With the Fire on High(7)

She cuts the onion carefully and quickly: my grandmother is a woman who is not afraid of tears or sharp things. “You wanted to go to culinary school once, didn’t you? A little late for that now, though.”

I pause. Not sure what she means by “a little late” and not sure I want to find out. “Yeah, I guess. That was a long time ago. These days, I don’t need anyone to stifle my creativity.” Oregano, garlic powder, cayenne. The words ring in my head and, although I hadn’t been planning on it, I grab some fresh ginger that ’Buela uses for tea. I pull some soy sauce packets out of a drawer we throw fast-food items in. “Put those onions in the pan with the olive oil, ’Buela.”

“Sofrito?” she asks. But I’m not making the usual base.

“Something a little different this time.” She tosses the onion into the oil, peels and crushes the garlic in el pilón, and then spoons that into the skillet, too.

“Bueno, I think you should take anything you want to take. As long as it doesn’t distract you from school and your job. But an international trip, they usually have the students pay for those, right, nena? Is the trip required for you to take the class?” She walks to the sink and washes her hands.

I shrug, even though she has her back to me.

The oil pops out of the pan onto my palm. I realize I’ve had it on the heat for too long. I bring the spot where the hot oil landed up to my mouth and suck on the small ache.

’Buela gives me a little smile, then glances at her watch. “Okay. We’ll discuss this again later. I’m off to Dr. Burke’s. I don’t know how I had too much time before and now I’m almost late! Where did the minutes go? I’ll be back before bingo. Me guardas dinner.”


Since my earliest memory, I imagined I would be a chef one day. When other kids were watching Saturday morning cartoons or music videos on YouTube, I was watching Iron Chef, The Great British Baking Show, and old Anthony Bourdain shows and taking notes. Like, actual notes in the Notes app on my phone. I have long lists of ideas for recipes that I can modify or make my own. This self-appointed class is the only one I’ve ever studied well for.

I started playing around with the staples of the house: rice, beans, plantains, and chicken. But ’Buela let me expand to the different things I saw on TV. Soufflés, shepherd’s pie, gizzards. When other kids were saving up their lunch money to buy the latest Jordans, I was saving up mine so I could buy the best ingredients. Fish we’d never heard of that I had to get from a special market down by Penn’s Landing. Sausages that I watched Italian abuelitas in South Philly make by hand. I even saved up a whole month’s worth of allowance when I was in seventh grade so I could make ’Buela a special birthday dinner of filet mignon.

For my twelfth birthday she bought me a knife set—a legit, twelve-count knife set!—that no kid should probably have, but I watched YouTube videos and learned how to use those blades like a pro.

So, when we were applying to high schools in eighth grade, my middle school counselor asked me what I liked to do, and I told her I wanted to be a chef. I expected her to mention the magnet school with the most prestigious culinary arts program in the city. I’d already done some googling in the library and knew it was the best school around, with restaurant-management classes and gastronomics—all kinds of fancy courses. And the counselor did mention the school. As someplace I would have been able to apply to if my grades had been better. She told me she didn’t think I’d be able to test in. She enrolled me in the lottery for Schomburg Charter instead, even though their culinary arts program wasn’t well known, or even active at the time. She said the school lottery was my best hope to get into a competitive academic program.

’Buela prayed about that lottery for weeks. Hundreds of students from all over the city had their names thrown in, and there were fewer than fifty spots open for the incoming class. Out of all the kids who applied from my middle school and neighborhood, only three of us were accepted: Pretty Leslie Peterson from Lehigh Avenue, Angelica, and me.

See, I’m not a bad student; I’m just not a great student. I feel like I need to do a thing, and let my hands take over in order for me to understand a subject. When I’m in a class that has a lab or is more hands-on, I’m good. But when it’s about memorization or recalling facts, I struggle. Even with extended time I don’t always do well on tests. I’m lucky the teachers at Schomburg work with me to do additional projects that demonstrate I understand, but school isn’t my thing at all.

And so, the closest I’ve gotten to chefdom is making gourmet tacos for ’Buela and flipping burgers at the Burger Joint. And the one class I’ve most wanted to take hasn’t been offered.

Until now.

The New Guy

“Class, this is Malachi Johnson. He recently transferred here from Newark.”

Amir in the back cracks his knuckles and I see some of the other dudes slouch in their seats. None of the guys likes someone messing up the vibe, especially not a dude from another city. The girls, though? We straighten up real quick. Well, not me. I’m not interested in a Malachi, Mala-can’t, or a Mala-nothing. But he is a tall, dark-skinned dude, at least six foot four, and I already know he’s a ball player and probably a player player from the way he walks—all swag and probably not one intelligent thought in his head. I look at my schedule. I’ve been going back and forth with the elective decision and Ms. Fuentes needs any changes by the end of class.

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