Monday, 16 February 2009

Basters at Twenty Paces

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‘-riots continue to break out on Cald-’

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‘-rmer Band of Brothers, now opera-’

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‘-ecent attack by Blood Rai-’

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‘Hello and welcome back to Cuisine of New Eden. I’m Lairen Comrey–’

‘And I’m Terric Jaimsen. Tonight’s programme is a bit different from the usual; you viewers at home are in for a special treat tonight!’

‘And what a treat it is.’ The camera shifts to focus on the presenter in her neat violet suit as she composes herself. ‘Last week, someone wrote in to our own Chef Marçeau asking if he was aware of a new cookery volume which has recently been published by Capsule Pilot Vaas Milgren via GalNet EMedia.’

‘Yes, indeed.’ The view flips back to Terric as he picks up the narrative. ‘The volume, titled I Jumped, I Docked, I Dined, has received astonishing reviews throughout the capsuleer community and is being called the premiere recipe-book for the interstellar traveller. It contains literally thousands of recipes from around New Eden, including a section dedicated to alternative and fusion dishes, and extensive descriptions of the cultural backgrounds.’

‘I Jumped, I Docked, I Dined is truly a marvel and Pilot Milgren has clearly dedicated a lot of his time and energy to it.’

The image changes to show a wiry Sebiestor man grinning broadly into the camera; the footage is from an interview which was recorded at his book’s launch. He speaks into the microphone which has been thrust into his face:

‘Well, y’know, I’ve been all over the galaxy– What? No, I can’t say I’ve been to every system, but I’ve certainly seen every region. I don’t look it, but I love food– Yeah, I go to the gym daily, you can’t slack off when you spend your days in a pod, y’know? So everywhere I dock or land, I ask the locals what their favorite foods are. I go to restaurants a lot, y’know, try tons of different dishes. Sometimes the places give me the recipes when I ask, someti– Yeah, they’re all credited. Sometimes they’d rather not share, which is fair enough if it’s someone’s signature dish, so I developed my own variations which are near as damnit.’

He runs a hand back through his short mohawk, pondering a barely-audible question from the interviewer. ‘Well, y’know, part of it has to do with understanding the culture. Did you know there’s an Amarrian sect which forbids the use of cinnamon in dishes containing jaii-fruit? I know, I can’t imagine jaii without cinnamon, but there ya go: that isn’t the craziest food taboo I’ve heard of, either.

‘But I thought, I can’t be the only pilot who loves food, so I decided to publish the stuff.’

The video clip continues, silenced, but Lairen’s voice-over declares, ‘Obviously, Chef Marçeau couldn’t let this challenge to his expertise go unanswered.’

The feed now shows a somewhat portly Gallente man making a poor show of concealing his annoyance; this is also from an earlier interview. ‘–I thought, this is ludicrous! The man floats in a ball of goo with a bunch of tubes up his orifices every day. He’s a pilot, not a trained chef! I paid hundreds of thousands to attend the most prestigious cooking school in the Federation, and this guy claims he’s qualified to produce a book like this? I think this calls for a little test!’

The camera returns to the two presenters; Terric straightens his natty silver jacket and states, ‘The oven-mitt has been thrown down tonight, and Capsuleer Milgren has agreed to join us for a cook-off: a competition between himself and Chef Marçeau.’

‘The rules are to create a full four-course meal in which each course represents one of the four great nations of New Eden. Especially for this event, we have invited ten of our most well-known food critics to determine who knows food better: Marçeau or Milgren.’

‘Milgren caused quite a stir when he arrived last night in an interceptor packed full of ingredients, but station security has not been forthcoming on exactly what the problem was. We’re assuming it was a Customs issue regarding some of his imports, but there appears to be a higher level of security around the studio tonight.’ Terric flashes a too-white smile at the camera. ‘I suppose if one of the eggs hatches there may be a flutter, but let’s hope that doesn’t happen! Let’s go to the kitchens, shall we?’

The camera follows him as he gets up, brushes imaginary wrinkles from his trousers and walks out the door into the neat, industrial hallway. He glances over his shoulder occasionally, narrating to the camera as he makes his way to the studio kitchens. ‘Chef Marçeau has pulled out all the stops tonight. He’s told us he’s using recipes he has never before produced for the show. We can’t wait to see what he comes up with!

‘Chef Marçeau has requested, unusually, to be judged first in this competition.’ The view switches to an interview held earlier that day, showing Milgren in neat chef’s whites. Lairen’s voice asks, ‘Does it bother you that Chef Marçeau insisted on first presentation?’

The pilot grins. ‘Absolutely not. I have no idea how serious he’s taking it, but I’m just here to have fun, y’know?’ He winks cheekily at the camera.

‘So it’s time to see what Chef Marçeau is up to.’ The camera has switched back to following Terric through a set of elabourate double doors and in amongst the chaos within. Cuisiniers bustle about, and the camera pans across, pausing as it finds sights which meet its programmed AI standards of ‘interesting’. It zips back on topic as the presenter locates the master of the mayhem.

‘Well, as you can see, everyone in here is very busy indeed, but, Chef Marçeau, we were hoping you could give the viewers at home a hint of what you have in store for our panel of judges.’

Marçeau’s features arrange into his patented ‘camera attitude’: part jovial fat man, part superior professional. ‘Very well, Terric, since you asked so nicely.

‘What we have right here is the sauce which will eventually go into the main dish, which is going to be a classic Gallente savoury mille-foile. As you can see, we have Jirata here slicing the sausage which will form some of the layers between the pastry Hira is rolling out at the far end of the worktable.’

The camera pans and focusses as the chef indicates different members of the staff, zooming in on Hira’s delicate hands wielding a roller over a flake-thin sheet of dough.

‘We’ll be alternating the sausage layers with this fresh dark broadleaf–’ the chef hefts a wildly leafy bundle of greens ‘–and a regional goat’s cheese we had imported this morning. Over here…’ Marçeau slips amongst the workers, nimble despite his bulk. He leads the way to a workspace along one wall where a commis is toasting flatbread sliced into strips in a pan over an open gas flame. ‘This is in preparation for our starter, which is to be crisped Caldari flatbread served with a selection of patés created using a base of Caldari protein paste… I can see by your expression you’re not convinced. Give this a try.’ The chef breaks off a section of flatbread which looks slightly over-done and scrapes a rime of greyish paste from one of the bowls, passing it to the presenter who looks a bit anxious. Terric hedges a moment, then nibbles cautiously; his expression quickly turns to surprise.

‘Oh my word. What’s in this?’

Marçeau chuckles. ‘Trade secret! We have three varieties we’ll be offering today like so…’ He swiftly arranges spoonfuls of the patés on a blue glass dish and surrounds them decoratively with sections of flatbread raying outward like a solar corona. ‘There’s just enough there to clear the palate without destroying the appetite. Next, over here we have our salad course.’ He leads the presenter and tagalong camera drone over to another worktable near a rank of ovens set into one wall. A cuisinier and commis are working with the care of sculptors over the items before them.

The chef picks up a spongy cup-shaped white fungus. ‘These are Amarrian grail mushrooms, so called because their rims turn up rather than down. As we all know, Amarrian cuisine is humble yet elegant, so what we’re doing is filling the mushroom caps with a lightly-seasoned mixture of saffron finegrains and chopped capsicum. Then these will be baked until the mushrooms just begin to curl over the contents, and because of the structure of this fungus, they’ll stand upright all on their own.’

Terric looks impressed. ‘That is elegant. And as you showed us earlier, the mille-foile is the main course, and I can smell it baking already. What, sir, have you planned for your finale?’

Marçeau’s broad face looks crafty. ‘A Matari tradition, my friend.’ They move over to another table where one cuisinier is stirring something white and glutinous in a heated pot whilst another finely grates cinnamon sticks into a small glass dish. ‘This is a boiled grain pudding, and I can tell you don’t think it looks like much of a dessert. Once the grains have reached a sort of mushy consistency, we’ll be adding honey and spices and setting the lot aside to chill until it’s needed.’

‘And this, you think, is better than anything Milgren could possibly come up with,’ Terric jibes. Marçeau draws himself up, smiling but with a hint of proud assurance lurking underneath.

‘My dear sir, I’m certain Milgren doesn’t have the cooking talents to match his ability to find a crooked publisher.’

The camera returns to the presenters’ studio to show an amused Lairen. ‘Well, there’s some competitive drive there! Let’s see what Pilot Milgren is working on.’

The introduction is the same, following Terric through another set of double doors. The sight on the other side is vastly different, however. Loud music is blasting from a portable audio system propped on one of the unused countertops, and the only soul in the room is Milgren, the Sebiestor bobbing his head in time to the music and practically dancing as he works.

The presenter has to clear his throat and call, ‘Pilot Milgren? Excuse me!’ over the music. The capsuleer notices immediately and turns the volume down.

‘Hey there.’

‘Good evening, sir. We’ve already seen what Marçeau is up to; would you mind showing the viewers at home what you have up your sleeve?’

Straight-faced, the pilot rolls up the cuffs of his white chef’s uniform, revealing heavily-tattooed arms; then he laughs. ‘Just messing with ya! C’mon over here.’

The pilot leads the way to where two pots of thick reddish liquid are setting at just below a simmer; one pot is significantly smaller than the other. ‘This is the starter. I decided to go with a signature Gallente seafood bisque, since it’s not very filling.’ He runs a ladle through the larger of the two pots and displays the lumps of vegetables and various types of shellfish floating just beneath the surface. ‘There’s two pots here because someone told me one of the judges is allergic to seafood. The smaller pot is the vegetarian variant of the same recipe; I can’t use a different sort of meat because this sort of bisque isn’t meant for anything other than seafood and vegetables.’ Milgren glances at the presenter and shrugs. ‘I know it’s breaking form a little, but I’d rather not have someone sitting with an empty plate while everyone else is digging in, y’know?’

Terric’s eyebrows peak but he says nothing against the decision other than, ‘Well, that makes some sense, I suppose. What’s all this over here that you were working on when I walked in?’

‘That’s the salad course.’ The pilot has laid out on another worktable several small squares of dough; a liberal scattering of flour and unwashed tools gives evidence that the dough was made by hand. ‘These are what the Caldari call “garden wraps” — don’t ask me to pronounce the original name. What it is is this very thin pastry, it’s just flour, water and egg. Once it’s rolled out, you cut it into squares the length of your hand. Then you julienne a bunch of vegetables really fine — I’ve used daikon, cabbage and a few root vegetables that are common on Caldari Prime.’ Milgren demonstrates: ‘First you arrange the vegetables on the pastry in a sort of fan shape and drizzle a little of this lemon and ginger sauce over it. Then you fold up the wrap, bottom point first, then the sides, so it looks a little like those weird flower-pots they have, y’know? Then we bake the wraps for maybe a minute at a very high temperature. The dressing keeps the vegetables from drying out or wilting in the heat, and the wrap turns crispy.’

The presenter is looking fascinated. ‘I thought Caldari dishes were traditionally quite bland… this is authentic cuisine?’

‘It is entirely authentic,’ Milgren nods. ‘And it’s in keeping with the Achura belief that you should have five colours in every dish to maintain a balance in the body’s energies.’

‘How… um, fascinating. What are you working on for a main course?’

The Minmatar tilts his head towards another wall-mounted flame unit. ‘Over there.’

On a low flame, a large clay crock is rattling away cheerfully. Milgren lifts the lid and a great puff of steam fogs the camera momentarily. ‘This is a traditional Matari thing, braised rock-hen. It’s common enough among planetary slave colonies; free Minmatar have added a little sophistication by adding wine and cream to the sauce along with the usual tomatoes and green onions.’

Terric’s eyes are watering a bit. ‘That’s quite a potent wine.’

‘It only smells it; the alcohol content is actually really low.’

‘Well, you say that, but we all know the formidable capacity Minmatar possess when it comes to liquor.’ The two men laugh, Milgren broadly, the presenter more reserved.

‘It really is low, the bottle’s over here.’ He passes it over and Terric inspects the label.

‘So it is. I do notice, however, that you have used the entire bottle.’

‘Waste not, want not, right?’

The Gallente presenter looks at the pilot speculatively as he hands the wine bottle back. ‘Were you ever a slave, Pilot?’

‘I was never a slave. Would it matter if I was?’ He shrugs and replaces the lid on the crock.

‘I… suppose not.’ Terric seems a bit off-balance and covers his falter by asking, ‘I notice you have nobody to help you in here. Does it bother you that Marçeau has that extra edge in his preparation?’

‘Nah. I’m used to setting up for dinner parties and stuff on my own, y’know? I think if you’d tried to give me staff to do the work, they’d all be out in the nearest bar right now ’cause I’d've sent them off!’ The pilot chuckles. ‘You don’t have as much control over what you’re making of you tell someone to do it for you, y’know?’

‘Hehe, I see. There is one thing I don’t see out here; this is meant to be a four-course meal. What are you plotting as a dessert?’

Milgren’s face takes on a delighted glow. Excitedly, he leads Terric and the camera over to the large refrigeration units and opens one. The two covered glass bowls he brings out are frosted from the chill; one contains small, pale orange fruits floating in amber liquid, the other is filled with a pale violet cream. ‘I won’t be assembling this till I’ve served the main course. These,’ he announces, holding up the fruit dish, ‘are jaii-fruit. I’ve taken the spiny skins off and removed the massive pits, so they’re really just hollow spheres chopped in quarters. The stuff they’re sitting in is an Amarrian brandy native to the area where the sect which doesn’t like cinnamon is located.’

‘This is one of their recipes?’

‘Yep. When it’s time to make the dessert, I’ll reserve the brandy as an aperitif and put the fruit in serving dishes. Then comes the fun part: lighting the fruit!’ There’s a gleeful look on his face that’s just the slightest bit worrying. ‘You set them on fire, and it burns off the alcohol and crystallises the sugars. Then you put it out with this,’ the pilot holds up the other bowl, ‘which is a cream made using almond milk and Amarrian chillies which have gone purple.’

‘Is the purple part significant?’ the presenter asks. The pilot nods.

‘It’s the stage when the peppers take on a sweeter flavour while retaining their heat. It’s what makes the cream turn blueish like that. Then you dust it with a little cacao powder.’ He looks pleased with himself. ‘It was a real bitch to get the brandy in time, but it’s definitely worth it.’

Terric chuckles. ‘Is that what had security at the docking-bay so concerned last night?’

‘Among other things, yeah,’ the pilot admits with a nonchalant air as he returns the bowls to the refrigerator.

‘Out of curiosity… It’s my understanding that there are some bad relations between yourself and The Scope network, which is why they’ve refused to broadcast this particular show. Is there any particular reason for this?’

Terric has the blandly curious expression of an interviewer. Milgren eyes him, then glances at the camera floating above and behind the presenter’s right shoulder. He smiles faintly and says, ‘I have nothing to say about that, thank you.’

‘Well, we’ll let you get back to your work and return to the studio. Lairen?’

The view returns to the other presenter, now in the studio’s faux-wood-panelled dining-room, standing ostentatiously before a neatly-set table bearing a full array of genuine silverware, crystal glasses and spherical oil lamps which have already been lit.

‘Well, it’s time to bring our judges in and start the tasting with Chef Marçeau’s painstaking dinner.’ She gestures off to her right and a group of ten people of different races and bloodlines enter the room, either smiling and relaxed or solemn and straight-backed as each one’s custom dictates. They move to stand behind the chairs placed around the table and Lairen starts at one end and works her way around clockwise with introductions, her pronunciation of each foreign name flawless. Some of the critics have been on the show before; there’s a general exchange of pleasantries, and then the presenter leaves so that there won’t be any potential pressure for bias.

Unobtrusive camera drones stir and flit about as somewhere a chime sounds and the doors to Marçeau’s kitchen swing open. The rotund chef stands impressively just inside the door as his assistants enter bearing trays of the decorative starters.

‘Mesdames et Messires, I present Caldari paté with toasted flatbread,’ Marçeau pronounces grandly. A server circles the table filling the judges’ glasses with sparkling water from a carafe, then the chef and staff make their exit.

The judges murmur amongst themselves about the presentation and the visual quality of the offering, but most seem reluctant to indulge in the delicacy. Eventually, Eria Karamora from Jita takes the first plunge, perhaps encouraged by her familiarity with Caldari cuisine. The others watch with bated breath, as if fearing the blond woman might fall ill, and there’s a general sigh as she nods and pronounces the starter edible.

As is the custom in such competitions, the judges only consume enough to obtain opinions. When everyone has sipped from their water to clear the flavours, another chime sounds and the salad course is introduced.

And so it continues. The cameras get close-up views of the artistic arrangements of mushrooms on broadleafs, of the small, perfectly pyramidal towers of mille-foile garnished with a scattering of chopped green herbs, and the crystal dishes of sweet pudding decorated with sprigs of fresh mint. Some of the judges don’t approve of all the dishes, but they keep their opinions neutral and merely comment on what they appreciate. The presenters are silent, allowing the tableau to play out for the viewers.

When Marçeau’s meal has been tested, the judges adjourn to another room and the table is cleared. The camera view returns to the studio, where the presenters have been joined by the chef.

‘So, how do you think that went, Marçeau?’ Lairen asks.

The portly chef smiles graciously. ‘I think Milgren may be wasting his time, but I have no idea what he’s prepared.’

‘It looked a bit like Safit JiDan from Khanid wasn’t particularly impressed with the salad course; does his reaction worry you a bit?’ Terric asks. Marçeau shrugs.

‘The others seemed to like them well enough. We shall see.’

A chime sounds, and the camera returns to the dining-room. This time, the settings are plain, with what appear to be hand-thrown clay cups, delicately-carved wooden utensils and raw wax candles. The critics seem mildly taken aback as they enter, though Lito-ndar Okapo from the Vherokior tribe seems delighted; she picks up a three-tined fork to examine the floral vine carved around the grip more closely, then replaces it with a sheepish smile.

The starter course is served personally by Milgren. He enters with a large tray of clay cups containing the soup balanced impeccably on one arm, and not one drop is spilt as he places each serving before a judge; the vegetarian version, clearly marked by a different-coloured saucer beneath the cup, is placed before the appropriate critic last, and the pilot explains the difference to the Achura who only barely contains his expression of deep relief.

The Gallente critics look impressed with the starter, while an Amarrian critic eyes the large lumps of shellfish with some doubt. The salad course pleases the two Achuran critics, and one comments on the precision of the presentation. When Milgren presents the main course, it’s easy to imagine the aroma of the artistically-arranged slices of poultry simply from the expressions on the critics’ faces.

The jaii-fruit and brandy dessert is the crowning moment, however. The pilot enters bearing the same large tray, the hand-blown glass dishes still steaming from having been recently extinguished, the pale violet cream contrasting interestingly with the rich gold of the crystallised fruit. The Ni-Kunni Tali’a Vaskal openly exclaims with pleasure, then looks embarrassed for his outburst. Milgren finishes serving, pours the brandy and exits with a flourished bow.

The camera returns again to the presenters and Terric says, ‘Pilot Milgren has informed us that he will be late in joining us here in the studio, as he must, quote, repair the mess he made in the kitchen, unquote. While we await his presence, Chef Marçeau, what did you think of the pilot’s presentation?’

The studio’s master chef looks somewhat put-out. ‘I’ll admit I was surprised when I saw he’d brought his own table-settings, and creating a substitute option for the allergy-sufferer was a bit off-form. Personally, I can see little of Milgren’s dinner which is exceptional, though he has demonstrated more cooking ability than I gave him credit for. I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see what the professionals make of his efforts.’

‘Our judges have adjourned to their debating chambers to confer,’ Lairen states. ‘Chef Marçeau, did you spend a lot of time considering your choices for this evening?’

The small-talk continues for a few minutes, then the chime rolls through the studio. The critics have reached a consensus. Chef Marçeau and the presenters make their way to the dining-room, where the table has been cleared and now displays a chilled magnum of champagne and several fluted glasses.

Syddaryn Trynn of Intaki steps forward, accepting the role of the food critics’ unified voice.

‘It’s been a very difficult choice we had to make this evening. Chef Marçeau, we recognise that you have had extensive training and the dishes you prepared were exquisite. Pilot Milgren’s skills are purely self-taught, and the meal he prepared was impressive for one man working alone. But this light-hearted competition is not about which chef is the most skilled; it is about which knows galactic cuisine the best. Chef Marçeau, you undoubtably have spent years studying food from around New Eden; Pilot Milgren has spent years experiencing the same.’

The camera focusses on Marçeau’s face, and his confident smile is seen to slip just a little as the lanky food critic moves to the table and picks up the champagne bottle. Turning back to the camera, he says with a hint of regret, ‘Chef Marçeau, your work tonight was extraordinary, but a bit too inventive and at times digressed wildly from the native qualities which were part of our judging criteria. Pilot Milgren not only produced traditional recipes with skill, he did so with an innate knowledge of the local customs from the areas where the recipes originated.’ Syddaryn hefts the bottle before him. ‘The man of the hour, this hour, is Capsule Pilot Vaas Milgren.’

There is a delicate smattering of polite applause from the assembled critics and presenters. Chef Marçeau looks a bit chapfallen but puts a smile on anyway. The cameras focus on the doors to Milgren’s kitchen.

After a moment, Terric jokes, ‘He must have that music on loud again.’ The presenter pushes the doors open, and music blasts forth as he disappears inside, going quiet again as the doors swing back.

He emerges a second later, holding the flour-spattered, silenced audio system and looking dumbfounded. ‘He’s not there. Wherever could he have got to?’

There is a flurry of activity from off-screen, and the camera drones, sensing ‘interesting’, turn to survey the commotion. Uniformed security officers are running for the door out to the rest of the station whilst one who appears to be in charge steps forward to speak quietly to the presenters. Both polished
professionals look stunned at whatever it is the man tells them, then struggle to retrieve their composure.

After a moment, a report comes through and the presenters of Cuisine of New Eden step forward.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m afraid we were not wholly informed of Pilot Milgren’s activities,’ Lairen begins. ‘According to our station’s chief of security, Pilot Milgren is an outlaw, and the terms of his appearance on the show tonight were that he was to turn himself in afterwards.’ Her expression is one of disbelief.

‘It seems,’ Terric adds, ‘that whilst the final course and judgment were being held, he managed to evade security and made his way to the clone bay, where he utilised a jump-clone to leave the system. As our security has no right to seize the empty clone he left behind, all that is left for us here at the studio is to wish Pilot Milgren congratulations on our critics’ final call, and bid all you viewers at home a good night.’ He smiles urbanely into the camera as Lairen stares at her co-host, slightly agape.

And the credits roll.



This article was first published on EVE-Mag.com – an independent EVE magazine (www.EVE-Mag.com). Reprinted with permission.

4 comments:

Mynxee said...

Great story!!! You deserve LOTS of kudos for that one--very entertaining and beautifully written.

Quintrala said...

Hahaha, brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Very nicely written and great entertainment. Thank you for the great story.

Shae Tiann said...

@Anon - It was my pleasure. I really have a lot of fun writing this stuff, and I'm glad people like it ^_^

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