Home > Sweetbitter(9)

Sweetbitter(9)
Stephanie Danler

“Okay, so which are which on this plate?” I held the plate closer to her face but she wouldn’t look.

“Those are covered in water. Take them back to Chef.”

I shook my head. Absolutely not.

“You’re not going to serve those. Take them back to Chef.”

I shook my head again but sucked in my lips. I saw it all unfolding ahead of me. His anger at me, his yelling about the waste, my embarrassment. But I could look at the menu notes while I waited for the new ones. I could hear the table number again. I could figure it out.

“Okay.”

“Next time look at them but use your tongue.”

THE MANAGERS MAINTAINED power by shifting things. They came into a server’s station and moved their dupe pad, moved their checks, rearranged the tickets on the bar. They pulled white wines out of the ice bucket, wiped them down, and reinserted them in a new pattern. They would pause you when you were running, obviously in a hurry, and ask you how you thought you were settling in.

Simone maintained power by centrifugal force. When she moved, the restaurant was pulled as if by a tailwind. She led the servers by her ability to shift their focus—her own focus was a spotlight. Service unfolded in her parentheses.

“WHAT’S THAT bartender’s name again? The one who only talks to Simone?” I asked Sasha. I was casual about it.

Sasha was a backwaiter. He was otherworldly beautiful: broad alien cheekbones, blue eyes, bee-stung, haughty lips. He could have been a model, except he was barely five foot four. His gaze was so cold, you knew he had been everyone: a rich man, a poor man, in love, abandoned, a murderer, and close to death. None of these states impressed him much.

“That bartender? Jake.”

He was Russian, and though he was clearly fluent in English, he didn’t bother to adhere to its rules. His accent was both elegant and comical. He rolled his eyes at me while he cut bread.

“Okay, Pollyanna, let me tell you few truths. You’re too new.”

“What does that mean?”

“What you think it means? Jakey will eat you for dinner and spit you out. You even know what I’m speaking of? You’re not bouncing around after that.”

I shrugged like I didn’t care and filled the bread baskets.

“Besides. He’s mine. I’ll cut your fucking throat if you touch him and I’m not a joker.”

“Silence in the kitchen! Pick up.”

“PICKING UP!”

The kitchen was a riot of misshapen, ugly tomatoes. They smelled like the green insides of plants, like sap, like dirt.

There were tomatoes of every color: yellow, green, orange, red-purple, mottled, striped, dotted. They were bursting. “Seaming” is what Chef called it, when the curves and indentations pulled apart from each other, but not completely, like parted lips.

“Heirloom season,” Ariel sang out. She was also a backwaiter. She always had pounds of eyeliner on, even if it was the morning. She had bangs and dark-brown hair that she twisted up onto her head and held with chopsticks. She was still named Mean-Girl in my head because she wouldn’t speak to me during training, only pointed and gave exasperated sighs. But today she was passing out dripping bar mops to the line cooks from a bucket of ice water. They wrapped them around their heads like bandanas or slung them over the backs of their necks. That didn’t seem like something a Mean-Girl would do. In fact, I hadn’t seen anyone do something that compassionate with their bar mop stash. I heard from my own head, Our first tenet is to take care of each other.

She handed me a bar mop. I put it on the back of my neck and it felt like rising out of a soggy cloud into clean air.

“Pick up.”

“Picking up,” I said. I looked expectantly to the window but there were no plates lined up. Instead Scott, the young, tattooed sous chef, passed me a sliver of tomato. The insides were tie-dyed pink and red.

“A Marvel-Striped from Blooming Hill Farm,” he said, as if I had asked him a question.

I cupped it while it dripped. He pinched up flakes of sea salt from a plastic tub and flicked it on the slice.

“When they’re like this don’t fuck with them. Just a little salt.”

“Wow,” I said. And I meant it. I had never thought of a tomato as a fruit—the ones I had known were mostly white in the center and rock hard. But this was so luscious, so tart I thought it victorious. So—some tomatoes tasted like water, and some tasted like summer lightning.

“WHAT ARE HEIRLOOMS?” I asked Simone as I ran to get behind her in line for family meal. She had two white plates in her hand and I felt a shiver of expectation looking at that second plate. I noted how she made her own—a generous tongful of green salad and a cup of the vichyssoise.

“Exciting, isn’t it? The season? They’re rare or unique breeds of plants and animals. Once all our tomatoes were like that. Before preservatives and supermarkets and this commercial food production hell we’re living in. Breeds evolved in places based on one evolutionary principle: they tasted better. The point is not longevity or flawlessness. All of our vegetables were biologically diverse, pungent with the nuances of their breed. They reflected their specific time and space—their terroir.”

On the second plate she took the biggest pork chop on the bone, a scoop of the rice salad, and a wedge of gratin potatoes. She said, “Now everything tastes like nothing.”

THEY CONJOINED in my mind. It wasn’t that they were always together. Theirs was an oblique connection, not always direct. If I saw one, my eyes started to move, looking for the other. Simone was easy to find, ubiquitous, directing everyone—she seemed to have some sort of system where she divided her attention between the servers equally. But I had a harder time tracking him, his alliances, his rhythms.

If they were in the restaurant together they had one eye on each other and I had one eye on them, trying to understand what I was seeing. It wasn’t like they were the only fascinating people at the restaurant. But they were an island if the rest of us were the continent—distant, inaccessible, picking up stray light.

“PICK UP.”

My eyes snapped open but I was the barista today, the kitchen was far away. Howard looked at me from the Micros terminal. He was waiting for me to make him a macchiato but I was overthinking it. I threw the first two shots away.

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