Monday, November 30, 2009

Swim or Sink

It was a Tuesday morning when Marty came in late, once again, and shuffled through the kitchen with an envelope in his hand. As he pushed through the corral doors into the serving area, he hung his head and handed me the envelope. I didn’t even have to open it for I realized that it was time. He walked to the sofa in the dining area and just slumped into it, unable to make eye contact with me. I walked over and sat on the loveseat as I asked, “So, when would you like your last day to be?”

“Saturday,” he said with trepidation.

“Ok, well maybe we can have some drinks after work on Saturday then. How’ld you like that?” I replied.

“So you’re ok with it then?”

“Marty, you desperately need to get out of your parents’ home and you definitely need to get out of this town. I assume you’ll be living with Vince then?”

“No. I’ll be splitting an apartment with a couple friends until we decide it’s time to move in together.”

“That sounds wise. No need to put that stress into the relationship any sooner than necessary.”

“Wow, you really are taking this very well,” he said.

“Well,” I chuckled, “I can’t afford to pay you anyway – I never really could.”

“Why did you keep me on then?”

“You needed a place where you could work thing out and I was hoping business would eventually pick up.”

“It still might,” he encouraged.

“Nah. Maybe over the summer. I think I’ve already snagged all the best customers in town.”

“People will come around,” he further encouraged.

“Well, they either will or they won’t. Without your wages the bistro can float – although I doubt I’ll ever get a paycheque. I’m fine with that, but I’m not putting one more penny into it. From here on in it either sinks or swims on its own merit. I guess the same can be said for you.”

I found myself feeling numb. It was as though I was having an out of body experience and, although in a standing posture, I was floating and slowly rotating like an old forgotten satellite. I knew this moment would come for both the bistro and for Marty. It was like letting go of the back of a bicycle as you watch a child swerve away to either roll down the block or fall onto the pavement. There is no way to let go of that bicycle without first mentally preparing to fully detach yourself emotionally. The slightest gasp or cheer could alter the outcome and every urge has to be stifled. Letting go of two bicycles at once, though, was overwhelming.

I hadn’t realized that both moments were going to come at once, though. For Marty, that moment of truth came when he was ready to leave. I was more than ready for that envelope and knew it could come at anytime. The moment I realized his departure meant I no longer had to subsidize the business to pay his wages, I also realized that that was the moment in which I also had to let go and let the bistro fend for itself. The two events occurring together seemed to multiply the emotional detachment I had mentally prepared for each event, leaving me feeling absolutely nothing. With one hand I let go of Marty, and with the other I let go of the business, and away I floated like a solitary astronaut.

The rest of that week was incredibly difficult. It was easy to forget that I had let go of the business for it would take months to see the results. Marty was another matter. I felt like my son was leaving home and I had so many things to tell him. He was so fussy about his clothes that he already knew how to do laundry, but he was terribly inexperienced with cooking. There wasn’t much time to teach him so I focused on grocery shopping and illustrating for him the price savings of buying unprepared foods.

One of the most difficult skills for all too many novice cooks is the proper preparation of rice. All too often, people who haven’t learned to cook rice properly simply come to the conclusion that it can’t be done or that they just hate rice. This is a tragedy because rice is the most versatile starch in the human diet. It never spoils so it can be purchased in huge quantities at incredible savings. It won’t go all mushy when left too long in a simmering soup and absorbs flavours far better than pasta.

The biggest problem with rice is that every single damn package of the stuff gives the same set of wrong directions: Put one cup of rice and two cups of water into a sauce pan. Add salt to taste. Bring to a boil, then cover and let stand for 30 minutes.

I have no idea why every package encourages people to make mushy, watery rice. I suppose they feel that people will adjust the amounts and cooking time accordingly, but almost no one ever does so. I use a scale to measure my rice, water, and salt in order to produce very consistent results, but nearly perfect rice can be made without going digital. Personally I find that one cup of rice and about 1-3/4 cups of water will make a rice that isn’t mushy but that still absorbs enough water to avoid being crunchy. Salt is still very much a matter of taste but deciding to skip the salt altogether isn’t a good idea. If you are watching your salt intake then put down that damn bag of potato chips. Cooking time on the rice is where almost everyone gets it wrong.

You can’t just cover the rice as soon as it boils and then set it aside. As the rice comes to a boil the heat should be reduced progressively to continue a slow boil. Stir the rice every few minutes as this slow boil continues until the mixture becomes thick and the water becomes a little scarce. Once the water line is below the level of rice in the pot then it is finally time to cover it and let it stand for 30 minutes. Actually, at this point, 20 minutes is often enough depending on the volume of rice being cooked. The extra attention may seem annoying when you have a lot of other things going on in the kitchen but the result is well worth it; soft, chewy rice that flakes apart rather than coming out of the pot in a big mushy clump followed by unabsorbed water.

The easiest way to spruce up some rice into an appealing side dish is to toss it in a basic sautéed mirepoix. Mirepoix is a very standard combination of chopped onion, celery, and carrot. Cajun cooking adapts the standard mirepoix by substituting red bell pepper for the carrot. Simply sauté a hand full of mirepoix in butter and then dump in your rice and toss it a bit. The results are even better when the sautéing is done with some chopped bacon. Whether you use a standard mirepoix or a Cajun mirepoix, a few dashes of soy sauce can produce a quick emulation of the standard fried rice on many Asian menus. I actually fry a Cajun mirepoix in a generous puddle of olive oil and then toss in the rice and some taco sauce to produce the ‘Mexi-Seasoned Rice’ on my menu.

I crammed all the cooking knowledge I could into Marty’s head until it was time for him to leave. He had spread word of his departure to all the customers and we had an incredibly busy Saturday - even including the men who liked to come in for coffee in the afternoon just to watch him bus tables. Not one of them said a word about being sad to see him leave but the look in their eyes revealed their disappointment.

In the middle of the afternoon a couple of female Humbuggers walked in and ordered waffles. I found it quite odd because Humbuggers generally giggled like simple minded children when I suggested having waffles after noon. They asked for “normal” coffee and didn’t want any toppings on their waffles – just butter and syrup. I prepared the order myself because Marty was in the back doing dishes. After plating the waffles I lightly dusted them with some icing sugar, which was the serving standard that Marty had established. It really gave them a beautiful finish and highlighted the golden crispy finish of the waffles.

As I walked to the table I felt a little tug at my heart just thinking that this was Marty’s innovation in plating and it would likely be the way I plated waffles for the rest of my life. I was sad that he was going but I knew that a part of him would always be in my heart. I set the plates in front of the ladies and smiled as I said, “Bon appetit!”

Just then, one of the women grabbed her waffle off of the plate and blurted, “I said I wanted it plain,” as she began slapping it on the edge of the table to remove all of the icing sugar.

“Have you lost your fucking mind?” I screamed.

“I told you that I wanted it plain!” she yelled back as she continued smacking it on the side of the table. Icing sugar dust wafted over her head.

I grabbed the waffle out of her hand and threw it back over the serving counter as I screamed, “If you didn’t like the dusting of sugar you could have asked me to redo it without! What kind of backwards, inbred fucktard are you? Get the fuck out of my restaurant now!”

“I paid for my meal and YOU’RE going to remake that for me!” she screamed back.

I walked behind the counter to the till and retrieved a twenty dollar bill. I crumpled the bill up and threw it at her and said, “Consider your order returned you fucking hillbilly!”

“You can’t talk to me this way! I’m leaving!” she retorted.

Knowing exactly where this was going I grabbed the pitcher of ice water and a glass and walked around the counter to where she stood. I looked her in the eye and said, “Now I know how this works. You fucking rednecks stand there and say you are leaving but you don’t leave – you never fucking leave! So hear this; each time you say something without moving towards the door I’m throwing a glass full of water in your face!”

I poured my first glass of water as she said, “Well if you want me to leave you can just ask me to leave.”

I threw the first glass of water straight in her face and she just gasped, “Well then I’m leaving!”

I threw the second glass of water in her face and she shook the water off of her face like a wet dog and said, “You’re going to hear about this!”

As I threw the third glass of water in her face she began to cry. I put my face within six inches of hers and screamed at the top of my lungs, “Get the fuck out of my fucking restaurant you haggard fucking bitch!”

At that point she actually turned and walked out without saying another word. Her friend, on the other hand, stood exactly where she had been through the entire exchange and just stared at me with horror on her face. I looked at her and began to pour another glass of water but suddenly she just bolted for the door. As I turned to face the other customers they all applauded. I was so angry but I was quickly overwhelmed and just began to laugh.

When I explained to Marty what had happened he was astounded.

“You mean she actually slapped the waffle against the side of the table like she was shaking out a welcome mat or something?”

“Exactly like that,” I replied.

I had seen a lot of rude behaviors in Humbug before but slapping that waffle around was just the straw that broke the camels back. There was just no way of doing anything nice for these hillbillies and their lack of social graces was beyond rude. My reaction was well over the top but it just pained me so much that one moment I could be looking at this beautiful little golden pastry that was lightly dusted in icing sugar and the next moment one of these rednecks was assaulting it and getting icing sugar all over the floor.

I expected to be served with assault charges over the incident but never heard a word back. Apparently that little trollop didn’t have the nerve to explain to the RCMP that she was flicking her waffle against the side of the table to remove icing sugar. Those backward bastards all knew that their behavior was inappropriate – they just felt that within the boundaries of their little hick town that they could behave like spoiled children and get away with it.

The dining room was filled with laughter for the rest of the afternoon as customer after customer relayed the details of my confrontation to the new arrivals. Few Humbuggers ever came in anymore and almost all of my regulars were outsiders who had encountered similarly rude behaviors. My little bistro had truly become a gathering spot to for outsider support and to talk about how backwards most of the townsfolk really were.

When we finally closed that Saturday, Marty was eager to close the blinds and have a drink. He brought some fruit flavoured vodka coolers but I opted to stick to my whisky and water. We raised our drinks in a toast.

“So,” I said, “this is it.”

“It seems like I’ve been here for years,” he replied.

“Well, a lot has happened in the past few months.”

“Yeah. So what do you think will happen here?” he asked.

“I’m not sure. The town is small enough that ninety percent have to know I’m here. There just isn’t much interest in a new menu and I’m just not interested in serving a deepfreeze to deep-fry menu. I’ve got less than a year left on the lease now so I’ll have to see how sales are in about six months.”

“Less than a year?”

“Yeah – it took a long time to open.”

“That doesn’t leave much time to grow.”

“No – it doesn’t. I guess it will have to swim or sink.”

“I guess that goes for me too,” he said.

“Well, at least you have a one great possible lifeline.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“If you do get into trouble, you can always hope to be rescued by a big buff gay lifeguard.”

Once again my dining room echoed with laughter.