23 Aug 2022
Johnny should had known that it was pointless.
Getting into Culinary School? Making it into the cooking world? Those were dreams for people who didn't do the dishes just to run away from the dinner table.
To think that for a moment, he had thought this was going to be a good day.
From the living room there was still a bit of a ruckus, something between plates being emptied, powerful vocal cords being used and two little tornados running around. The energy of the Marbles household was contagious, he was probably the only one of his family that didn't sweat confidence. Ten minutes ago it hadn't felt as demoralizing as usual: not with dad bringing home the biggest sea bass to make soup, not with mom preparing her award winning five-ways meatloaf, not with his siblings following aunt Erin's recipe for homemade lemonade - even toddlers were better than him food-wise. It had felt good, being the star of the day.
Then he had opened the letter from Culinary School. In front of everyone.
Despite how it had just happened, his mind couldn't rewatch it, as he was scrubbing a stain of grease much more tenacious than him. The moment he had read the middle of the text, a habit of reading a recipe from the procedure and not from the ingredients he knew by heart, the dark ink of those words had expanded inside his mind and his world had turned black.
Dear Jonathan Marbles,
We deeply thank you for your interest into partaking our entrance exam. Unfortunately, our teachers concluded that you do not yet possess the necessary skills to enroll in our institute, therefore you have not been accepted to the Culinary School. We hope that...
Johnny was almost sure he had pushed away his sister while stumbling off his chair and then towards the kitchen. He was going to apologize later, to avoid the risk of having her pouting at him all day considering her temper - better add a couple of raspberries too for good measures, it always made her laugh. Honestly, he needed to say sorry to all of them, for being rude. Especially for wasting their time.
There was a knock at the door, despite it being open
"Jonathan? Are you alright?" His mom's caring voice made him feel all the heaviest. He started rubbing the glass in his hand a little harder. "Oh, sweetie, it's okay." She walked next to him, heels tapping on the parquet like they had been doing since back when he couldn't reach the sink. "This school is very prestigious, you just need a bit more time! Don't give up." She took the plates he had finished scrubbing and grabbed a cloth to dry them up. She wasn't humming, she usually did on the note of some old band - Cock'n'Rollers or something.
Dad had fallen in love with her sunny personality. Johnny felt like he was bringing dark clouds all over her. No calls with friends about her son making it into the school, no big banners of 'Congratulations Johnny you did something good for once' - alright they would have never wrote that, that was his negative brain talking -, no big celebratory cake…
Oh, she would have made a great cake. The biggest marble roll cake, because she knew him and their playful family and how much he liked chocolate and vanilla. She would have made it extra special for him. Just for him.
The sink was getting blurry, his eyes were getting warm.
"I-I'm sorry, mom."
"None of that, be positive!" Usually her words were very easy to believe to. "There's always next year, right?" She held out her hand to get another dish to wipe.
Johnny extended one. It slipped. It fell and broke.
"... what if I don't ever make it?" Words left his mouth before he could think and the next moment, mom was looking at his with widened eyes. He felt his lips trembling. "I-I... at the exams... at the cooking part I knew the recipe, but I didn't cut the meat perfectly and I dropped the salt shaker on the sauce." Everybody had been watching his every move. "During service I confused the orders and tripped on my feet." There had been laughter for sure. "Then, the presentation... I went mute. I-I couldn't speak." In the eyes of the judges, the result was obvious. "If I can't overcome myself, how can I be a chef?"
How could he become anything?
Mom was silent during his little rant. It was quite the rare occurrence after all and Johnny would have not blamed her for being annoyed by it. Or ashamed. Or disappointed. For him not to be up to expectations, after being taught everything by his one of a kind family.
At really she opened one of the cabinets. Out was a little sweeper and a paddle.
"Sweetie, I'm gonna ask you a question, and I want you to be sincere with me." She smiled a little, that knowing little curve of a woman that had seen him grow up. "And I don't mean your usual 'honesty', don't think about hurting me or anyone, I need to know what you really think, okay?" She gave him the paddle and started to gather around the shards.
Her dark honey eyes were lucid. Johnny nodded a little warily.
"Of course, mom."
"... do you really want to be a chef?"
Johnny felt it like a violent push, in a direction he had never thought was there and didn't want to think about. Was he angry for that question? Worried? Indignant? He kneeled down with the paddle, in front of her, his voice getting lower.
"W-Why are you asking me that?"
"Because Jonathan, it pains us to see you like this. We know you're talented and you can do whatever you want, but this path seems to exhaust you." She took extra care to accumulate all those dangerous pieces, like disasters didn't phase her. She had practice after all. "Cooking is an integral part of the Marbles, that will never stop being. But if this career is too much, you can still do something else. Whatever you will grow up to be, your family will support you." With another sweet smile she wiped the shards onto the shovel, cleaning up the spot.
Johnny wished this was comforting. He so wished that speech was helping. Yet all it did was remind him of the way he was, and how easier it would have been if he was born someone else. Someone that could perform, talk, act… normal. Someone that could get into Culinary School.
Someone that could actually make it out there. That wasn't him, was it?
Perhaps that dream of his was only for when he was asleep after all.
"I... I don't know." Johnny swallowed. His throat hurt. "I don't know if I... can."
"That's okay too." She sounded so supportive, she didn't know that he had just lied. He knew he couldn't. "Have you ever thought about a change of scenery? Technocity? Or... Tasty Hills?"
He knew he couldn't do it.
"And... time!" Chef almost screamed as she smashed her hand onto the clock, so hard the glasses of milk almost jumped. She was beaming at those twenty more seconds left to the service. "Ha-ha, we finished early! That's what I'm talking about, way to go Johnny!" She raised big thumbs up at him.
That woke him up from his torpor, that little moment of black mind. In all honesty, the food truck had become such a routine that he had spaced out for the majority of it. Besides, Chef was so amazing that there was no need for direct intervention - also he kinda didn't want to get in the way of those rocket boots she used sometimes. He had been more than happy at organizing fruits onto the cakes for today's dishes, as fast as he could, delivering orders left and right.
At some point though, while looking at the dirty dishes he was putting in the dishwasher, something had come back to him. Some distant memory, so surrounded with dark clouds he had felt gloomy just thinking about it. He didn't want that now though. Today's shift was over after all.
Now it was time to celebrate, for another year.
Finally back to his mind he giggled at the praise, while cleaning up the knives he had just used. He was pretty exhausted after another celebratory truck moving all around Tasty Hills, yet the thrill was always stronger than the tiredness. With this energy he could had gone for another round of services - fifteen to be precise, for no reason at all.
"T-Thank you, this equipment helps lots... uhm, Chef, can I ask a question? I've been thinking about it for a while." She nodded while gathering the last tips. "Why do you always time the service?"
"To get achievements!"
"Meh, you'll get it when you'll open your own place, don't worry about it." Sometimes Chef talked in a way he couldn't understand. Perhaps it was a Grey thing - seeing her grandpa trying to use emojis was kinda funny though. "Alright my good man, time to close the-"
"Uhm, kid?" Bobby raised his hand with a laugh, as he was sitting at the very end of the counter. "Don't forget about me."
Chef looked at him dumbfounded, then she gasped while grabbing her hair.
"Nooo, no fair! I didn't see you! Come on uncle Bobby, I’ve been working on a combo of perfect services for days! How do I get my rubies now?" It was really, really hard to understand her sometimes. He had gotten used to this dynamic though, it was almost soothing to see. Kinda funny too honestly how much she could freak out. "Johnny, take care of him!"
He straightened up, hoping she didn't see his giggle.
"Ah, yes Chef!"
"And close everything up before you leave, okay? I'm going back to the restaurant first to greet the others, so we can get our little celebratory dinner ready to start!" Finally a bit of time to properly relax and have fun. She turned to Bobby with a fake offended pout. "Also it's meal time for my pet and at least he respects me and doesn't mess up my perfect combo!" She saluted the man with a smile, as it was all in good fun, and jumped right out of the truck.
Bobby snickered some, with that throaty laugh that was really heartwarming for some reason. He was a man that transmitted calmness.
"I lost the respect battle against an animal it seems. Which one is it this time?"
Johnny finished with his dishes and took a deep breath. Bobby was a regular in all their restaurants and a good man, luckily, so his anxiety wasn't going to kick in full force. A bit less nervously than usual he made his way to the counter.
"A little f-fox."
"Wow, she could open a zoo if she wanted!"
"P-Probably yeah." He smiled a little, remembering Chef's eyes doubling size seeing the chameleon on the program Path to Glory. "What can I bring you?"
"One glass of milk, and a marzipan blue peluche thank you." He looked particularly happy today, like something was putting him in a good mood. Quickly Johnny made his way around the ovens and onto the desserts table - a bit far but it felt like a singular movement somehow. "You got really comfortable here, huh boy?"
Johnny was waiting for the dispenser to fill the glass when he blinked.
"Uhm, excuse me?"
"I remember you barely knowing where to put your hands, now you don't even flinch when your chef leaves you alone with a client. You've come a long way."
Johnny almost tripped on his way back and the fact that he didn't made him realize the truth in that. In all honesty he had felt so overwhelmed and lost at the beginning and even in the following time, side by side with someone that had been handed a fallen empire and was doing her best to make it great once again. Now they were closing another one month long anniversary celebration, here was no one in Tasty Hills not aware of the Grey's chain of restaurants, and he could somehow close the truck by himself - he could close a truck by himself, for crying out loud!
It was a little win, but it made him smile, as he served the order.
"T-Thank you. Would you like anything else?"
"I'm good, I'm off to go shopping with Leonard before joining you guys. That old man is struggling with a gift for his grandaughter so I'm helping some, he needs my impeccable taste. " Bobby picked up the sweet and downed the milk in one go. Then he adjusted his jacket. "Too bad I won't be able to hear your jokes at counter, maybe next time!" He waved amicably and then left.
Johnny stood there a little dumbfounded. Right, people liked his jokes. He had been praised before. It was hitting him a little late how amazing that was.
The truck was out almost every week so closing it was also routine. Pulling the tends, switching off the lights, making sure the motor was off and that the covering didn't have openings on possible evil plans of tampering coming from blondies in white and purple jackets - Creighton was on a goodness string lately, but you never knew. The day was ending on Tasty Hills, the sun was slowly descending towards the numerous restaurants all across the city. Crooked Pines had its country-like natural charm, but this was the capital of cooking. And he loved it here.
Broccoli Bro was their latest opening, right in the middle of Broccolyn. It was a beauty for the eyes and for the health, although with every new restaurant Johnny felt a bit longing for Burger Joint, how it had all started.
Man, it had been a while since it had all started, hadn't it?
As he eyed the entrance of the place - not hard considering the big emblematic vegetable on top -, Johnny found himself peaking from the window. They had been celebrating left and right and up and down, if that was even possible, so this intimate dinner between friends would have looked minuscule to other people. Yet no crowd of adoring clients could top seeing so many familiar faces, dressed for the occasion and happy to share another year of successes.
Adam had been almost forced to wear something other than his signature lost amnesic tartan jacket, Andy was showing off an impressive new lab coat and one of his bots had a bowtie - better keep an eye on that one. Soul had his hands on the music selection while looking ready to jump on the stage, while Dave was chatting with Mr. Wolfe on the side looking as cool as always - how could he appear this relaxed and still deliver to the entire city was going to be a forever unsolved mystery. He suspected that Greighton was invited and was going to show up later, with big words and even bigger insults, but Chef always said that perhaps he liked to be included sometimes - not like Johnny could ever contradict her anyway.
Martin had cleaned up real good with his black suit, he was wearing a cape, and he was aiming at the girls - argh, to be expected from his rival -, but he also looked ecstatic just to be there. Alex was sparkling, an absolute gem with her glimmering teal dress, somehow dancing by walking alone.
Then Vivien. She was... magnificent, if one word truly was enough to describe her.
A pure and literal manifestation of a social butterfly: a chatterbox of undeniable charm, and a gorgeous figure in her fluffy fuchsia dress. She looked extra smiley tonight, her eyes were stars and her cheeks were red. An absolutely delightful sight.
Johnny wasn't ashamed to admit he might had spaced out again while looking at her. So when a massive crash came from behind the restaurant, he straight up tripped onto the ground thinking of an earthquake and the end of the world. In a moment he realized there had been no sight of the owner anywhere, not at the counter prepping the food, not between people with one of her fashionable aprons.
Filled with dread Johnny got up and circled the building, turning the corner with his heart in his throat. Nothing bad could happen on a day like this, right?
"Chef! Are you okay?"
"Johnny, no! Don't look!" Thinking the worst Johnny defied order for once and checked on her. The last thing he would have expected was seeing one of the most talented chefs of Tasty Hills face-planting the ground, with a cake completely squashed right next to her. "Ah, you got so much faster at closing the truck! I should've known I wasn't going to make it in time..." She raised up her head, laughing nervously at the situation.
She should had not been this insecure, since Johnny had no idea what was going on. Looking now, there was also a box emptied on the ground, and quite the mess all around. He frowned.
"Were you trying to balance a cake on a box?"
"I... yeah." She sighed. "Emphasis on trying, I should've known I'm only good at carrying two dishes at the time." That was actually incredibly true for some reason - yet somehow multitasking wasn't a problem for her. "It was working fine honestly, until someone got too hungry to wait and started playing around my legs!" She pointed forward while still laying onto the ground.
Wow, Johnny had been so caught up with the not so catastrophic situation he had completely ignored the little fox currently sniffing the cake on the ground, only to huff with disinterest. Red looked up, tilting his head.
"Don't you 'wof' me, you little rascal! I thought you out of all non-people would have respected me but no, you only care of food and scratches! Now Johnny's cake is ruined because of you, you...!" Chef stood up, still pointing the finger. "You...!" Red stepped closer to her and licked it. "Y-You... Ah, it's so hard getting mad at something so sweet!” Losing not one second she kneeled down to pet his head, earning a satisfied growl. “You're on thin ice though, mister!”
It was as wholesome as usual, it was a sight you couldn't get used to - yes her making goo goo eyes at every little animal she had was ordinary administration. Yet Johnny was stuck, his mind going back at some very specific words.
"That... that cake was for me?"
Chef froze up, Red lost interest pretty quickly anyway after finally getting his dog biscuit, as he didn't seem ti enjoy the cake. That looked… like a marble roll cake. Specifically his mom's, only she made that perfect blend. Chef turned around, scratching the back of her head.
"Would you believe me if I told you it's for another Johnny?
"Uhm, not with the way you asked me right now. What's going on?"
"Alright... Alright, here's the thing." She shrugged in a sheepish way, which was a weird look on someone that was basically best friends with almost the entire city. "You see, the celebratory dinner we're having tonight? I might have bended the truth a little... which is a fancy way to say that I lied, it's not for the anniversary." She looked down at the cake, then went to pick up the box and its containments. Now it was clear: they were presents. "It's for another very special event that happened around the same time, so I asked Mrs. Marbles to send the perfect sweet to celebrate it." She winked at him, bringing the items back in the box. "The day I got to meet my first ever assistant." She offered the box to him.
Johnny felt dizzy. Something powerful, warm even, was shaking his insides but he was barely able to make a sense to it all as he peaked into the container.
There were several little packages, all looking very telling: a present signed by Leonard Gray, a wrapping made by very small hands - he could imagine his siblings doing that and almost started sobbing, no no, be professional -, a coupon for a show at the local theater. Then a box covered in dragons and gold ribbons - To my rival and pal, live long and prosper! Martin -, a glamorous bag with a ribbon on it - To my favorite stand-up comedian, keep up the great work! Alex -, and a cutesy package with a drawing of his dog Caramel on the side - To my favorite waiter/assistant/friend! Love, Vivien oh she had to be doing this on purpose, his heart could barely take it.
His throat was starting to act up. He didn't want to let himself go like this, not because his feelings were all over the place and this had to be the nicest thing he had ever been given. Before he could even try to talk though, Chef picked up one of the presents from the box.
It was a simple blue and yellow wrapping, with a pink rosette on top. His favorite colors. Chef offered it to him, Johnny instinctively put the box down to grab it.
"Huh, do I open this now?"
"Yeah, I wanted you to have this when we were alone. Like I was when grandpa gifted me mine." Again, she wasn't making much sense to him. Until he opened his present, and he completely lost his breath at the sight of the notebook. No, not a notebook, a journal. A diary. "Now, I'm pretty sure you're gonna have a brand-new one the moment you become a chef, that being with us or on your own." It was unreal how she talked about it. Like it was a certainty. Like it wasn't an if, but a when. "As of now though, I think you make such big steps it would be a waste not to put them down, don't you think?"
She smiled cheerfully, mindlessly. Like she hadn't given him one of the signature items of her family, with the hope to bring him as much fortune as it did to her.
Johnny had seen Chef constantly putting down her thoughts and the daily events of their lives at Tasty Hills ever since day one - life in this city was that eventful. One time she had left him see it, and he had felt such a respect towards it: not only there were pages of memories filled with emotions in every line - how could he instantly become like her or like anyone that could even just write that freely? -, there were accomplishments, personal achievements, the proof of how far she had come. It had always felt like a precious relic.
Far, far from his level. Except he had one too now. A cooking diary. Of course, his was never going to be as vast and energetic as Chef's, and suddenly Johnny realized why this moment was feeling so overwhelming and unreal in its entirety. It had taken him so long yet at last, he didn't feel like this was a waste. He didn't feel like he wasn't good enough.
He was just so happy he had made it this far.
At that point he didn't care for once, and the tears rolled down nicely from his cheeks. Chef made a little gasp and he was quick to smile despite the blurry sight.
"Don't make me cry Johnny, I'm warning you!"
"Chef, I-I... I'm so happy I joined you." His shoulders were shaking, his hands too, but his hold was tight around this precious gift. "I-I'm glad I was there to become your assistant, I'm even happy I left home just to have this occasion. I will keep doing my very best from now on! So thank you." He knew that his words were never going to suffice to truly express how it had felt being accepted by someone, and to had been present so far. His gratitude was endless.
Chef looked at him, her mouth gaping a little. Then she smiled and put her hands onto his shoulders, looking at him with those forever honest eyes.
"You were there from the very beginning, after I left my old city and before I knew what it truly meant to become a chef. You worked relentlessly, 24/7 always available no matter the type of cuisine, no matter the place I would go." She blinked faster, her irises becoming lucid as well. "You were there when we faced Monsieur LeShan for the first time, during all of our challenges against Creighton, when I doubted myself and even considered using those additives to my food. Man, you bought a scooter to help us!" Well that had been a little reckless - it made delivering so quick though! "You've been my right hand man, my partner, my friend and even my conscience, and you never stop being." She smiled, pulling him into a hug. "The pleasure's been all mine, so thank you."
It felt like getting to the top. It felt like finally getting paid for the hard work.
Johnny remembered now, what had come back to mind back at the food truck. A memory of a while ago, when everything in his life had come crushing down and he had felt on the edge of closing himself from his dreams forever. His most negative side had almost worked against him to prevent all of this from happening.
He hugged her back, crying a little more, his cooking diary pressing between them. He wished he could go back to those endless nights of guilt and hopelessness, when despite being in a house filled with warmth and love he had felt too different and alone. He wished he could let himself know that it was fine, he wasn't wrong, and it was going to get better.
He was going to get better, and for once he was going to be happy about it.
Red was running around their legs again, probably calling for another biscuit. From inside the restaurant there were steps coming their way, and a little party to commence. The sun was setting on another incredible day in Tasty Hills.
One day, following this path, Johnny was going to be a living part of it as well. A top-rank chef. This time, there was no lie. This time, he was sincere.
He knew he could do it.