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Simmer, Chapter 1: Restless Night


Chicago Joe – Joe Flamm – stumbled blearily out of The Bear Den, the room he was sharing with Tyler and Bruce. The term had been Tyler’s and the other two had adopted it quickly, throwing up “bear paws” every time they said it. Joe understood that the bear stuff was a gay thing, a way big dudes referred to each other, but he also knew that Tom Collichio was something of a “bear icon.” Maybe it didn’t matter who you slept with, only how you felt.  

            His erection had finally gone down. Did it count as morning wood if you woke up with it in the middle of the night? For a few restless moments, he considered jerking off in his bed while the other two slept, but the fear of waking them up disabused him of the idea. Besides, what if Tyler woke up? Would he take it as a come-on? Best to not get in a situation like that again. No, the best thing to do was to get up and busy himself. That’s how he conquered insomnia at home. But damn, had he wanted to take care of himself.

            The house was quiet. One thing about competing on Top Chef is that it wore you out. After cooking all day and spiking on adrenaline so acute it might as well have been speed, they all returned back to the house and cooked some more, decompressing from the day before falling into utter stupor. Man wasn’t meant to live this way. Even though he objectively knew that the competition wouldn’t go on forever – couldn’t go on forever – he was already exhausted beyond the telling of it, and the days seemed to stretch out before him like a bottomless pit turned on its side. Plus, he missed his wife. The thrill of competing, the excitement of cooking for people like Tom and Gail and Padma, the unending beauty of the Colorado vistas around him – it was amazing, but had the weird effect of isolating him. He was surrounded by some of the best chefs in the country all day, every day, and had made fast friends with some of them (especially Tyler and Bruce), but he couldn’t deny the loneliness that was beginning to creep in. It had only been three weeks since he’d stepped off the plane from Chicago and already that lonesome feeling was beginning to crush him like a vice.

            The digital clock in the bedroom had read 4:43. How long had he been awake, waiting for his hard-on to go away, before he’d decided to get up and wander to the kitchen? This little bout of insomnia certainly wasn’t going to help him tomorrow. They had to make “hangover food” in food trucks for college students, which actually sounded fun … only how fun was it going to be on three hours of sleep?

            “Cook something,” he murmured to himself. “That’ll calm you.” He wondered idly if chefs were the only people who did more of the thing that stressed them out as a way to calm down. Maybe writers or singers, too. The creatives. That’s how he thought of himself, actually. A creative. He didn’t necessarily think that food was art, but he definitely thought a well-executed plate, especially from a recipe he developed, could be art-adjacent. Joe smiled at that one; his brain was groggy, but not entirely asleep.

            One of Joe’s passions – what his wife called “his weird hobby” – was collecting cookbooks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sometimes, when he wasn’t cooking, he’d peruse these cookbooks and try to find recipes from the past that inspired him. Recently, he’d stumbled across a recipe for mushroom ketchup and immediately bent closer to the book. Apparently, tomato ketchup wasn’t a thing until the mid-1800s. Before then, ketchup was this weird mushroom mixture, more liquid than sauce. Immediately, Joe had been wild to try to replicate it, using as many of the archaic methods cooks might have used back then. When his wife had walked into the kitchen to see him straining liquid by hand through a cheesecloth, she simply shrugged and wandered out.

            The mushroom ketchup had turned out spectacularly complex – earthy and salty and so unusual to his tongue that it had the paradoxical effect of tasting fresh and new. At once, he began experimenting. After exchanging some spices and adding more garlic than seemed wise, Joe had created an all-new flavor profile. He started splashing on his steaks at the restaurant and soon it became one of his most popular dishes. It went to show that sometimes, when you were looking for something brand new, you found it was already there, just waiting to be discovered.

            Tonight, though? Tonight wasn’t about experimentation or stretching himself. Tonight was about curing his insomnia so he could try to get at least a couple more hours of sleep before the competition began in earnest the next day. Eggs. Plain old scrambled eggs. That would hit the spot.

            He approached the kitchen when, in his peripheral vision, he saw something shift in the darkness of the living room. One of the camera guys, maybe? Or, oh God, what if it was a burglar? Could a burglar even get in here? This house was essentially a television set. It…

            The lamp beside the couch flipped on, and sitting there, clad only in his boxer shorts, was the other Joe, the one everyone called Mustache Joe on account of his old-fashioned curlicued facial hair. “Joe?” he asked, looking every bit as bleary as he himself felt. He also couldn’t help but notice how damn hairy Mustache Joe – Sasto, his last name is Sasto – was: from his shoulders to his chest to the deep thicket of curly black hair on his belly, the guy could have been a natural for the Bear Den, even though he was short and slender. Flamm was suddenly acutely aware that he, too, was only wearing boxers, and that while his size was a matter of fun with Tyler and Bruce, he now felt self-conscious. When you were a chef, it was accepted that you could be heavy and hefty; it was almost a requirement, especially if you were a guy. But even in the midst of a competition like this one, you weren’t a chef all the time. Sometimes you were just a man. If there was another moment since coming to Colorado that Flamm had felt less like a chef than at quarter to five in the morning, nearly naked and facing a nearly naked Joe Sasto … well, he didn’t know what it was.

            “Hey Sasto,” Flamm said, instinctively putting his hands over his large belly, as if to hide it. There was no hiding it.

            “Couldn’t sleep?”

            “No. Maybe it’s the tension of the competition. Everyone’s really fucking good.”

            Sasto smiled. “You’re really fucking good.”

            Flamm had no idea what to say to that so he just shrugged and looked away. “You?”

            Sighing, Sasto said, “I think … I think everyone hates me.”

            Cautiously, Flamm moved closer, taking the seat across from Sasto and trying to meet his eyes. It was hard. Sasto kept looking all around, as if trying to avoid scrutiny. “Hey,” he said, and Sasto kept looking off. “Hey.”

            Now he looked. “What?”

            “Why do you think people hate you? They don’t, by the way.”

            Sasto put his hand over his eyes. “You were there at Whole Foods today. I was … Joe, I was acting like an asshole.”

            Flamm thought back. Earlier that day, the chefs had been divided up into two teams and had to make meals inspired by and including farm-fresh cheese. Sasto had been on the other team and had received a bit of a drubbing at Judges’ Table, but that was as far as Flamm had noticed. He was too busy concentrating on his own food and terror that Tom Collichio or Padma Lakshmi would call his food inedible. “I didn’t really see. I’m sure you were fine.”

            “You know I was a line cook seven years ago, right?” What the hell did that have to do with anything? Flamm thought but didn’t say. They’d all been line cooks at one point or another.

            “I mean, I guess?”

            “I’ve moved up very fast. Really fast.” Sasto lowered his hand and put it on his lap. It shifted the fabric of his boxers and for a moment, Flamm caught a glimpse of Sasto’s pubic hair. He looked away quickly … but not before noticing how thick that hair was, too. Joe Sasto was a jungle in human form. When was the last time he’d seen another man’s pubic hair? In college, maybe. But the stuff that happened in college didn’t have any bearing on now. Did it? Flamm shook his head, clearing it and pretending he hadn’t seen what he’d seen, hadn’t thought what he’d thought. “I think I’m just so scared of losing my hold on where I am now that I tend to … I don’t know. Assert more than I need to?”

            “You’re bossy.”

            Sasto looked up and flashed a momentary grin. His teeth were very white below that amazing mustache. “I didn’t really say that.”

            “Sometimes people need to take charge. It’s not a crime.”

            Sasto shrugged. “I just don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. I mean, I want to win, but I don’t want to, like, ruin anyone on the way there.”

            Without thinking, Joe Flamm reached out and put a hand on Sasto’s knee. “You’re fine, man. Don’t beat yourself up over this.”

            Sasto looked at the hand on his knee. Flamm did too. Let go, he thought. Take your hand back, he thought. But it took a few seconds. A few long seconds.

            Flamm looked up into Sasto’s eyes. His heart slammed violently in his chest, the way it did when he was serving someone important, the way it did when he’d opened the restaurant. When he’d been in college, watching TV in the common room alone, and someone new had walked in. Someone different.

When Flamm dragged his breath in, it had to force itself through an opening the size of a straw. Sasto looked back and neither of them dropped their eyes for a long, long moment.

            In a voice so low it was nearly impossible to hear, Sasto said, “You didn’t have to take your hand away.”

            The heart pounding in Flamm’s chest doubled in speed, trebled. It was like a jackhammer in there; if kept inside much longer, it might simply explode out of his chest. And it was ridiculous, wasn’t it? Absurd. There was nothing here that interested him. Nothing here that excited him. He had lived an entire life without once having a thought about another guy. Well, most of a life. That counted for something, right? And anyway, hell there was Tyler, up in the Bear Den. He was actually gay. If Flamm was going to have any sort of thought like this, wouldn’t it be easier to go in that direction? Wouldn’t it be saner? Sane? Joe Flamm thought. None of this is sane.

            He opened his mouth with no idea what words might come out. “I have a wife,” he murmured, closing his eyes. In the darkness behind his eyes, he felt his hand moving as if under its own power. Good, think of it that way. If what you’re doing isn’t really your doing, then you don’t have to examine it. It’s worked before, Joe. It’ll work now.

            Then he opened his eyes and there was his hand, back on Sasto’s knee. It was attached to his arm, which was attached to him. Jesus God, what was happening here? What the hell was happening?

            “Now,” Sasto said. “Move it up. Just a little.”

            “I really don’t…” And that’s when he saw it. Joe Sasto’s dick had found its way through the hole at the front of his boxer shorts. Not fully erect, not yet, but getting there. Flamm had two choices: get up at once and dash out of the room … or stay here and stop thinking.

“You should touch it,” Sasto said, his voice a little gruffer now. “Just hold it a second.”

Flamm hesitated only a moment. In the dim recesses of his sleep-deprived mind, he knew that if he stopped, if he wavered, then everything would come crashing down. The gears would turn. Rational thought would intercede. And this – whatever this was – would stop. A part of him, currently the dominant part of him, didn’t want it to stop.

He let his hand slide further up Sasto’s hairy, muscular leg. Then, with tentative, tented fingers, he reached out and found Sasto’s dick. Joe Flamm closed his eyes and tried to believe this wasn’t happening. As he did, he let his hand fully encircle the cock he was holding, and gave it a light squeeze. Familiarity came rushing back, and with it, the strange blue excitement that he’d once known well enough to lose himself in. Maybe he could lose himself in this too.

Sasto groaned quietly, and Flamm’s eyes shot open. Sasto had shifted slightly, stretching out a little and thrusting his hips forward. Flamm let his eyes travel down the man’s body more slowly this time. Beneath all that body hair, Sasto was surprisingly muscular; his chest bulged, his pink nipples standing out in delicate contrast to all that wiry dark hair. The man’s stomach, so unlike his own, was taut, abs defined and on display. Flamm badly wanted to reach out and run his hand over those abs, just to see what they felt like.

“Stroke me,” Sasto murmured. Flamm, not taking his eyes off those tight abs, complied. Sasto’s dick was different than his – thinner, but a little longer – so even though the rhythm was the same, he couldn’t quite pretend that he was jerking himself off. Then don’t, his mind suggested, and now he let his eyes drift to the cock in his hand.

He moved it up and down, slowly at first, then picking up speed. It was fascinating, watching his massive, meaty hand gripping that thin cock, dwarfing it. His own dick was so much thicker that this new sensation was exhilarating, and doing it from this angle was so unusual. It was like a recipe where the instructions were familiar but the ingredients were all different. Flamm dropped his guard a little and found that he was actually enjoying this.

At once, his own dick stirred, and started to grow.

Sasto began to writhe against the couch, making thick, almost angry sounds in his throat. “Don’t stop,” he grunted. “Faster.”

Flamm did as instructed, tugging the smaller man’s dick firmly but gently, marveling at the feel of it in his hand. It throbbed and he moved even faster, his hand tugging in small, rapid movements, a lifetime of chef’s training kicking in.

“Oh Joe,” Sasto growled. “Oh fuck, Joe.”

Flamm glanced up to Sasto’s face. His eyes were squeezed shut and his teeth bit into his lower lip. His upper lip curled back, and with the mustache dominating his face, he almost seemed like an animal, wild and feral, in the throes of some instinctual ritual. Then he gasped, and his eyes went wide, his mouth hanging open.

Joe Flamm looked down just in time to see Sasto’s dick erupt: thick, ropy shots of cum shot out, splattering against Sasto’s hairy, muscular gut. The whiteness of it contrasted sharply with the thick, dark hair, and Flamm stared at it, amazed that he had made that happen.

Then it shot again, the cum thinner this time, and Sasto bucked against the couch violently. “Stop,” he moaned to Chicago Joe. “Too much.”

Reluctantly, Flamm loosened his grip on Sasto’s cock, and let it slowly trail down the man’s leg. He didn’t know why he was so hesitant to stop this when he hadn’t exactly wanted it to start, but all he had to do was look up at Sasto’s exhausted face, breath heaving in and out, to know that he wanted to do it again.

Then Sasto opened his eyes and met Flamm’s gaze. Sasto’s eyes traced the contours of Flamm’s hefty body, and rested at a spot just below his considerable belly. Joe Flamm was aware for the second time, just how hard his own dick was; it hadn’t gone down when Sasto had cum. On the contrary, it seemed only to have gotten harder.

“Well,” Sasto said with a grin and a wink. “I guess it’s your turn, isn’t it?”

Chicago Joe looked into his friend’s eyes and found it impossible to look away. Quietly, he said the only thing that came to mind: “Go for it.”