Tony ducks under the table, pops up on the other side, grabs all the chicken he can lay his hands on, and hefts the foaming canister under one arm.
"Be back in a minute," he says, and dives into the crowd.
All action at their side of the street stops as they watch Tony wend his way through the crowd. He's brandishing the canister like a weapon, yelling lemon chicken like it's a battle cry. But even as Steve peers through his fingers at the undoubted humiliation Tony is about to suffer, the crowd starts to turn. People accept food from Tony because it's nearly impossible not to accept food from Tony, and after a second Clint dives for the perfectly spherical "fries" and grabs a jar of Arrow sauce, following him.
"The job is to convince people we're worth more," Bruce says, laying a hand on Steve's arm when he starts to move to stop them, because this isn't strictly fair. "The job is to make sure they know we're here for the long run, we'll bring in just as many people as a mall would. Not all chefs are salesmen." He nods at Tony. "He is. Let him work."
"They're going to say we cheated."
"What do you think marketing is?" Bruce asks, grinning at him. Fury is out there now too, without food but with menus and business cards, resplendent in his all-black chef's uniform.
Steve is watching the judges of this cook-off -- their landlords, the head of the zoning commission, a couple of food critic bloggers -- and they see what he sees as soon as it happens.
The crowd turns. It's like a dinner rush, when suddenly everyone seems to decide they want a meal at the same time. Clint is lobbing fries into peoples' mouths and Tony is serving up foam-laden chicken to the judges and everyone wants their food.
"We're going to win," he says.
"Course we are," Natasha replies, shoving him out of the way. "Get me some more goddamn chickens, stop standing there like a head waiter."
Later -- after the foodies and hipsters and bike messengers and critics have all departed, after they've broken down the tables and cookware and packed everything away, Tony sits down on the bumper of War On Hunger, wipes the sweat off his face with a dishtowel, and says, "Is that shawarma van still around?"
"I anticipated this," Thor answers, appearing from nowhere with his arms full of food sacks. "Come and eat."
They settle around the back of the van, sitting on the bumper or on fruit crates pulled up to it, eating in hungry silence. Fury is off somewhere doing B-roll for the television show, crowing about their win, no doubt. Thor seems subdued, but not as subdued as Loki, who left when the zoning board told him they were reconsidering his restaurant license.
Bruce looks like he's about to fall asleep. Being angry in French really takes it out of you, Steve supposes.
"Where'd you get this?" Tony asks, tapping the brim of Steve's new hat. It's a newsboy cap in blue suede, and Steve thinks it makes him look dapper.
"One of the foodies gave it to me as a prize," he says proudly.
"You are such a hipster," Tony informs him. "How are you even real?"
Steve delicately picks the cucumbers and tomatoes out of his shawarma and offers them to Tony. "Just lucky, I guess."
"Are you certain you don't want to give up the truck?" Thor asks, passing Natasha a beer. "Mjolnir always has an opening for imaginative cooks."
"TOBRU has dibs," Bruce insists.
"Shield threw this all together, we should get first refusal," Natasha adds.
"I like my truck," Steve says stubbornly. "It's hybrid, you know. It runs on electricity and biodiesel."
Tony goes off into uncontrollable laughter.
After the television episode with the cookoff airs, things get a little crazy. TOBRU is now the hottest place in town to eat, and Mjolnir's policy of not taking reservations means that most nights the line is out the door for smoked herring and crispy crab things and something called "Deconstructed Smörgåstårta" which thrills and horrifies Steve in equal parts. Shield, which does take reservations, is booked six months out and has expanded into the unoccupied former Chili's next door.
Steve is happy for his friends, honestly, but he's a little dismayed. Because they all got good press on the food blogs and in the tv show, but he doesn't take reservations and he doesn't even have tables.
It's good for business; War On Hunger is mobbed wherever it goes, and sometimes cars follow him down the street just to see where he'll park. He's expanded his unofficial soup-kitchen activities to include a program where people can buy sandwiches for the hungry when they buy sandwiches for themselves. There's a food pantry that wants to partner with him.
The problem is that some denizen of the internet somewhere nicknamed him the Hot Foodie, and the name stuck, and now he's some kind of terrible food truck sex symbol. A network wanted to do a reality show about his life as Manhattan's Most Attractive Hipster or something, and when he said no, some actual hipsters got wind of it and made an unofficial one using their camera phones and put it on YouTube. It's mortifying.
But sometimes he stays in the TOBRU lot until closing, and Thor comes down the street with a couple of growlers of beer, and the Shield crew bring over a big cobb salad and a glazed strawberry tart, and they all crowd into the TOBRU dining room where Tony and Bruce set ice cream on fire for their amusement while they eat the sliders left over from War On Hunger's business day.
And Steve wouldn't trade this life for anything.