“I cannot eat this,” the man looked from the plate that I had just placed in front of him, to my face and his eyes spoke an apology before the words had reached his lips, “I am sorry,” he said, “I am a Muslim and I cannot eat bacon. The menu said nothing about this dish containing bacon.”
He was right; the menu made no mention of the dish being garnished with a single, dried piece of bacon and I apologised and took the plate back to the kitchen. The chef glared at me and barely waited for the front door to swing shut before shouting,
“Why have you bought that back? They send it back? Why? What is wrong with it?” He was a furious little man and his shaved head did little to alleviate my notion of him as a convict. Of all the people I have met in my life, he is amongst those of whom I have been the most frightened and I feel certain that he either will have done, or will yet do, time in prison for violent crime. In short, I was a 16-year-old waitress, scared witless of the chef that I worked with.
“The customer is a Muslim, chef,” I managed, my voice was even smaller than I felt as I cowered under his glare, “The menu didn’t say that the dish contained bacon.” The chef took the piece of bacon off the plate and rearranged the food slightly to cover up what he had done.
“There!” he bellowed, “Take him that!”
I quailed, “I’m sorry, chef. He said he needed a new plate of food because this one has been contaminated.”
Use of the word ‘contaminated’ was not wise on my part; the chef saw an even more vivid shade of red than the usual mist that seemed to colour his everyday vision. He snatched the offending plate of food from my hands and threw it across the stainless-steel worktop, muttering furiously to himself in an expletive filled tirade. The kitchen porter passed across a clean plate and the chef grabbed a piece of dried bacon from the box of ‘finishing touches’ and proceeded, with great relish, to rub the piece of bacon all over the plate. I watched in horror, able to see the trails of grease on the plate as the crazed chef threw the bacon back in the box and began, with a furious gusto, to dish the meal up anew on the greasy plate.
“Take him that! See how he likes my food now!” the chef’s eyes were cold with malice and danger. I wavered, a rabbit in the headlights. I was appalled, outraged, disgusted. “Take it! Take out the fucking food!” he yelled.
I asked God to forgive me as I took the plate from the chef and carried it out to the restaurant with trembling hands, my mind was buzzing with the exhilaration of the fear that I felt of the chef. I put the plate down on the table and the man smiled his thanks to me; the knot in my stomach tightened and twisted with guilt and remorse.
I knew that the man would not know that he was eating a plate of contaminated food and I felt sure that his God would not punish him for innocently eating the meal. Nonetheless, the incident haunted me. Shortly after this, the vile chef stormed out of the kitchen in an even greater rage and was never heard of again.
That night, I had carried the food to the table, even though I knew that it was wrong, because I was afraid of the chef. It is one of the biggest regrets of my life and not a week has gone by when I haven’t thought about this episode and felt overwhelmed with shame at the knowledge that I was complicit; I had the opportunity to take a stand, to stand up against hatred and I did nothing.
I am twenty-four now and no longer the anxious teenager who felt like a fish out of water at the best of times; at least these days I can reassure myself that I would handle this differently. Nevertheless, the past cannot be changed and I will therefore always carry with me the shame and regret of not having been strong enough to confront such an injustice.
This is a real story. I wrote this rather late on Sunday night because I couldn’t sleep; I was turning over this event in my mind for the thousandth time and I thought it might be cathartic to write about what had happened. Sure enough, I wrote the piece and fell asleep. Over the last couple of days I have reflected differently on the experience; I feel like writing this has helped to create some distance between myself and the event.
Please don’t judge me too harshly for this. I was very young.