“The Etiquette of Mythique Fine Dining” by Carolyn Rahaman (9508 words)
No Spoilers: Ava is a chef-in-training at Mythique, an edgy restaurant that specializes in cooking meals prepared with magical ingredients, from special grains and fruits to magical beasts. It’s a place being protested for the use of magical ingredients, but Ava knows that just as pressing is the toxic atmosphere of the kitchen, the do or die pressure that puts her, as a woman, especially in the cross-hairs in this man-dominated space. For all that, though, she has one friend, the other trainee, Zach, and they help each other stay sane and positive in a crushing workplace. But the kitchen has a magic of its own, and it’s one that works on Ava and Zach in different ways. The piece is slow and difficult at times, about the culture of the kitchen just as much as it’s about the ethics of eating magical food.
Keywords: Cooking, Kitchens, Monsters, Restaurants, Magic
Review: First off, I love SFF stories that involve food, and magic food might be my favorite iteration of this. Throw in some toxic back of the house cooking culture, a young woman trying to reach her dream, and a backdrop of the very dubious ethics of high-end food, and it makes for a dense, rich, creamy read that unfolds in layers of flavors and meanings. Ava is a woman trying to make it in a man’s kitchen, always treated worse than her fellow trainee, Zach, by the rest of the staff, which in turn makes him treat her like she needs his protection, like she does need more help than he does in learning the ropes, despite her seeming to be the quicker study. It’s certainly not helped that the kitchen as a whole is authoritarian and brutal, operating at a pace that is never fast enough, that always has to be perfect in order to keep up with the crowds and the demands of their work. They cope but they do so by turning on each other, sniffing for weakness, acting out on their hurt by hurting who they can get away with hurting. For Ava, it seems something that is always turned against her, and so it hurts all the more to see that for Zach, something that allows him more relief from the torment is playing along with it, being part of the group that’s harsher on Ava. And I really appreciate how that progresses, how the story follows this evolution in both Ava and Zach.
And for me that pairs so well with the questions of ethics in what they’re doing as a whole. Ava is much more interested in magical plants, in using them to create these amazing dishes. She’s drawn more to pastry, and sweets, and it’s something that she can do without feeling like she’s destroying something magical. Zach, on the other hand, is more interested in working with meat, and specifically with the meat of a creature who, if you eat it, turns you into that creature. Which sort of implies that all of these creatures might have once been human. Which means eating them...is not about flavor, but about the danger and the taboo. Zach wants to make an antidote so that someone can eat the dish and not be turned. But he wants to do it, and is encouraged to, because his desire stems from that same toxic attitude of dominance and consumption for its own sake that maintains the power structure in the kitchen. And Ava can see that her own desire to be a part of that has its limits, that she wants to fulfill her dream of being a chef, but also rejects in some ways that desire to dominate. She hardens herself to it so she is not broken by it, and pushes on.
And the ending is just chilling and a bit ambiguous to me. Chilling because it finds Zach transformed, but not necessarily into one of the creatures he wants to eat. Rather, I think the story is making a more subtle point about him transforming whether or not he succumbs to the cursed flesh. Because whatever the outcome, he has sealed himself to this way of doing things, to being a part of the boys club, to becoming a monster instead of someone who stands up to monsters. It’s a wrenching moment that the story captures so well, imbuing it with all the power and tragedy that it’s owed. It’s not precisely a happy or hopeful story, for me, but it one that feels quite real, and I really appreciate that, especially when it comes to kitchens and chefs. A fantastic read!