Lori’s back was to the door as she put away the last of the staff coffee cups. Everyone was supposed to clean up after themselves, but that didn’t always happen. The kitchen needed to be tidy before the kids arrived.
“Who are you?” a strange man asked from the doorway. In his hands were bulging plastic grocery bags.
“I’m Lori Nabaker. Who are you supposed to be?” Although school was over for the day, the doors off the parking lot were open for kids to arrive. But, anyone could walk in.
“Supposed to be?” The guy just stared at her, the bags dangling from his fingertips. “What do you mean ‘supposed to be’? I am who I am; there’s no supposing about it.” He looked at her some more. “Are you supposed to be here?”
Lori’s weirdo meter rose. What was with this guy? Who was he and how’d she get trapped in this room with him? Never show fear and maybe she could bluff her way out. “Excuse me. Let me pass.” His large body still blocked the doorway. Then he stood aside, taking a step into the room and pivoting so that the back of his hips pressed against the counter’s edge.
As she scurried out the door, away from this strange man, she heard him mutter, “Mel should have warned me about the odd people here. At least she’ll be out of the way before the kids get here.”
Lori stopped. “Kids? Mel?”
“You know my sister?”
“Mel’s your sister?”
When the guy nodded, the tension in Lori’s shoulders dropped noticeably. She came back into the room with her hand extended. “You must be Jeff - Mel’s told me about you. I’m the EA who works in her classroom sometimes.” Jeff looked blankly at her, so she explained. “EA. You know, Educational Associate. I help out with the kids.”
There was no recognition in his eyes and his expression didn’t change. Come to think of it, his expression hadn’t changed since he arrived. But his next words were gentler. “Oh, yeah, Mel told me that someone from the school would assist me.”
“Assist you? I thought I was running the Little Chef’s club and that Mel’s brother was supposed to assist me.”
“There you go with that suppose thing again.” Jeff looked away from her as he laid the things from his grocery bags on the counter. Each item was lined up precisely, equal distance from each other and from the edge of the counter. Concentrating on his task, Jeff asked, “Are you a chef?”
His words were muffled partly because his back was to her and partly because he was dragging packages along the counter, getting their placement just right. “Pardon,” she asked. “What did you say?”
“I said, ‘Are you a chef’?“.
“I just told you I’m an EA.”
“Well, then what?”
“Well, then, I am a chef. That’s why Mel asked me to volunteer my time to run the Little Chef’s club. You can help me though, that is, if you know how to act and don’t scare the kids. If you stay you’re going to have to watch your language.”
“My language!” Lori’s indignation made her voice rise on the last syllable. She most certainly had not used any profanity during this whole unpleasant encounter.
“Yes, your language. You’ll have to watch how you talk around the kids. No more of this “suppose” stuff. You have to speak plainly and say what you mean. Some of the kids who’ll be here have autism, you know. They won’t like your imprecise way of talking.”
As Lori’s mouth opened in retort, there was a flurry of rustling plastic as Mel came through the door carrying far more bags than the two Jeff had arrived with.
Mel dropped the bags on the floor and smiled at both of them. “Oh, good,” she said. “I see that you’ve already met.”
Her smile froze as she looked from Jeff to Lori and back again. “Hey, guys, is everything all right?”
Jeff reached for the bags and continued the tedious process of unpacking and lining up the contents perfectly on the counter.
“It’s a good thing the counter’s long,” Lori said, the sarcasm sneaking into her voice. Mel gave her a sharp look, but Jeff simply agreed. “Yep.”
Sensing the tension, Mel asked, “What’s going on?”
Her brother answered, “We were just getting a few things straight. We’ve established that Lori’s an EA and I’m a chef.”
Mel continued looking from her brother to her friend. “So, why is that a problem?”
“No problem,” Lori hurried to reassure her. “We’re good.”
Sneakers squeaked and slapped on the hallway floor, accompanied by high-pitched voices. The kids had arrived for Little Chef Club.
“Well, this is it,” said Lori.
“What is it?” Jeff asked.
“The beginning of Little Chefs.”
Jeff stared at her. “What did you think it would be?” Then, turning to his sister, “Are you sure she’s the right person to be helping us with this? She seems unclear about a number of things.”
Mel squeezed his shoulder. “Wait until you see her with the kids. You’ll see that she’s perfect.”
Jeff didn’t look convinced but the kids burst through the door, overtaking any conversation the adults had begun. The students’ enthusiasm was admirable but needed to be toned down to match the size of the school’s kitchen. Mel had them line up against the wall. She waited for silence before reminding the group who she was, then introducing Lori and Jeff.
“How can you be a chef?” one boy asked. “Where’s your chef’s hat?”
“Right here.” Jeff pulled it out of the last bag and settled it on his head. Next, he donned his apron, pulling the string ties from the back and fastening them in the front.
“Wow! Just like on TV,” said Matt, the smallest child in the line.
“Not necessarily,” said Karen, a grade six student. “It depends on the restaurant and on the show. There are all kinds of aprons and several kinds of chef hats. First, there’s...”
“Thanks, Karen,” Mel interrupted. “We might have time to go into that later, but right now we need to begin our chef’s session. Jeff will be leading our group since he’s an actual chef”
Over Mel’s head, Jeff grinned at Lori. To the kids he said, “Who washed their hands before coming here?”
Of the eight kids, two put up their hands.
“Good for you. Now, we’re going to do it all over again.”
Groans came from several kids, along with “Do we have to?” “Again?” “Mine look okay already.”
“Anyone who touches anything or eats in my kitchen must first wash their hands,” Jeff announced. “Ms. Nabaker will show you how.”
When Lori hesitated, he asked Mel, “She does know how, doesn’t she?” This made the kids laugh, Jeff look at them quizzically and Lori glare at him before herding the kids in a line towards the sink.
Standing beside his sister, out of the way of the line-up, Jeff said, “I think this is starting off all right.”
“Mostly. Except for Lori. You’re being a little hard on her, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean? She has to wash her hands just like everybody else. She wants to help lead, so I thought this was something she could be in charge of.” He waited a minute then asked, “Why aren’t you getting in line?”
While Mel waited her turn, she listened to the kids. One voice rose above the others, both in volume and frequency. Karen was explaining to anyone who would listen, the different hand washing techniques. She was currently at the sink demonstrating how a surgeon would wash, counting off the number of scrubs for each finger. Except no one was paying any attention to her monologue.
A grade six boy, Jim said, “Come on, Karen. We’re never going to get to cook anything if you hog the sink the whole time.” Lori intervened and got the line moving again.
When Karen’s voice continued to rise above the others about this hand washing business, Mel intervened. “You certainly know a lot about hand washing, Karen. Thanks for your input, but we’re moving on now to the cooking part.”
Karen paused then switched topics. “Chateaubriand is made from the most expensive cut of beef. It’s cut from the tenderloin and is about four inches thick.” The other kids just looked at her as she continued. “Because of the thickness of the cut and how expensive the meat is, it has to be cooked just right.”
Again, Mel interrupted. “Thanks, Karen, but we’re not talking about Chateaubriand this week.”
“But it’s a classic chef dish,” Karen protested.
Jeff took over. “Right. It is and it’s something I make at the deli. But we don’t have enough time today or the budget for that kind of meat. Today, we’re starting with the basics.”
“Basics? But I’m not a basic kind of girl. I know a lot about this stuff already,” protested Karen.
As if he hadn’t heard her, Jeff continued. “First, we’ll learn about safety in the kitchen. Washing your hands and keeping utensils and surfaces clean is key. That comes before anything else, even tasting the food.”
“We do get to taste some stuff, don’t we?” asked another boy.
“Definitely. It’s a poor chef who doesn’t taste what he’s cooking. How else would you know if it’s any good?” The kids looked relieved.
“Who has used a knife before?” Jeff asked. Most kids raised a hand. Jeff pulled a foot long knife from the drawer. “Who has used a knife like this?”
“That’s a cimeter and used for butchering, but not normal kitchen use,” Karen informed them. “Sometimes it’s used for cutting steaks and tenderloin, the kind used in Chateaubriand.”
Jeff looked at her. “Are you here to learn or to teach?”
Lori moved to Karen’s side and placed an arm along her shoulder. “Karen reads a lot and stores her knowledge. Cooking shows are her passion, so she has a lot to offer this group.” She smiled at her warmly.
“I watch a lot of cooking shows too, and study this area. But we’re not here to spout off our knowledge. We’re here to learn how to cook certain items that I’ve chosen. If you want to discuss some aspects of cooking with me after class that will be fine.” Jeff’s words were blunt, but only Lori seemed uncomfortable.
Over Karen’s head, Mel grinned at Lori. She mouthed, “It’s okay,” then nodded at Karen. Mel was right; Karen did not look upset or show that she might have felt snubbed.