All the chefs at Animulus were highly trained professionals. Culinary experts. Nothing less than the best, the brightest, the most talented culinary artists in the world. For the privacy of their patrons, only one party per night was served. Plates were not infrequently thousands of US dollars. And the waiting list was months long. Everyone wanted to be seated at Animulus, no matter what it took.
Tonight was a special night. A pop singer from Dubai and his large extended family would be in attendance. The restaurant was abuzz. Paparazzi were lined up along the velvet ropes leading toward the tinted glass doors. On the menu, the signature dish. The one that made the mark on the world when it debuted three years ago. Cuore con Conchiglia.
The food prepared at Animulus was always only the best. It had to be; the reputation not only of the restaurant, but of its founder, René Girault, a multiple Michelin star restaurateur and winner of Time Magazine’s Man of the Year, was at stake. Produce was sourced in the morning from local farmers and meat often arrived mere hours before the single reservation of the night to ensure the utmost freshness.
The kitchen was hot and sweaty. Savory smells of spices, roasted vegetables and seared meats filled the air. For an outsider, someone unable to afford the exorbitant prices of Animulus, simply breathing the air would be an intoxicating enough experience to create memories worth telling and retelling to your children and grandchildren. Sous chefs moved with the grace and choreography of a ballet, each action leading smoothly into the next — a never-ending stream of activity.
In the dining area, a pianist played and the guests were seated. Their laughter filled the space as the cameras outside clicked like angry insects, desperate for a peek at the exclusive interior. Drinks were served and imbibed, the first and second courses were devoured with the voracity of wild beasts, with almost the same attention paid to the dishes themselves. René, watching from his post, standing just outside the kitchen, twitched his mouth into a slight frown, saying nothing.
Finally, it was time. The main course. The table was cleared, the music stopped, the lights were dimmed. Even the Dubaian guests, previously boisterous and rowdy, seemed to sense the reverence of the moment, their din silencing to a hushed whisper.
A long wheeled table was rolled out by a pair of tuxedo-clad servers. Another server pushed a smaller cart with a matching set of seven pristine covered silver platters, one for each guest. From hidden corners of the room, their movements synchronized like a dance, more servers appeared, each lifting a platter and removing the cover, revealing a steaming, juicy slab of the rare meat that made the restaurant truly one-of-a-kind. The cuts were thin, maybe a quarter of an inch, and small, maybe only four to five inches across. They were a deep, deep red, surrounded by a bouquet of golden beets, roasted potatoes, other colorful root vegetables.
The pop singer smiled, gratified, and raised his glass to toast. Others shared the gesture, words were spoken and then, before the first cut — a distinction traditionally reserved for the guest of honor — the reveal. A large black sheet, draped over the long, wheeled table — until now forgotten — was drawn back with a flourish. On the metal slab, a body, masculine, wearing the finest tailored suit. For discretion, the head was completely removed, leaving a bare neck, the spinal column visible between layers of muscle and sinew. In the middle of his chest, a large, gaping red hole, a circle of roses arrayed delicately around the cavity.
For the first time, the pop singer looked less than completely poised, almost askance. Before uttering a word, René Girault himself strode toward the table, his long legs covering the distance gracefully and confidently.
“Monsieur, I beg your pardon. There is no need to worry. This is your order. There is no mistake.” His grin pleasant and reassuring as he made eye contact with each member of the family.
“Cuore con Conchiglia,” René explained. “Heart, with shell.”