The Cheese Grater

Cheese grating is hard work. Not everyone can do it. Especially not a woman, not with her flaccid arms and poor longevity when it came to giving a hand job. At least that’s how Amedeo felt about the matter, welded to his chair grating the third cheese wedge of the hour for the lunch rush at Tonino’s, a small, but renowned restaurant on the coast of the Amalfi, where middle-class tourists dwelled and rich Italians indulged. He had been working at this job for the past six years, with never a desire to do anything else. Like the oyster shucker or the salad/soup seasoner, Amedeo’s role was integral to the success of a meal. The amount of cheese available to daub a pasta dish with can make or break it. The mark of a brilliant cheese grater is demarcated when the patron uses the exact amount of shavings he has assigned without wanting more or needing less. And where Amedeo was concerned, the customers never demanded more or less.

With such an unblemished track record, Amedeo was more than somewhat appalled to learn from the head chef, Luciano, that they would be taking on another cheese grater for the dinner shift, a 20-year-old girl from Calabria named Rosella. She was not the sort of person one would typically be threatened by, but, for some reason, Amedeo knew from the moment he laid eyes on her that she would be his undoing. Olive skin, shoulder-length black hair and green eyes were topped off by a flowing white dress with yellow florals on it. Luciano instructed her carelessly, “Amedeo will show you everything you need to know.”

Amedeo couldn’t fathom how such a beautiful peasant had landed a job that required such focus and discipline. She was crude, unformed–qualities that did not indicate a predilection toward cheese grater (but maybe toward cheese itself). He would never be able to train her in his art. He decided the best thing he could do would be to let her fall on her face (hopefully in the literal sense as well) by teaching her nothing at all. And so, around 6 p.m., when the prep work typically began, he simply handed her a grater and a giant block of parmesan and told her to “get started.”

Rosella looked at him sweetly, a honeyed gaze that Amedeo could sense was clandestinely filled with evil and ire. He ignored it at the time, though, wrongly suppressed what his intuition was telling him: Rosella was up to something. That night, she barely grated half a wedge, and Amedeo ended up working double time to make up for her lack of skill and quickness.

When he told Luciano about her lamentable pace at the end of the night, he said simply, “She just needs more time.”

The next day, Amedeo inquired of his other co-workers what they knew about Rosella and how she managed to get hired. Baldassare, a 32-year-old sous-chef from Siena, remarked, “Isn’t it obvious to you Amedeo? Her father is in the ‘Ndràngheta, and he probably wants her to earn more income for the family or, Jesus, I don’t know, smuggle drugs through our kitchen somehow.”

“And Luciano is okay with this?”

“What choice does he have? Death?”

Amedeo was incredulous, flummoxed as to how his cheese grating art could be reduced to nothing with the mere say-so of a mafioso. Well, he wasn’t going to allow it. He would make life at Tonino’s so unpleasant and uncomfortable for Rosella that she would want to go crawling back to Calabria.

She arrived twenty minutes late that evening, flouncing in wearing the same dress she had on yesterday. Rosella blinked at him unflinchingly and asked, “May I have a wedge please?”

Amedeo went to the refrigerator and coldly handed her the largest mound of cheese he could find, a triangle so large, it might have put the size of Berlusconi’s libido to shame. Rosella took it from him undaunted, sensually caressing his hand “accidentally” as she did so.

“Thanks,” she offered, heading to the center table and grabbing one of the crudest graters from the drawer. Amedeo then watched in awe as she proceeded to turn that wedge out like it was nobody’s business. In under two minutes, she had grated the entire damn thing. Amedeo was absolutely floored, speechless beyond repair.

Rosella glanced at him coolly as she dropped the grater on the table like a handful of five-cent euros into a homeless man’s paper cup. She then sauntered out onto the terrace to smoke a cigarette, three days’ worth of her work now done. What game was she playing at, Amedeo wondered.

Not wanting her to see him break a sweat over what she had accomplished, Amedeo pretended not to notice her existence for the next few days, going home to practice his craft (not Kraft) with the fiendishness of a heroin addict. He would not be beat, and certainly not by a woman with ties to the ‘Ndràngheta. He would get rid of her at any cost. Any cost necessary.

That Friday, the strange goings-on of the kitchen at Tonino’s intensified for Amedeo, as he saw Luciano and Rosella emerge from the freezer together, both with suspicious expressions on their faces, as though they had either just committed something illegal or sexual. Amedeo hid in the shadows as he watched Luciano gesture at her frantically while she stood there with the stone-face calmness of a mafia daughter.

As Luciano began to regain his wits, Rosella slapped him across the face. He stood there dumbstruck as she flounced away to the terrace, once again, to smoke. Luciano rubbed his face out of stress rather than hurt and began pacing the kitchen uncertainly. Amedeo had never seen Luciano in such a state of aggravation, not even when their soup seasoner, Maurilio, mistook cumin for thyme and incorrectly doused the former into his tomato soup. He didn’t know what the correct protocol was for such unprecedented circumstances: to talk to Luciano–confront him right then and there–or simply go on as though he had seen nothing. But too much of the Amalfi was becoming that way. Acting as though nothing was going on. A smokescreen of wealth and expensive dining featuring coastal views clouding everyone’s judgment. It had to stop.

Thus, Amedeo approached Luciano in that moment to demand, “She must go. You can’t let her take over our kitchen this way. I don’t know what’s going on, but she’s crazed!”

It was then that Rosella reemerged from the terrace with a serene smile on her face. “Let’s grate cheese for the kitchen.”

“What?” Luciano and Amedeo both asked at the same time.

“You’re very good at what you do. Are you not confident that you could fill a bowl with more than me?”

Amedeo felt himself being set up to fail, but if this was the only way to restore honor and order to Tonino’s, then so be it. He glared back defiantly at Rosella and laid out the terms: “Whoever grates the most in three minutes is the winner. If I win, you go.”

“And if I win, you go,” countered Rosella.

Luciano looked nervously from Rosella to Amedeo. He was the restaurant’s only hope.

Amedeo nodded and shook Rosella’s hand. “We have an agreement.”

With that, Luciano set about getting the competitors the prep materials they would need. He gently placed two stainless steel cheese graters with lacquered wooden handles on the work station, along with two metal bowls and parmesan triangles so that they could later assess the larger amount alchemized between each of them.

“Commence,” Luciano ordered as he eyeballed his watch.

Amedeo beelined for his cheese grater with anxious intensity. Rosella, conversely, approached her grater languidly, picking it up with the composure of an undertaker. Amedeo was expedient, but careless, and this was his undoing; as he wore the parmesan down almost completely, he snagged a large chunk of his hand in the grater, screaming with agony and vitriol as he did so.

This was, far and away, the worst fate that could happen to any cheese grater. Not only is it the mark of sloppy management, but also the most fatal injury that can occur on the job. Rosella looked over at him and laughed.

“You’re terrible. You can’t grate cheese in this kitchen anymore. We’ll have a health hazard on our hands.” She continued grating cheese as she laughed to herself, knowing that she had won the competition through a loophole. Which is generally how things are won by the wrong person.

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