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.
A week later, Thursday burst into the restaurant, talking on a cellphone, texting on a Blackberry, and carrying a thermos under the crook of his elbow. Robertson looked up at him, waved hello, and went back to the document he was looking at, a pen-on-paper mockup of the menu for opening night.
Thursday dropped the thermos on a table, set down the Blackberry, and turned off his phone. “We’re changing up the approach a bit,” said Thursday. “We’re going to put sushi back in play.” He chewed on the edge of his lip a bit, snarling up the red beard, thrusting his hands into the pockets of the extremely expensive down ski jacket he was wearing.
“I don’t understand,” said Robertson, who understood perfectly well, but wanted a more fully exposed target.
“We’re doing the sushi bar,” said Thursday. “It’s going to be great. We’ve got a twist on it that’s really going to catch people’s attention, and it’s going to be…”
Robertson crumpled up the hand written menu he’d been working on. He compressed the paper deliberately and quietly, almost folding it up, but when he was done the thing was a dense little ball aerodynamic enough to be launched skyward by a golf club. He stood up and glared at Thursday, and began walking toward the door.
“If you walk through that door, you’ve quit,” said Thursday.
“Hold it,” said Thursday. He spoke quietly, quietly enough his voice barely carried over the power drills coming from the kitchen.
Robertson stopped, hands balled into fists. The door slowly shut.
Thursday walked over to him. “You’ll quit if we do a sushi bar?”
“It’s stupid,” said Robertson. “It completely blunts the whole point of the restaurant. We become yet another Japanese place. The small servings of ramen and udon become a minor gimmick, the bottom line becomes a bunch of fucking unsustainable mercury-laden fish, and we get lost in the tumble of churning shit that is the city’s other 200 cookie-cutter Fake Sushi 101 Japanese restaurants. It’s not just that I’m not personally interested in a sushi place, although that’s part of it. It’s just that I’m not going to attach my name to a failure unless I’m 100 percent responsible for that failure. This idea is going to fail.”
Thursday stared at him. “You really believe that.”
“It’s not a question of believing anything. I know that for a stone cold fact,” said Robertson. “The best we can hope for is a mediocre, medium-profile opening and a break-even bottom line. I’d rather do a hot dog stand, and when I say that, I’m not kidding.”
He stared Thursday in the face. It was clear that he wasn’t kidding. “I’d rather do a fucking BREAKFAST CEREAL RESTAURANT,” he added.
“Linneman…” said Thursday. “He made a good case. He said: ‘Yeah, try Robertson’s crazy shit, but have a backstop — don’t bet it all on something like this. Roll the dice but have insurance…'”
“And,” said Robertson, “It’s precisely that kind of thinking that tanks a place. You have a choice here. Go with your half-assed watered down vision and find a new chef a month before opening, or stick with my ideas, bring it simple and hard, and watch this place turn into a goldmine.”
“Where’s Linneman?” asked Thursday.
“In the kitchen,” said Robertson. “They’re putting together some counter space.”
“Linneman,” bellowed Thursday, “Get in here.”
Linneman shuffled out, looked at Robertson, and turned white as a boiled egg.
“Here it is,” said Thursday. “We can open as a noodle / dumpling / sushi place without Robertson. You’ll need to find me someone else to head it up. Or we can dump the sushi bar and keep this guy. What do you think?”
“Well, I…” began Linneman. He paused. He looked around the room. Thursday and Robertson were both giving him stone faces, although Robertson didn’t look particularly pleased with Thursday, either.
“If you want me gone, just say it,” said Robertson. “I think I can manage not to cry.”
“Of course not,” said Robertson, without affect. “You penny-pinching prick. You’d go to Chez Panisse and suggest they start buying their peaches at Ralph’s because of the impact that’d have on the bottom line.”
“A sushi bar would actually be spending money…” began Linneman, quivering…
“To make money, yes,” said Thursday, suddenly getting bored and dangerous. “It’s my money ultimately, right? So, fuck the sushi bar, for final. Are you happy?” he whirled on Robertson.
“Thrilled,” said Robertson. “Other than the fact that I have to keep in mind that any decisions we collectively make may be revoked without warning and in secret, and that Linneman would rather pussy out than do a real restaurant.”
Linneman seethed. Thursday scowled. Robertson went impassive. A lanky-looking bearded guy wearing overalls and a Aimee Mann T-shirt walked out of the kitchen with a power drill held in one hand. “Hey,” said the guy. “Who do I talk to if we accidentally messed up one of the countertops? Not real bad,” he added. There was a cracking noise from the kitchen. “But not great either.”
Back in the kitchen, there was a stream of expletives, followed by the sound of minerals shattering, followed by an unholy silence.