Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 45

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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Wednesday shrugged.

“I didn’t talk to anyone outside the family about it. It was a fast-moving cancer. We didn’t even really get a chance to really say goodbye. It felt like, Oops, she’s sick. Oops, she’s in a coma. Oops, she’s dead. The whole process was about a month. Twenty-eight years we spent together, all of them in love. Really in love, good friends, partners, companions. I never cheated, there was no point — Sarrah was all I’d ever needed.”

Robertson said nothing. He didn’t know where Wednesday was going, and he wanted to stay out of the way.

“Here’s the thing about losing someone like that. You build a life together and after a while, it goes from being a pleasant little cottage with a view to a home, to a fortress, to a cathedral, with hundreds of alcoves, and shrines, and embellishments — you know every inch of this magnificent living edifice, you walk the halls daily. This beautiful invisible building, this is where you really live — in each other’s memories and in your plans for the future, and in the thousands of ways you understand and anticipate each other. All the shared secrets and little turns of phrase. Do you know?”

“Not really,” said Robertson. “I hope to.”

“Yeah, who knows, right? You might never get a chance. But yeah. A cathedral. One day it’s there, the next day it’s ruins. Foundation cracked to hell, walls collapsed, empty, filled with garbage and dust. What do you do? Try to clean it up? Sweep away everything you spent almost 30 years building? Pace through the rubble screaming? Try to walk away? No good answers, really. But in the same way you owned that beautiful living masterpiece of architecture, you own the wreckage, the toppled columns, the dust, all that debris.”

“Jesus,” said Robertson, quietly.

“Yeah, right,” said Wednesday. “I was left with a big decision. Do I follow my heart and go mad? Drink, rage, destroy, shut down, implode? Or do I do the hard thing and keep living? Keep my head together? Keep playing the stupid made-up game I’d been playing since I cooked my first real meal for money? I asked myself: What would Sarrah want me to do? And, hell, I figured, she’d want me to keep it together. ‘Paul,’ she’d say. ‘Fuck you if you quit. I love you, I believe in you, keep your head in the fucking game. And don’t sleep with anyone else for a reasonable period of time. A year would be good. Show a little respect, you dog.'”

“So that’s what you did?”

“That’s what I did. Quit drinking until I knew I could handle it again. Hit the gym every day. Cracked heads as hard as ever. There was this guy — a Turk called Sam, a real predator backed by serious money. He’d had his eye on some property I owned. He comes to me a week after Sarrah’s death, hat in hand, sorry about the loss. He starts courting me, calling me, sympathizing with me, sending me gifts — books about grieving, garbage like that. And he expresses the idea that now that we’re friends, he can help me out with some advantageous terms. By the time he walked out of the room after our last meeting, he’d bought three of my worst properties — the bottom of the pack — believing that he’d teased the secrets of the kingdom and a bargain-basement price out of my grief-numbed brain, just thrilled that he’d caught me in such a weakened state, afraid, ready to sell. Last I heard, he was still back in Turkey, nursing his wounds. So whatever part of my brain that plays the game was still firing on all neurons. You remember when I fired my three big chefs?”

“Chao, Nathan, and Warner, yeah of course.”

“Do you remember what they said in the papers?”

“That you’d committed career suicide. That you’d gone nuts.” Robertson, not yet in the city, still remembered reading about it — it was national news. The consensus was that the hen that laid the golden egg had not merely been killed, but deboned and fricasseed.

“Right. Gutting the cash cow. I canned those three guys and put about $1.2 million back into my payroll. Now, instead of having three guys who could barely be bothered to report to work — what with the classes, the cookbooks, the speaking engagements, and the general importance of their big-ass lives — I had 12 guys who were young, hungry, and talented. Now it’s three years later. Probably three of those new guys are as big of stars as the three I lost, and another six of the 12 are putting in 70-hour weeks in the kitchens, doing star-caliber work. Seventy-five percent hit ratio. Work ethic and talent. I find it and use it. That’s what I do.”

“A big risk. That must’ve been a little scary.”

“God, no. That’s the thing.” Wednesday’s one eye burned brightly in the low light. “Losing Sarrah, it took me down to nothing. I am still nothing. You can’t rob someone who’s penniless, and you’re not really gambling if you don’t feel as though you actually own the money in the first place. Sarrah dying gave me this horrible feeling of clarity. Let’s say I lose everything tomorrow. Every restaurant. I am betrayed by everyone. I go to jail. I will cook in that jail kitchen. I will make friends with the right guys. And within five years, I will fucking own the prison commissary system for the whole state. I’m not saying this to brag myself up.”

“You don’t have to,” said Robertson.

“No, I don’t,” agreed Wednesday. “I’m saying it because I want you to understand the caliber of person who is attempting to recruit you. I’m saying it because I want you to get a sense of who you would be working for. Developing recipes for me — I’m thinking of a farm-to-table test kitchen more than a restaurant per se. A playground. Meat, cheese, beer, potatoes — done smart and with grace. I’d want it to make money, but what I’d rather it do is make recipes, and books, and the occasional award.”

“I appreciate it, but I think I’m done here in New Amsterdam,” said Robertson. “I think I have to go home. Or abroad. Or somewhere else.”

“I had a sense,” said Wednesday. “That’s why I want to talk to you about a concept I’ve got. The restaurant would be in Minnesota.”

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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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