The soup pot sits alone on the far burner at the end of the stove.
Out front, the servers and bartenders begin to prep the tables. Their dark-attired figures weave and bend and glide around the room. The white tablecloths are smoothed and straightened. Silverware is polished. Chairs are adjusted. On the bar is arranged row after row of different sized glasses. Each inspected and wiped for any errant water stain. The staff’s quiet murmur of misdeeds, family drama, and last night’s adventures all dies away as the early crowd arrives with an elegant swoop of long coats and draped scarfs. A muted professionalism cloaks the dining room. The lights sparkle through the large front window, gilding the front. Everyone at Lucca is coiffed and buffed and standing at attention.
Carlos Fernandez calmly leans over the soup, smiles, and stirs.
Fernandez is a broad-backed young man, his head hunched into his shoulders, arms loose, body low, hands clenched. You’d guess a boxer by trade. A head and body that can take pain. A brawler for sure.
“I made apple cake earlier today for tonight’s desert. Now I am finishing the spinach soup.”
The smile that reaches across his face is flashed my way before returning to the burner. Unperturbed by the stream of orders soon to come, he slowly whisks the soup. One step at a time.
Fernandez comes from Mexico. Guanajuato, to be exact. A city in the center of the center of Mexico. It is a world heritage site, the location of a yearly artist festival, and, believe it or not, a famous mummy museum. Yup, petrified bodies. The mummies were unearthed during a time when the city charged a tax to keep a loved one below ground. Failure to pay the tax? Welcome to the Mummy Museum. Not a good thing.
“It is something to see,” Fernandez adds with a laugh.
But Guanajuato is also known for the people’s skill in working leather. Shoes, purses, jackets. You name it.
“Carlos has great hands, just like that area of Mexico is known for,” Steve Logsdon, the owner of Lucca, says. “He knows what food should taste like in addition to being skilled with his hands. A wonderful combination for a chef.”
The orders are now arriving one after the other as the early diners rush to finish in time for the show at the Civic Center. Logsdon and Fernandez are working opposite sides of the kitchen. Little conversation occurs as the burners are lit, pans are heated, and dish after dish is prepared and placed on the counters for the servers.
“Carlos was like 18 when he started working here. He is 32 now. I stuck with him through good times and bad. He is very liked here.” Logsdon talks as he keeps working the plates. “You know he was in a gang in Mexico in his younger years.”
“Why did you say that?” Fernandez scolds with a smile as he flips the meat in the pan. “Yes I was with a gang and got my teeth knocked out. Not here. Back in Mexico.”
“Carlos was fitted with new front teeth.” Logsdon states, head down.
Neither of them look up. Work starts at nine in the morning and goes to nine or ten at night. Now is the time to work.
“I came to U.S. alone when I was 18. This is the better life. Mexico is so poor. I met my wife in Des Moines. I have two children. And I learned how to cook from Steve.”
And cook they do, as Fernandez sidesteps from pan to pan, stirring, flipping, placing the cooked food on plates, and starting all over.
“My favorite thing to do in Des Moines is to work. My mind changes a lot when I’m working. Work is good. I enjoy when it is busy. Maybe I’m crazy.” Fernandez looks up at me as he places the meat on the plate. “I have a lot of ideas as a chef. We are already planning Valentine’s Day.”
“I couldn’t do this without Carlos,” says Logsdon as he applies the finishing touches to an entree.
The plates are brought to the tables in seamless processions. Wine is poured. Mixed drinks are stirred. Beer is opened. The glasses on the bar disappear in twos and threes and fours. The apple cake is delivered.
Then, with a bustle of coats and hats and gloves and scarfs, the crowd dashes off to the show.
Fernandez takes a long breath. Smiles, showing his new teeth. And begins preparing for the next round.
Another day almost done. Another day that Fernandez has worked hard in America. Another day he has paid his tax. Another day safe from the Mummy Museum.