Family Flame by Erin Chin

Family Flame by Erin Chin

Runner Up (Young Adult Category)

The young child peeked curiously around the corner of the kitchen, watching raw flavor be tossed into an inferno of spitting oil and hissing steam. His father’s brow was furrowed in concentration as he threw in peeled cloves of garlic, the chopped slices exploding into the wok with a burst of fiery fragrance. Without even realizing it, Li had come out of the shadows and into the warm kitchen light where his father danced around illuminated in his culinary spotlight. Eyes widened in awe, Li watched his father toss in onions and shallots before masterfully flipping them in the flaming vessel. The small pieces flew through the air before landing back in with a satisfying crackle, the happy sizzle of his soon to be dinner.

His father was too busy cutting coriander to notice his presence, so Li tried to look over the stove, his little feet dangling centimeters off the ground as he tried to pull himself over the bench with his stick- like arms. Not able to defy gravity for long, his feet reluctantly returned to the ground and Li knew he had to get inventive if he wanted to solve this problem. Dashing from the kitchen he promptly returned with a plastic step from the laundry room, the rubber feet scuffed from frequent use.

Placing it down next to the stove he peered over the top burner triumphantly. A wave of aroma slammed him in the face and his eyes slightly watered from the heat and frying onions. He gazed up to his father who had his long black ponytail tied back in his usual red elastic that he used when working at the noodle hut down the road. His name tag was scrawled with a sharpie that spelt  ‘Yao’ so customers knew who he was, His name rarely ever being used by the intended party. He loved it when his father cooked, but for some reason, the food always tasted better when his father made it out of the shop.

Yao broke his gaze away from the wok to peer down at his son, who watched fascinated as he stirred in each ingredient. He smiled gently and ruffled Li’s hair, causing the young boy of five to peer up back at him with the same brown orbs. He leant down and whispered in his ear, watching a gleeful smile creep across the child’s face.  “That’s my Li” he thought, before turning back to finish the dish in soft silence.

*                              *                              *

The boy of twelve glanced at his father as he chopped shallots for Yao to use. Age was starting to show in some of his father’s features, but Li knew there were some things that even age couldn’t take away. His father still moved gracefully as he had always done. The dancer of the kitchen, the culinary puppet master who weaved magic with cuisine theatrics. How could Li ever make a man like this proud?  Turning away from the sight of his fathers turned back, he cursed himself for being so stupid as to mess up the entrance exams for that culinary school. His father had worked double shifts for him to be able to even take the exam across the country, only to end up with the worst score out of twenty. His father had whispered something to him and consoled him of the loss, but it still wasn’t enough. Li could see the slight heartbreak in his father’s eyes when he crouched to wipe away the tears, and the loose way he held Li’s hand to walk him out of the exam room. Even though his father would never admit it, Li could tell that he was disappointed that he couldn’t bring his cooking to the world, to make it past the small noddle restaurant down the road. Distracted, his blade slipped and a sneering red line formed on his finger, forming crimson droplets as if they were the tears of his failure. Yao whirled round instantly, inspecting his sons finger as Li glared at the knife. Feeling a heavy hand pat him on the back reassuringly, His father turned back to the wok. Angered with himself Li continued to work,the dull chop of the knife igniting him with wild, golden fire. He was going to that school, no matter how many times he’d fail.

*                           *                              *                            *

Li stood in the busy kitchen avoiding people left and right as he cut the shallots at a rapid pace, the knife whizzing dangerously past the thin scar line on his index finger. The dull chatter of customers wafted in through the door like music, encouraging his staff to work even harder than before. Lighting the fire under the wok, he heated up oil and proceeded to flip shallots and other vibrant ingredients through the air, dancing around the kitchen as if he was on ice. Now twenty-one, Li had bargained and negotiated to get his restaurant open as soon as possible, and on this, his grand opening day, he was inundated with hungry patrons.

He plated the dish and garnished it, flooding himself with childhood memories as he inhaled the aroma of pan-made magic. Before the server could take it away he stopped him. “Do you mind if I take it instead?” Li asked, picking up the plate and walking by.The waiter gave him a quizzical look but nodded obligingly.

His father was seated at the closest table, his greying hair held back in a worn red elastic and his brown eyes smiling as he placed the dish in front of him. “Chow Mein?” his father asked, ruffling Li’s black hair under the chef’s cap. “Chefs special,” Li smiled. “It’s my favorite.”

His father laughed and took a bite, lighting up as if the golden kitchen fire lit inside him once again. “You’ve been listening to what I’ve had to say hmn?”

“Of course. After all, all good food comes from family”

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