I remember a conversation I had with a professor in grad school, where we discussed the various blessings and difficulties of trying to produce art using the same materials—language—used for so many other, less graceful, purposes (for example, junk mail and mudslinging). In “Wagyu Fungo,” (Harpur Palate) explores a similar dynamic, though from the perspective of a chef struggling with the way his customers receives his dishes.
The chef’s outrage is clear in the first two paragraphs, when a table orders two of his prized wagyu steaks well-done.
This is the real fucking thing: steaks with marbling so wide and white that you swear you could dive right in and swim through the channels of luscious, supple fat. I’m talking about steaks so beautiful, you’d give yourself a black eye, just so you could slap a raw one on your face.
I hate seeing these parentheses under the order: well-done. It’s a sign of disrespect; not to me, this isn’t about my ego.
Despite the narrator’s urging claim to objectivity, Wiley makes clear that the narrator is less than reliable, at least in that regard. To him, steak isn’t just personal, but a full-blown obsession: not good food to be consumed but a work of art only fit to be appreciated by an educated palate. The problem, though, is that the chef believes his customers to be ignorant of this, and to inform them would risk being disrespectful in return.
In short, Wiley has placed his narrator in a bind. What can be done?
I give the steaks to one of my line-cooks. “Leave them on until they’re black,” I say. He looks at me, worried. He knows what well-done orders do to me. If these people want well-done I’m going to cook these steaks until they’re tougher than a bull’s neck. They’re going to think they just bit into a truck tire. I want their teeth to crack into chalky dust when they try to chew through their excuse of a steak.
But revenge can’t quite satisfy the narrator’s rage. Wiley deepens the characterization of the narrator to begin to explore why. We find that the chef sought psychological help after an evening where eight of his wagyu steaks were ordered with no pink. Notice how he responds when the therapist asks him what it’s like to cook the steaks the way they’ve been ordered.
“It’s like taking your brand new Aston Martin to a Jiffy Lube for a tune-up. Does that articulate it any better for you?” I said.
“It’s interesting you would assume I drive that kind of car. Do you make assumptions like that about your customers as well?” he said, picking at the heel of his shoe. It was this tic he had. He did it when asking stupid questions. It made me sick—just thinking about all the germs underneath his fingernails.”
While the chef’s arrogance is clear, evidence of deeper neuroses—germs underneath his fingernails—begins to spill out as well. Wiley reveals that this isn’t entirely about the chef’s ego. He truly believes that what the customers are asking him to do is wrong.
Sometimes I feel like I’m enabling all these people to eat overcooked food. I mean, I’m committing a crime, you know? I have this guilt for days afterward, where all I can eat is beef tartare. There’s this Korean joint below where I live that serves the beef cut real thin, like sashimi, with an egg cracked over it. And that’s the only thing I can eat, for breakfast lunch and dinner. It’s the only thing that takes away the guilt.
The beef makes him sick—but that’s the idea. He believes he must punish himself for what he’s agreed to do with the wagyu steak. He even has nightmares where he’s kneeling before a herd of Okayama cows, gathered in judgment.
But Wiley also provides balance to the narrative. If overcooking these steaks gives the chef such pains, what about cooking it rare? Wiley reveals his response when customers order the steaks rare. First he nearly gets a “hard-on.” Then:
The grill is hot and I lay the steaks diagonally across the grill, the fat sizzling and spitting, flames licking the red underbelly of the wagyu. The kitchen subsides around me as I watch the steaks, tongs in hand. A velvety darkness tunnels my vision as I bend down and watch juices from the steak drip and pop in teardrops of fat. I count the steady beats of my heart like seconds: ninety beats, then I flip them. This is what I live for: the moment when my body is in unison with the creation of perfectly cooked steak.
So goes the chef’s obsession, from extreme lows to extreme highs, and back. But Wiley’s revealing the darker sides of obsession. Though the chef might be able to make the finest of steaks, the achievement comes at a cost. After a scene in which the chef must make another order of well-done steaks, he visits the dining area and is overcome, fainting at the sight of what the customers are doing with his art. He’s led outside by a coworker, and notice the response.
Outside the kitchen my vigor is gone. It’s all fire and brimstone when I’m behind a stove, wielding my knives and tongs. But out here under the starless sky, where all I can see are billboards and office buildings burning up the skyline, I feel tired and weak.
Real life pales in comparison to the drama that takes place in the kitchen. Perhaps this was true before—perhaps it was even what drove him to the obsession in the first place. But regardless, it’s true now. His wellbeing is both dependent upon and diminished by his obsession. So the downward spiral continues.