Spotlight Excerpt from ‘One Star’
This novel excerpt was written by Raphael Majma in Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ 12-Month Novel Generator
Mirna Hernandez, an ambitious and stubborn daughter of Mexican immigrants, returns to Durham after bombing out of the NYC restaurant scene. Back in her childhood bedroom, she balances sous-cheffing at a local restaurant and taking care of her sick abuela while her mother, Patricia, runs a burgeoning essential oil scam. The two face hard truths about themselves and their relationship as their professions and ambitions push them further apart. When Mirna’s cooking idol comes sauntering into her life, she’s thrust into the world of fine dining under the wing of a mercurial white chef who’s made his name by co-opting Mexican food. Like Such a Fun Age meets Kitchen Confidential , One Star is a story about family bonds, exploitation, and how much these women will endure to make late-stage capitalism work for them, set against the backdrop of caustic kitchens and the predatory world of multilevel marketing.
The porgy felt cold in Mirna’s grip, its lifeless eye facing upward, unflinching as she slid her knife through its belly. Cleaning a fish meant gutting it, taking its never-ending insides and splaying them out till only the tender pieces are left. The tiny little cheeks? Delicious, the best part, but good luck trying to find them. Mirna dressed it, stuffing it with rosemary, thyme, garlic, and lemon, a snoozer of old French standards, before placing it in a tub filled with ice. Then onto the next fish, the same dumb face, the same dead black eyes, one after the other, again and again until dinner service started. It would be the same tomorrow, muscle memory propelling her through afternoons and late nights, all to put food on other people’s tables.
This is what a cook signs up for, she reminded herself.
Mirna raised the next porgy to her face, before plopping it down on the cutting board with a wet thwack. Do fish know that they all look alike? It arrives whole to the table, an entire animal presented for their dining experience, a show where the audience gets to partake in the joy of pulling apart a three pound fish without adult supervision. It’s easy on the kitchen but cooking it, like cooking at the Pearl, had become boring.
Mirna tucked the last fish into the tub and lugged it to the refrigerator, its contents sloshing precariously with each step. Susanna held the walk-in open. “You should ask for help,” she said. Mirna grunted, the closest she’d get to admitting she was wrong, and shoved the tub onto a shelf. Her knees creaked. Mirna was young, but working in a kitchen wrecks the body.
“If you’re planning on cooking for the rest of your life, you might want to start begging off carrying the heavy stuff,” Susanna said. “Knee surgery is no joke.”
Mirna leaned her elbow on a jar of pickled ramps and wagged her leg, doing the math on what it would cost to finally get it checked out. “It wasn’t that heavy,” she insisted.
“If you say so. How’re we looking tonight?” Susanna asked.
“Oh we’re ready, Chef,” she replied. “It’s Gucci.”
Susanna looked over her shoulder with suspicion. She leaned in, sweeping her graying hair around her face, her hands long and thin, once delicate but now covered in a lifetime of healed over burns and cuts. “Kevin isn’t looking great is he?” Her eyes widened in emphasis.
“He’s hanging tough.” But he wasn’t. Mirna had moved him to pastas a few months ago, convinced he’d grow into it, but now he was making a fool of her. His sauces had become broken, curdled clumps that were getting saltier by the day. She regularly kicked dishes back to him, forcing him to cook them over. That should’ve gotten the point across, but Susanna speaking up meant Mirna had to pull him out of his tailspin.
A good service brings the kitchen together into a beautiful machine, frictionless cogs that fit like they were made for each other. Your time is no longer yours when the first diner gets seated. Your little problems take a backseat to the plate directly in front of you, uninterrupted and unencumbered because the orders will bury you if you don’t keep up with them. Trust is hard earned. Your peers are rooting for you, but lord help you if you prove you can’t hang.
At its peak, the evening is a cacophony, a swell of fire and human bodies that live for the success of pushing out just one more dish than they thought they could. The exhaustion is worth it. Being completely present in your body, straight down to your toes, was addictive.
Andrade, their dishwasher, picked the music that evening and plugged in some banda—horns, lovesick harmonies, and sizzling meat made the kitchen feel like a backyard barbecue. All that was missing was a tio sitting on a beer-filled cooler. Andrade danced, cartoonishly swaying his hips as he brought the cooks clean dishes, singing flat when he walked by Mirna.
“Eres tan viejo, Andrade,” Mirna said. They bonded over music Mirna didn’t know anyone but her abuelita ever enjoyed. He was Mexican too, the only other one in the kitchen, and they formed a fast kinship. “¿No tienes algo moderno?”
“Es la música de amor, hermana. Exactamente lo que necesita nuestro Kevin.”
“Yo te entiendo,” Kevin said.
“Oh, I forget you speak eh-Spaneesh.” Andrade laughed. “I’m so sorry, Meester Romeo.”
Kevin took a towel off his station and placed it on the back of his neck, twisting the ends. “I gave her my heart, man,” he said. “I — ”
A loud clang interrupted Kevin. Mirna slammed an empty pan against the steel refrigerator. “Andrade, te quito la música si le molestas al bebé otra vez.” She walked over to Kevin’s station, where he was slowly slicing fennel. A cook’s mental state finds its way into their cooking and Kevin’s breakup was splattered all over his work. “How’re we looking, Kev?” Mirna asked.
Kevin didn’t look up. His hands shook as he worked through the fennel. “Fine,” he said with all the energy of a bereaved teen.
Mirna spread a few irregularly shaped pieces of fennel out against the cutting board. “Kid, these are all over the place.” She ran her finger along the awkward curve Kevin had cut into the fennel bulb. “Dogshit. Just dogshit.”
Kevin dropped his knife onto the board. He ran his hands over his face and exhaled between his fingertips. “No one’s going to notice anyway.”
He was right. Even if their diners cared about the difference between a dice or mince, they wouldn’t be able to tell. Just call it “rustic” cooking and you can get away with any old slop. Though people loved the Pearl, it had lost a step in recent years. The restaurant, Susanna really, suffered from a profound disconnect with what people wanted to eat. Mirna was all too happy to tell her that, accidentally, when she found herself sitting next to her at their bar. She was fresh from New York, insistent that she hadn’t failed and that it was just time to come back home, and looking for leads. Susanna didn’t have much to lose and Mirna had the job.
Mirna threw the fennel back at Kevin. “How much is the fennel ravioli?”
He winced. The only way out of this talk was through. “It’s $24.”
“And how do you think the folks out there will feel when they find out they spent $24 on food you cut corners on? Because you decided they don’t know any better?”
Kevin’s jaw clenched. He strained to keep his composure. “No,” he said.
“Kevin, are you going to cry in my kitchen?”
“No, ma’am,” Kevin whispered.
Mirna clamped her hand down on Kevin’s shoulder. “Good. Leave it on the other side of the door if you’re feeling some sort of way.” Her grip softened. “I know it’s been hard. We’re all rooting for you but you’re the one that has to put in the work.” She handed the fennel bulb back to him. “Start over. Get it right or it’s your ass.”
Susanna didn’t approve of this kind of talk. She was the only chef Mirna had worked for that preferred care over yelling till your insides were hanging out. This led to some conflict over how to speak to people in the kitchen, a conversation that had been ongoing since Mirna had been granted more responsibility. Mirna knew Susanna was trying to coach her into her version of a better cook, but coddling Kevin wouldn’t get him back on the line.
The ticket machine kicked out another order to add to the pile. Susanna inspected the paper, but didn’t call it. Seconds dragged, everyone grew older, but no order came.
“You okay?” Mirna asked.
Susanna worked over her bottom lip. She threw her hands up and stuck her head out the kitchen door, before disappearing into the dining room.
“Act like you’ve done this before,” Mirna barked. She took over the pass and checked off completed dishes on open tickets. Without someone to keep track of all the orders, the kitchen would run adrift. A mistake was liable to turn catastrophic. Steering the ship felt electric.
The kitchen door flew open and Susanna returned. She straightened her right sleeve, unfurling it to her wrist, and rolled it back up. “Shit.”
“What’s going on over there?” Mirna asked impishly.
“Gimme a sec,” she snapped. It wasn’t personal, but her tone stung. The drama was out of character. Mirna didn’t recognize the hungry look in Susanna’s eyes. “We’ve got a VIP folks.” She placed the tickets with the others and flicked it. “Henry Rockmore is in the dining room.”
“Get the fuck out,” Mirna said, reflexively bringing her hands to her mouth. Her spoon clattered onto her station, sauce flying everywhere. “La Cultura Henry Rockmore?” she asked, no longer trying to keep her cool.
“That’s the one,” Susanna muttered as she examined his order.
Henry Rockmore was an idol, un hermano, el mero mero. He’d spent his life Indiana Jones-ing his way through Mexican regional cuisine, charming abuelas into giving up what made their mole special, secrets he shared with the viewing audience back home. His Mexican empire, from shows to books to restaurants, had been in production longer than Mirna had been alive. It sounds peculiar now, but before him most Americans thought Mexican food could be described in terms of hard versus soft shell. She’d never seen anyone but her family cook Mexican food before her abuelita put his show on. It was a joy to grow up watching him celebrate it.
Cooking for him would be a damn religious experience.