Welcome to the Dharma Café, a restaurant like no other. There is no menu. The waiter, Samura, uses mystical powers to discover what each customer needs, and the cook, Agatha, prepares the food with ingredients like love, hope, and courage.
The café is a refuge for the new busboy, Charlie, who was kicked out of home on his eighteenth birthday. Irresistibly drawn to Samura, Charlie soon discovers that the stern, formal waiter harbors a heartbreaking past and a dangerous secret.
Samura lives in fear that one day, the darkness inside him will burst forth to destroy all he loves. Now that includes brash, infuriating, delectable Charlie, who has broken through all Samura’s defenses and taught him to trust himself.
Just when Samura thinks it might be safe to reveal the truth, his worst nightmare walks back into his life: His father, Akio, the evil food sorcerer who runs the burger stand on the other side of town. Akio’s business is expanding and he wants his son to manage his new location, where the Dharma Café now stands.
It will take the combined resources of an ancient cook, a novice dishwasher, and a cursed waiter to fight Akio and protect the café. But when Samura succumbs to Akio’s magic, will it be enough?
The old woman diced carrots and onions and celery. That done, she checked the fire on the stove to see if it was hot enough yet. Almost, but not quite. Time to get the rest of the soup ready.
As she fetched her wooden spoon from the rack beside the sink, the child in the large stew pot in the corner peeked out at her from beneath the lid. She ignored him. He wasn’t quite ready yet either, and it was no good rushing these things.
She mixed flour, eggs, and water with two tablespoons of courage and half a teaspoon of honesty. Mr. Olshinski was finally ready to come out to his bubbe, and he could use a little help.
She rolled out the dough and cut it into ribbons for noodles. These she hung to dry on the back of the chair while she prepared a tajine for Ms. Jannat and mixed a pitcher of sweet tea for Mrs. Beauregard Belmont III. To the first she added a liberal dash of pride, because the young accountant needed to ask for that raise. The latter she sprinkled with laughter, because in some cases it was not only the best but also the only medicine.
As she put the pitcher of sweet tea in the refrigerator to cool, she noticed dark eyes peering at her from beneath the lid of the large pot again. “Good afternoon, Samura-kun,” she said without looking at the child. “Did you have a nice nap? Do you want another steamed bun?”
He disappeared beneath the rim of the pot again.
Agatha sighed and went back to her work. This had been going on all day. At breakfast, she had heard a clatter and come into the dining room to find a dusting of china fragments on the carpet and her new hire, Samura, nowhere in sight. One of the customers, Mrs. Guillenschaft, said, “The little boy dropped a teacup and it broke. I think he’s upset about it.”
She wasn’t surprised.
In the many years since her passion for cooking had transformed into the ability to nourish broken hearts, many troubled souls had found their way to Agatha’s little restaurant with the odd-shaped window and the crooked chimney. But seldom had she encountered anyone in such need as the child who appeared on her doorstep two days ago, dressed in a dark suit, carrying a suitcase, and saying to her, “I don’t want to be bad.”
He was approximately eight years old, of Asian ancestry, with a glossy mop of dark hair. He said his name was Akio Samura.
She knew he was a sorcerer’s child from the fact that he always used her formal title, Chef Agatha, and because he did not bat an eye when she caused saucepots to float across the kitchen or induced the milk to pour itself. If he was in fact the son of the notorious Chef Akio, then she had an opportunity not only to help a damaged soul but to strike down a great evil that had long plagued the world of food sorcery.
But the first battle would be for, and with, Samura himself.
Agatha finished the chicken noodle soup, baked a pan of brownies, roasted a duck, mixed a large pitcher of lemonade, peeled potatoes, diced cucumbers, and sautéed onions. Still Samura remained in the pot.
It was almost dinnertime and she was rolling out cookie dough when she heard the scrape of the lid.
Samura emerged. He knelt before her and pressed his face to the floor, the broken fragments of the teacup proffered in his outstretched hands.
Agatha ignored the twisting feeling in her gut and got on the floor beside him in the same posture.
After a little while, Samura peeked at her from beneath his arm. The skin around his eyes was red.
She smiled at him. “What are we doing, Samura-kun?”
Dark eyes stared at her, searching. “The cup. It’s broken. I broke it.”
Such a brave boy. “Do you want me to throw it away for you?”
He furrowed his brow. After a long pause he said, “Okay.”
She took the shards of china from him and threw them in the trash. “You should always be careful picking up broken things. You can cut yourself. I’m glad you didn’t.”
Still Samura knelt face down on the floor. She sat beside him and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s okay. The cup is not important. You are.”
“Samura. Please. I need a hug.”
It never failed. Frame the situation so that he was helping her and he responded. He got up and put his arms around her. She held him tight and rocked him. “There now,” she said. “It’s okay. Everything is okay.”
He sat back and looked at her. “Chef Agatha?”
“When are you going to punish me?”
Her ancient heart, that she’d thought could never be broken again, splintered. “I’m not going to punish you. There’s nothing to punish you for. You dropped a cup and it broke. You didn’t do in on purpose. You didn’t do anything wrong. Do you believe me?”
He nodded, but she could see that he didn’t.
“Listen to me carefully now, okay?”
“I will never hurt you, no matter what you do.”
He stared at her, his mouth open.
“This is important. You don’t deserve to be beaten or hurt in any way, and I will protect you from anyone who tries. Anyone.”
His eyes got wider. He moved his lips but made no sound. Suddenly, he threw himself against her, burying his face in the crook of her neck, clinging to her so tightly she could barely breathe. He trembled. Hot tears soaked the collar of her haori. “I don’t want to be bad.”
She closed her eyes. “You’re not bad. You’re good. You’re very, very good.”
“I want to be,” he whispered in her ear. A secret.
“Then you’ve come to the right place.”