His work station looks like New York City, he thinks, in a moment of blind, serene pride. But only in the sense that it’s a complete clusterfuck. A complete, beautiful, multicultural, towering clusterfuck of stacked, unwashed mixing bowls and chopped chocolate and crumpled saran wrap and flour. It feels like home.
He is home. Outside this studio with its bright white set and its hot lights is New York. He’ll be home in his own kitchen again in a matter of hours. All he has to do is not fuck up this thing he’s made a thousand times, work on his fucking plating and he’ll pass through this studio’s hermetic seal and be home to his son again. To his city again.
The city was his education - that’s what he told the cameras. It’s the truth. He was his mother’s youngest son and his brothers kicked him around a lot, so he learned his first lessons sitting on the hot, sticky linoleum, watching his mother work. After she trusted him to mix his wet separate from his dry, to sift always, to work without a recipe on tradition alone, she’d loan him out to the neighbors: Mrs. Mlynarski down the hall’s eyes and sense of smell are going so why don’t you give her a hand, Lionel. That kind of thing. He helped the right old lady enough times and soon he’s getting loaned out to the Russian bakery downstairs, only this time he was pulling a paycheck. His life is waking up at four in the morning so he has enough time to iron his pants before five, his life is pastry, is temperature, is timing, is ratios, is chemistry. His life is the pain in his arms and his hands, from work, from burns, from cuts. He soaks up everything he hears, gets more familiar with beets and sulguni cheese than he ever expected to, and once he runs out of things to learn, his boss says, “Get out of here, learn something else.” So he does. He does it again and again. He’s worked so many places, learned so many things, hasn’t missed a sunrise since he was 17, hasn’t seen midnight since his son was a colicky baby. With all the work he’s done, he’s not sure where he found the time to get married, have a kid, and get divorced. He’s got his own place now - his own bakery where he can do whatever the hell he wants, as long as he does it well - and if he’s smart enough, if he’s good enough, if he’s fast enough, if he’s clever enough, he can defend it.
He doesn’t say all that on camera. Not a good, snappy soundbite, and he thinks they need them to be snappy. If what he says is snappy, then they’ll use it.
He’s doing this for his son - he said that on camera too. It’s also true.
Her workstation smells of cardamom and rosewater, orange peel and pistachio. Before the show, she met with a former contestant and they advised her to take inspiration from her culture. It would make her memorable, they said, and give her an edge with the judges. But make it accessible also, they said. Not too mysterious, too exotic for the whitebread Middle America audience. That last instruction rankles at her, makes her want to present the judges with faloodeh, drown them in noodle sorbet and bafflement.
There’s a tightrope to be walked here, but she was never a tightrope walker.
“You are too rash, Sameen,” her father had said, fake serious as he lifted her onto the kitchen counter. “You’ll burn the dough before we’ve even begun.”
They were making bamieh and it was a real possibility. But her father was never serious, not about baking. This was how he spent his weekends, the rare windows of time when he was home. This is one of the ways Sameen remembers him.
One of the other ways is that time in the car. She prefers this.
She watched quiet, absorbed as her father lowered the flame on the stove and stirred the dough, coaxing it soft and yellow-white. He piped it bit by bit into bubbling oil, fried up the pieces of dough and soaked them in a syrup of saffron and rosewater. They were sticky, light, floral - they tasted of memory.
She’s better now than her father ever was.
For years after the car accident, it never even occurred to her to bake. It was after residency, after she knew she would never become a doctor. She didn’t get sad; she got drunk, real drunk. For a few hours she thought maybe she’d join the army, if she could really feel nothing, if she wasn’t fit to save people, maybe she had the kind of strength to kill them.
Then she thought of her father, and she made bamieh. It was stiff, heavy, inelegant. She piped it into oil from a Ziploc bag with the corner cut off and she slammed the brakes on the whole production when she ran out into the dark, drunk and wrapped in a coat, because she didn’t have saffron in the house. It was bad bamieh. The next day she went out, bought supplies, made it again and again until it tasted like what she remembered.
The day after that, she started applying for culinary schools.
The hotel restaurant gig is good, not great. She has a set of six desserts on the menu, expertly curated and released to critical acclaim. They are extravagant, a demonstration of all her skills: glossy chocolate, delicately cut pastry, sugar work that glitters and towers. She can make them in her sleep. Sometimes she does. She never has to give bad news, and pastry chefs are supposed to be divas, tempestuous, so people find her flat baseline refreshing.
But she is so, so bored. Even on this show, with thousands of dollars on the line, even with cameras roving over her arms and her face and her back and her work, cameras she doesn’t know how to play to, she is distant, she is poised, she is uninvolved.
The guy in front of her slams his dough onto the counter so hard it’s like a gunshot.
The challenge is bread.
Lionel’s offering is a chocolate babka, made more unique with coffee in the dough. It is rich, it is decadent, it is plated disastrously.
Shaw’s offering is challah, spiced and ornately braided and studded with dates and figs. It is beautiful, but leaves something to be desired.
In the rankings, they fall beside each other: the middle of the pack.
“Shaw,” he says, scrubbing his hands at the sink.
“Fusco,” she says, warily. Their shoulders bump.
“What are you doing after this?”
It’s interesting, she thinks, that he can say that without sounding like he’s hitting on her.
“Sleeping,” she says. “Why?”
“Thought I’d get some last-minute practice in before shooting picks up tomorrow morning. Nothing crazy, just make something fun to prove I still can. You in?”
“What are you making?”
He shrugs. “I was thinking baklava.”
She’s hit with sense memory, her father handing her a knife to chop pistachios, walnuts, almonds, her mother saying, “Oh no, she’s too young,” her father saying, “She has to learn sometime,” the taste of honey stolen from a measuring cup on her finger.
“Sure,” she says. “I can make baklava.”
They arrive, arms filled with grocery bags. Fusco’s apartment is dingy and worn-down in the way she expected it to be. He seems like the type to throw everything into the business, to let everything else go. More surprising, there’s a child at the kitchen table, bent over a biology textbook. His head lifts and he brightens. Fusco does too.
“How was the show?” the kid asks. “You know I can’t say,” Fusco says, giving a fake-surreptitious thumbs-up around his armload of groceries.
“Sameen, this is my son, Lee. Lee, this is Sameen. She’s on the show too.”
“Cool. Hi, Sameen.”
“Hey.” She half-waves. She thinks Fusco must have mentioned him, must have talked about him in one or two of the interviews, but she never bothered remembering. Lee is like his dad only blonder, stringier, less tired. She tears her eyes away, says to Fusco. “Where do I…?”
“Just on the counter is fine,” he says, absorbed in unloading his own bags. “So where are you coming from, as far as baklava’s concerned? I know you’re Persian, so...”
“I haven’t made it for a long time,” she says. “But my dad made it the Persian way, yeah.”
He claps his hands once, rubs them together. “Then let’s do it the Persian way.”
Sameen makes the dough mostly from memory. It’s drier than baklava usually is and she can’t trust Fusco with it. He’s chopping nuts - pistachio, almond, walnut - and when she says it should be finer, he opens the cabinets and fiddles around until he finds a mortar and pestle. His cabinets are crammed tight with supplies, disorderly but very clean.
“Like with your plating,” she says as he rearranges pots and sieves on the fly, trying to prevent an avalanche.
He chuckles. “Sweet Jesus. I get it. It’s TV, so looks are more important than taste. But I never plate anything at my bakery. There’s no plates. I wrap stuff up and people take it home.” He shakes his head. “That’s how I’m gonna get knocked out of this competition. For sure.”
“You sound awful sure you’re getting knocked out.”
“I am.” He turns, says, “Lee, cover your ears. I don’t want you to think your old man is a failure.” He turns back to Sameen. “I know for a fact that I am.”
“You talk about how you’re going to lose all the time,” Lee whines as he begrudgingly clamps his hands over his ears.
“Your flavors are good.” She knows. She’s snagged stuff from his table after judging. With Fusco, comfort food is a science.
“Thanks,” he says. “But that’s not gonna be enough. I need to be able to do...you know, what you do. Artistry.”
“Fusco,” she says as she stretches the dough, “even I don’t want to do what I do.”
“Fuck off,” he says, pleasantly. “You’re amazing.”
“What would you rather be doing?” He asks like he’s actually curious to know.
She thinks for a moment and says “This,” lifting the ball of dough in her hands. “What I grew up eating.”
He nods, real slow, like he’s thinking. “So like the bread today?” “It was fine,” she says, kneading the dough a little too hard.
“The braiding was great,” Fusco says. “But I think you hated it. Am I right?”
She hated it. It wasn’t bad, but she’d treated it like an adversary. It was her on the tightrope, the impressive, the authentic, the accessible, all balanced on a wire and not being enough of anything. “I wanted it to be nan-e barbari,” she admits.
He leans in. “I don’t know what that is.”
“It’s a flatbread. Simple. You put sesame seeds on it. Sometimes feta and olives.”
He closes his eyes, groans “God, I’m so hungry.” He adds, a little too loud, “You OK to be on omelette duty?”
“No problem,” Lee answers from across the room as he snaps his book shut. “My homework’s almost done anyway.”
“You cook too?” Sameen asks as he crosses to the sink. She’s not around kids all that much and when she is she feels like there’s a gun to her head, like she needs to make conversation. The kid turns on the kitchen tap, starts scrubbing up real professional.
“Yeah. Well, simple stuff. Eggs and pasta. I made my own gnocchi from scratch a couple of times, but it’s a huge pain in the ass and it takes forever. Dad doesn’t like to cook dinner, so I learned.”
“I cook all goddamn day,” Fusco says, cheerfully. “You want me to get home and cook more?”
“If I leave it to him, sometimes he just gives up and makes dinosaur chicken nuggets,” Lee says, drying his hands on a threadbare towel. “Frozen.”
Fusco says, “You’re a nightmare.” He bends to one side, kisses his son on the head, and Lee only flinches away for show. He gets to work chopping onions and bell peppers and soon the kitchen is filled with the fragrance of cooking vegetables.
“So,” says Fusco as he grinds the nuts fine, to the texture of sand, “why wasn’t it nan-e barbari?”
“I wanted to show I could do the plaiting,” she says. “A flatbread wouldn’t look as impressive.”
He snorts. “You can dress up flatbread.”
“Oh, yeah? How would you do it?”
He shrugs. “No clue. I’m not saying I can do it or anybody can do it. I’m saying you can.”
She wonders where this guy gets off believing in her like that.
He’s saying, “If you could make one thing for the judges...”
“Faloodeh,” she says, immediately.
The pestle goes still in his hand. “I don’t think I know that one either.”
She throws a towel at his face. “Go outside sometime, Fusco.”
“Hey,” he says, catching the towel and draping it casually over his shoulder, “I worked in a lot of different kinds of bakeries, but I never worked in a Persian bakery. Humor me.”
“It’s a noodle sorbet,” she says. “Pass potato starch through a sieve to make noodles, freeze them overnight, flavor them however you want.” Rosewater and lime, her childhood memories fiercely suggest.
“Yeah, holy shit,” he says, nodding. “I’ve never had anything like that. Why don’t you?”
“It’s an overnight dish,” she says.
“Would the blast chiller work?”
It would. Or it might, anyway. She’s never tried.
She’s never made it without her father. It’s just that moment, crystallized: the hum of the air conditioner, the air sodden and heavy to the touch, the tiny and perfect glass he set before her at the kitchen table. The noodles, tart and cold and syrupy sweet and wholly unexpected...
Lee appears at her elbow. “‘Scuse me, I need to get plates.”
They eat omelettes while the dough rises. They’re decent, neatly folded and crisp at the edges. The kid even bothered to sprinkle chopped scallions on the top, a perfunctory flourish that is weird on a kid his age. She takes a bite. The flavors are simple, reasonably balanced. A little greasy, maybe, but it’s eggs and she hasn’t eaten in hours. “You’d make a half-decent line cook, kid,” she says, around her first forkful.
Fusco and Lee share an eerily similar bark of laughter.
“No way,” Lee says.
“I did all this so he wouldn’t have to,” Fusco says. “I want him to have a normal job, with standard hours and paid vacations and benefits and weekends off.”
“Pro hockey players work weekends,” Lee points out.
“If you’re working weekends, I want you to get fame, fortune, and the Stanley Cup out of it.”
Lee nods, carries on eating, and it seems a compromise has been reached.
“To be clear,” Fusco says, leaning closer on one elbow, “if he wanted to take over the bakery when he grows up, I’d let him. But does he?”
“No,” Lee says, mouth full.
“No,” Fusco repeats. “My dad was a cop, and he wanted me to be a cop too. My brothers became cops. Most of my uncles were cops. There was a lot of pressure in that house. I don’t want to do the same thing to him.”
He fixes her with a look, like Your turn, like he wants her to share, but think it’s her own idea. She doesn’t want to talk about her father. Instead, she throws him this: “For me, it was this or join the army.”
He snorts. “That’s a hell of a choice. What tipped you over the fence?”
“Less likely to get shot. You?”
“Me too!” he says, delighted.
“We’re only halfway through the show,” says Shaw. “Don’t count on it.” And then, because it felt good to say the first thing, she says, “I was supposed to be a doctor.”
He squints. He doesn’t ask why she isn’t a doctor. He says, “I can see it.” Nobody’s ever said that about her.
After dinner, she rolls out her dough and stacks it in layers to ensure a flaky crust. Fusco works on the syrup, saffron and rosewater, while jockeying for position with his son, who’s washing plates. She lays down a layer of crushed nuts, more layers of dough, and then hands Fusco a knife. “Persian baklava is cut into diamonds.” She nudges him. “You need to work on this.”
They switch places.
He applies himself to the cutting in a slow, studious way. Fusco has a kind of neatness to him, she thinks. He’s not unhygienic. His kitchen has a kind of order to it. It’s just that he comes from a world where there’s an appreciation for the individual whorls in a babka, the cookie that’s a little too large.
“Cutting the ragged edges off things is an easy way to elevate them,” she says. “A little spot of something in the center, like fruits or nuts. People like symmetry. Bullseyes. It’s easy.”
He frowns over a slightly off-model diamond.
“Not easy,” she admits.
They put the baklava diamonds in the oven, watch them crisp up in the heat.
“I’m not going to win,” he says, staring into the orange light of the oven. “I just want to get the bakery on TV. As long as what I make looks delicious, I don’t need it to look the best. I don’t give a shit about winning.”
She leans in close to his ear so Lee can’t hear. “If you didn’t give a shit,” she says, “you wouldn’t have gotten this far.”
He goes very, very still.
As they’re drenching the baklava in the saffron-rosewater syrup, he says, “I think you should make your iced noodles.”
“Yeah,” he says. “That.”
“I do want to win,” she says. “I want the money.”
“Playing it safe gets me closer to the money.”
“Playing it safe,” he says, “put you in the middle of the pack with me.” He nudges her arm. “I’m a middle-of-the-pack kind of guy. You aren’t.”
She raises one eyebrow. “This would be a pretty good way to take out your competition.”
He says, “You are not my competition.”
They pass the finished baklava around - Shaw and Fusco and Lee - and they each take a thoughtful, delicate bite.
To Fusco, it’s familiar and different at the same time. Home with something new. New York in a diamond of pastry.
To Shaw, it’s memory. It’s her father in the kitchen. It’s home.
“It’s good,” Lee says, nearly asleep.
Shaw makes her excuses, says her goodbyes, and Fusco ushers her to the door with a tupperware of baklava.
“Get some rest,” he says. “Kick my ass at the studio tomorrow. Make your faloodeh.” His pronunciation is labored but earnest.
“I’ll cook whatever I want,” she says. She’s smiling a little. She doesn’t remember giving her face permission to do that.
He grins. “Good.”
On the train home, she pops the lid off the tupperware, eats baklava as the city whizzes by.
The next day, the challenge is frozen desserts.
Lionel covers his mouth with his hand, sniggers into his palm.
Sameen grins like a wolf.