theme: o34. Acceptance
(Part of the For Two Series.)
One of Seoul’s most popular evening restaurants, Suju went almost into a frenzy when their head chef announced his intent to leave not only the restaurant, but South Korea all together. He gave management two weeks to find someone new to replace him as he began planning his move to France to broaden his culinary education.
It was within hours of the head chef’s announcement that the sous chef , Kibum, approached the owner of the restaurant,
“I’m ready, I know I am,” Kibum said sternly as he stood before the owner’s desk in the office, his hands clasped before him in respect, “Not to mention I’m older than the head chef.”
“Being head chef isn’t about age, Kibum,” the owner replied, his hands folded atop his desk, “It’s about experience and skill. Yes, you’re older than the head chef, but he has more experience and skill in the kitchen than you.”
“But I’ve been in that kitchen for almost three years now, it’s not like when I first applied for head chef here,” Kibum insisted, eyes narrowed in determination, “My skills have improved exponentially since my first day here and I truly believe I have what it takes to be more than just the sous chef!”
The owner gave him a look and Kibum immediately dropped his eyes to the ground, he had spoken disrespectfully and was beginning to regret speaking out - slightly.
“He doesn’t leave for two weeks, I’ll announce my decision at the end of that time,” The owner replied simply.
Silence fell upon them immediately afterwards and Kibum realized he had bee dismissed. He bowed slightly before stiffly exiting the office.
Fifteen days later, Kibum found himself in the restaurant with the other staff members as the owner introduced the new head chef, a culinary master from China who came to Seoul to improve his own skills, much like how the previous head chef had left for France.
“Hankyung was recommended to us and after reviewing his profile and having a taste of his food, it was decided by management along with myself that he join us here at SuJu restaurant as our new head chef,” the owner introduced him,
Hankyung bowed at the waist and greeted them as he straightened, “My Korean’s still not that good, but I have studied Korean cuisine during my student years. While here I hope to master Korean cooking along with the language. I ask for all of your help.”
The staff heartily greeted him and Hankyung chanced a smile. The only person who didn’t smile back, was Kibum.
“Yes?” The owner called out at the knock on his door.
He wasn’t surprised when the restaurant’s sous chef slipped into the office, closing the door behind him, “I wanted to say this privately - I quit.”
The owner’s eyes widened immediately, “What?”
“I quit,” Kibum repeated, “I’ll give you two weeks, but after that - I’m gone, Shiwon.”
“Why? Because I didn’t promote you? Because I hired someone instead?” The owner, Shiwon, questioned,
“Honestly? Yes,” Kibum shrugged,
“Kibum, Hankyung has years of experience over you and after tasting his food, he’s more skilled,” Shiwon replied, “Not to mention he has recommendations that you do not have.”
“What about your recommendations?” Kibum countered, “You’ve tasted my food, you know what good a cook I am. What other better recommendation could there be?”
“The former head chef’s,” Shiwon answered easily, “Henry vouched for Hankyung, something he did not for you, nor did I.” Kibum stared at him, silently demanded an explanation, “Kibum, you’re a good cook - there’s no denying that. But what you have in skill you lack in humility.”
“What!?” Kibum exclaimed, no longer containing his anger,
“You still don’t believe you have much to learn. You still don’t believe that you’re not ready yet to take on being a head chef,” Shiwon criticized, “You grew as a cook over the past three years because you had a head chef to learn from. I believe you will grow even more while having Hankyung as your head chef.”
“That’s a load of bull-”
“Not only do you need Hankyung to improve yourself, Kibum, but I believe he’ll need you as well,” Shiwon continued as if Kibum had not rudely interjected; “He’s still learning Korean and he’ll need someone to help him ease into a kitchen that has been working together for three years. I - and Henry - believe you’re the best one to do that.”
“I don’t believe this,” Kibum hissed as he turned on his heel to leave.
“Kibum,” Shiwon called after him.
Kibum stopped, his hand on the doorknob,
“Come to me tomorrow and quit again, but think about this,” he challenged, “There are plenty of cooks out there looking for a job, but not all of them have the chance to learn from someone considered a culinary master.”
Kibum’s hand gripped around the doorknob, knowing he had just stepped into a trap.
Kibum paused outside the kitchen door. Taking a deep breath, he strode in just as Hankyung was asking of each person’s place in the kitchen.
“And you must be Kibum-sshi, the sous chef?” Hankyung asked tentatively, offering an amiable smile,
Kibum merely nodded, crossing his arms over his chest and joined the other kitchen staff, leaning a hip against a nearby counter. As Hankyung began to go over that evening’s specials, Kibum couldn’t help but appraise the new head chef. His eyes swept over him, coming to a stop at his face, startled to see that Hankyung was staring back at him. The moment Kibum’s eyes fell upon him, however, Hankyung turned his gaze away as if he wasn’t fazed in the least and for some reason, that annoyed Kibum.
After Hankyung was done, everyone dispersed to go about their own tasks. When Kibum made to leave, Hankyung stopped him,
“As my sous chef, I hope I can count on you,” Hankyung said lightly, a smile on his face,
“I’m not your sous chef, I’m the restaurant’s and I wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t rely on me,” Kibum replied icily as he stepped around Hankyung.
For the rest of the evening, Hankyung was wary whenever near the sous chef or having to speak to him. It was clear that Kibum was hostile towards him but Hankyung had no idea why. Throughout the evening in between his own tasks, Hankyung would tour around the kitchen to ask the other people questions or offer some guidance. He was always met with a word of thanks, except from Kibum would continue on as if he hadn’t heard a word from him. However, whenever Hankyung walked off, he noticed that Kibum would do as he had instructed anyway.
It was closing on two in the morning when the staff were slowly leaving the restaurant, the cleaning crew coming in to clean every inch of the restaurant and kitchen. Kibum stood outside the employee entrance which was at the back of the restaurant, opening up to a parking lot reserved for staff of the restaurant. The last to leave the restaurant - other than the owner and cleaning crew - was Hankyung.
Hankyung came sprinting down the steps as he slung the strap of his mail bag over his shoulder. He went over to a motorcycle parked in the lot and straddled it, zipping up his jacket just as Kibum came over to him,
“Hankyung-sshi,” Kibum called,
Hankyung watched as Kibum approached him, “Yes?” He asked as he took his helmet out from his bag and precariously hung it on one of the handles,
“What the hell is your problem!?” Kibum questioned, “All night you wouldn’t get off my case! Every dish I prepared or garnered or plated - you’d always criticize! I’m not sous chef for nothing, so back the hell off! Just because you’re the new head chef doesn’t mean you can pick on me!”
“First of all, I wasn’t on your problem-”
“You mean ’case’,” Kibum automatically corrected his Korean,
“Case - I was on everyone’s. If I’m to be head chef, I need to know that my kitchen is running as smoothly as possible. So if you stopped being conceited for one moment, you would’ve seen that I was criticizing everyone’s dishes; not. Just. Yours.” Hankyung defended angrily. He didn’t know what this person had against him, but he wasn’t going to take it lying down. He started the engine of his bike, “Second of all, I’m not the one with the problem, OBVIOUSLY you have some problem with me, despite the fact you’ve known me all of 12 hours.”
Kibum clenched his fists as Hankyung took up his helmet and pulled it down securely over his head. He slid up the visor so he could see him clearly, “And lastly, Kibum-sshi. I’m the head chef, and as the sous chef, I can pick on you!” With that, Hankyung snapped the visor down and rode off, giving Kibum no chance of even thinking of a reply.
Ever since the altercation in the parking lot, Kibum and Hankyung spoke to each other as little as possible, barely exceeding the necessities between a head chef and sous chef in a kitchen. As their time together continued, Kibum had to grudgingly agree that the food had become progressively better and more compliments than ever were sent via waiters to the chef.
One evening, Kibum was watching as Hankyung ruled the kitchen with an iron fist and a gentle hand. He guided the staff as he saw fit, but accepted no preventable mistakes. The staff accepted Hankyung whole-heartedly, even helping correct his Korean when needed. They asked the head chef for opinions and guidance and were never left unsatisfied after Hankyung had spoken to them.
Kibum was startled when one of the waiters brought back a dish he had put together, “What’s wrong with it?”
“They said it needs more salt,” The waiter replied flippantly, “I don’t see why they don’t just used the salt shakers on their table like I told them to.”
“And what did they say to that?” Kibum asked as he stared at the offending plate,
“That if this was such a high-class restaurant they shouldn’t have to salt their own food,” The waiter, Heechul, replied bitterly,
“Is there a problem?” Hankyung asked, hearing the conversation as he was passing by and stopping to face the other two,
“Some customer’s just too lazy to sprinkle more salt on her plate,” Heechul scoffed as he crossed his arms loosely about his torso,
“And how do you feel about the dish?” Hankyung asked, turning his hard eyes on Kibum,
“What are your heart about the dish?” Hankyung questioned,
“You mean ‘feelings’,” Heechul prompted the correct word,
“Yes, yes, how you prepared it? Do you think it worthy of complaint?” Hankyung questioned,
Kibum turned his eyes towards the plate and after a moment said tentatively, “I believe every plate that has left this kitchen under my eyes are not worthy of any word of complaint.”
Hankyung gave him an acknowledging nod as he turned towards the door that separated the kitchens from the front of the restaurant. He turned on his heel and returned to Kibum and Heechul. He picked up the plate, grabbed the salt shaker and sprinkled some atop the dish. He handed the plate over to Heechul, “See if this is to their liking.”
Hankyung waited beside Kibum in awkward silence. Heechul returned momentarily, practically throwing the plate down,
“I’ll strangle that woman! I swear it,” Heechul exclaimed, crossing his arms again, “She even went as far as to insult the entire kitchen, questioning the skill…”
Hankyung’s eyes narrowed in a way that Kibum had never seen. “Heechul-sshi, pick up the plate and lead after me,” Hankyung said gruffly.
“I think he means ‘follow’,” Heechul murmured,
Kibum blinked just as Hankyung and Heechul left the kitchen. Immediately Kibum ran to the kitchen door and stared out the circular window that looked out into the front kitchen. As Heechul placed the plate down before the customer, Hankyung began to talk to her. Kibum watched as the woman’s face slowly grew red, her small eyes narrowing as Hankyung stood there speaking to her in a seemingly calm manner, his arms crossed loosely about his torso.
Finally the woman stood up from her table, throwing the serviette she had draped over her lap onto the table. Their conversation was garnering attention from other guests as the woman stormed out. Kibum watched as Hankyung bowed to the other guests, presumably apologizing for the disturbance in their dinners. When Hankyung turned back towards the kitchen, Kibum immediately bolted away from the door, resuming the place he had been standing in when Hankyung and Heechul had left just moments ago.
Heechul entered the kitchen with dishes, one of which Kibum recognized to be the salt-lacking dish from before. Heechul brought the dishes over to one of the sinks and walked over to Kibum,
“Where’s Hankyung-sshi?” Kibum asked,
“He’s headed over to talk to the owner,” Heechul replied as he went over to check on his other orders, “Apparently that woman is one of Seoul’s renowned food critics.”
“What?” Kibum gaped,
Heechul chuckled slightly as he grabbed four plates, two on each arm, “So I think he’s telling the owner to prepare themselves for a bad review in tomorrow’s paper.”
Kibum leaned back against the counter, shocked into silence as Heechul left the kitchen.
Kibum didn’t see Hankyung for the rest of the evening. The first time in weeks that the kitchen was running on its own without the supervision of the foreign head chef. When he left the restaurant early the next morning, he noticed that Hankyung’s motorcycle was one of the vehicles present in the near-empty parking lot.
He sat down on the steps of the employee entrance, hoping that Hankyung wouldn’t take much longer to leave. It was close to three in the morning when Hankyung stepped out of the restaurant. Kibum stood up immediately but Hankyung brushed past him and headed straight to his bike, slinging his bag across his shoulders as usually,
“She’s one of the most prominent of food critics in Seoul,” Hankyung spat as he straddled his bike, zipping up his jacket securely, “And she vowed never to step in the restaurant ever again, do you know how long it took me to calm the owner down!?”
“I-I-I’m sorry,” Kibum stammered as Hankyung turned that angry stare at him. Taken aback, Kibum had no idea what to say,
“I am the head chef of this restaurant and whatever leaves that kitchen is in part, my responsibility,” Hankyung stated solidly, “But we have to pick our battles. There will be people who like our food and people who will hate it, we can’t get caught up in every dislike thrown at us. Instead, we fix it to their liking and they’ll go on their merry way.”
“I’m not the only one! Heechul-”
“Heechul is a waiter and doesn’t understand the situation from a chef’s point of view! This is the first complaint we’ve had in weeks and it won’t hurt for us to alter their food as they please just this one time,” Hankyung replied, “Yes, we make good food - pretty damn good food, actually, but sometimes - SOMETIMES - we have to swallow our pride and make the customer happy!”
Hankyung reached for his helmet that he had hung on the handles again as he was doing up his jacket, but Kibum placed his hands on the helmet first to stop him, “Then why did you go talk to her if you feel that way?” Kibum demanded,
“Because I’m still the head chef!” Hankyung exclaimed, his voice stern, his stare hard; “You are a part of my kitchen and I will go through the fire every time for you all, but if for one second you don’t believe it’s worth it, then shut the hell up and pick up the damn salt shaker!”
Kibum turned to leave, but Hankyung grabbed his hand just as it lost contact with the helmet, “You think I didn’t see it Kibum-sshi? Didn’t know it? You were sceptical. You weren’t sure that you made that dish as best as you could.”
“If you knew-”
“You have to admit it to me before I say anything, Kibum. I’m not going to question your skills unless you say your own doubts. You’ve said before that you’re more than capable to be in that kitchen, so I’ll treat you as someone completely sure of their skills,” Hankyung’s grip on Kibum’s hand increased substantially, “But you better be damned sure you know what you’re getting into.”
Kibum swallowed hard as Hankyung’s voice came at him in a low growl, felt his hand encased tightly in the heat of Hankyung’s hand and found it suddenly hard to breathe. When Hankyung released his hand, Kibum suddenly turned Hankyung’s head to look back at him and pressed his lips against Hankyung’s. Almost as soon as it began, it ended and Kibum had run to the other side of the parking lot and drove away before Hankyung could say or do anything.
The next evening Kibum went about work as usual. In the kitchen, he did his work with a precision that rivalled those of painters, plating each piece of food as if it were a work of art. Hankyung moved about the kitchen as always, stopping to say a word here and there; grabbing a spoon to taste one of the dishes of the saucier; adding a bit more spice to a pot; or picking up the dishes and helping rinse them before placing them in the dish washer.
Kibum felt uneasy and when it seemed like Hankyung was purposely avoiding his station, he felt even worse. The other night had been impulsive, certainly more impulsive than he had ever been since he first started working at Suju restaurant. He didn’t even like Hankyung, let alone want to kiss him and yet… and yet he couldn’t forget what happened the other night.
From where he was, Kibum furtively observed the head chef. In his chef’s jacket, his sleeves pushed up past his elbows and arms crossed, white apron tied securely about his waist, Hankyung was particularly watching the Saucier. The two were talking amicably when suddenly Hankyung shoved him aside, sliding the giant pot the Saucier had been attending, away from the flame and turning off the stove top,
“You were going to toast it,” Hankyung scolded firmly, his eyes holding concern, “You’ve been working as a Saucier for over a year and half now, can’t you tell when this specific sauce is done?”
“You mean ‘burn’ it. Honestly, Hankyung-sshi, everything I learned was informal. I learned what I know from observing the previous Saucier, he wasn’t even aware that I was learning as he cooked,” the young man admitted, his cheeks pinking,
“So with this, how can you tell it’s done before it burns?” Hankyung asked as he released the spoon, gesturing for the other man to continue stirring it,
“Well, usually I can tell from the colour-”
Hankyung held up a hand to silence him, his head shaking, “Other chefs will teach you the mechanics of sauces, but since you learned outside of a school, I will teach you outside of that thought,” Hankyung stepped a bit closer to the pot and waved his hand above it, wafting the smell towards his face, “Do this and tell me what you think of when you smell this.”
The young man copied him then closed his eyes before answering, “I think of a hot Cheosuk meal, like where this sauce would be commonly used for,”
Hankyung nodded as he walked over to where some spices were and sprinkled some of the flakes into the sauce, “Now do it again.”
The young man smelled the aroma sifting up from the pot and into his nostrils, “It… It sort of reminds me of the meals my mom would make during Cheosuk.”
A small smile spread on Hankyung’s lips, “That’s how you know the sauce is ready to come off the fire. When the aroma you take in fills you with memories of the food your mother would cook during Cheosuk or another festival where you’d use this sauce - that is when the sauce is ready. Not before you feel reminiscent and not after you feel the memories spoil.”
The young man blinked at the pot, “Really?” He looked at Hankyung almost unbelieving,
“Chefs often take two different courses when they learn how to cook. They either want to create exotic and high-class foods, or, they want to reinvent classic dishes that people hold dear in their hearts,” Hankyung explained. He gestured towards the pot as the Saucier allowed it to still, letting go of the mixing spoon, “This sauce can be used for many different dishes that would make it seem exotic or posh, but if it’s made the right way, it can also invoke memories to the eater.”
“What course did you take, Hankyung-sshi?” The Saucier inquired
Hankyung turned to leave, but placed a strong hand on his shoulder, “I took the latter and got into culinary school. I took the former and was the top of my class… I joined the two together to become who I am today. A good chef can differentiate between these two paths, but a great chef can use the advantages of both to make a remarkable and memorable dish.”
With that, Hankyung gave him an encouraging smile before glancing up at the clock. He picked up a wine glass, filled it half with red wine then departed from the kitchen.
Kibum had watched the scene from where he worked, nearly ruining the dish he was preparing before a waiter came and swept the plate away. He felt an annoying heat within his chest when he saw Hankyung talking to the Saucier. He felt his stomach twist painfully when Hankyung had laid his hand on the young man’s shoulder.
Kibum shook his head in frustration as he tried to push those horrible feelings away when suddenly Heechul came into the kitchen, almost in a panic, “What’s wrong hyung?” Kibum asked the older man,
“Critic,” Heechul practically gasped, dramatically collapsing into a nearby stool, “Walked. In. Requested. Food. By. Head. Chef.”
Kibum sighed heavily, “I’ll go find Hankyung.”
It didn’t take Kibum long. He located the head chef sitting at one end of the bar, the bartender standing with him, the bar between them. The two were watching something and suddenly, Kibum found himself searching to see what captivated Hankyung so. His eyes landed at the piano across the restaurant. With nothing lighting the piano’s space but the moonlight and street lights which penetrated the restaurant’s windows, the space obscured by lack of light suddenly drew Kibum’s attention in like a black hole. From within the shadows of the piano, a soft, melodic tune floated throughout the restaurant, creating a calm mood and Kibum noticed that light was catching on a single glass of wine atop the piano’s shelf.
Kibum forcibly pulled himself from the music’s grasp as he tentatively approached Hankyung, noticing the wine glass he had earlier was gone, “Ah… Hankyung-sshi.”
Hankyung, startled from his reverie, turned in his stool to look at Kibum, a peculiar light entering his eyes, “Ah… yes?”
Kibum took a steadying breath before relying the news, “A critic came into the restaurant and told Heechul he wanted food made specifically by you.”
Hankyung sighed heavily as he said goodbye to the bartender and walked back to the kitchen; Kibum followed hesitantly.
The kitchen was almost in a stand still as Hankyung commanded his work station with the fierce skill and precision one would think of a martial artist. As Kibum watched, breath bated, he realized this was the first time he had ever seen Hankyung cook. Sure he would add something here and there to the others’ dishes, but to create something himself - this was a first time.
Hankyung plated the food with deft fingers that treated each portion of food as if it were porcelain. Finally, he brought the plate over to the Saucier and, grabbing the spoon, drizzled some of the sauce they had been working on earlier over the food. Without ceremony, he released the spoon back into the pot and swiftly brought the plate over to Heechul’s waiting hands where he had sat in a stool earlier,
“If he has any complaints, send for me,” Hankyung stated simply as he crossed his arms about his torso.
When Heechul immediately left, the kitchen slowly began filling with activity and noise as everyone resumed their own duties. Kibum, who had been standing beside Heechul, now found himself standing beside Hankyung. He leaned his hips back against the metal table behind him. His hands gripped the table’s edge as he glanced at Hankyung,
“You seem… more agitated than normal,” Kibum noticed, almost reluctantly. It was one of the first times he had ever felt scared to be around the head chef. No, this wasn’t fear he was feeling - it was intimidation. Seeing how Hankyung wielded the tools of the kitchen, Kibum suddenly felt inferior and at the same time, a drive to best the foreign chef beside him was lit.
“Have you ever heard of a critic that comes into a restaurant but asks for a dish personally made by the head chef?” Hankyung practically bit out, “No, critics want to critique the kitchen itself and the members within, not just the head chef.” Kibum noticed as Hankyung tightened his crossed arms, “I knew I’d face some adversity when I came here… but I never realized it would happen so-”
Heechul burst into the kitchen then, but Hankyung left before he could say anything. Kibum, suddenly feeling anxious, followed him, taking the seat Hankyung had sat in earlier at the bar.
Hankyung waited for Heechul then allowed the waiter to guide him to the critic. The man was sitting at a table not too far from where Kibum sat.
“This is Geom Li,” Heechul’s introductions wafted over towards Kibum, “He’s one of Korea’s most respected food critics and-”
The man raised a hand to silence Heechul, “Being a head chef in Korea, he should already know who I am.”
Kibum clenched his fists as the bartender wandered over towards him, “I wondered why he looked familiar,” the bartender noted as he wiped the inside of a glass with a cloth, “Geom Li, huh? We’ve only seen him in magazines and such, huh Kibum-sshi?”
Kibum nodded, “Why is he here now, Eeteuk-hyung?” He asked the bar tendered, finding his mouth dry and his heart practically stop beating as he watched the scene unfold before him, “Geom Li never came here the three years Suju’s been open. Why now? And why did he specifically request for Hankyung’s cooking? He’s never done that before.”
“Did you find a problem with the food?” Hankyung asked casually, his arms stiff at his sides,
“Yes, the meat is dry, the vegetables taste as if they’d been salted and not to mention the sauce has too much ginger - I won’t even go into the plating you’ve done,” Geom Li stated matter-of-factly,
“I insist that you do,” Hankyung gritted out,
“The tastes of the Chinese are different from that of Koreans, if you’re to succeed here, it’s high time you realize this. Your ambitions are too high to believe you can take on Korean cuisine,” Geom Li scoffed, “Going as far as to insult one of Korean’s most prominent of critics,”
“He was sent here by that old bat!” Kibum hissed from the bar, “Why else would he mention her?”
“I wonder if Hankyung will hit him,” Eeteuk wondered aloud as he placed the glass he was drying aside, draping his cloth over his shoulder.
Kibum worried about the same thing. He had seen the anger within Hankyung on two separate occasions now and he knew how fiery the head chef was once his temper was tapped.
Hankyung took a steadying breath as he crossed his arms defiantly, eyes narrowing ever so slightly, “I used to think my aspirations to dominate Korean cuisine were too high an expectation as well, Geom Li-sshi. However, that way of thinking has since left me when I fed this very dish to the President and he immediately declared it a favourite of his.”
“As I’ve said, the taste of the Chinese are different from that of-”
“I wasn’t talking about the Chinese President. I was talking about Lee Myung Bak-sshi,” Hankyung interjected, his words flat and yet lined with icy venom, “He even asked if I could cook it for him and his family this coming Cheosuk festival.” Hankyung’s eyes coldly appraised the man before him, “Hmm… I would not wish to be the one to explain to the President that his tastes are not on the same level as the great Geom Li.”
The critic opened his mouth to reply when Hankyung suddenly swivelled on his heel and strode back towards the kitchen. However, before he entered it, he heard a familiar voice,
“Who are you to comment on Hankyung-sshi’s cooking!?” Kibum demanded.
Hankyung spun around to see Kibum towering over the critic, fists clenched at his sides,
“I am Korea’s most respected-”
“Food critic? HA! I’d be surprised if you could cook with even one-tenth of the skill Hankyung-sshi possesses!” Kibum declared angrily, their raised voices suddenly catching the attention of those around them,
“Skill? My mother could make this better!” Geom Li retorted, getting to his feet, “High-class food, indeed!”
“That’s the point!” Kibum explained, “But I guess you’re too narrow-minded to understand that fact! Hankyung’s so skilled that he’s able to make classic dishes into classy ones! He takes our memories of meals we’ve had as children and forms them into dishes we can enjoy as adults, but I guess that escaped your-”
The rest of Kibum’s words were muffled by Hankyung’s hand as it clamped down over his mouth.
“Let it go,” Hankyung’s voice came low and sultry in Kibum’s ear. Kibum struggled against his hold, having much more to say to this obnoxious man who was obviously targeting Hankyung for all the reasons. Hankyung, however, tightened his hold on Kibum, restraining him effectively.
From the piano, a shadow stood tall, picking up the glistening wine glass and slowly drifted towards them, stepping into the dim lights and candle light of the night-time restaurant, “Geom Li-sshi, I think you’ve overstayed your welcome here at Suju.”
“Shiwon-sshi,” Kibum muttered when Hankyung’s hand hesitantly fell away from his lips,
“A critic is a respected role for those in the food industry. They are to provide guidance and standards by which people cook in order to please those with supposed superior pallets,” The owner of the restaurant said coolly as he held the wine glass to eye level, gently swirling the deep red liquid within. After a moment, he took a sip of it before continuing, “To target someone, to use one’s power and influence for that of negative purposes is not what a critic is supposed to be…” Shiwon then turned his dark eyes onto Geom Li, his stare cold and unforgiving, “A critic is supposed to judge a person harshly, to motivate them to be more than they are… not to pressure them into giving up.”
Shiwon downed the rest of his wine before slamming the flute onto the table, “Somewhere along the way, you forgot why you were respected for what you do, Geom Li-sshi. When you find your way, you will be welcomed back here,” He turned his back on the critic in a bold, dismissive action before the entire restaurant, “Until then, our host will show you to the door.” Shiwon raised his hand, gesturing towards the host working that evening. A college student bounded over, dressed in black dress pants and silver button-up, “Kyuhyun-sshi… please escort Geom Li-sshi to the door. He will not be returning.”
With that, Shiwon retreated towards the back of the restaurant where a hallway led to his office above the restaurant.
Silently, Hankyung and Kibum watched as the restaurant’s young host led the way of the critic. After the door closed after him, only then did the usual pleasant murmurs of the customers resume their soft melody in the restaurant.
Kibum hesitantly turned around to face Hankyung, startled by the narrowed eyes staring back at him, fired by what could only be anger. Hankyung grabbed his wrist then dragged Kibum swiftly behind him.
They had reached the employee entrance when Hankyung finally released his hold on Kibum. Hankyung descended the few steps at the entrance and began to pace at the bottom. Finally he stopped and stared up at Kibum,
“What the hell is your problem!?” Hankyung demanded,
“MY problem!? I just defended you in front of Seoul - no, Korea’s most respected food critics, and you say I have a problem!?” Kibum retorted,
“YES YOU DO!” Hankyung exclaimed, “Since the moment I stepped into that restaurant, you’ve been nothing but hostile towards me! Since the moment you laid eyes upon me, you’ve looked like I stole something from you. All I’ve ever wanted was to be accepted here, especially by you since you were the sous chef and then the moment I think I have you figured out - you do things that make me think otherwise!”
“I don’t even know what’s going on with me,” Kibum replied,
“Are you playing with me?” Hankyung asked simply,
“What?” Kibum asked,
“Last night’s kiss, then earlier with Geom Li,” Hankyung said, crossing his arms over his chest and landed Kibum with a hard stare, “Are. You. Playing. With. Me.”
“No… No,” Kibum answered with conviction; “I wanted your job,” Kibum admitted, his voice darker than he had wanted, “When the last head chef left, I wanted the promotion to your job. When Shiwon hired you instead, I was mad and I… I hated you.”
Hankyung leaned a hip against the stairs’ railing, “You’re still mad,”
Kibum ignored his gaze, refusing to admit to anything, “And as much as I hate to admit it… you’re every bit of what your reputation says about you.”
“You still haven’t given me reason to think that you’re not toying with me, Kibum-sshi,” Hankyung stated, almost irritably,
“I honestly don’t know what to tell you,” Kibum replied, “I… I wanted to hate you because you got the job that I had wanted and yet… I was attracted to you. I wanted to find fault in what you did, but you always knew how to make a dish better and you were more than happy to help out even the cleaners. Then when you defended my dish yesterday and earlier when you taught Hyun Suk how to properly cook his sauce… ”
“What are you trying to say Kibum? Do you hate me? Do you like me? Which is it?” Hankyung demanded,
“Hankyung-sshi,” Heechul opened the door, “Someone’s looking for you.”
“Who is it?” Hankyung sighed, running his hand through his hair,
“The owner I think? The guy who threw Geom Li out,” Heechul said,
Hankyung blinked, “You don’t even know who the owner is?”
Heechul scoffed, “Why waste my time worrying over such pointless information?”
Hankyung shook his head lightly as he came up the stairs and re-entered the restaurant.
Hankyung didn’t reappear in the kitchen for the rest of the night. As Kibum took charge of the kitchen as bestowed upon his job title when the head chef was gone, he didn’t miss the questions on everyone’s lips about the head chef’s disappearance. By the end of the night, it was rumoured that Hankyung had been fired.
When Kibum left the restaurant early the next morning, he was relieved to see Hankyung’s motorcycle still in the parking lot. He waited by the stairs, if his bike was still there, then there was hope that Hankyung hadn’t been fired. Then again, the owner could be reprimanding him… or was there more between the owner and Hankyung?
Kibum began recalling how Hankyung had left the kitchen with a glass of wine and then coincidentally enough, that glass of wine ended up in the possession of the owner. He had almost convinced himself that Hankyung was having an affair with the owner when the door opened and Hankyung stepped out.
“Shiwon-sshi really does have a sense of humour. He suspects the next article on the restaurant will have us labelled as the ‘Critic-killer’.” Hankyung chuckled softly as he ran a hand through his hair,
“He’s… He’s not mad?” Kibum asked hesitantly as he followed Hankyung down the steps,
“No… he was amused actually,” Hankyung shook his head, “He said he hasn’t had that much excitement for some time.”
“Isn’t he worried about losing business?” Kibum inquired as Hankyung straddled his motorcycle,
“On the contrary, he believes tonight’s situation will make Suju even more popular. There’s no such thing as bad news-”
“Publicity?” Kibum suggested,
“Ah yeah,” Hankyung nodded absent-mindedly, “Honestly, when I was speaking to Geom Li, I prayed that my Korean would be okay,” He blinked as he glanced at Kibum, “It… was okay?”
Kibum nodded, “Your Korean was fine.”
“Ah… I see…” Hankyung stared a moment at his helmet in his hands before looking at Kibum again, “Well, Kibum-sshi… I guess I’ll just see you-”
The rest of Hankyung’s words were muffled by Kibum as he pressed his lips against Hankyung’s. After a brief moment, he straightened immediately, “It’s… it’s both.”
“Eh?” Hankyung blinked, thoroughly confused,
“It’s both… my answer to your questions… I… I hate you on a professional level… but I like you on a personal level,” Kibum confessed, his face feeling very hot,
“What a shame,” Hankyung commented with a heavy sigh as he pulled his helmet on. Kibum turned to leave, but Hankyung grabbed his hand before he could move. He looked back to find Hankyung staring at him, the visor of his helmet up, “As it is, I like you on both levels.”
Kibum felt his jaw drop slightly and a wave of heat flow upon him. Hankyung released his hand then, with a finger beneath his chin, closed Kibum’s mouth.
“Ah, I’ve finally made you lose your language,” Hankyung chuckled softly as he snapped down his visor. He started the engine of his motorcycle and drove off without another word.
“You mean ‘words’…” Kibum blinked, suddenly realizing his was alone. He looked around the parking lot, but Hankyung was long gone. Kibum treaded towards his car, opened the door and threw in his bag.
He paused a moment, remembering the look in Hankyung’s eyes and the feel of Hankyung’s fingers around his hand. He ran both of his hands through his hair in frustration, “AISH! I really hate that guy!”