It’s two thirty in the morning when you write off the second rented Ferrari.
You leave it wrapped around a lamppost somewhere in East London and pay a passing teenage drug courier five hundred quid to lend you his BMX.
By the time you reach your mistress’s flat forty minutes later, the ketamine is already wearing off and the two highly poisonous, highly illegal Japanese puffer fish under your arm are on the turn.
You’ve had better – and worse – Saturday nights.
Barry Large, celebrity chef: you’re a monster.
You’re thirty eight years old with a fifty inch chest and arms like a grizzly bear. Your face is like a side of beef. You can knock out a horse with a single punch.
You have five restaurants with your name above the door, you’re at least half a million quid in debt, and for the last month you’ve been on an epic bender that has involved three continents, ten countries and twenty five different sexual partners. Two days ago you woke up on Copacabana beach with a Nepalese princess and no memory of how either of you got there.
And in less than four hours you’re due to serve the greatest meal of your life.
You’re a walking case study, Barry. You’re a textbook definition. Psychotherapists could build entire careers on you.
Your wife, not unreasonably, has demanded a divorce.
As you lay your face upon the lovely buttocks of the latest Ukrainian model-turned-actress to fall for your rough charms, have you learned anything Barry?
They send a car for you at four. As the dawn struggles to break over Essex you speed along the A13 swigging from a bottle of Pierre Ferrand 1972 Vintage Cognac and sniffing poppers.
The party has been going on all weekend, somewhere out in the marshes. The guests are a handpicked selection of hedge fund managers, minor European royals and the fashionable sons and daughters of ageing rock stars. The climax will be The Greatest Breakfast In The World.
The critics lap you up. They love your coups de théâtre. Your greatest hits include Beluga caviar dished up by genuine Russian hitmen, spider-crab pate served in the back of a speedboat pursued by somali pirates, and Death by Chocolate enjoyed while blindfolded on a window ledge fifteen stories up.
You once told a journalist that you had more respect for a carrot than you had for 99% of the human race, and it was true. You told another journalist that if you ever saw him in one of your restaurants again you’d kill him – and that was true too.
You finish off the bottle of amyl nitrate and the driver catches your eye in the mirror and says “you want to watch that stuff.”
You give him your biggest smile. You look like the devil, Barry.
“If you want to party, I know some people,” he says. “The wife and I… well, she’s a big fan of yours. If you know what I mean.”
You know what he means. You take his business card all the same. Because it would be rude not to. Because… you never know.
Your father was a drinker. He used to knock you about. Until the day you flattened him. You reached an accommodation after that.
The last time you saw him he tried to steal twenty grand from you.
You pass through the last of the villages strung out along the Thames estuary. Beyond here there’s only marshes and abandoned military installations. The landscape is waterlogged. Mudlogged, anyway. It’s lousy with hidden creeks. At high tide you’d need a boat to travel more than ten feet from the road.
You find yourself thinking – you can’t help it – that this would be the perfect place to get rid of a body.
And then the island looms up out of the mist. As you drive over the bridge and along the raised causeway, the sun is coming up somewhere out over the North Sea. You wind down the window to smell the sea air. You can hear the thud of the bass in the distance.
The manor house has been owned by the Ministry of Defence since 1915, when they bought the whole island for munitions testing. During the second world war it was the centre of operations for a series of highly secret germ warfare experiments. The corrugated tin sheds where they kept the prisoners are still standing in the grounds.
Officially the place doesn’t exist. Unofficially it’s available to those with the right connections, for events like these. Permanent victory celebrations for the winners of life’s lottery.
You find Steve your sous chef in the industrial-sized kitchen. He’s been here all night, leading the line. Because he’s magnificent and loyal. And because he’s waiting for the next heart attack to finish you off so he can take over the business.
“You look terrible,” he says.
“Got any speed?” you say.
As you chop out a couple of lines in the library three heiresses run screaming, naked across the lawn. They’re pursued by an overweight, priapic retail billionaire. Past them, beyond the trees at the bottom of the garden, you can see the first of the fleet of balloons being inflated down on the marsh, its envelope climbing into the watery sunlight.
Your very first day in a restaurant kitchen you knew you’d found your home. The pastry chef asked you to hand him a metal ladle that had been heated on the cooking range. They played the same trick on all the new pot washers. You were supposed to burn your hand and drop it. Instead you calmly held it out to him, looking him straight in the eye. You didn’t even blink.
That got you a round of applause, a permanent scar and the attention of the head chef.
A year later you had his job, his flat and his girlfriend.
After that it was easy. You realised all you had to do was work twice as hard as everyone else and you could have anything you wanted. And you wanted everything, didn’t you?
The thing about food – are you listening Barry? Can you hear me over the pounding in your ears? – the thing about food is that it doesn’t let you down. You get out exactly what you put in. That’s why you can still remember the first time you cooked lobster, the first time you tasted ortolan, the first time you got a souffle to rise just right.
Even if you can’t remember why any of it mattered.
At a quarter to six the guests start gathering for their flight. The supermodels and the investment bankers and the gallery owners and the giants of business. As they queue up – and a what a novelty that is for them – each is handed a small, exquisitely-designed box. Sourcing the paper alone took you six months. There are strict instructions that the ribbon securing the box’s lid must not be untied until the balloon has left the ground.
In the event you almost miss the take-off because you’re having sex in a cupboard with one of the waitresses. You’re forced to sprint down the lawn holding your trousers up with one hand.
I’ll give you this: the sight of all those balloons lifting into the early morning sky is breathtaking. Their shadows seem to go on for miles. And those rich folk certainly scrub up well, don’t they?
As the music fades away into the distance you could almost believe they’re the last, most perfect people on Earth. A shipping magnate’s daughter who has taken too much ecstasy bursts into tears at the impossible loveliness of it all.
At two thousand feet cocktails are served, and the boxes opened.
The marmalade is made from incredibly rare Japanese densuke watermelon, gold leaf and a fifty year old scotch created by a distillery so exclusive it only produces two bottles a year. The starter for the sourdough toast can trace its ancestry back to a recipe owned Napoleon’s personal boulanger. The shot of espresso comes from beans that have passed through the digestive tracts of a palm civet, a sun bear and a komodo dragon, in that order. A single matsutake mushroom, a sliver of waygu beef so thin you can see through it, and a spoonful of white Alba truffle cream cheese complete the dish.
Cost: approximately fifty thousand pounds per head.
But not quite the Greatest Breakfast In The World.
We still need the coup in this particular piece of coup de théâtre.
You’ve brought a loud hailer so they can hear you in the other balloons. As you get up to speak you notice that the acid you dropped half an hour ago has kicked in. The sky is so blue you can taste it at back of your throat.
“Francois Vatel,” you announce to everyone, “was the most famous chef in France.”
This is not the first time you’ve told this story. It is the first time you’ve told it while on LSD.
“He was the Maitre d’Hotel at the Chateau de Chantilly during the reign of Louis the fourteenth. And he was tasked with arranging the greatest celebration of food that had ever taken place.”
Your guests listen respectfully, while stuffing their faces.
“Everyone was supposed to end the dinner by weeping with delight,” you continue. “Dukes, countesses, the king. And, as the courses progressed, all was going well.”
Here you pause.
“Until the fish course,” you say. “Which was late.”
“So Vatel gutted himself with a fish knife in front of the diners.”
And at that they look up. From the distant shore, you can still hear the odd snatch of music. It might just be the drugs.
“I used to think Vatel killed himself because he’d let his guests down,” you continue. To be honest you’re finding it hard to concentrate, what with the giant, beatific faces you can suddenly see smiling from the gently pulsating clouds.
“But now,” you go on, “now I think he killed himself because he realised he hadn’t properly honoured the food. And that’s something we’re all guilty of. Isn’t it?”
Confused expressions. And these weird glowing auras that are starting to appear around everyone’s heads. Uh oh.
“And so I wondered,” you say, “how can we all make amends? What sacrifice can we make to honour this fantastic fantastic fortune? What can we give back?”
Seriously, you’ve lost them here Barry. They’re thinking ‘who is this man that we’ve let into our fabulous lives? This… this cook?’ They’re thinking this with food on the end of their forks that you spent over a year of your life planning.
And then the up-and-coming heir to a highly-regarded theatrical dynasty drops dead, clutching at his chest. Owning the moment magnificently, it has to be said. A trouper to the last.
A millionaire racing driver and two stand-up comedians are next. Their final moments are less impressive.
The others follow in groups of two and three, alternately wild-eyed, horrified and outraged by this unexpected reversal of fortune. All that money, and yet et cetera et cetera.
It’s the same story in all the balloons. It takes about five minutes. There is an amount of screaming and unpleasantness. Death by poisoning isn’t the easiest way to go.
Even the crew?
Yes, unfortunately: them too. That’s a shame, isn’t it? You’ve lost our sympathy a bit there Barry, all things considered. Although you’re probably too far gone to care much.
And then there’s just you and your ghostly fleet, drifting on the wind.
You reckon with good weather you might make the North Pole.
Apparently it’s lovely this time of year.