I was lucky enough to be the next-door neighbor of a world-class chef. Like, legit world class. Like, Michelin star class. Yeah. The real deal. Stewart Therriault. Maybe you’ve heard of him.
One of the benefits of living near Stewart was getting to try all the sumptuous, creative dishes he’d make whenever he was home. Seriously, the guy cooked all the time. As soon as I’d see the lights go on in his house, it was only a matter of time before thick, luscious aromas wafted into my home. And, because he was a great guy, he’d often bring over a plate or two for me to try. “It’s all practice for the restaurant,” he told me.
I remember this one time when I was sick on a Saturday. I went out to get the newspaper at the same time as him, we said good morning to one another, and that was it. All day long, I smelled the most incredible food cooking. Even though I felt like shit and had been puking all day, my mouth still watered. Around 8pm, my doorbell rang. It was Stewart. He was carrying a heavy, enameled cast-iron pot, a steaming-hot baguette, and a bottle of homemade wine.
I invited him in, he brought it all into the kitchen, then he served the most magnificent, heavenly, perfect chicken soup. He told me he hoped I’d get well soon, then he left.
I don’t know how to adequately wax poetic about this soup. Let me just say it was unlike anything I’d ever put in my mouth. The whole time I ate, I was in a state of contented wonder. I forgot I was sick. I forgot I’d been doubled over in pain all day. All that mattered were the flavors.
The chicken was so tender it melted on my tongue. The vegetables had been diced to an exact size to still have satisfying toothsomeness, despite having bathed in hot broth. Oh, and that broth. It was clear it’d been the product of hours of laborious dedication: salty, sticky with collagen from roasted chicken bones, a tease of sourness from an exotic vinegar that cut through the fatty unctuousness of the deftly-seasoned lardons – I could go on.
I ate bowl after bowl after bowl. When I woke up in the morning, I felt like a new man. 100% better. Stewart was at work, so I drove down to the restaurant to personally thank him. He was gracious and modest, but I knew he knew that he’d made one hell of a chicken soup. Just like any master craftsman, the pride he takes in his work is from the knowledge that he does it perfectly.
I insisted that after work, he come over to watch the football game. He said he’d be delighted. Right then, Stewart and I became more than neighbors and developed a close friendship.
We watched the game and I learned something about my neighbor: that man could drink. I guess that’s a hallmark of many chefs – they can drink most other people under the table. By the end of the game, he’d pounded half a dozen beers and the majority of the bottle of wine he’d brought over the night before. Then he thanked me, staggered home, and went to bed.
That became our weekly ritual. Every Sunday night, he’d finish up at work and come over to watch football with me. When the football season was over, we’d watch basketball. Then baseball. It didn’t matter if it was on the couch at my house or in the hot tub at his. Basically, we’d just drink and bro out. It was good having a friend. Friends do things for one another. Like when Stewart had to go out of town, he gave me keys to his house so I could feed and take care of his cats. Same with me, when business called me away, he’d watch my dog.
One Sunday night in the summer, after watching a particularly stressful baseball game on TV, we were both plastered. I was already planning to work from home, since there was no way I could go into the office as hungover as I knew I was about to be, and Stewart, who didn’t need to go into work until the afternoon, was thanking God for that fact. He stumbled back to his house and I went upstairs and collapsed.
First thing in the morning, as I was brewing a strong pot of coffee after downing a handful of Tylenol for the hideous headache I was enduring, I got a whiff of something fantastic. God damn Stewart was up already and making something to eat. My stomach grumbled.
The day went by and I struggled to work through the combination of my hangover and the phenomenal aroma coming from Stewart’s place. I had half a mind to call him up and tell him to bring some of whatever it was over, but I didn’t. I knew he’d be leaving for work soon.
Afternoon burned into evening and the smell intensified. It reminded me of the soup he’d made when I was sick. It was a shame, too, because I assumed he’d gone to work and left it simmering, which meant I wouldn’t be getting to taste any that night.
The next morning, I awoke to the same smell. It was still there and even more potent. I was positively ravenous. I was dying for the stuff. I couldn’t help but think of that succulent soup all day as the aroma wafted through my open windows and made it impossible to concentrate on my work. I found myself wishing I’d gone into the office so I didn’t have to endure it. I ate my boring sandwich for lunch and then opened a can of soup for dinner. It paled in comparison to the meaty seduction assailing my nostrils, but it took the edge off at least.
As I was cleaning up, someone knocked on my door. I looked out the peephole and saw Clarence, Stewart’s business partner. He looked concerned. I let him in.
“Have you seen Stewart?,” he asked.
“Not since Sunday,” I replied, “but he’s been working in his kitchen at home since then.” I told Clarence to smell the air and informed him it was Stewart’s doing.
“I called him a hundred times before driving over here and knocking on his door,” Clarence informed me. “He didn’t answer.”
I felt a flicker of concern. I hadn’t seen Stewart either; I just smelled what he’d been cooking.
“Hang on,” I told Clarence, then I went into the den and grabbed Stewart’s house keys from the drawer.
We crossed over onto his property and I unlocked his front door. We were greeted with an even more potent scent of the food he’d been making. My mouth watered.
I glanced in the kitchen. It was clean. Spotless. There was nothing on the stove. I felt a chill on the back of my neck, despite it being surprisingly warm in the house.
“Stewart!,” called Clarence, as we wandered through the the downstairs. Nothing.
I was the first one to go up the stairs. Stewart could have been in his bedroom. It was enormous and had a separate section where there was a big, gas-fired hot tub big enough for four people. A massive, 80” LCD TV hung on the wall. During the winter, it was our favorite place to hang out and get drunk and watch the games.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I noticed how humid the air was. I walked into the bedroom. Steam was billowing from the hot tub section. Delicious, aromatic steam.
“Oh my God,” I whispered, and screamed down to Clarence as I ran over to the tub.
There, submerged in a shallow pool of boiling water, was my friend Stewart.
Clarence ran up beside me and immediately started throwing up into the nearby toilet. I didn’t throw up. I panicked. I grabbed Stewart’s arm, which had been hanging over the side of the tub, and tried to pull him out, despite knowing he was long dead. The skin and muscle of his arm came off easily. Effortlessly. It slid away from the bone like the shoulder blade of a braised pork butt. I fell backward, hitting my head against the wall. I still clutched the meaty, gelatinous flesh of his wrist in my hand. My head spun.
Clarence called 911. The police and paramedics came quickly, told us to leave, and did their thing. Ultimately, we learned he’d passed out drunk in his hot tub, the gas heater had malfunctioned, and boiled him alive. What I’d smelled over that two-day period had been my best friend cooking in his own juices.
The loss of my friend devastated me. The terrible way he’d died haunted me. But nothing compared to the hideousness of the sensation I felt immediately upon finding his body. Nothing came close to the guilt I now feel as a result. Because when we found Stewart, marinating in his melted fat and the meat which had become so soft it fell off his bones in great clumps, all I could think was how badly I had wanted to taste it. And now, almost a year later, whenever I have a cup of soup, I wonder if it’s as good as the last one he’d made.