At catering college Astrid’s profiteroles were likened to clouds and her soufflés rose on angel’s wings. Such pastry skills secured her apprenticeship at Stockholm’s celebrated restaurant, Natur.
Each morning Natur’s kitchen fell silent while Head Chef Erik, like a Viking warrior, mustered his troops. Detecting culinary misdemeanours, he’d point at the neon sign flashing radish red across the stainless steel wall and bark, ‘What does it say?’
‘Respect Your Ingredients,’ the brigade intoned like church penitents.
Chef’s curdling critiques made even seasoned sous chefs wilt like ancient herbs. Before her transfer to the fish section, Astrid prided herself on evading his vinegary tongue. Yet now, confronted with a basket of oysters, her remaining fingers felt like sausages.
‘What these cost could buy a cabin on the archipelago,’ Chef de Partie warned, ‘Shuck carefully.’
Their briny aroma insinuated bitter memories. Her hands shook. The absent little finger, severed during the Grebbestad oyster shucking competition, remained an insubstantial presence, like meringue.
Sweat simmering on her brow, Astrid selected an oyster. Wrapping it in cloth, she took up a knife. Tentatively stabbing and probing, her blade sought entry, but the gnarled shell remained stubbornly sealed. An image of her detached digit leaking blood clouded her vision. The mollusc shot from her trembling grasp to the floor.
‘Put down the knife!’
Chef Erik towered over her. She imagined the walk of shame. Her epicurean ambitions lost, like her finger.
‘Look at me.’
He held aloft a palm scarred by an angry rope-like weal. ‘We have something in common,’ he said, indicating her pomegranate pink stump. ‘Our scars teach reverence for nature and knives. Watch and learn.’
With one deft movement, the oyster yielded revealing ocean scented meat. ‘Perfection demands practice. Now try again.’
Her resolve stiffening like whipped egg white, Astrid grasped the knife.