Instagold – NYC Midnight Short Story Contest, 2018 (Feb 2018)

After I washed out in the semifinals of the Flash Fiction contest, I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest. The format was just a shade different: Each round had different story lengths and deadlines, but the same types of wacky prompts. I finished in fourth place in my heat for this round to advance to the second round.

Here was my first entry:
2,500 words / 8 days to write (a luxury – both in words and time)
Character: Executive Chef
Subject: Cryptocurrency
Genre: Comedy (woo-hoo!)

Instagold

Synopsis: The Queen of Social Media Food CryticsTM pays a visit to the renowned Satullo restaurant, and #FlambeFlimFlam erupts, cratering the Instagold markets.

Instagold

“She’s here.”

Mara’s icy warning crackled through the hiss and sizzle of the busy kitchen, three hours into its Friday night swing. Postures straightened at every station. Down the line from the fryer to the fish counter, heads turned to glimpse the most powerful food CryticTM in social media.

Madelaine Green, a.k.a. @ElleMange, had reserved a table for two.

With 20,457,320 verified followers and a virtual net-worth of one million-Instagold ($4.8 million-USD), @ElleMange founded the Ruth Reichl Institute of Digital Cryticism, in honor of her culinary muse.

When @ElleMange liked, hearted or sad-faced, foodies swooned.

“You know what to do — let’s get back to work.” Chef Nico stalked the line, a jocular drill sergeant cajoling his brigade de cuisine. “Act like you’ve been there before.”

And they had: Satullo, the tiny jewel box in a palm-lined corner of Old Town Scottsdale, boasted a Michelin star. The James Beard Foundation named Chef Nico Best Chef Southwest in 2019 and 2020.

“Wait a sec, Chef… We’ve got a Goldigger. Slipped in behind her.”

Nico screwed in his EarPod to blunt the hubbub that greeted the new arrivals: “A Goldigger? We met our monthly quota last week… You want Rafi to take care of him?”

“Looks like they’re together.”

Nico wiped his hands on his full-length black apron and made his way to the performance end of the kitchen. The stainless counter with its eight-burner stove commanded the panorama of the dining room. Cash-paying customers got a seat at the bar to watch sparks fly at one end, while Crytics gathered around cozy, candlelit tables at the other.

“Maybe she’s training him? Like a Baby Ruth?”

Mara nodded, acknowledging his fears without tipping her guests to the voice-box hidden among the pearls at her razor-sharp collarbones. She pulled the seat of honor facing the kitchen for the birdlike @ElleMange, austerely beautiful in her trademark white silk T-shirt and wide-legged black trousers. Then the Goldigger pulled out a different chair, flapping at @ElleMange with the unbuttoned cuffs of his flannel shirt.

At least it had a collar.

He brushed his furry lips past the Crytic’s delicate cheekbones as she alighted beside him.

“Well, I’ll be.” Nico ran a calloused hand through his thatch of black hair. Thirty years in the business hadn’t thinned or grayed the cowlicked mess on his head, but this night might.

The Chef logged into the POS system: The Instagold 7000 differed from other point-of-sale systems because it managed cryptocurrency transactions, reporting real-time balances from customers’ virtual accounts. A Gold-Certified Crytic like Madelaine Green paid with higher-valued Instagold, while Goldiggers like her guest Humphrey Blbec worked their way up to Crytic-status by visiting the right restaurants; posting the right combination of photos, likes and status updates; and racking up Instagold like retirees at a slot tournament.

With followers in the low thousands and anemic engagement scores, Blbec was a true P-O-S in the POS: The only things going for him were a Brooklyn ZIP code and a beard that looked like it’d been appliquéd to his face by a third-grader with a popsicle stick. Over the past month, Humphrey had gobbled up seventeen of the 4:30 PM dinner reservations allotted for his kind at Gold-Certified establishments in New York, where he checked off high-value feats of gustatory adventure — sweetbreads, blowfish, haggis, durian.

“He’s a hustler — I’ll give him that.” The grudging admiration churned up from Nico’s Jersey roots: He started out washing dishes at a bistro in Newark, working his way up the line in the City before heading West to seek his fortune.

“Excuse me, Miss.”

The term ‘miss’ clawed at Mara’s back like a mangy cat. @ElleMange hadn’t even situated her #760.4-IG ($3,650-USD) Louis Vuitton Pernelle on its purse-pedestal before her companion managed to issue a complaint.

Mara inhaled her composure, stuffing the irritation back between her shoulder blades.

“How may I help you, Mr. Blbec?”

“It’s Bluh-BECK — you pronounced it bill-BETZ.”

“Please forgive me, Mr. Bluh-BECK. That’s Czech, isn’t it?” Of the four languages she spoke fluently, Mara learned Czech in her Babi Krajicek’s arms. “How may I be of assistance, Mr. Bluh-BECK?”

“This lighting is terrible. How do you expect anyone to capture your food in here?”

“Lighting for Crytics’ tables was installed by the chief of photography for Bon APPetit magazine. It was the first investment Chef made with his Instagold earnings.”

“What a thoughtful touch,” @ElleMange cooed. “I thought the ambiance seemed familiar.”

“The system identifies our guests’ devices and adjusts accordingly. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, Mr. Bluh-BECK. It will be corrected immediately.”

“Whatever. Look, I don’t like being on display here,” Humphrey sniffed. “Knowing ElleMange’s status, I’m sure you understand.”

With just twenty-four seats inside and January winds gusting outdoors, Mara had no other Crytics’ tables available.

The only option was the lonely Goldigger two-top on the way to the restrooms. Having heard the conversation through Mara’s EarPod, staff was already setting it up.

“Right this way, Mr. Bluh-BECK.”

First bite: Dainty quail eggs spilled their golden yolks onto tender green asparagus, sprinkled with the yummy crunch of Chef’s special “bacon candy.” A Gold-Certified, crisp, Italian white cut through the fatty decadence.

Back in a corner more to his liking, Humphrey harrumphed through his first volley of photos as @ElleMange gamely provided fill-light from her phone. With their jury-rigged gaffing, gripping and griping, the foodies’ epic photo shoots once added a half-hour to every dinner, killing Satullo’s ability to turn tables. The Bon APPetit lighting had been a godsend.

Until now.

The pasta course was shared because @ElleMange did not do leftovers. She insisted on tasting each bite as Chef had prepared it: Luscious chanterelles and homemade sausage lay on potato-pillows of gnocchi beneath a satiny sheet of reduced marsala. A Gold-Certified Oregon Pinot Noir awakened the flavors from their buttery slumber.

The kitchen swelled as a symphony beneath Chef Nico’s baton: The tympanic huff of bluefin thumped on the board, the clean swipe of a knife through its ruby flesh, the staccato percussion of minced garlic, diced onion, chopped celery, sliced fennel. Tickets spat from the Instagold 7000 like cards shuffled through the fingers of a Vegas dealer, as the front of house kept wine swirling, cocktails shaking and bellies aching for the next gastronomic movement.

Chef Nico took the floor for his star turn: An off-menu temptation, cooked especially for the Crytic.

“An Arizona farmer, whose family has worked this land for a century, brought us some blood oranges — hand-picked this morning, not ten miles from here — so I have a locally sourced pork shoulder with blood orange…”

“Is it Gold-Certified?” Humphrey asked.

“Uh, no.” The chef crossed burly arms over his fireplug chest. “But I’ve worked with this family for years, and I try to support local farms. I spend my gold and order Gold-Certified where I can — the bluefin and duck, for example — but we have to ship that in from out of state, and…”

“The lady will have the bluefin, and I’ll take the duck. Thanks.”

Chef Nico turned on the wooden heel of his clog and stormed back to the kitchen. Rafi the bartender handed him a short glass of camomile grappa.

“I’m good, thanks,” Chef growled.

“We’ll have it after service, then,” the handsome Puerto Rican said as he polished a silver shaker. “I think we’re all gonna need it.”

The only Gold-Certified dessert was Cherries Jubilee. The cherries hopped a FedEX cargo plane that morning from Mount Rainier, and the brandy came from a small-batch distiller, Latch & Brand. They aged their cherry-based liqueur in cherry-wood barrels deep in the heart of Portland. For Valentine’s Day, Nico was planning to recreate the original recipe Escoffier used to honor Queen Victoria’s Jubilee: Tonight it would be a dessert fit for the Queen of Social Media.

Made with cream from Gold-Certified, grass-fed cows tended by hair-shirted monks in Madison, Wisconsin, Plein VanillaTM was handcrafted with hand-scraped vanilla planiformia beans, hand-pollinated and hand-harvested from wild orchids by Gold-Certified, indigenous Guatemalan peoples. At #7.2-IG ($35-USD) per gallon, Plein VanillaTM was the most expensive ice cream in the world.

Some said @ElleMange used it as moisturizer.

“I don’t get why a lady like that is with a douche like him,” Chef Nico grumbled as the syrupy cherries gurgled on the burner.

“Might be good in bed,” Mara said, as she fetched the long-stemmed, Gold-Certified aspen-wood matches from Aspen, Colorado. “Maybe he’s hung like a donkey.”

“Thanks for putting that image in my head.”

@ElleMange beamed as Chef Nico presented the burbling cherries, glistening in their stainless pan. The server placed gilded saucers of Plein VanillaTM deliciousness before each guest. Mara struck the match with the precision of color guard warrant officer and burned at attention beside Chef Nico, waiting for his command.

Humphrey climbed onto his chair — a crane of awkward arms and legs, angling to get the right shot.

“Could you please sit down, sir?”

“Don’t mind me, Chef. I just need one shot.”

“And I will re-enact this scene as many times as you need to get that shot, so long as you get down from the table.”

“The ice cream is melting,” @ElleMange stage-whispered. “Humphrey, please.”

One foot firmly planted on the cane-bottomed seat, the other astride the table, Humphrey lunged forward with a pirate’s swagger.

“WE EAT… WITH OUR EYES… FIRST!” He spat her trademarked hashtag back at the Crytic. “I’m going to get this shot, ElleMange. Now, light it up, Chef!”

“Forgive me, Ms. Green.”

Chef Nico bowed and abandoned the pan on the table, then retreated to the kitchen amid a volley of gasps. Humphrey’s foot punched through the chair. Her mouth agape, the flame smoldering toward her fingers, Mara staggered back as the Goldigger cartwheeled forward. His phone, in free-fall, knocked the match from her hand.

FOOMP!

Blue flashover! Airborne cherries! Hair-product inferno!

Mara scooped up the golden saucer and smashed it into the crispy remnants of Humphrey’s blackened, Chia-Pet mustache.

@ElleMange swayed in a daze: Macerated cherries made Pollocks of Humphrey’s bollocks. Dingleberries of charred beard and melted vanilla smeared his face. @ElleMange looked down at her silk shirt, now a culinary crime-scene, sprayed red with the sweet blood of the stone-fruit fusillade.

Rafi caught the Crytic as her legs gave way. Mara brought water and a kitchen-staff T-shirt. Chef Nico showed Humphrey Blbec the door.

“The market won’t stand for this, Chef Nico! You’ll pay!”

********************************************************

Satullo comped the meal (#85.4-IG / $410-USD), and the T-shirt (#2.1-IG / $10-USD), and the replacement for @ElleMange’s blouse (#28.8-IG / $138-USD). With that, Chef Nico shut off the Instagold 7000. Though @ElleMange had posted no photographic record of the meal herself, #FlambeFlimFlam went viral. More than 30,790,000 views rolled in within a week… and so did the Goldiggers.

“You’re money’s no good here,” Rafi warned, as a clot of aggrieved Instagold acolytes pulled out their phones. “Cash only.”

“We have a right to be here,” the Goldiggers protested. They hunkered on their barstools and began to hum We Shall Overcome.

“This ain’t Woolworth’s, cabrón. Pay up or get out.”

The Goldiggers’ Denial of Service attack worked: Cash customers had seen enough on YouTube and didn’t want hirsute hipsters creating another unhappy meal.

Valentine’s Day was two weeks away with no reservations on the books.

His Instagold reserves dwindling, Nico hoped he could wait out the Goldiggers, but his dishwasher had child support payments, and the sous chef needed dental work, and even if the Goldiggers left, would the cash-paying customers return?

“Maybe I should start taking gold again? Extend the olive branch to Blbec and give him a Crytic chit?” Nico wondered aloud as he wandered through an empty Wednesday night. As a James Beard winner, Nico could confer Crytic status on any Goldigger with a click of a button on the Instagold 7000.

“I may have a solution, Chef.” Mara replied. “Don’t judge.”

********************************************************

“They’re here.”

Mara’s stern warning struck the kitchen like a thunderbolt. Heads dominoed down into their stations.

“Guys, I don’t know what to do here, so let’s just get to work,” Chef Nico said as he stalked the line, taking phones from every cook and kitchen-hand. “Act like we’ve been there before.”

The Scottsdale Leather and Bondage Society (SLABS) booked two entire Valentine’s Day seatings for a pair of three-hour, six-course marathons. Two tuxedoed linebackers with open-carry holsters posted up beside the CLOSED sign outside.

In a black latex catsuit and thigh-high boots, Mara directed guests to their seats. There would be no “Excuse me, Miss” tonight, only “May I beg your mercy, Mistress Mara.”

“They’re not gonna be naked, are they?” Nico asked. “Last thing I need is a health-code violation.”

“No nudity… but maybe blindfolds,” she said. “It’s a sensory experience… taste, smell, texture… and if anyone gets outta hand, I’ll take care of it.”

“Copy that, Mistress Mara.”

Nico recognized a Republican state representative, hands bound to his chair, slurping up his bucatini, noodle-by-noodle. A local news anchor spoon-fed his blindfolded meteorologist gnocchi only after she begged for seconds. The president of the school board smacked the Hall of Fame wide receiver with a wooden ruler when he reached for the fresh-baked focaccia.

The kitchen hummed with the zingers, retorts and easy laughs of the days before the Instagold 7000. Beyond the first few head-snapping yelps and whip-cracking admonishments, the kitchen didn’t pay much attention to the customers. These SLABS really seemed to enjoy their meals — every sizzle, sniff and sip.

Then came the pièce de résistance: Cherries Jubilee — an exacting reenactment with a titan of industry playing the role of Humphrey Blbec, and Mistress Mara reprising hers by smashing Plein VanillaTM in his face.

“YOU EAT… WITH YOUR EYES… FIRST! How’s that taste, Mr. Bill-BETZ?”

“So good, so good, so good,” he murmured as he licked spilled cherries from her boots.

********************************************************

A month later during an afternoon crush of Spring Training tourists, a familiar face in a kitchen-staff T-shirt took a seat at Rafi’s bar.

“Sorry, ma’am. We don’t take gold anymore.”

“That’s good because I don’t spend it anymore.”

Madelaine Green slid two crisp Benjamins (#15,389,780.8-IG) across the counter.

As Rafi poured her vodka and rhubarb cocktail, topped with Champagne foam and freckles of cracked black pepper, Chef Nico pulled up a barstool.

“Thanks for coming back… Sorry about your boyfriend.”

“Not my boyfriend. He won a contest my agent set up: Have dinner with @ElleMange. That was the day I decided to divest.”

Emboldened by Nico’s stand, other celebrity chefs abandoned the market, turning Instacash into Instacrash. Well-heeled (and high-heeled, latex-clad) patrons whispered sweet relief that they no longer had to dine with those people in the new no-phone zones.

“So what were you thinking for dinner?”

“Pork shoulder with blood oranges?”

“It’s not Gold-Certified.”

“I eat with my mouth, not with my eyes.”

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