The lights flick on and my brain drops out. A numbness envelops and halts all but the most involuntary of bodily functions. This is going to be worse than I thought.
The clock. Jesus, the clock.
It makes not a sound, but I can sense the ticking, unforgiving in its digital perfection, like a slow march towards death. Its draining minutes claw at my eyes, its wilting seconds tear at my skin.
The destruction it wreaks, merciful it may well prove to be, will come for all but one of us. It is only a matter of when. With a gulp and a prayer, I muster the strength to gather the tools of my trade and get down to work. My competitors, I see, have already done the same.
As I set off with a blur of motion, my mind and heart race, due largely, I can only guess, to the unfamiliar nature of my surroundings. The layout is foreign, the sight lines strange. And yet, I know this place. I truly know it, perhaps better than the humble sanctuary I’ve long had the pleasure of calling home. I hope against all hope my abilities will shine here as they do there. Those closest me believe they can and will.
How desperately I wish to please them! My wife, our daughter, our son to be! They deserve better, certainly more than my life’s work has provided us through so many lean years. Victory today, to say nothing of the sweet validation it would no doubt cast over my soul, would provide in its reward the chance to make something of an amends.
I can all but taste the allure as my steady limbs and nimble digits whip to and fro across my work bench in unceasing effort. But as I scramble to make something useful of the growing mess I see before me, I’m reminded only of the suffocating doubt that clouds my mind.
Were I home, on the other side of it all, I might feel differently. There, I have anything and everything at my disposal. Here, I have nothing. Only the intense scrutiny of those select few who would deliver judgement and the unwavering justice of the clock.
Always the clock. Nearly half gone now, it taunts me like I once gleefully taunted those who had come before me to sweat and bleed in this hellish place. How little I knew.
How little any of us knew. But for my competitors and I, we who were hand-picked from our homes with seeming randomness — and from the far-off reaches of the globe, no less, if my ear for the French accent is to be trusted — it is a fate we chose willingly. It is what we live for. Our muscles, our synaptic function, our very outlook on life, have all been painstakingly crafted over long, thankless years to extract every last ounce of perfection in this arena.
It is that very perfection I seek to deliver now. Today, however, I can only see myself failing miserably.
I try to calm myself as I dig into the meat of my work, but continually I stumble over the cluttered work bench I so frantically pore over looking for anything to give me an edge. I struggle to make sense of the required material which has been presented before me in no uncertain terms. Above it all, prying mechanical eyes and ears, recording my every move and breath for later review, constrict the very freedom I once so eagerly escaped into this world to obtain. I can feel the constriction limiting my creativity, dulling my wits.
Still, I press on. The clock demands it.
After a flurry of activity that sees the remaining minutes waste nearer exhaustion, I afford myself the briefest of moments to come up for air. What I need now more than anything is focus, confidence and, amazingly, patience. To toil in blind haste now would be to bring the gleaming blade down upon my neck ever sooner.
I have only my expertise as guidance in these final moments. Though I couldn’t know it then on that fateful and forgotten day when I first set down the path that has led to this precious moment, I’ve been training for this my entire professional life.
With alarming suddenness, it is over.
In genuine exasperation, I toss my arms to the sky and retreat from my station. After a moment’s respite, I summon the nerve to survey not only my work, but that of the others.
I wish I hadn’t.
I don’t like what I see. Not from my own creation; it is competent, if nothing else. Perhaps enough so to save me still. But with a quick glance to my left — perfect composition — and right — flawless technique — I slowly come to the fatal realization.
Yep, it’s over.
Stricken with a panicked grief I try best to hide, I trudge alongside my comrades — for they, having endured the same grueling slog as I, are no longer mere competitors — to present my labor of love. The lights are somehow even brighter on this stage and the all-seeing eye even more intrusive upon the soul.
Motionless, I stand at attention, hands clasped to my back. Final judgement is upon us. Upon me, I am sure of it.
I hear a voice. The very same voice that has haunted me to no end this day after so many years of cherished, comforting friendship.
It says: “So, whose dish is on the chopping block?”
With the sweeping lift of a brushed metal cloche, I witness Ted Allen bring hushed, culinary death to chef Carolyn, the food truck owner from Albuquerque who amateurishly under-seasoned and overcooked her flank steak.
Temporarily satisfied, the dreaded clock resets.
Three remaining chefs return to their prep tables in nervous anticipation. Relieved, and yet terrified, I wipe the beaded sweat from my brow and await my entrée basket.