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Mushrooms, why’d it have to be mushrooms? Today started off so well too. My mother used her usual secret technique of luring me down stairs with the sweet smell of bacon. Dressed in just a gown and slippers with the bed hair of the Wicked Witch of the West. I was in no mood to find my plate devoid of pig. Instead of breakfast I found an envelope. I willed my stare into a pair of daggers and aimed my weapon directly at my mother. “Woman! Where is my bacon?” I said with deadly intent.

“Open it.” she said a bemused smile upon her lips. My fingers were already working. 

“Another rejection? Let’s hope it’s from the Origami University. Then I’d know what to make of it.” I replied. My mother just scoffed at me as I read aloud.

“Dear AMELIA FINN, We invite you… Interview… apprenticeship… at Oddity?” My eyes widened and I read on. “The interviews today! It’s in two hours. What the frick mum!” I said. 

“You better hurry then.” My mother said. I scrambled. Snatching the grizzled pork from my mother’s outstretched hand with my teeth. Like a hurricane I ran to my room throwing objects in every direction. I found the only smart blouse I owned, some reasonably serviceable pants and hung them up to ‘self iron’ as I showered. 

I was ready in record time. A personal best! My reflection in the mirror showed me as presentable. My eyes shone hazel instead of the ‘I’ve been up all night playing computer games’ look they usually bore. My hair however made me look a relative of cousin IT from The Adam’s Family.

I ran downstairs to find my mother by the door waiting patiently. We hopped in the car. My mother graciously driving as I used what little time I had to prepare for the interview. You see I’ve only recently got out of college. For the last few months I’ve been applying anywhere and everywhere for a culinary position. Lots of rejection letters, few interviews.

A nervous wreck I frantically searched for interview tips online. My mother obviously reading the look upon my face rather than watching the road laid her hand on my arm. “Relax hun, you’ll be fine. Just be yourself” 

“Be myself? That’s the problem” I retorted. 

The car slowed as we pulled up outside the restaurant. “You are awesome Em, now keep that shit up.” She said with a sober look. My lips couldn’t help but draw into a smile. She was good at that. I took a deep breath, paused for what seemed like an eternity and got out of the car.

Oddity is an upmarket restaurant with its name displayed on a canopy out front. I stepped into the building. They hadn’t opened yet. Everything was ever so still and quiet. As I waited; I inspected the interior. The dining room was split into four sections, each representing a motif of an overarching theme. Which as far as I could tell was Fairytales. Cool. One of the quarters looked like Jack & the Beanstalk. Another; Little Red Riding Hood. My favourite, Hansel and Gretel, had a giant gingerbread house where diners would sit. I was trying to decipher what the fourth one was when a voice called over from a nearby doorway. “Hello, can I help you miss? We’re not open yet.” A hostess said as she approached me. 

“I’m here for the apprenticeship” I continued.

“Oh right!” she exclaimed. “Please come join the others in the back. Kenneth is about to start the interviewing process!”

“Kenneth!?” I gulped as I followed her lead. Kenneth is the owner & head chef I remembered. Well known for his quirky cooking ‘odd but delicious’ was the restaurant slogan. I was both excited & nervous. I didn’t think he’d be conducting the interview himself. The hostess led me into the kitchen. 

Inside I saw a group of people standing around a man wielding a pot and ladle. “Ah excellent! That makes seven. All of our hopefuls have arrived.” He said before whacking the pot with his ladle like a makeshift gong. “Welcome” He exclaimed. “You are the lucky few. Who will have a chance to join our crazy little family here at Oddity?” Kenneth said using the gong to emphasise the name. “Tonight we have a special guest; Vinny Van. My friend and renowned food critic!”

This was followed by a sharp intake of breath from the other candidates. I scooched over to one of them. A girl similar to my age with a cute cat emblem on her bag. “Hey, who’s Vinny Van'” I said hushed tones. She startled at my touch. “You don’t know? He’s TV famous! La Chabot gained fame and Glasshouse closed due to his review” 

“Thanks” I said. She threw me a smile and turned back to the master chef as he continued.

“Now the interview is simple. Mr.Van has a particular weakness. Does anyone know what it is?” Kenneth said. He directed his weapon among the crowd. A guy wearing a green coat raised his hand. “Yes? “Kenneth said. The boy began to talk but was cut off instantly. “Yes! Fungi!” Kenneth said. I visibly grimaced. The rest of the initiates had a similar reaction. “More precisely. Mushrooms.” Kenneth continued. “He’s absolutely mad for the stuff!” He said. The guy in the green coat spoke up obviously taken aback at being cut off. 

“What does this have to do with the interview? “He said.

“Ah I was getting to that,” Kennett said. “You seven will be creating the five course meal he dines on tonight.” He continued followed by gasps from the crowd. “You task is to eat nothing but mushrooms for lunch and then come up with a suitable dish.” He finished. 

“How will we be marked for the interview?” I said poking up from the back of the crowd.

“Well I’ll judge each dish combined with the critics reaction.” Kenneth replied.

“Does it have to be mushrooms?” The Girl with the cat badge said.

“Of course. It’s known that the little devils take up mushroom in our guests heart.” Vinny said emphasising the word by wiggling his eyebrows. Silence followed for a very unfortunate amount of time until the host cleared her throat. “Come back by 3pm to start cooking. That corner of the kitchen is reserved for you. My chefs will help you out” He said with one final ring of the gong.

Mushrooms. Ack. I hated mushrooms. One reason I leaned towards baking in culinary school. What kinda fricking interview was this? I expected to have to cook but not under such strange conditions! I needed a plan. I needed a partner, someone that I could bounce ideas off of. I looked around the room and my eyes locked with cat girls. “Hi! I’m Amelia, Thanks for earlier.” I said. She looked down then back up to me. Shy. 

“Hey, no problem. My name’s Kat with a K!” she said enthusiastically. I had to stop my eyes from rolling it was just too much of a coincidence. “So… do you have any idea what you’re gonna do?” I said trying not to sound desperate. It didn’t work.

“Uh, I’ve got an idea but this is a competition right?” she replied. 

“I guess. Fair enough. Know anywhere that’ll be good for brainstorming? Mushrooms aren’t really my thing.” I said.

“Well there’s a vegetarian place just around the corner. I thought I’d go there if you’d like to join me?” she said. I could see the pity in her eyes.

“Sure!” I replied a little bit too enthusiastically. 

We gathered up our things and made our way out. We chatted little during the short walk to The Collared Cabbage; Which I hoped was a misspelling of Collard. It was a small place and people were already sitting down for lunch. We were guided to a table and sat in awkward silence for a minute or two as we checked out the menu. “What’re you going for Kat?” I asked hoping to stir conversation. She looked up from the menu her eyes darting each way before resting on me. 

“The um, mushroom risotto and rooibos tea. You?” she countered.

“The Portobello Burger. I mean it’s a burger right? How bad can it be?”

We ordered our food and the waiter brought us our drinks. Taking a break from sipping her tea Kat said, “You really don’t like mushrooms?” 

I nodded. “I mean they don’t even fit the theme of the restaurant. I mean at least broccoli could be trees, walnuts could be brains. What do mushrooms look like?” I said. Kat blushed, spat most of her tea out and choked on the rest. Ignoring my rant she said.

“Well there are plenty of interesting things you can do with them; Stuff them, saute them, make them a burger.” she gestured to our food as it arrived. 

“That was quick” I said.
“Yeah they’re really good here & it’s cheap!” she replied.

We tucked into our food. I grabbed my ‘burger’ and imagined cow, and nothing but cow as I took a big bite. Chomp chomp chew…. spit! Argh it tasted just like shiitake…. I giggle to myself then grimaced. How was I going to do this? Kat must of seen the look on my face. “Cook what you enjoy.” She smiled as she raised her tea towards me. “I’m doing mushroom tea & sandwiches, as a starter.” She said. 

“I want to be a pastry chef.” I said trying to match her smile but failing. 

“Oh… that might be hard” She replied. We ate the rest of our meal in relative silence. Kat jotted down some notes while I sulked, trying to come up with ideas. Mushroom cookies? Cupcakes? Creme caramels?

After awhile Kat got up. “I’m going to head back & make a start. I can’t wait to see what you come up with!” She said paying her half of the cheque and leaving. A few minutes later, frustrated, I left my burger and decided to go for a walk. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to cook? Chefs had a large pallet right? Kenneth’s crazy experiments proved that. My stomach growled. One bite for lunch wasn’t enough. Beside me two kids walked out of a building with an ice cream in each hand. I mean literally two ice creams each. Instantly I wanted one.

I walked into the parlour and was astonished by the amount of flavours they had! Mint, chocolate, mint chocolate, coconut, walnut, broccoli…. wait broccoli? That’s when the idea hit me.

I took my ice cream, orange chocolate, and ran back. Well I say ran but have you ever tried to eat and run?

When I got to Oddity lunch service was already underway so the hostess led me to the kitchen through the back entrance. A few of the other candidates had already started on their dishes. I hadn’t noticed any dessert or sweets yet. I saw Kat kneading bread with one of the main chefs. I smiled at her and received one in return. I moved over to the counter with my name on it and a man in a tall hat came over “What do you need? I’ll get it for you.” He said. I listed off the items 

“Whole milk, cream, dried shiitake, chocolate & bacon..” I continued to list off my ingredients.

He brought everything in minutes, then I was away! Mixing cream, milk and sugar. Cooking bacon… mmm bacon. Grating mushrooms. I had to make a few executive tastings with the dark chocolate but I was in the Zone! I churned it all up in the mixer & everything was looking great. Dipping my spoon into the mix for one last taste; There was a recognizable flavour of mushrooms but then it transitioned, evolved into a psychedelic mixture of sweet & savory. It was magic. Which differed greatly from the taste of car tire that I had expected.

Then I waited. Waited, watched & helped out where I could. Kenneth was cooking but I had no doubt he was paying attention to our work. A few hours later I finished off my creation. The kitchen went quiet as a hostess walked in and announced Vinny Van had entered the building. I could see the same look of nervous excitement on everyone’s face. Each course went out with several dishes. One from Kenneth and the others from us candidates. There was a horizontal slit in one of the walls in between the kitchen & dining room. We gathered there to spectate as the food went out.

Vinny was a refined gentlemen in a suit and a stylish pair of glasses. The appetisers were first to go out. Kat and I held hands as Vinny tackled the course. I remember squeezing Kat’s hand as he picked up the tea, sipped and downed the rest. He then poured himself another. Kat was ecstatic. The next few courses came and went, including the main. All some flavor or theme of mushroom. I began to worry. There was so much food. By the time he came to dessert he’d explode!

Then the time came. Two covered plates were brought out to Vinny. Mine and Kenneth’s! I was sure to fail. The waiter lifted the dish revealing a sparkling frosted toadstool stuffed with chocolate moose, Kenneth’s dessert. Next was mine. Shiitake mushroom ice cream with chocolate-covered bacon bits. I was filled with dread. It was too basic… too simple… to compete with the master chef’s dish.

My heart thumped as I watched. He took a spoon then cut a slice of Kenneth’s dessert. Then a bite from mine. A bite from his. One more from mine – it was even! “Good job.” I heard whispered in my ear. It was from Kenneth! Afterwards the masterchef brought us into the dining room and introduced us to the critic. He gave us his critique there and then. He loved Kat’s tea as it was refreshing but thought the sandwiches bland. As for my ice cream. Kenneth said “Thank all the god’s for bacon bits. After having nothing but mushroom all night I fear I was starting to go mad. The ice cream was delightful!” I beamed at the mixed praise. I mean he didn’t not like it.

Finally Vinny spoke to Kenneth in front of all of us. “Now Kenneth. when I told you my favourite food I didn’t expect it in every dish! Good heavens man not every­thing needs to contain mushrooms.” He said finishing with a hearty laugh. Which I took for a good sign.

In the end Kenneth thanked us for our time and rewarded us for our efforts with an exquisite meal. Kat and I remained friends, Vinny gave the restaurant rave reviews for its commitment to uniqueness. Oh and I got the job! Along with Kat and another candidate. First day on training and Kenneth gave us chef’s hats shaped like mushrooms… I nearly quit there & then.

Simon Shugar - Fantasy Author