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.
Opening night at Kami was far less crazy than it could’ve been. Robertson left Linneman to sort out the front of the house, a job he was well-suited to. Robertson drilled the back of the house, cooking for them, making them taste, making them cook, tasting, back and forth until everyone knew the menu by memory if not actually by heart. Amid all the chaos of opening on a three-month turnaround, this sometimes meant 12- or 14-hour days. Most of the chefs, prep, sous, or otherwise, were up for it and knew the drill. The couple who weren’t were drummed out.
“You’re done,” said Robertson, to a chef who’d improvised the filling to one of the pre-opening evening’s batches of pork dumplings. “What?” said the chef, a CIA graduate and 10-year veteran of some fairly respectable joints in her time. “You’re done,” repeated Robertson, without emotion. “You know why. I’ll make sure you get paid for the time you put in.”
“What. The. Hell,” said the chef, a diminutive Italian / Spanish spitfire who typically spoke very little and took her work seriously. “How… how can you do this. How can you do this…”
“What’s in here?” asked Robertson, his voice going up a bit. “What’s in these dumplings?”
“I added a shaving of jalapeno,” she said, defensively, “so what? They needed it, they lacked heat… they weren’t interesting…”
“The heat comes from the broth…”
“Then the broth just overpowers them! That’s idiocy!”
“You think adding jalapeno adds interest? The relationship between that and real cooking is the relationship between watching hardcore pornography and actually making love.”
“The problem with your…”
“Who’s the goddamned executive chef here,” asked Robertson.
“So it’s all about rank,” she said.
“Fuck you, it’s not about rank, it’s about respect. It’s about I decide what goes into the pork dumplings because my name is going out on those little fuckers, and I can’t have my people sneaking bullshit into the food behind my back because they’ve made their own little executive decisions because they secretly know how to cook better than I do.”
She stared at him. “You know what? Fuck you, you conceited prick.” She stomped out of the kitchen, throwing her apron back onto a lit burner, where it caught fire.
“I hope to work with you on a future project,” called out Robertson.
“You too, you fucking asshole,” she shouted.
“Martinez,” said Robertson, “please extinguish that apron. Also, you’re promoted to sous chef, congratulations. I hope you’re ready for it.”
Martinez had it under control. The apron was in a sink in no time. Opening night went smoothly, and the buzz was substantial. Robertson had added a kobe beef steak to the menu as a concession to big appetites (there always were some) and it was the biggest seller until people started to get jealous of the bowls and dumplings that their less peckish dining companions had ordered. Complementary sake flights tamped down the occasional table fussy due to slow food; few had to be sent. The kitchen hummed. Thursday beamed. That night, after finally clocking out at around 2am, Robertson got home, made himself a grilled cheese sandwich, watched police procedurals for an hour, and then slept the sleep of the dead.