*This project is in collaboration with Chef Jessie Sincioco, who generously – and gamely – agreed to the idea. The setting is Chef Jessie’s Restaurant in the Rockwell Club Makati, the lead character, of course, Chef Jessie herself, and the dishes are those prepared by her and photographed by yours truly. Beyond that, the rest of the story is entirely fictional. The stories will appear on a monthly basis. Click HERE for the full set of photographs.
It was 6:30p.m. and only four other tables were occupied in Chef Jessie’s restaurant. The last of the High Tea crowd was getting ready to leave, and the early birds for the dinner service like her were already trickling in. Julia fiddled with her pearl bracelet, twisted her silver ring on the left hand, and checked that her matching earrings were dangling properly. Mama was late again, but that was nothing new. She was always late, and never apologized for it, something her social circle found endearing, but drove the entire family up the wall. She set back everyone’s schedules by hogging the car and driver, not taking into consideration who else was waiting for the transportation elsewhere in the city. But that was Christina on a normal day. When she was in a bad mood or depressed, she did not even bother to let anyone else know where she was or when she was coming home.
Chef Jessie went over the menus for the next day in her office, frowning at all the upcoming events for the rest of the week, and wondering whether it would be possible to clone herself and the entire kitchen staff thrice over. Restless and eager to release some energy into her pots and pans, she paced around until she found herself in the main dining room, still holding menus in both hands. Her ever efficient restaurant staff placed the finishing touches on the reserved tables, checking that all the silverware was in place, the flower arrangements fresh and without gaps, and the napkins positioned and styled properly. Smiling at the fact that some of these people were already the second generation working for her, Chef Jessie was about to turn back when she spotted Julia. Her body tensed visibly and she handed the papers to her assistant Wilfred, who had followed her out into the hallway.
“What’s wrong Chef?”
“I don’t know yet, but Julia is at the table, and that can only mean one thing.”
“Oh dear… “
“Exactly! I’m glad George placed her all the way back there, although I wish he had seated them upstairs instead, based on their last encounter.”
“Well Señora Christina is not here yet, we can still transfer them, I’m sure Señorita Julia will understand and maybe even welcome the change. She was mortified at the scandal last time.¨
“No that will not work out, remember that there is a birthday lunch up there in 30 minutes and an Fine Dining Etiquette Training in the conference room. George!”
The restaurant’s maître d’table appeared silently beside Chef Jessie. “Yyyyyes Ma’m?”
“Make sure Julia and her mother order something that doesn’t require knives to dine with.”
“Hhhhhhhow do I dddddo that? Do we have a special of the day that doesn’t need knives?
“Well, as of now we do, at least for their table, and if anyone else overhears you then offer it to them as well. Turn up the charm and whatever you do, don’t offer them any meat! I don´t need to remind you of what happened last time these two women were here. Push the soufflés or soups, they fight more than they eat anyway.”
“Yes Ma’m, oh and speaking of last time, ttttthe replacement cutlery and glasses have arrived, by the way. I ddddddidn’t expect mother and daughter to return so sssssoon though.”
Chef Jessie sighed, her shoulders drooping, “Me neither. Keep them away from the master carver of the jamon Iberico today! Miguel flew in all the way from Madrid and certainly doesn´t expect to be caught in the middle of a war. He will be visiting a selected few tables with the jamon cart tonight as a special treat and is laden with carving knives and other sharp utensils, I won’t want him near those two! They showed no mercy to the bread rolls or olives last time either.”
One hour and a creamy shrimp bisque later, Julia´s tension had not diminished and she was still waiting. The agreed time was 5:30pm, which she never expected her mother to respect. There were so many other things Christina disregarded, building an impenetrable barrier of remorse and discontent among her family. She never approved of any of the partners they brought home, did not actively participate in their social circles, and was highly critical of everything said or done.
Finally at 7:00pm George ushered Señora Christina to the table.
“Good evening Mama.”
“Ay que horror hija! What are you wearing? It is dinner and you are wearing silver? and why are you in pants and not a dress or at least a skirt? And that foundation shade makes you look like a corpse.”
“Nice to see you mother.”
“Don’t get bitchy on me.”
“Mama, I rushed out from the office because you said 5:30, so I didn’t have time to go home and change into something more appropriate.”
“Well that is you problem not mine.”
Julia pressed her lips tightly together into a thin line. Taking a deep breath she asked “Why am I here at all Mama? Clearly it is not for the enjoyment of it all.”
“I want you to get rid of that ridiculous boy toy of yours that keeps escorting you to events. He is not presentable enough for our social circles. His family name is completely unknown.”
Julia’s fist clenched tightly around her mojito glass.
“My fiancé s a respectable lawyer, bar topnotcher one of the most considerate and affectionate men I have ever met. We have been friends since high school and I never would have survived college without him. This is the man I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
“Over my dead body! I had a background check done on him. The man who raised him is his stepfather, and his mother doesn’t even have a passport.”
“You did what? How dare you?”
“It’s for your own good. You cannot be seen with such lowlife.”
“Like hell I won’t. He is a self-made man who has overcome the most unbelievable obstacles in life. Joaquin understand the rich and serves the poor. He will defend the down-trodden and be there for any of friends in the middle of the night if needed.”
“Yes, but he has no noble heritage, and not even one millions in his bank account.”
“And you think I care about that?”
“No daughter of mine is going to be seen in public with a street rat.”
Julia knocked her wine glass over in fury, drowning the expensive ham slices in the process before it shattered unceremoniously onto the floor. “Don’t you dare call him that” she hissed at her mother.
“I will call him anything I please and I forbid you to ever see him again.”
“Mama, I am 24 years old, you have no say over me anymore.”
“I own you Julia, and you owe me. You will do as I say. Get rid of him immediately. I’ll pay him any amount to stay away from you and never be seen in public with you again. You will start dating this Colombian journalist who is coming to town next week. Julian Lopez has worldwide recognition and comes from one of the most prominent families in Bogota.”
“Nobody, absolutely nobody owns me! Least of all you!” Julia shouted. “I have the misfortune of being your daughter and will have to carry that shame the rest of my life. There, I said it, I am ashamed of being your daughter, always have been and always will be. It kills me every time I have to smile and admit that you are my mother, and regret the day I emerged from your vindictive and evil womb!”
Christina stretched out her left hand, reached for the small flower vase on the table, threw the flowers on the floor and splashed her daughter’s face with the water inside, slapping her squarely thereafter. The entire restaurant, which was full now, fell silent, all eyes on mother and daughter. Before her mother could deliver the second slap, Julia stood up and poured the remaining mojito over Christina’s impeccably coiffed hair, smearing the pesto bread dip on the older woman’s cheeks.
George and Chef Jessie came running out of the kitchen with towels and three other waiters flocked towards them from different points of the restaurant to contain any further escalation. Christina and Julia stared at each other, both contemplating how to hurt the other next.
Chef Jessie said a silent prayer, rubbed her rosary beads on her wristband imperceptibly, and spoke first. “Ladies, let’s all calm down, how about we move to the washroom first?”
George offered the towels but was ignored.
“I will stop if she does, she is not going to get away with it this time.” said Julia.
Christina was about to fire back when she felt a gentle hand on her shoulder, right before everything blacked out.
“Oh how convenient Mama, perfect timing for a fainting spell. Bravo! You deserve an Oscar for this performance.”
Bernie, the bartender of the day and former ambulance driver, knelt down beside Christina, feeling her pulse and checking her breathing. He looked up to his boss, frowning. “Is there a doctor in the house? She’s not faking it. I can barely feel a pulse and her heartbeat is very irregular.”
“What heart? That woman has no heart” spit Julia.
“I know when people are faking it Ma’m,” said Bernie, “and Señora definitely isn’t. Does this happen often?”
Julia sat back down, accepted a towel from George, and sighed. “I have no idea. Do I rush her to the hospital?”
“I’ll call an ambulance and find the in-house doctor.”
In the meantime, the other waiters had brought the portable wooden dividers to give the women some privacy. Julia asked for a bowl of cold water and six cloth napkins. When the items arrived, she began wiping her mother’s face gently.
“Why, Mama? Why? Why do you hate us all so much? We have tried to love you, reached out on more than one occasion but you can’t seem to bring yourself to return the favor. We don’t ask for much, just a little smile or kindness in return, something that will let us know what we mean something to you.”
Christina moaned but kept her eyes shut.
“I wish I could say I love you Mama, but I would burn in hell for that lie. For Papa’s sake I have tried to live with you, but I don’t know how much more of this I can take. I’m pregnant Mama, you are going to be a grandmother in six months time whether you like it or not. Joaquin wants me to be happy and he prays every day for you, that you find the peace that eludes you.”
Chef Jessie stood silently to the side as Christina attempted to sit up. Bernie had returned with the doctor and he examined her thoroughly.
“She’s stable, might be a bit wobbly for a few hours, but no need to confine her. Besides, there are very hospitals left that will take you in willingly Señora. Forgive my bluntness, but you seem to have sued just about every medical institution in the city already.”
The doctor stood up, bowed courteously, and hurried out before something else happened. The reputation of the mother and daughter public squabbles preceded them and he wanted no part of it.
“Chef Jessie, I’m hungry all of a sudden. I’m going to be an abuela!” (grandmother)
“I have just the thing, for you two. Would you like to freshen up first while I prepare it?”
Julia smiled at the chef grateful as she helped her mother up. The table had been re-set but without a bowl of flowers. A few minutes later Chef Jessie emerged from the kitchen and placed two glasses of halo halo in front of the women.
“You both know that this is something you cannot eat quickly. Savor the moment each spoonful and take time to get to know each other. Start with introducing yourselves. Maybe you find some answer at the bottom of the glass.”