Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 6

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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Days flew by. Weeks went by.

Kami was really coming together.

The laquered black tables were elegant and subdued. The kanji-inscribed gongs were a little Gilbert and Sullivan, but tastefully rendered and high enough on the wall that they didn’t impose. There was a silver bell at the host station that could be rung to summon a secondary or tertiary host who would then seat the guests. The sound of the bell was sweet. It was perfectly pitched, Robertson thought.  He poked it with his finger again.

“$4,000,” said Thursday, appearing over his right shoulder. “Some fucking monk or something. I’m telling people the guy was a lama, reincarnated or whatever. For $4 grand, I get to sling whatever horseshit I want. How are you, man?” Thursday stuck out a meaty paw, and Robertson shook it.

“Good. The books all made it, thank you. The apartment’s great, too.”

“Oh,” said Robertson, confused. “Good. I mean, we wanted to set you up with a bigger place…”

“Nah, my stuff fits, it’s fine,” said Robertson, meaning it. “I’ve slept in cars before,” he said. “This is fine.”

“Right, so, the menu. Let’s talk. Hit me with your best shot.”

Robertson waved Thursday over and sat him at a table near the sushi bar, which was made from stained glass, save for one undulating clear panel designed to allow customers untinted and undistorted views of the fish on offer.

knifeskills250squareRobertson strolled into the kitchen, and came back out accompanied by Jorge and Linneman. Each of the three carried a black lacquer tray, each of which held four or five different brightly polished bowls with black lacquer covers. There were fourteen in all, each distinctly colored. A jade soup paddle rested in one of them, sans cover, which Robertson set down in front of Thursday.

Thursday grunted, unsure of what he was looking at.

“Soba,” said Robertson. “And udon. And tempura with broth. The pattern on the bowl tells you what kind of noodle is in it, diagonal stripes or vertical or horizontal or none. The color…”

“Right,” said Thursday, “Ordinary Japanese street comfort food. So?”

Robertson stared for a moment and regained his poise. “When you start into a bowl of soba or udon, you’re inhaling a lot of soup. The bowls are big — you plunge into them. It’s like taking a sauna. Great for winter, very invigorating and pure, but it can be –”

“Boring as hell,” said Thursday. “I never got that into the stuff. I know, the subtle umami of the sea blah blah…” he waved his hands in an aggressively dismissive manner.

“Well, try this first one.”

Thursday picked up the paddle, which was pleasantly cool and smooth to the touch. The thick udon noodles were cut shorter than he was used to; they were easy to wrangle. There were elegant little pink tufts of material in the soup, and it gave off a warm ocean scent.

“Huh,” said Thursday. “Crab meat, really good stuff. And the stock…?”

“Variation on the dashi which normally accompanies udon — more of a crab stock, we used the shells.”

“It’s intense, it’s like this amazing hot jolt of crab. And it’s gone,” Thursday said, with some regret.

“So, that’s the idea — small bowls, soba and ramen and udon and tempura based dishes, but with twists — a little bit straight up and classic,” said Robertson, “but mostly playful, high end, and never boring. And you don’t get lost in your bowl. You skip from one to the next. I’m shooting for $9-$25 a bowl on these. People will probably do two or three soups each.”

“But…” said Thursday…

“…But we don’t feed them soup alone. We do dumplings, too. And soup dumplings. And soup with dumplings in it. We don’t apologize for doing working class Asian fare, we make that our thing: Eat what real people eat. But done cleverly, done in a new way.”

“And,” said Thursday, warming to the idea, “We can pre-pitch the place as high-end sushi / fusion, the usual crap. Let Lastri market against that, then, whammo, we open up and it’s this crazy mini udon shit. This works for me, yeah, it works.” Thursday was on to his fourth bowl of soup at this point. “What IS this, squid?” he asked.

“Yeah,” said Robertson. “Barely cooked, little rings.”

knifeskillsvert“Looks like Spaghetti-os,” chuckled Thursday. “Damn good though, really spicy, Jesus. Linneman, what do you think of this knucklehead and his crazy ideas?”

Linneman frowned a bit. “Could work,” he said, cautiously.

“Could work, hell!” said Thursday. “We’re going to kick some major ass. This stuff is approachable, it’s fresh, yeah! What’s with the sushi bar, guys…?” Thursday jabbed his paddle.

“In our original concept,” began Linneman…

“Fuck that concept,” said Thursday. “Robertson, you’re the man. What should we do with it?”

“Well,” Robertson said, running a hand through his shock of gray hair. “We could put in models of every soup we’re currently offering. High end, like they do in Japan — indistinguishable from real food. Backlight it dramatically.”

Linneman left the room, clenching and unclenching his hands. A furious crashing noise bopped out of the kitchen and hovered in the air of the dining room.

“That guy,” said Thursday, “needs to relax. Anyway, sure, go for it. That can’t cost too much, right…?” He snorted ironically and inhaled his seventh bowl of soup. “Hmm, this isn’t bad, but it’s just typical udon, right?”

“Yep, you’re right,” said Robertson. “Is there something wrong with it?”

“No,” said Thursday, “not as far as I understand it. But can’t we jazz this up, you know? Who wants to eat plain udon?”

knifeskillssquareJorge’s eyes darted from Thursday to Robertson and back. He took a half step back.

“I don’t know,” asked Robertson. “A classicist? Someone with good taste?”

Thursday’s eyes blazed and he shoved his chair back. He paused. He looked at the seven un-eaten bowls of soup, glittering in their color and pattern-coded glory. He scowled, and then laughed. “Fair enough,” said Thursday. “Fair enough, you prick. Just make sure that if we get some Japanese son of a bitch coming in here ragging on your not-classic-enough soup that you know how to come back on him.”

“We’re making old-school dashi,” said Robertson. “Skipjack tuna shavings and kombu, edible kelp. I’m getting brown sugar from Okinawa, unless you stop me. If anyone complains, I’m throwing him out personally.”

Thursday assessed Robertson, trying to figure out if he was kidding. He decided that his chef wasn’t, and moved on to bowl #10. “Send me a list of everything with cost breakdowns and likely suppliers indicated,” said Thursday. “I’ll need to crunch some numbers. But I think you’re onto something viable here. A lot rides on where sake goes, but I take it you won’t object if we do some whisky and cocktails and beer and whatnot, to keep the numbers looking good…?”

Robertson nodded and walked back into the kitchen.

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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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