Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 2

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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Across town, in a restaurant that was entirely skeleton free — unless you count the dessicated rat bodies lodged inside the wall insulation, which is something that the restaurant’s napalm-spitting PR harpy Melinda would tell you to avoid doing — a different kind of mental exercise was taking place.

“What do you mean he’s mostly dead?” said Linus Linneman. “I need to know what you mean by ‘mostly dead.’ Holy shit, we were supposed to open up in October. Balls. Ass-cock. Dick fuck.”

“You’re losing your shit,” said Jorge, the sous chef. “Rein it in, cabron.”

knifeskillsvert“I’m not your fucking cabron, and tell me what the shit you mean by mostly dead, immediately,” said Linus, attempting to keep it cool but vocally trembling. He reached for his dubbel with deliberate slowness. Jorge smirked, the skin stretching tight over his round face. His dark eyes narrowed.

“Look, he isn’t dead but there is a chance he might be,” said Jorge. “I have to give you that. It doesn’t look as good as we might like. I guess the heroin did some kind of tap dance on his nervous system? I didn’t really get it, maybe it wasn’t the heroin, maybe it was something they cut it with. Anyway, it didn’t sound really great.”

“God DAMMIT, is he going to be out of the hospital within the next week or two? A month?”

Jorge shook his head. “I heard something from his sister Elena about not walking for another six months or something like that. They didn’t really seem to know, you know? But it didn’t sound really very good at all, you know? So, what you going to do?”

Linneman licked his lips. He sucked on his beer. He blinked for a long time.

“Are you up for this?”

Jorge thought carefully for a moment. The overdose of executive chef Nate Orlando and the upcoming opening of Kami both came at a particularly sensitive moment for Jim Thursday’s Thursday Night Entertainment Group. Two years ago, Thursday had been the king of the city, flush with cash, expanding in every borough. One year ago, the economy melted down, and Thursday was overexposed. As brokerages and hedge funds ate their young and went bananas, things fell apart. Jorge had kept his place in the imploding hierarchy by improvising a now-patented staccato mixture of dancing and backstabbing, sucking up to the right manager, pissing off an equally calculated manager at a different restaurant, getting a co-worker fired for theft of $50 worth of off-brand liquor, and selling his dignity and self-respect down the river more times than he’d thought possible. He’d done the impossible: risen in a time of crisis and recession. Secured a coveted sous chef position at this new flagship NipponoChinoKoreanAsianSushiPhoWhatever joint that was supposed to “turn things around” for Thursday. He was supporting four kids and an possibly schizophrenic elderly mom.

“I am not up for this,” said Jorge. “You know I can cook. I can cook, man, I can cook the hell out of this place. But you need a guy… man, you need a guy who has done this before. When this place pops open…” here, Jorge gestured around the half-finished room, all done up with glass and steel and massive copper gongs painted with silver kanji characters… “when this place pops, it had better be ready.”

There was a long pause.

“People are going to be coming for blood, to kick us while we’re down,” Jorge added quietly, his gravelly voice thoughtful. “I mean, Arthur Cho is going to be here, and he’s not going to be in a charitable mood after what happened to him at Blackbeard.”

For reference, an excerpt from Arthur Cho’s section-fronting review of Blackbeard in The New Amsterdam Journal:

“Put yourself in Jim Thursday’s shoes for a moment. You are arguably the restaurant king of the city, flush with cash and critical acclaim. You’ve got a seat at the judge’s table on Kitchen Clash. What’s your next move? How about opening a $30-a-plate pirate-themed restaurant in trendier-than-thou SouthEast? Oh, how the accountants and advisors must have laughed. But then, no doubt, they caught sight of Thursday’s expression, and realized that he was dead serious. And that he couldn’t be stopped.

knifeskillssquareThe result of one man’s psychotic break with reality can be summed up with the following physical metaphor: A ‘tropical’-themed rum beverage that combines the finesse and class of an Almond Joy with the acrid aftertaste of Mr. Clean. God Himself would have strained to create the Coconut Plank Walk, a sublime liquid insult that is a succinct material expression of Thursday’s apocalyptic failure of vision.”

“It doesn’t sound like you have a lot of confidence in Kami,” said Linneman.

“Look, it’s not that,” said Jorge, shrugging. “It’s just that any restaurant that picks me because, you know, their first choice OD’ed, is not the restaurant I want to hang my professional career on. Is all.”

“What do you know about Robert T. Robertson?”

“That dude!” said Jorge, laughing a bit. “I used to hear stories about him when I worked in Minneapolis.”

“Stories like what?”

“Like one time he put some guy’s hand in a sandwich press and then poured vodka over it, and then quit,” he said. “I love that guy. And that he left a check for the cost of the vodka on the counter. And that by ‘left,’ I mean ‘stabbed into the counter with a chef’s knife,’ you know?”

Linneman furrowed his brow. “So he’s crazy.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Jorge. “Way I heard it, the guy whose hand he cooked had been threatening to make a couple of the line cooks deported unless they did triple shifts, no overtime. I guess the dude made a move on him and timed it pretty bad. Anyway, Robertson’s supposed to be pretty stand-up person if you don’t mess with him. Has a serious library of books. Like, hundreds of food books, going back to the 1920s, the 1930s. Cocktails and shit like that, old books in Spanish and Greek and Hindi and whatever. Man can seriously cook.”

“That’s what Thursday thinks,” said Linneman. “I told him that we should talk to you before we bring the guy in. You’ll be working side by side with him.”

“Cool with me, man,” said Jorge. “As long as it’s not my name in the paper, I’m a happy man.”

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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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