Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 13

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.


Thursday himself appeared in the restaurant the next day, midway through the afternoon, as the prep shift turned over to the evening shift. He shook Robertson’s hand, solemnly. Robertson accepted the compliment, and endured Thursday’s hearty clap on the back. “Beautiful,” said Thursday. “Beautiful stuff. Linneman quit.”

“What?” said Robertson.

“Went over to Lastri, right across the street, the cocksucker. I think the review was the last straw.”

Robertson shrugged philosophically. “Interesting to see a rat fleeing a perfectly seaworthy ship.”

“Yeah, refreshing. I’m sure she’s paying him well,” said Thursday. “She’s got the money right now, and she wants me to know it. Opening up across the street wasn’t a business decision, it was a double middle finger. We’ll bounce back fine, momentum’s on our side. Winning over Cho is 50 percent of the battle, and the worst I’ve heard from other critics is carping about the lack of big cuts of proteins on the menu. And the steak generally shuts them up on that front. And some of them actually like it.”

Robertson grunted, and peered at the stack of print-outs that Thursday had spread across the bar. They were from all over the Internet, everything from online editions of reputable publications to alt. weeklies to reasonably well-written blogs to nobodies with blogs to nobodies in the comments sections of other nobodies.

“Good stuff on the blogs, too…” Thursday added, literally rubbing his hands together with glee, thumbing through the stacks.

“The blogs can, will, and do suck their own cocks,” said Robertson thoughtfully.

knifeskillsbigvert“As long as they’re doing that and not biting ours, I’m happy,” said Thursday, sucking down a large McDonald’s coffee.

“And as long as we stay true to the vision, we’re going to be fine,” said Robertson.

“Ah, and as long as you’re around, that’s no trouble,” said Thursday, a little too warmly.

“Hey, whatever happens after I leave is on your head, not mine,” said Robertson. “You carry the risk and reap the rewards.”

“Don’t I know it,” said Thursday, answering his phone.

A week after the Cho review, Robertson’s phone rang at a little after 8 in the morning. This was an hour of the day that he considered part of the sacrosanct five hours of sleep that he sorely wished he was able to enjoy on a nightly basis. He looked at the name and number displayed on the phone’s caller ID and
was unable to read either. They were two blurry worms of neon blue light, probably meaningless, possibly sarcastic. He let his eyelids, still thoroughly crushed beneath a velvet mountain of exhaustion, sink back over his useless pupils. The phone rang again, playing the first verse of a hip hop track that he suddenly and desperately wanted deleted from his phone (for starters) and from his memory itself (eventually).

He answered the phone to shut it up. “Yes,” he said.

“Robert, you should read what is on the Times site. It’s terrible. It’s Thursday. You will want to read it yourself…” said Sylvester, his tone wavering somewhere between rage and sorrow. Somewhere, nested deep within the voice, Robertson thought he could hear a tiny squeak of mischievous glee, but he dismissed the thought as unproductively cynical.

Robertson grunted and found his half-functional laptop, which was buried under a stack of T-shirts. He fired it up. Its charge died. He looked around for somewhere to plug it in. Meanwhile, he could hear Sylvester saying things from within the phone, things that Robertson could not or would not push through whatever speech centers in his brain were resentfully open for business.

He found the “dining” section of the Times and quickly located a headline:

“For Kami’s Owner, a Flash of Insight and Salvation”

It was a Q&A with Thursday.

“Are you reading it?” asked Sylvester.

“Yes, fuck you,” said Robertson, thoughtfully.

knifeskillssquareWhen Jim Thursday decided to open his new udon and ramen restaurant Kami, investors and even his own staff pushed him to do a sushi bar with a few street food touches. Thursday, a self-confessed “Japan addict,” ignored them and offered up an eclectic, high-quality menu reminiscent of a humble izakaya (neighborhood pub) concentrating on small tastes of noodle dishes and myriad dumplings.

Q: What was the inspiration for this?

A: I was walking alone in Kyoto one evening, and I stopped into this little place in the Gion district. It was me, three salarymen, and a 70-something bartender. I think we drank and talked for four hours before I finally ambled out. Somewhere in that evening… somewhere I discovered this restaurant. I wanted to take those flavors, that experience, and streamline, Westernize it, modernize it without gutting its soul.

“What do you think?” asked Sylvester. “Are you going to quit? You should call the paper and say: ‘Fuck you, Jim Thursday, I quit!’ Fuck that guy!”

“Hang on,” said Robertson. “I’m not even halfway through.”

Q: Why no sushi?

A: Sushi… I don’t want to knock any of my competitors, particularly not that new place across the street, but sushi is yesterday. It’s not sustainable, it’s not something people see as chic anymore. You can get sushi at gas stations in New Jersey now — I’m not kidding, it’s just not where it’s at anymore. Are there still great sushi places? Of course. And a lot of my staff was fighting me on this, saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got to sushi, it’s a moneymaker, people love it,’ but I thought we could surprise people and do a new kind of place — and just pull the plug on all the hassle sourcing either ethical fish where we compromise taste or pay out [too much money] or unethical fish where people rightfully kneecap us for depleting the world’s fisheries.

Q: You’re working with a new chef, a guy from the Midwest, Robert T. Robertson. What’s that been like?

A: I think of an idea, he executes it. He’s great. He was initially resistant on the concept, but once he came around and got on board, he really worked some magic —  I kept pushing him to explore, to dig
deep, to reach for ingredients he might not have otherwise used… for example, the sugar we use in most of our broth — this Okinawan stuff. More expensive, yeah, but people who know their stuff can tell. It makes a difference.

“The fuck…” muttered Robertson.

“I know, right? I mean…”

“Hang on,” said Robertson.

Q: Anything to say to skeptics who were predicting you’d be out of the business by the end of the year?

A: Only that they’d be foolish to count Thursday out before he’s out. These sleeves have a lot of tricks left in them.

“Well,” said Robertson, now more or less awake.

“Well!” roared Sylvester.

“Well, whatever,” said Robertson.

“Whatever?” asked Sylvester, quietly incredulous. “He takes your ideas, and compares you to what, a Kitchenaid? A pastry blender? And you just…”

“Dude’s paying my salary,” said Robertson. “He owns my ass. So, I have some good ideas about a menu, or about ingredients. I have those on my own — who cares? I’m some douchebag with a good idea. I have those ideas and work with Thursday, and the world gets to eat them.”

“But he –”

“But he gets to look like a talented guy with a passion for food, so what,” said Robertson. “I know what I am, and people who know anything know what I am. Other people can go fuck themselves.”

He closed the phone, and slept soundly for 15 more minutes.

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