Let’s try something different.
We all love those never-give-up stories, the ones about how Colonel Sanders was rejected 302 times (or 1009 times, depending on the teller) before finding someone interested in his fried chicken recipe. Or how Thomas Edison failed a thousand times (or, in some tellings, ten thousand times) before building a successful filament light bulb. Or how this or that famous actor or singer was turned down in a zillion auditions (or ten zillion) before landing the big role.
I’ve even experienced a few of those stories myself, and in these, I can vouch for the numbers.
In a past post, I’ve written about how the manuscript for The Go-Giver was rejected 22 times before Adrian Zackheim at Portfolio said yes — and then went on to sell a half million copies in two dozen languages. And how the manuscript for The Red Circle was rejected 10 times before being bought by Marc Resnick at St. Martin’s Press — and when published it became a New York Times bestseller was adapted for kids and is now in development for television.
Those were fun stories to tell. But it’s always easier to identify a victory in hindsight, when the suspense and anxiety of the moment is long past.
What if we did it differently this time?
What if I told you the story while it was actually happening, and brought you right into the middle of it? So you could share in the disappointments, the suspense, and (eventually) the elation?
Let’s do that. Right now.
I have a manuscript that’s sitting, as you read these words, in the hands or on the desks of 20 publishers in New York.
It’s the story of a young boy who has lost his father, whose life is spiraling downhill — grades sinking, getting into fights, that kind of thing. He happens to cross paths with a grizzled old retired chef. Learning ensues. (Think Karate Kid meets Master Chef.)
I wrote it with my good friend Charles Carroll, an eight-time Olympic medalist (yes, there is such a thing as the culinary Olympics, every four years) and executive chef of one of the most prestigious country clubs in Houston.
The story’s called THE RECIPE. In a moment, I’ll show you how it opens.
First, let me tell you how we’re doing so far:
- Publisher 1 said, “What a treat it was to read this. It’s a wonderful parable, very moving” — but they only do business parables. So, no.
- Publisher 2 said, “It was a lovely read that I immensely enjoyed” — but they, too, do only business parables. So, no.
- Publisher 3 said she hates parables.
- Publisher 4 said it was “not a good fit” for them, they were no longer doing inspirational type stories.
- Publisher 5 said, “There’s a lot here that appeals to me; I think this could be a big hit…” but not with them. Another no.
- Publisher 6 said they don’t publish fiction at this time, best of luck with the project.
- Publisher 7 said, “This is certainly a charming parable” but, alas, not the type of book they publish.
- Publisher 8 was an editor who was just leaving her post and moving to another publisher. (This happens a lot.)
So there you go. Eight no’s to date, out of twenty approached. So you’re joining the party right in the thick of it.
Chef Charles and I invite you to send along your positive thoughts, earnest prayers, awesome vibes, and any other denomination of affirmation for our little story finding its way to just the right person … the one who says, Yes.
I’ll let you know what happens!
Here’s how the story starts.
Chapter 1. The Diner
The wind whipped at Owen’s jacket as he trudged up the long slate steps. When he reached the old diner’s front entrance he stopped and turned, putting his back to the door and facing into the bitter February blast.
He tried not to look, but he couldn’t help himself.
There it stood, across the street, dark and deserted, its brickwork looming four stories, long rows of windows glaring back at him. He shivered. One of the big warehouse windows was sealed over with cardboard and duct tape.
The night before, he’d overheard his mom talking quietly on the phone in the next room. He knew it was about him, but all he’d caught was the word “reparation.” He’d had to look it up. The making of amends for a wrongdoing by paying money or other compensation. He’d gone to sleep feeling even worse.
He heaved a big breath and the shivers stopped.
“This is stupid,” he muttered.
He turned back and pushed the door open. Snowflakes spiraled around his feet, following him in as he stepped inside and shut the diner door behind him.
The place was simple, brightly lit, gleaming clean.
“Hello?” he called out as he looked around the place. Six booths lined the windows on the left side, facing the side street; to the right, a long counter lined with a dozen old-fashioned pedestal stools. Three small tables punctuated the center aisle. Owen tried to picture how many people would fill the place. Forty, fifty maybe? Right now, though, at four thirty on a Friday afternoon, there was not a soul in the place.
The sound startled him. Glancing to the right, he spotted its source: a grizzled old guy just visible through a pass-through in the wall behind the counter, focused on his chopping block.
“Hello?” Owen repeated, as he took a few steps toward the pass-through. The man stopped what he was doing and looked up. “I … I need to speak with the owner?”
The man set his knife down, wiped his hands on a small towel hanging at his waist, and peered through the opening at the boy. Owen couldn’t read the expression on his face.
“You the boy here about some work.” More a statement than a question.
“Right,” said the man. He disappeared for a moment, then emerged through a set of swinging doors at the end of the counter and walked up the aisle toward Owen. “Let’s see what you can do.”
“You like to cook?” the man said.
Owen shrugged. “I guess.”
The truth was, Owen loved to cook. In his fourteen years on earth, some of his happiest times had been cooking and eating with his parents, and he was drawn to the kitchen almost as much as he was to the baseball diamond.
At least, he used to be. These days he wasn’t really drawn to much of anything. Getting into fights, maybe.
“Have a seat,” said the man, nodding at the nearest stool. “Let’s see what you can do.”
“Wait. This is a test?” Owen felt his cheeks burn. “Like an audition?”
The man said nothing, just looked at Owen.
“The thing is,” said Owen, “they told me I had to come work here. On weekends, to pay for ….” Owen paused, and his cheeks burned hotter.
“The thing is,” he repeated, “your boss, the guy who owns this place? I owe him some money. So they said I could maybe work here, on weekends. To pay him back, basically. Didn’t they tell you all this?”
The man nodded. “That they did. Doesn’t mean I have to agree, though. If you’re going to cook at my grill I need to know who I’m dealing with here.”
Owen felt like punching something. Coming here to face the owner was hard enough in the first place. And now he was haggling with the cook?
“Um, shouldn’t I talk with the owner? They told me to come talk with the owner.”
The cook shrugged. “I’m who’s here right now. You can talk to me.”
Owen heaved a sigh. “Okay,” he said. “What’s the test?”
“Two parts,” said the cook. “First comes eating.”
“I don’t understand. You want to know if I know how to eat?”
“Sit.” The cook gestured again at the stool and headed back through the swinging doors into the kitchen. Owen heard the hiss of something hitting hot steel. An instant later his nostrils confirmed the sound of something savory on the grill—and an instant after that his stomach reminded him that he hadn’t eaten since that morning. It had been a long day.
It felt like the last six months had been one long day.
No, he corrected himself, not six months. In fact it was exactly four months, three weeks, and two days since that terrible moment … sitting in class on a perfectly ordinary September day, when someone from the main office had come to the classroom door right in the middle of third-period History, knocked quietly, and—
Owen stopped himself from following the thread of that memory any further, and instead forced his attention onto the cook, who was just then emerging through those swinging doors again.
“This is stupid,” he repeated under his breath as he took his seat at the counter.
The cook walked up behind the counter to where Owen sat and set a plate in front of him, then followed it with a glass filled with dark liquid shot through with bubbles fizzing up to the surface.
Owen looked at it in disbelief.
“A hot dog and a Coke? That’s the big culinary test?” This was bogus. Owen was tempted to get up and walk back out the door.
Except that he couldn’t, and he knew it. This had been the deal. Come to work at the diner, or be expelled—and even if he didn’t especially care one way or the other, he couldn’t do that to Mom. Not on top of everything else.
Okay, he’d humor the short-order cook. At least until the owner showed up.
The cook pushed over a second plate and glass, then came out from behind the counter, walked around behind Owen, and sat down at the next stool.
“A hot dog and a Coke,” repeated Owen. “Very high class.”
“Eat,” said the cook.
Owen took a bite of his hot dog. The cook took a bite of his. They sat in silence for a minute, munching, Owen thinking, A hot dog and a Coke. He wants to know if I know how to eat a hot dog and a Coke.
“So,” the cook broke the silence, “what do you think?”
“What do I think?” said Owen. “It’s a hot dog.” He didn’t mean that to come out as rude as it sounded. But what was he supposed to say?
The cook nodded, then said, “How does it taste?”
Owen had been too wrapped up in his thoughts to notice how the thing tasted, but now that the man mentioned it … “It’s pretty good,” he admitted.
“Pretty good, how?” said the cook.
Owen stopped chewing and thought.
Pretty good … how?
He swallowed the bite and took another, trying to pay more attention to what he was eating. “It’s … juicy. But not, I don’t know, soggy?”
The cook said nothing, just waited.
Owen took another bite, tasting as he ate. “And meaty. Like it’s … is there bacon in there too?”
Owen saw something shift slightly in the cook’s face, a change so faint he almost missed it. Was that a smile in his eyes? No, it must have been a trick of the light. This guy’s face was flat as the gray winter sky.
“Not bacon,” the cook was saying. “What you’re tasting is an effect of the grill. Some places keep their hot dogs sitting in a tub of hot water so they’ll be ready to go anytime. A lot of places do that. Not here. This one,” he nodded at Owen’s plate, “was sliced and cooked on the hot grill, hot enough and just long enough to slightly caramelize the surface. Which brings out its meatiness and gives it that savory edge—what you thought might be bacon. And also seals in the moisture. That’s why it’s not, as you put it, soggy.
Owen took another bite, trying to sharpen his sense of taste but not knowing exactly how to go about doing that. “Spicy, too, I guess.” He thought some more. “But not too spicy.”
Owen tried as hard as he could to sort through what he was tasting and pick out the threads of flavor. He could sense them, but couldn’t quite separate or identify them.
He looked at the cook. “I don’t know. Pepper? Mustard?”
The cook was eating his hot dog, too, and for a moment he didn’t say anything, just kept chewing. Then he said, “Salt and pepper, ’course. White pepper, in this case. What else?”
Owen took another bite, frowning hard with concentration.
“Don’t think,” said the cook. “Don’t try to guess what’s in it. Tell me what it tastes like. How it feels on your tongue. How it makes you feel when you eat it.”
“I guess,” said Owen, “I guess I’d say it tastes … really good.” He struggled to put it into words, but the best he could come up with was: “Like home.”
The cook put his hot dog down, looked sideways at Owen, and nodded thoughtfully, as if the boy had made a deep observation.
“Garlic powder, just a little. Coriander. But my favorite? The celery seed. That’s what you’re tasting. That grassy, earthy taste. Makes food feel like home.
“And here’s the other reason you thought of bacon—that smoky taste? Hickory’s what folks commonly use. Mesquite’s a big thing these days. Some swear by the fruit woods—apple, cherry, pear, like that. But this?” He closed his eyes and inhaled, as if he were tasting the hot dog all over again, then opened his eyes again. “Maple. Not so much smoke as you’d taste it like the house next door burned down. A little smoky, a little sweet. Yup,” he nodded, as if he were agreeing with what he’d just said. “There’s no taste more New England than maple.”
Now that he mentioned it, Owen could taste that maple smoke, or at least he thought he could. But it would feel lame to say so now, after the cook had already explained it.
“Go ahead,” said the cook, and he nodded at Owen’s plate, which still had a scrap of hot dog left. “You don’t want to leave any of that behind, do you?”
“I don’t,” admitted Owen, as he dug in. “It’s really good,” he repeated. “Better than really good.” In fact, he thought this might have been the best hot dog he’d ever had. Or at least, that he’d had in a long time.
He closed his eyes and inhaled, like the cook had done, to better savor that last bite—and as he did, a vivid memory came over him: the tangy scent of a summer evening in a stadium packed with people … the smell of hot dogs grilling and popcorn popping and peanuts roasting in their shells … the crack! of a bat and sudden swell of the crowd’s roar around him … the wonderfully comfortable weight of his father’s big hand on his back.
His father’s hand.
He stopped chewing. Opened his eyes. This wasn’t summer, it was February, and it was bitter cold outside.
“Yup,” said the cook quietly, as if he’d been reading Owen’s thoughts. “Good food calls up good memories. Reminds you of good times you’ve had, people you love.”
Owen struggled to get his feelings under control. He listened to his own breathing, the way his father had taught him to do on the pitcher’s mound to steady himself.
The cook wiped his mouth with a paper napkin, folded it into thirds, dropped it on the plate, and got up off the stool before continuing.
“Owen,” he said, “I could sit you down to a five-course, two-hundred-dollar spread, serve myself a hot dog and a Coke, and you know which one of us would end up having the better meal?”
Owen figured that had to be a trick question. “You would?”
“I would,” the cook agreed. “You know why?”
Owen shook his head. “No idea.” Wait—had the cook just called Owen by name? Had he told him his name? He didn’t think so.
“Because I’ve taught myself to taste,” said the cook. “To put aside my thoughts, expectations, and judgments. To get myself out of the way, and experience what I’m experiencing.
“Great cooking is first in the eater. Then in the cook.”
All at once Owen felt angry and confused. Why was this guy standing here talking to him about great cooking? Wasn’t he just supposed to be here for a job? A job he didn’t even want in the first place, but that he was being forced to take to get himself out of trouble and pay back the guy who owned this place?
Owen looked up at the cook. “You’re the owner. The chef.”
The short-order cook nodded gravely. “That I am, Owen. That I am.”
Now Owen felt even more confused. “So all those spices, the maple smoke and everything, was I supposed to taste all that? Did I just flunk?”
A pair of customers walked in the door and stamped snow off their boots. The cook—no, the Chef glanced up at the wall clock over the door.
“Bernie’ll be with you in a sec,” the Chef called over to the two as they hung their coats on hooks by the door, and he started back toward the kitchen.
“Hang on, though,” said Owen. “Didn’t you say there were two parts? Eating comes first. What’s the second part of the test?”
The Chef paused at the swinging doors and looked back at the boy. “Tell you what,” he said. “Come back tomorrow morning. Oh-eight-hundred.
“Tomorrow you cook.”