He cuts the nori into tiny pieces. Not like mincing garlic; it’d leave the sheet in assorted flakes sizes and shapes, a confetti of seaweed. Michael wants order.

He slices the seaweed into strips first, turns, slices again. He doesn’t rush, his expression neutral as he works. He imagines the taste and look, the visual balance between nori topping and garnish.

Fruit Rice Ball

He takes the two rice balls he made earlier, tennis ball-size, and gently rolls them over the flakes. The sticky, short-grain sushi rice is perfect for latching onto the seaweed. It lifts the shards easily, and Michael coats each rice ball without deforming the shape’s integrity.

He puts them onto a white, rectangular plate. No garnishes or sauces yet. He hands out spoons. “Try,” he says.

What’s inside? I ask.

“Fruit.” He offers nothing else. I edge into it, revealing a fruit potpourri inside. It’s a sunset splashed against a grainy, drab canvas. The palette difference is striking, and the first of many contrasts: sour sushi rice, created with painstakingly measured portions of vinegar, whole lemons, salt, and sugar, meeting a melody of mangoes and strawberries. The warm rice and refreshingly cool fruit fills the mouth with a balanced glow. Even in the texture, there’s a seesaw of the dissimilar – coarse yet delicate rice grains, crunchy nori, and yielding fruit flesh tap dance across the taste buds.

Fruit Rice Ball 2

It’s good, I tell him. Sweet. Good for a spring dish.

“Better with fruit more,” Michael says. He takes a spoonful for himself. He chews, slowly, contemplating the sensation swirling in his mouth, his taste buds detecting any weakness. “Not enough sweet,” he says finally. “Need sauce.” He goes to the kitchen.

Michael isn’t the head sushi chef. It isn’t his responsibility to come up with new dishes every few weeks, but he does it anyway. In the past few weeks, he developed dishes with names like The Black Dragon, The Fancy Tuna, and Tuna Dumplings.

Black Dragon

Fancy Tuna

Tuna Dumpling

Work could be simpler for Michael. His pay doesn’t warrant the extra effort. He could use the same uninspired, tired plating techniques sushi chefs have used again and again, instead of carefully planning the placement of every oba leaf. He could use his downtime to read the Chinese newspaper, sitting on the empty container of pickled ginger. He could play games on his cell phone. He could sleep.

But he can’t help himself. The desire – the very need – to create overwhelms everything else, anything else, and soon, he’s back on his feet, back to the cutting board, building, tasting, imagining.

“Making specials not easy,” he said to me once. “Together, flavor need taste good, feel good, look good. But now,” he pointed to his head. “I think it, I just do it.” Creating is how he sheds the new flavor and texture combinations that torment him. It’s how he expresses what haunts the darkness behind his eyelids.

Michael comes out of the kitchen, using a plastic fork to whip the yellow contents inside of a pint container. The fork whirls, expanding and contracting the sauce, breaking and building at the same time. He stops and drizzles some of it over the Fruit Rice balls, the concoction pulled through the void by gravity, before striking grains of rice and creeping into and over the nooks and crevices. He gestures for me to try.

The sauce immediately binds the contrasting flavors with a natural stickiness and sweetness. The rice tastes fresher, the fruit taste sweeter, and everything is melded together in a fusion I didn’t realize was missing until now. “Egg, honey, mayo,” he says before I can ask. He takes his bite, and nods, satisfied. Dish completed, we quickly polish it off, until there’s nothing left but the dirty plate and the empty pint container.

This Fruit Rice Ball may never make it to the specials menu. It’s certainly not a winter dish, and the name needs some work. By the springtime, who knows what Michael will come up with? Moreover, The Boss wasn’t even here to see what Michael created, and save a sauce-stained plate, there’s no evidence of Michael’s initiative. He’ll receive no credit.

For now, though, the itch to create is satisfied. Finally, he can sit down and lean against the wall, the comfort of silence and darkness unimpeded by new flavors and textures and colors racing through his mind. Finally he can rest.

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