“Table for two and a half, please,” said the mother, who balanced a sleepy looking toddler on her hip, as the father struggled to fold up a pushchair that was laden with shopping to get it through the door behind them.
“Do you have a reservation, Madame?” asked the maître d’hôtel with a patient smile, knowing full well that these were the faces of adults who had not planned to end up out with their infant so late.
“We don’t I’m afraid. We’ll be quick though — promise!”
He had no doubt that they would be quick, he was more concerned as to where to put the family so as not to inconvenience the other diners. If his seven years of experience had taught him anything it was that tired, grumpy children tend to act out and make noise the second they are seated in a restaurant.
He settled on a round table near the open kitchen, as this way the child would be entertained, and the parents would have a precious hour to catch up on a week that had, judging by their haggard expressions, run away from them somewhat.
“Can I get you anything to drink?” the waiter addressed the father, who looked at his wife.
“I can drive, if you want to?”
“Yes,” she smiled, “I’ll have a small glass of the house red, and can we have some tap water as well?”
“Certainly Madame,” said the waiter, bowing slightly as he went to give the check to the bartender.
When he returned with their drinks, he enquired if they were ready to order.
“Yes,” smiled the woman. “My husband will have the seafood risotto with the tiger prawns. I’ll have the partridge special, and as for the little one… is there any chance you could bring us a bowl of plain potatoes? With no butter, olive oil or anything on. We’re going through a bit of a fussy phase at the moment.”
“I’m sure the chef will be able to make that for you,” the waiter smiled knowingly as he collected the menus.
When the runner arrived with the food, the child was stood on the chair, watching the chefs with wide eyes. The child had not uttered a word since the family’s arrival. After some persuading from pleading parents, the child sat down in the chair for long enough to eat some plain potatoes. But the second that the mother and father turned their attention to their own meals, the child was back on their chubby hind legs, precariously holding the top of the chair and peering into the kitchen.
Wide eyes watched as one of the chefs diced carrots for the side salads. The yellow light of the restaurant ricocheted off the sharp utensils as they danced over the vegetables, and the child stood hypnotised. A little bit of dribble ran down the child’s bib as an agape mouth watched a blow torch caramelise a crème brûlée.
It was the spectacle that the child remembered, rather than the bland, mushy texture of slightly over-boiled new potatoes when, a year later, the parents asked the child what they wanted to do to celebrate an upcoming birthday.
“Are you sure you don’t want to have a fancy dress party and a bouncy castle like your cousin Jake did for his birthday?” probed the father, who was on the one hand, relieved that his child seemed to have such inexpensive taste, but also keenly aware how quickly nearly-five-year-olds could change their minds.
“No. I just want to go to where there was the fire and the potatoes.”
The parents chuckled to themselves, as the mother took out her telephone and searched for the restaurant’s website. She dialled, the phone rang, and the maître d’hôtel answered.
“Hello,” she smiled. “I’d like to make a reservation for two and a half, at 6pm this Saturday.”
He took down the mother’s name and a contact telephone number before asking if they had any special requests.
“We actually came to eat there a year or so ago and our little one who is turning five on Saturday hasn’t stopped talking about the chefs — they were so great. If we could have the round table by the kitchen again we’d really appreciate it.”
“Certainly, Madame. We’ll do our best to accommodate your request. See you on Saturday.”
A purse-lipped father walked behind the mother and child. He had told his wife that he didn’t think it was a very good idea to let their child go out for dinner in a brand new Disney princess dress, but his wife strongly disagreed. It was very important that their child had the perfect day, including complete freedom over their sartorial choices.
A few diners’ heads turned as the family walked to the table behind the maître d’hôtel. There were a few tuts and a few raised eyebrows at the dress, but the mother met the looks head on with a practiced smile.
The mother and father barely said a word to each other all meal, having clearly come out for dinner hot on the heels on an argument. The child, however, babbled away.
“I want to be a chef when I am older,” they gleefully told the waitress, the guests at a nearby table, and the washroom attendant after the father took the child to wash their hands before the meal.
“Look at my nail polish,” the child proudly showed the waitress. “It’s pink!”
“Yes,” smiled the waitress, “But if you’re going to be a chef, you can’t wear nail polish in case it goes in the food.”
The child looked dismayed. But then, after a few moments of recollection, said, “I’m only five. I’m not going to be a chef until I’m at least fifty. I can still wear nail polish until then.”
The waitress chuckled as she cleared the last of the plates off the table. The father asked for the bill, clearly in a hurry to get out of the restaurant. As he led the child to the car, the mother slipped a ten pound note under the water jug for the waitress, and thanked the staff for their hospitality. That night, she cried herself to sleep in the spare room.
The next time the child visited the restaurant they didn’t get to sit on the round table by the kitchen because that was too large for just two people. The child’s father had been working away lots for business and so the child had got used to dinners with just their mother for company.
The mother’s face had visibly aged over the last five years, and she had heavy bags under her eyes from late nights spent worrying about how to tell her beloved offspring that mummy and daddy were getting a divorce.
In the end it didn’t come as a surprise at all to the child, as the mother broke the news over a blasted crème brûlée. The child was a quiet, smart young thing and had realised from a very early age that they were the root cause of the arguments between their mother and father.
Sometimes when they were meant to be fast asleep, they would creep onto the landing and sit on the stairs listening the adults shouting about it being “just a phase”, the need to see a “specialist” and all sorts of things that the child didn’t quite understand but knew were about them.
The divorce was a messy one, and the mother had to move to a less expensive city in order to afford a smaller mortgage. The child never saw their father, but survived adolescence without feeling too resentful.
As an adult, the child had almost forgotten about the dreadful restaurant where it had all began, until one day they were reading The Sunday Times magazine and read an interview with the maître d’hôtel, who had now opened his own restaurant in a fashionable area of London. The interviewer had asked whether he had any favourite quirky customers from over the years and he had responded saying the family who let their child celebrate their fifth birthday in a fluorescent pink Disney princess dress.
He told the interviewer: “The parents were clearly still deciding what was right for their family in terms of how to bring the child up, but they did not make their child’s special day about them. I think that is really important — because as a parent, you cannot be selfish.”
A few tears rolled down her cheeks as she read the interview. She carefully tore out the article and put it in an envelope when she got home, hastily scrawling her father’s last known address on the front. She attached a stamp, and ran through the November drizzle to a nearby post box.
She never heard back from her father, but she did get a private message on Twitter one day from the maître d’hôtel of that dreaded restaurant. He had obviously received a notification that she had started following him on Twitter. Out of the hundreds of thousands of amateur chefs and aspiring restauranteurs who followed him, he had recognised her — and sent her a message.
“Hi Demi. Forgive me if this untoward, but I recognised your mother in your display photo. You look so much like her. If you are still interested in pursuing a career in hospitality, please get in touch because we have some openings at my new restaurant and I remember you were something of a budding chef all those years ago. No nail polish allowed though, I’m afraid!”
She sat and stared at the screen in disbelief, before frantically typing out an enthusiastic although somewhat garbled response. He responded promptly and they settled on a date for her to visit the restaurant. If she liked it, and if the team liked her then she would start right away.
She introduced herself to everyone as Demi, which was the name she had chosen for herself after transitioning. She had been inspired by her love of the French language and her mother’s tendency to refer to her as a ‘half’ when they ate out as a family when she was a child. Whilst at that time it referred merely to her status as a small child, now it reminded her of a period in her life where she didn’t feel fully herself.
Now though, stood in a kitchen, surrounded by utensils and fresh ingredients where she had the power to create at her fingertips, Demi couldn’t feel more at home in her own skin.
Over the years, Demi progressed through the ranks of the kitchen. From thinly slicing carrots for side dishes, to expertly preparing batches of dessert for a busy service, every task she was given she performed with love. Her fellow chefs respected her calm demeanour and her no nonsense attitude, so it was no surprise when a mere three years later, Demi became the executive chef of a top restaurant in London.
One cold, November evening a single diner took a seat in the far corner of the restaurant, nestled behind the bar out of sight where he couldn’t see the kitchen, and the kitchen couldn’t see him.
He ordered the seafood risotto with the tiger prawns, and he couldn’t remember the last time he enjoyed a meal so thoroughly.