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.
Late one night, after the last orders had been fired but before the bar had cleared out, Robertson was surprised in the kitchen by a waiter who approached him with a strange aura of urgency. “Guy here to see you,” said the waiter. “Says he’s Paul Wednesday, and that you’d probably know who he was.”
Robertson scowled. He’d read enough press to know the guy, but not much beyond the fact that he was doing well for himself and that Thursday was hostilely dismissive of his achievements. This was the closest thing Thursday came to admitting a level of professional respect, so Robertson was curious.
He emerged from the kitchen, worn down, moving slowly, lacquered with sweat, and thirsty. He picked Wednesday out immediately; he was wearing a white suit, which should have been glaringly out of place for both the setting and the season, but somehow looked correct. His blond bangs were combed over the left side of his face but he otherwise sported a clean look — crisp, Swiss or German or maybe Nordic. Wednesday fixed his good eye on Robertson and Robertson felt compelled to join him, pulling up a barstool.
“I’m Paul Wednesday,” he said, superfluously, shaking Robertson’s hand. “It’s nice to put a name to the face. You must be very proud to be working for the kind of visionary genius who came up with this place.” The tone was cheerful, but the undertone of sympathetic sarcasm was unmistakable. Robertson smiled despite his better instincts. Wednesday lifted a tumbler of neat whisky to his lips and it reminded Robertson that he wanted fluids.
Jon Kaplan was working the bar, immaculately dressed, hair neat as a pin, shoes shined, silver designer eyeglasses resting on his face making him look like a stylishly aristocratic owl.
“Jon,” said Robertson, “I’ll have a club soda with a twist of lime.”
“Very good, sir,” said the bartender. “Would you like me to gay that up a bit with a pink splash of Grenadine, or is it sufficiently effeminate as is?”
“That’s my guy,” said Robertson, smirking, and taking a gulp of his beverage. “Thanks, Jon, you dicknozzle.”
Jon offered a friendly mock salute and went back to the other end of the bar, where there were $18 glasses of sake to be refilled.
“You don’t drink?” asked Wednesday, genuinely puzzled.
“I don’t drink where I work.”
“Anymore,” said Wednesday, dryly.
“Anymore,” agreed Robertson, shrugging. “How’s the whisky?”
“Good,” said Wednesday. “I like it when I can taste the sea and destruction. The best stuff is like drinking the burned wreckage of a Viking funeral boat.”
“Dark,” said Robertson, smiling.
“Real,” said Wednesday. “14 billion years go by, we get a few short seconds of life and then, poof, we are extinguished forever. The more we know understand death, the more we appreciate life.”
Robertson arched an eyebrow at his one-eyed companion. Wednesday finished his drink and Kaplan appeared as if by magic. “I’m going to give you a taste of the 40-year expression,” said the bartender, producing an unmarked bottle from a locked cabinet.
“Thursday would have your ass,” said Robertson, half seriously.
“I know, that’s the beautiful thing,” said Kaplan, deadpan. He poured a perfect ounce of the stuff into a flared glass and diluted it with a touch of spring water. “On the house,” he said to Wednesday, who nodded his thanks to the departing bartender.
“If he’s trying to sell me on hiring him, there are better ways to go about it than giving me $250 shots of whisky on the house,” said Wednesday once Kaplan was out of earshot.
“Oh, he’s not,” said Robertson. “The guy’s worth enough to have opened his own real restaurant by now. Used to be some kind of officer at a tech company. Can’t even remember or understand what they did, so it must have been serious. For all I know, ‘on the house’ means he’ll actually pay for it. He went to Blood a few months ago and came back raving.”
“Oh really?” asked Wednesday. “That’s nice to hear.”
“A few sentences about the terrific steak and probably 15 minutes of chatter about the service. He’s got… Jon, come over here and tell Mr. Wednesday your theory on restaurant service.”
Jon blinked and strolled over. “You know you’re eating at a really good restaurant when the service is warm, friendly, unpretentious and mostly invisible. If you waiter’s a dick, it’s because his place is middle rate. You go to a diner, you get warm, friendly service and shit food. You go to a middle rate place, you get decent food and a bunch of fucking assholes who think they’re the next big gastronomic thing, and won’t shut up, and constantly try to upsell you on the wine. You go to a world class place, and the servers are chilled out because they know they’ve made it and because quality customers like to relax and actually enjoy the food.”
Wednesday shrugged and nodded, and Jon was back at the end of the bar, filling a sake glass to the point of overflowing, as custom demanded. “I never hire a waiter or waitress I can’t hold a civil conversation with,” said Wednesday. “And I still hire everybody myself, at least in terms of final sign-off. You’d think that’d take forever, but we tend to retain people fairly well.” Wednesday sipped his whisky and chewed it, letting the taste roll around in his mouth.
“So?” asked Robertson.
“Arguably better than the 18 year, sure,” said Wednesday. “Diminishing returns, though. Big time. Smoother, which is saying something, sometimes I’m in the mood for that. But usually I’m not.”
There was a moment of silence and Robertson slumped a bit, suddenly aware of how tired he was.
“So how are you spending your short life?” asked Wednesday.
“Crammed into a little apartment, alone except for several hundred books about cooking,” said Robertson. “Working for an insecure egomaniac…”
“The most common kind, overwhelmingly,” said Wednesday.
“Right,” agreed Robertson, “and largely enjoying myself. There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing, I think.”
“Right,” said Wednesday. “Listen, it was great to meet you, and I want to wish you all the best on this place. You’re doing very well.”
“Thanks,” said Robertson. He looked around the room. An eight-person table hadn’t yet cleared out, and the customers seemed happy — animated, sharing the last bits of food and wine, getting up to leave and sitting down again, drawn back to the table. “Send those guys a few sake flights on me,” said Robertson, to Kaplan.
“Aye aye, skipper,” said the bartender, setting to his task.
Wednesday shook Robertson’s hand and strolled out of the restaurant and into the night.