Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 1

In this, his first novel — assuming, of course, that it’s ever finished — James Norton traces the career of Chef Robert T. Robertson, newly arrived in the metropolis of New Amsterdam and immediately entangled in the sinews of finance, ego, and exploited labor that keep the restaurant industry alive. Looming like gods over the scene are the restaurant group owners, Paul Wednesday, Jim Thursday, and Lastri, an Indonesian woman whose penchant for mischief will both work to Robertson’s advantage and against his best interest.

Rich with gastronomic detail and philosophical meanderings, Knife Skills borrows liberally from Japanese ronin stories, the deadpan voice of Rex Stout, and the madcap organizational stylings of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash.

Comments have been disabled because the work you are about to read is, in essence, a rough draft, and would therefore be extremely vulnerable to the taunts of jocular bystanders. The author welcomes thoughtful comments and observations, however: jrnorton@heavytable.com

Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.

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“Cooking is the oldest of all arts: Adam was born hungry, and every new child, almost before he is actually in the world, utters cries which only his wet nurse’s breast can quiet.”

— Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

“It was he who taught me the pleasures of the table, instilling in me the idea that a meal isn’t just food on a plate or wine in a glass, but a moment of culture and conversation, of leisure and learning — of, in a word, conviviality.”

— John Irving writing about his father-in-law in The Art of Eating No. 78

The steak came back. Now, evidently, it had been overcooked. And there was also a chop. It, too, was not satisfactory.
“For fuck’s sake. Find out their names. They’re not coming back.” Mario paused. “What are they drinking?”
“A Solaia 1997.” A bottle was $475.
“Forget it,” Mario said and ordered another round of entrees.

— Bill Buford, Heat

At three in the morning, Paul Wednesday dined alone. He sat at the head of a 24-foot-long table hewn from a single solid piece of hardwood, lightly sanded, burnished, but otherwise raw. Its surface was slightly warped, and it was clean and empty other than a single pewter plate heavily laden with red meat, sliced thinly, nearly raw. He chewed his steak thoughtfully, in the dark. Streetlights shone through the restaurant’s stained glass windows, throwing colored shadows onto the various animal skulls fastened upon the walls.

A string of mild Slavic expletives drifted out of the kitchen and got lost amongst the dining room’s strong timber rafters. Another voice, speaking with a heavy Oaxacan accent, said something largely incomprehensible that involved the phrases “never again,” “dry-aged” and — most distinctly — “suck my dick.”

knifeskillssquareWednesday was turning things over in his mind. There was a stream marked “financial assets” which included the constantly updated bottom lines of the two different restaurant groups in which he had controlling interests. There was a stream marked “real estate” which included a themed chain of seven upscale farm-to-table soup and sandwich joints, three gastropubs, two neo-French chef-driven outposts, a quirky but insanely profitable breakfast joint, and Blood, the timber, stone, and bone-encrusted steakhouse and charcuterie parlor in which he was currently dining. And there was a stream labeled “people,” sorted out into those who were burning out, those who were peaking, those who were too good to keep, those who were too good to let go, and those who needed somehow to be weeded out of the operation without overturning too many tables in the process.

Wednesday crawled around in his own head like a spider in a web. Interpersonal connections made the “people” part of his brain look like a tightly woven, wildly misshapen silk sweater. Poke here, and these people move to the competition. Pluck there, and two journalists will write about it the next day, one favorably, one in sarcastic and scornful terms. Sell this and fire her, and the whole operation breaks apart like an iceberg. Promote her, and roughly the same thing happens, only more slowly and destructively.

He thoughtfully stabbed a small piece of meat with his knife, taking care to avoid dripping even a spot of juice onto his newly purchased tie. On the tie was printed a roadmap of the city, taken from when the city was just the colonial holding of a second-rate and decomposing empire.

Affecting an air of comic resignation, his wife had told him the tie was in bad taste. He knew that. He’d earned the right to enjoy his things, though: maps, skulls, knives, good whisky. He smiled and sucked down a sip of Highland Park 18 Year Old Scotch, tasting the toffee and peat, exhaling an invisible gout of smoke and alcohol. In the kitchen, a cheerful argument in heavily-accented English raged along, and Wednesday smiled quietly to himself. He’d figured out his next move.

He flipped his long blond bangs back from the left side of his face, and absentmindedly let his finger trace its way around the empty socket.

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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