Set it On Fire, Part Two

Cherries Jubilee was the most beautiful thing I’d ever made, and I was going to make my last one count.

So bananas flambé are totally kickass, a show stopper nonpareil. But no, nothing gold can stay, and so one day they dropped it from the menu and assigned us, instead, Cherries Jubilee.

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against hot cherries on ice cream. But it was the middle of November, the cherries were frozen, and—I’ll be frank—I didn’t like the idea of not being able to show off my twirling-fork-banana-peeler trick.

But I was a good soldier in cooking school, and so when Amit tapped my arm, me and my gueridon went rumbling towards a table. I cracked my jokes, fired up my burner, melted my sugar. The couple at the table watched intently, taken by the show, smiling widely until I picked up my ramekin of cherries, tilted it, and winced as the entire clump of them went CLANK! into the pan. I stood there, sadly waiting for the hot sugar to melt this congealed cherrysicle, pushing it around like a puck in a hockey rink to make it look like I was doing something. The couple’s smile wilted.

“Oh,” the woman started. “The cherries are…frozen?” she asked gently. She had a sweetness to her, and I suddenly felt like I was disappointing my grandmother, only my grandmother is an awful human being and this woman seemed like a perfectly lovely one. I kept pushing the puck around, desperate for something to happen, but took heart when I saw the first of the cherries break off the block and begin to disintegrate. “Oh, yes!” I said. “We freeze them on purpose, so that the first cherries to hit the heat have time to cook down into a sauce before the ones in the middle get overcooked. It’s a little twist we like to put on it, so there are lots of different textures. It keeps it interesting.”

The woman beamed. “That is so smart! This is a great culinary school!” she said to her husband. I am a bullshitter of the highest order.

I tipped some kirsch into the pan, let it get hot, and tipped the pan towards the burner for the money shot. And then, something magical happened: it didn’t just burst into flame, it lit into a slow, gorgeous, bright blue fire. I stirred the sauce, and the flames looked like waves on a cartoon sea. I lifted some in the air and let it drop back into the pan, a trail of blue splashing on cherry-red cherries, and I understood the name of the dish. It was the most gorgeous thing, even if you weren’t a pyromaniac.

We ran the Cherries Jubilee for the last week and a half of the class, the last week and a half of my time in culinary school, and then we were at the night before graduation. Tables were leaving. It felt like the last two minutes of the Super Bowl, with your team up by three touchdowns. I looked around at my class: excitement, jitters, just trying to hold it together, close it down, wait for the whistle, and then crack the Champagne.

Amit pushed the gueridon over, tapping me on the arm. “You got one.” One last order of Cherries Jubilee. I looked around the room, at my friends picking up the glasses from their tables. I looked into the kitchen, where the kids were scrubbing down their stations at speed, splashing soap on each other as their giddiness grew. I felt a strange solemnity as I looked at the gueridon and smiled at the couple. I was going to make this one count.

I went through the recipe, went through the show. I took up the kirsch and slowly poured it in the pan. Twice the normal amount. Three times. I let the bottle pour, not wanting this moment to end, not wanting culinary school to end. In the corner of my vision, I saw my instructor look towards someone and gesture towards me. I tipped the pan towards the burner with a grace I’d developed doing this so many times. I readied my spoon to play with the sauce. The flame licked up the side of the pan, tagged the kirsch, and I screamed and ducked from a fireball bigger than my body.

I finished up the dessert, plating and serving it with grace, calm cheer, and the unmistakable stink of burned hair. Behind the table, the instructor and half my class were holding their mouths until I joined them, laughing, laughing, laughing.

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