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 went by, and things went from being vaguely under control to comfortably under control. The crowds of adventure seekers were materializing as hoped, and the food blogs were largely complimentary. Robertson felt like every third table seemed to have someone taking photos with his or her phone, something which annoyed him to no end.
“Can’t we tell people not to do it?” he’d asked Thursday.
“No,” said Thursday. “The last thing we need is some dipshit logging onto Yelp and badmouthing us because we made them feel like they’re not super special and important. People do this kind of thing these days. We’re in the 21st Century, not ancient Kyoto. You’re going to have to roll with it.”
“It just… It feels tacky when people are filming their food,” said Robertson, who’d popped his head out of the kitchen to complain to Thursday and glare at a young woman who’d moved from filming her udon to filming Robertson. “It defeats the whole experience.”
“Don’t you have cooking to do or something?” snarled Thursday genially. Robertson did, so he went back to the kitchen. Time magically passed. Soon it was 1 a.m.
By the end of the night, it was Robertson and a new line cook, an intense, older, bald Lebanese man who called himself Sylvester. As they put the kitchen back in order, Sylvester sidled over to Robertson’s station.
“So, Chef, if you don’t mind me asking you something,” said the line cook.
“I’ve heard a story or two about you, but I’ve always wondered this one thing.” He looked at Robertson, intently.
Robertson asked: “What’s that?”
“What’s the ‘T’ in your name stand for?” Sylvester grinned.
“The,” said Robertson, smirking. Sylvester laughed. “No, seriously –”
“No, seriously,” said Robertson. “It was supposed to be Theodor — after Herzl –”
“Yeah, my parents were bad Jews… well, just my mom, really. But she wanted to put something in there…”
“Something Jewy!” said Sylvester. “But ‘The’? How does that work?”
“I’ve never really known,” said Robertson. “All I can come up with is that Dad got distracted with the form for the birth certificate, and maybe… I don’t know, maybe something passive aggressive. They didn’t really explain it to me when I finally found out. They just said ‘The’ was short for ‘Theodor,’ and Mom got angry.”
“Oh, man, that is shit, that is a shitty turn of events,” said Sylvester, laughing. “Well, I am really named Shamaoun Youseff al-Safra, so, whatever. So, the Holocaust, is that why you’re not Jewish anymore?”
Robertson stared at the man for a little while before deciding that he was honest, or at least legitimately crazy.
“It’s… there’s family stuff, too. But there’s definitely… I don’t know.” Robertson reached for his coat. “There’s definitely a feeling that God let us down.”
“Oh, man — so you’re — you grew up a Holocaust survivor, really,” said Sylvester, speaking in awed tones.
“Hell no,” said Robertson. “The only thing I survived was college in Indiana. A year of it, anyway. My family wasn’t even… hell.”
“I know a place, come on, let’s go,” said Sylvester. He led, Robertson followed. It was cold outside, and Robertson shivered as they exited the restaurant, pursued by a breathy gout of hot, scented air, still wet with globules of fat and flavor. They walked down the street, mingling with the inevitable crowd, heading East, talking as they walked.
“You know, I fought in Lebanon, like a lot of people,” said Sylvester. “Do you know the Maronites?”
Robertson nodded. “A little. Christians, right?”
“Just another gang!” laughed Sylvester. “Yeah, Christians. Whatever. So, I know what it’s like to be afraid, to have violence. Not in the same way as your people. I’ve read Wiesel, I’ve read Spiegelman, and that guy — ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’?”
“Gold… Gold something.”
“Goldhagen, yes. True. It’s true, there is a line” — here Sylvester pointed up toward a powerline arcing over the street — “a line that thin between us being civilized and us heating up the people ovens again. You need to know that. I think everybody needs to know that, to have that memory in you or in your family.”
“Right,” said Robertson. “Hey, where are we going? It’s one in the morning.”
“I know a place, here it is!” Sylvester led Robertson down a set of steps into what was clearly once a subway entrance. The entrance was now converted into the wrought-iron entryway to a sprawling bar / restaurant. Japanese stone lanterns flanked the door, candles flickering intently in the cold October air.
“I just had Japanese earlier tonight,” groaned Robertson.
“We’re not here to eat,” said Sylvester. “Follow me.”
Robertson did, plunging with Sylvester into a blur of noise and movement. The restaurant they’d entered was carved out of an old subway platform, service taking place in three distinct zones: two separate dining rooms taking up the space where the platforms used to be, and a long oval bar sunken down where the train used to run. The ceilings were high, but the room was a writhing nest of shadows, illuminated by nothing other than hundreds of Japanese paper lanterns stuffed with underpowered bulbs.
Everywhere, diners clutched sake bottles, pouring for one another, arguing over the bar’s three-page list of choices. Soon Sylvester and Robertson were seated at one of the tables on the train tracks. Robertson poured over the list, bedecked with names like Kubota Manjyu, Devil’s Mask, and Little Katana. “I got my preferences,” he said. “What do you drink?”
Sylvester called out to the waiter: “Bottle of cherry blossom water, please! Robert, that is daiginjo stuff, you know? Ultra-premium!”
Sake was on the table momentarily, along with a dozen green dumplings, intricate like rose blossoms.
“Careful with these,” said Sylvester, hefting his chopsticks. “They’re basically wasabi grenades. Free, on the house, like a tapa, some crazy thing.” He bit one of the dumplings in half, swallowed it gingerly, and bugged out his eyes.
“What were you saying before?” asked Robertson. “Something about learning about the horror of war so we don’t ever have to face anything like that again…?”
“Yeah, something like that,” said Sylvester. “It’s terrible. On the other hand, I don’t know — People always say, civil war, oh my Jesus, that’s so horrible, you have to kill your neighbors, people from related familes, and so on.” Sylvester took a delicate sip of the sake, and popped a whole dumpling into his mouth, and let sweat pour off his face for a full minute before continuing. “You know, a lot of those people were dicks. You go to school with them, live next to them, whatever, you learn…. Well, fuck them. The Bible — you read the Bible?”
“Old Testament, as the Christians would say,” said Robertson, refilling Sylvester’s cup. “It seems more honest.” Robertson lifted the sake to his lips and marvelled at its delicacy; had he not known what he was drinking, “cherry blossom water” would have seemed like an accurate description.
“Well, you get it — everybody kills their neighbors, it’s why you can offer such warm hospitality to strangers in the Middle East, or you know, the American South,” said Sylvester. “Strangers are no threat, who cares about them, and maybe some day you’re a stranger somewhere without your family around. But it’s your neighbors… they want to take whatever you have, they hate you for being successful or mock you for failing, or know that you hate them because they’re successful… whatever.” Sylvester killed his glass. Robertson refilled it. Sylvester refilled Robertson’s. “Not so bad, killing those assholes. Not that I killed all that many people, I’m not trying to brag like I’m a tough hitman or something. You’ve seen me, I’m just a guy.”
“I mostly tried to get out of it, except for my fucking uncle. Hey, waiter,” called Sylvester. “You guys still got that subway sake? Two if you have them.” The waiter, a fast-moving Japanese man, nodded and disappeared. “Genshu Honjozo or something, comes in a can,” said Sylvester, a smile lighting up his leathery face. “They make it in Niigata and sell it in vending machines to the salarymen who drink it before they head home on the train. I like it because they add extra alcohol to it. 40 proof, man!”
Robertson grinned. Before long he was in a cab, and then he was in his apartment, looking at what he’d managed to put together of his life: four floor-to-ceiling oak bookshelves, an open, half-unpacked box of kitchenwares, a laundry bag of clothes, a broken laptop, and a futon mattress. He slumped over on the futon mattress. It was lumpy. And spinning.