A Taste for Cooking

by Spikesgirl58

Illya sat and stared at the sheet of paper before him. Nothing made sense to him. This might as well be written in Chinese. No, scratch that. He could understand Chinese. This made no sense to him at all. A take-home test, the instructor called it. It would count for a quarter of their grade, but, because it was a take-home, he expected complete and well constructed answers. He had pointedly stared at some English-as-a second language speakers in the room.

That had annoyed Illya, yet nearly everything annoyed Illya these days. He wore a scowl that kept most of his classmates at bay. Even the instructor gave him a wide berth.

Illya's delight turned to a sense of doom as he scanned the paper even before leaving the classroom. Nothing seemed familiar. Still he immediately headed for the library and settled in to attack the test. The more he read, the worse he felt.

It seemed to accentuate the feeling of doom that had loomed over his shoulder since starting the classes at the Culinary Institute. In spite of his years of training in a variety of fields, nothing had prepared him for this. The people in his class were impossibly young and already twice as knowledgeable as Illya was. He felt old and, worse, he felt stupid. It was an entirely new experience for him.

1. What is the six by six rule?

Annoyance flashed across Illya's face. He'd read the textbook from cover to cover and he had nearly total recall. He didn't remember seeing this at all. Illya sighed and moved to the next question. He knew what five by five was, but six by six? Illya drummed his fingers against the scarred table top in frustration and moved on to the next question.

2. How long is it safe to keep a turkey, or any other meat, in the freezer?

How would he know? He didn't keep anything in his freezer except vodka as a rule. The book hadn't said anything about keeping meat in a freezer. It had spoken of careers, opportunities, and the changing world of the culinary industry.

3. Is it okay to refreeze food that has been sitting out at room temperature overnight? Why?

Okay, that was a no-brainer. Of course it wasn't. If it sat out, it would be spoiled by morning. Unless you were in Siberia and then it was so cold, it didn't matter how long you left something out. It would never thaw. Hell, it had taken him his first semester in Paris to thaw from his assignment in Siberia. He remembered explaining to a lovely young lady how he'd set fire to an igloo during the Double Affair. Two Napoleons, what a mess that had...

Illya's breath caught in his throat and he forced the emotions down deep into some dark corner of his being. He was not going to let Napoleon ruin this for him just like he'd ruined everything else.

4. What causes iridescent colors on meats?

Finally, one he knew the answer to, although it wasn't from the textbook, either. Rather, it was from an anatomy class that he learned about the membrane that stretched across muscle. What sort of professor gave his students a test like this?

Illya pushed the paper away and barely refrained from snorting.

"Not to worry, mio amico. It is the wrong test." Illya twisted in the wooden chair and glanced up at the young man standing there. "Matt Tovay." He held out his hand and Illya recognized Matt from Basic Knife Skills class.


"He gave us the wrong test. This is for the Cul Art Five class." The redhead plopped down into the chair across from Illya and grinned. "I'idiota."

"Forse distratto, ma non un idiota(Perhaps distracted, but not an idiot)," Illya answered, only half aware that he'd slipped into Italian.

"Parla Italiano(You speak Italian)?" Matt's voice rose in excitement

"Non tutti(Doesn't everyone)?" Illya smiled at the man's laugh.

"No, not everyone. Here, they mostly speak in French or English."

"Nature of the beast, I suppose. Most of the stuff we're studying seems to have originated in France." Illya looked back down at the quiz. "Do you know any of this?"

"A bit, but not very much."

"Oh, good," Illya said, heaving a sigh of relief.

"You are very new to all of this, si?"

"That obvious?"

"You look... how do you say... un cervo nei fari."

"A deer in the headlights. Yes, I imagine I do."

"This is midlife crisis? Or you are running from something or someone?"

"Yes, on all accounts."

"Why do you want to cook?"

"I don't know that I do. I saw a billboard and thought I'd give it a try."

"Let me see your hands."

Illya hesitated for a moment and then held them out before him. The backs were a myriad of scars, souvenirs from his days with UNCLE. The palms were hard with calluses from hours on the gun range. Matt's hands were butter soft and smooth. Illya realized with a start that a small fire was beginning to spark in him.

"You have the hands of a chef, but do you have the heart?" Matt released him and Illya felt oddly sad.

"I don't know."

"I tell you what. You come home and you cook with me. I can tell you whether the passion lives in you." Matt's smile grew sly. "Hey, Cara, you want to play a little trick on the Professori?"

"What sort of trick?" Illya grew wary.

"We are in the greatest library of culinary books to be amassed on the West Coast. These answers, they are here. Between the two of us...?"

Illya laughed, the first laugh in he didn't know how long. It made him feel a bit giddy and gave him the merest hope that perhaps he would live again. Maybe, just maybe, he could survive in a world without Napoleon. "Matt, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."

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