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.
Paul Wednesday called Robertson not long after the truncated version of the interview appeared in the Journal. He asked Robertson to meet him. Robertson, who was toying with a plan to fly to Paris and legally change his name, had nothing better going on, and he agreed to the meeting.
Robertson met with Wednesday at the big oak table at Blood, amid the stone, bone, and timber. The restaurant was regularly closed on Monday nights, and Robertson was expecting an empty house, but the table had food on it: a couple dozen oysters sitting on ice, served in a pewter-rimmed bowl hewn from a skull with small antlers still attached. In the ice were two tall faded blue hand-blown shot glasses, each half full of a clear liquid.
“Dill aquavit,” said Wednesday, standing up from his massive wooden chair and enveloping Robertson’s hand in a crushing grip. And I think you’ll like the oysters. For legal reasons, I can’t tell you anything about them, other than that they’re local and unusual.”
Robertson sat to the right of Wednesday and grabbed an oyster shell, sucking down its contents. The oyster was small and tasted almost impossibly delicate, a bit sweet, a bit briny, and a bit smokey, but mostly clean and fresh. He chased it with some of the herbal liquor, which was smooth as glass.
“Good God,” Robertson said.
“Yeah,” said Wednesday, tipping an oyster into his mouth. “If we can get this stuff on the menu in quantity, it’ll justify whatever I want to charge, and as much marketing as makes sense. Still pondering that.”
“You must have a private farm,” said Robertson. “Good Lord, man, if you’re dipping into aquaculture, you do have some deep pockets…”
Wednesday gave Robertson a sly smile. “Let’s just say that at this point in my career, it’s not a challenge to find competent partners.” He ate another couple oysters in quick succession, setting a pace that would finish his dozen within a few minutes. “I think that’s the best part about being generally perceived as having your affairs in order — you can figure out who the serious people are and transact serious business with them.”
“But there are still unavoidable fuckups, right?” asked Robertson.
Wednesday laughed. “Oh, hell yes. The higher you go, the more dramatically damaged they get, oh, hell, yes, always. Good God, yes. But usually you can minimize the damage by always asking yourself the following question: ‘What’s the financial interest here?’ Even the crazies generally aren’t — they’re just more creatively going after a buck. Like your old girlfriend.”
“I had better luck with her than with Thursday,” said Wednesday. “Thursday’s easier to manipulate, but more prone to doing stupid things that wreck the deal for all involved. All in all, I’d rather deal with a more dangerous person with more on the ball.”
The two men polished off the oysters, and sat together quietly in the nearly empty restaurant.
“So,” said Robertson. “I’m glad to meet you again. What’s the story?”
“Tired of owners?” asked Wednesday, cocking the eyebrow over his one working eye. “I don’t blame you. We’re a nasty lot. It’s a shame that we’re the ones who keep the restaurants running.”
“No,” said Robertson. “It’s not that… exactly. I’m just feeling a bit exhausted right now.”
“The control you exercise over your own career comes with a price,” said Wednesday. “A lesser man would’ve settled into something stable three years ago. Yet you keep on kicking.”
A waiter stopped by, removed the skull of empty oyster shells, and replaced it with a heavy piece of rock acting as a plate. On the plate was gravlax and salmon roe, some red onion, and sour cream custard. There was more of the aquavit.
“We stole this from a restaurant in Wisconsin,” said Wednesday, grinning. “Wholesale. I hunt and fish back where you come from, and sometimes I stumble upon little things like this that I can use. No apologies, it was damn good there, and here we’ve got better fish.” The components — fresh like good sushi, refreshingly strong and soothingly creamy — were all good separately. Together they were perfectly balanced.
“Really good,” said Robertson, wearily. “Listen, I don’t mean to sound rude…”
“I understand,” said Wednesday. “You’re digging the food, and the company, but you want to hear what position I’m dangling, probably so you can reject it out of hand so you can go back to whatever career limbo you’re currently in.”
“That’s not quite right,” said Robertson. “It’s more complicated. But…”
“Sure,” said Wednesday. “Look, how much do you know about my background?”
“I’m pretty familiar with the evolution of your group… how you built it off of one street cart that you franchised… how you bought out your partners and backers at prices that they thought were lucrative, but turned out to be pennies on the dollar in terms of the group’s potential… how you retain talent like a motherfucker…”
“Right, right,” said Wednesday, polishing off that last of the salmon roe with a thin piece of brown bread that was resting on the side of the rock. “Did you know that my wife died? About five years ago?”
Robertson shook his head. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t heard.”