the first course was horseradish-cured hamachi with edamame. No soy sauce for dipping. No glob of fluorescent green. Just three pearl-pink ribbons of fish draped across a narrow white rectangle. Two stacks of edamame—three pale beans to a stack—sat between the outer slices and the inner, the composition so precise, Simon didn’t want to disturb it.
Marcus caught him eyeing his plate.
“I know,” Marcus said. “But there’s nine more courses. Trust me, it adds up.”
Marcus had a habit of projecting his appetite onto others. That he’d gained at least fifty pounds since college while Simon retained his swimmer’s trim made no difference.
“If you’re still hungry after, we can hit Papaya King, split the Recession Special.”
“They raised the price,” Simon said.
“In the middle of a recession?” Marcus laughed. “That’s cold.”
Simon lifted his chopsticks from the dark stone on which they rested. These weren’t Chinatown chopsticks, the blondes you break apart, their taper so negligible you can’t tell which end is which. These were reddish and hefty, made no doubt from the wood of some august and ancient tree. No lacquer, no calligraphy. Serious equipment.
He raised a piece of hamachi to his mouth and let it lie on his tongue a moment before chewing. The word that came to mind was, “clean.” But no, “clean” implied antiseptic, a chemical overpowering of the taste buds, the brinksmanship of the breath mint makers. “Fresh”? Surely, but pineapple could be fresh. Dog droppings, too.
He’d heard it said, by his father or someone equally pompous, the better the fish the more it tastes of the sea. But that just made him think “salty,” and what he tasted was mild, bland even, if bland were a good thing.
More than clean, more than fresh, the flavor was clear: pure hamachi, unmuddied by sauce, fully itself. The sting of horseradish didn’t distract from that essence but rather sharpened the focus. Simon knew within the first few bites he’d never tasted anything like it. He knew this would be the best meal of his life.
“So,” Marcus said, a fleck of edamame clinging to his soul patch, “are we going to talk business or what?”
Second course: diver scallops in XO broth. Simon had never tried raw scallops before. They looked milkier than the hamachi but more lustrous in their tea-colored bath. He expected a fishy smell, but there was none, even when he dipped his head closer to the bowl.
“You’re supposed to eat it, not make out with it,” Marcus said. He’d already finished his.
The restaurant was an unexpected choice for Marcus. Not too long ago, he would’ve been more likely to suggest someplace that let you throw peanut shells on the floor or gave you a T-shirt if you could finish the specialty of the house. But Marcus Sr. had made him a vice president, and he was starting to act the part.
For his part, Simon wasn’t the kind of political operative who routinely got treated to lavish dinners. Anyone other than Marcus, and he’d be ordering sandwiches at the campaign office. Sometimes delivery ended up being more expensive than eating out, but it seemed less expensive to prospective donors, reassured them that whatever crumb of their inheritance they dropped in Simon’s lap would be handled with the strictest sense of fiscal responsibility.
Their present surroundings didn’t exactly scream fiscal responsibility. The restaurant was tucked in a corner of a gleaming high-end mall. No, not a corner. The building, built by Marcus Sr., was sinuous. It had no corners. Suffice to say, the place was discreet, no sign or stiletto-heeled hostess to compete with the nearby display of Fendi bags or the Brancusi bronze on loan from the Guggenheim. This lack of glitz had the perverse effect of making the restaurant seem even more exclusive than the mall’s other tenants.
Ladies expecting a tableside pedestal for their handbag and a four-star smile from the chef would be disappointed. So, too, the power brokers craving a three-figure burger piled with foie gras, truffle, and gold leaf. Gastro-tourists eager to see their dinner extracted from a test tube and injected onto their plates with a syringe would slink back to their hotel with nothing to blog about.
Where Marcus had taken Simon there was no wine steward, no Julliard grad tickling the ivories, no music at all, in fact. There wasn’t even a menu. The slate floors and dark wood walls were bare, the brushed steel chairs more comfortable than they looked but not exactly plush. The light was dim except where it pooled around the sushi bar. There, the master, wearing an olive robe, assembled his dishes in silence, with a concentration that seemed absolute yet effortless.
Those hands moving with such skill, they made this food for me. A lifelong New Yorker and recovering rich kid, Simon had been served his entire life, yet he’d never had this exact thought before.
The scallop tasted more distinctly of the sea than the hamachi, but otherwise, Simon couldn’t tell much about its flavor. He experienced it mostly as temperature and texture, a slippery coolness that melded with the gently spicy broth. Simon was amazed the combination of just two flavors could yield a sensation so round, so complete. The chef hadn’t even cooked anything! Being here, eating like this, transcended the Century Club and Christmas in St. Bart’s. This was a luxury he’d never known.
Marcus raised his pipe cleaner eyebrows expectantly. Simon looked at the second scallop still waiting for him in the bowl, soaking up that magic broth. He cleared his throat.
Business first. Always business first.
“Fifty grand,” he said.
“Fifty grand? I thought the limit was twenty-four hundred.”
Simon smiled at the waiter clearing away their bowls. He didn’t smile back. No sign he was paying attention to anything other than his task.
“It is,” Simon said. “So we start with you, Leonie, your dad, your mom, your sister: that’s twelve.”
Marcus grabbed the waiter’s elbow.
“Can I get another Sapporo?”
“Sapporo,” the waiter said softly and left them.
“Okay, so that’s twelve,” Marcus said. “You think I’ve got cousins I’ve been hiding from you our whole lives?”
“The rest wouldn’t be direct contributions,” Simon said.
“Tell me then,” Marcus said. “What are we doing with my money?”
His money. It was all Simon could do not to roll his eyes.
“I need you to throw some fundraisers. Young executives.”
“Cool. I like a party. A party.”
“One for my guy. A couple more for the comptroller and the DA.”
“No offense, Simon, but I barely give a shit about your guy. Why should I give a shit about the comptroller and the DA?”
“We hook them up with some young donors, they hook us up with the clubs. The clubs turn out the votes.”
“Really? Sounds like some old-timey Tammany Hall shit to me.”
Simon shrugged. He didn’t expect Marcus to believe this was how it worked. Eight years in politics, and it was still hard for him believe. In the end, Marcus would sign the checks not because he believed in what he was doing but because they were friends. That was Simon’s value in this world. He’d knocked on doors for Kerry and Obama and repped for a half dozen council members, running press releases to the reporters in Room Nine, marching in every parade from Gay Pride to Three Kings. There was no skill involved. Most of his professional peers were someone’s cousin. What kept Simon working was his friends.
“Be straight with me,” Marcus said. “Do you even like this guy? Or is this just a job?”
Simon was saved by the third course.
“Peekytoe crab with avocado, kaffir lime, and lemon oil,” the waiter said while a second, younger server poured Marcus his beer.
The crab was invisible, encased in a dome of crescent-shaped avocado slices, three lime leaves fanned across the top. The pool of lemon oil underneath was an almost fluorescent yellow, like Mountain Dew, but viscous.
Simon broke into the dome as soon as the waiter set the plate down. The shredded crab inside was a duller white than the scallops, yellowish like bone. It tasted sweet, but no, as soon as the thought occurred to him, he recognized it as secondhand.
Every summer throughout his childhood, his parents would invite the whole family to the beach house in Bridgehampton for a crab boil. His father would dump the crabs, flush with steam, on a picnic table covered in newspaper, and the kids would wallop them with wooden mallets, then collect the bits of meat in a bowl so their mothers could turn it into crab cakes. The women all moaned about how sweet it was.
When Simon recounted those crab boils to his fiancée, Marissa invariably told him how lucky he was. He could never explain why the memories were less than magical to him. Even at the time, while his cousins delighted in the splatter and crunch, it struck him as a lot of work for too little return. He always went to bed hungry after a crab boil, put out because he’d been forced to waste the last hours of daylight on an assigned activity when he could’ve been chasing girls behind the dunes. Reflecting on it now, he had to admit not much had changed.
Did he like his boss, or was this just a job? How to tell Marcus the question didn’t interest him at all? If he had to talk, he’d rather talk about the word “sweet,” how it couldn’t do the master’s crab justice, how “sweet crab” was a cliché, empty of mystery, until the master anointed it in lemon oil, enshrined it in avocado, made it all new. As long as your mouth is full, Simon told himself, you don’t have to say a thing.
But a full mouth had never stopped Marcus.
“Should I repeat the question?” he said.
“You met him,” Simon said. “What did you think?”
“I thought he was a politician. Like every other politician I ever met.”
“How many have you met?”
The fourth course arrived: tuna tartare, a smooth, marble-pink paste with a dollop of osetra caviar and a sprinkling of tan rice puffs on top, served in a wooden frame, a square bowl of dashi-soy sauce on the side. The waiter presented them with wooden paddles a little longer than Simon’s index finger for scraping the tartare out of its frame.
Marcus pointed his paddle at him.
“Come on,” he said. “I want to be seduced.”
Simon drew a line in his tartare. It reminded him of baby food. He could tell without tasting that the rice puffs were there for textural contrast and the caviar for salt. Knowing this deflated him for some reason. Or maybe it was being forced to think about the councilman. Like a lot of local electeds, he’d worked in the Clinton White House in some vague capacity. He turned every policy debate into a story about his dear mother in the nursing home, and though he won his first race seven years ago, he still wore a button with his name on it.
Marcus was right: the guy was a typical politician. To Simon, that wasn’t an indictment in and of itself. He’d decided years ago he liked politicians, liked their sense of purpose. It didn’t matter if you were born into the business or a corporate titan bored with mergers and acquisitions. You still had to shake hands, dish out pudding at the local senior center, make the rounds. You could be stupid or lazy—and Simon had worked for pols who were both—but if you didn’t go out and make the sale, you’d lose your job.
It was a vocation that made sense to Simon, who’d always had energy and charm to burn. Being chained to a desk in his father’s office would’ve been a slow, shameful death, and he’d missed the boat on all the careers that called for specialized training: doctor, pilot, zoo keeper. He’d considered teaching—kids seemed to love him, but he’d hated school himself, so it was a wash. He could’ve been a reporter, but he didn’t like the idea of being stuck on the outside, scrambling after an ever-elusive truth. Better to be on the inside, making it up as you go along.
“Look,” he said. “If you’re asking me, is he the best guy for the job, then yeah, I believe he is. But I’m not doing this for him.”
Marcus’ eyebrows did a little dance.
“I’m doing it for you,” Simon said.
“I’m touched by your generosity,” Marcus said.
“You said you wanted skin in the game. If our guy gets even ten percent, everyone knows your name. If he wins, you’ve got a United States congressman on speed dial.”
“I’ve already got you on speed dial.”
“I’m not the principal. You want to know the principal.”
“How about this,” Marcus said. “I give you the money, make you the principal.”
This took Simon by surprise. Like a lot of people in his line of work, he’d entertained the thought of running for office himself someday. But it never crossed his mind that anyone else might share this aspiration for him. Then again, he’d never talked to anyone about it. He could imagine his father’s response: “Didn’t I give you enough attention when you were a child?” As for Marissa … he wasn’t sure how she’d react. Suffice it to say, he was scared to find out.
“I can’t run for Congress,” he said. “I’m nobody.”
“So run for your guy’s council seat,” Marcus said. “You must know half the district by now, right?”
“At least,” Simon said.
“There you go. You’ve always been kind of a schmuck, dude, but I’d rather back you than a guy who wears a button on his suspenders. He looks like he works at Friday’s.”
He had to admit, Marcus was making sense. And yet something didn’t feel right. Simon didn’t want to answer one way or the other.
“Finished?” The waiter had silently appeared and was leaning towards Simon’s tartare. Simon quickly crossed his hands over the frame.
“No, no,” he said, “not finished.”
The waiter bowed and withdrew. Simon scooped a lump of tartare, caviar, and rice crisps onto his paddle.
As he’d anticipated, the dish was a balancing act between the salty, crunchy garnishes and the silky spread. At first, knowing what to expect had been a letdown. But now that the waiter had nearly denied him the chance to try it, he found that he was grateful to have his expectations met, that confirmation could be just as exciting as surprise. The fear of missing out had brought him home to the food. He half-wondered if this was what the waiter had intended.
The flavors, so precise they seemed to be targeting individual taste buds, had the side effect of clarifying his thoughts. He didn’t need Marcus to make him a politician. He was one already. Hell, he’d been selling himself his whole life. All he was missing was the American flag pin.
Take the Marissa situation. He’d told her he wasn’t ready for a baby, but she’d lobbied hard, enlisted both families in a whisper campaign, raised the specter of past transgressions. And what did he do? He pandered, flip-flopped. Thanks for your support.
It was clear to him now: he wasn’t scared Marissa would hate the idea of him running for office. He was scared she’d be thrilled by it, see it as his shot at making something respectable of himself—and just in the nick of time. But Simon knew better. He’d finally figured out what he’d been doing wrong. The only way to get respect was to stop selling. The only way to make something of himself was to make something, something for people to enjoy together, something that brought happiness, however negligible or fleeting, into the world.
“You want to back me?” he said. “Great. Let’s open a restaurant.”
Their first sushi of the night: grilled eel in kabayaki sauce with thai basil and fresh sansho. It was all new to Simon. He’d never heard of kabayaki or sansho, which seemed to be some kind of pepper seed. And he’d never seen basil this stunted or purplish before. And yet it was the rice that held his attention when he took a bite. It wasn’t as gluey as the standard take-out stuff he was used to. The grains separated a bit in his mouth. Without those warm packets of starch to keep him grounded, the whirligig of flavors might have thrown him. There was the smokiness of the eel, the sweetness of the sauce, the heat of the sansho. The basil alone packed allusions to a half-dozen different spices. The rice was the ground note that brought the rest into harmony. Only with the rice as a base did it all hold up.
Rice! Who knew?
“What do you know about restaurants?” Marcus asked.
“Nothing,” Simon said, smiling, the reasons for his happiness stuck between his teeth.
“Do you know how much it costs to get something off the ground in this city?”
“Let me tell you, then, ’cause we’re on my side of the street now. The right space alone is going to run you more than your guy’s entire campaign. And that’s just for starters. Renovations, licenses, equipment, staff … those are your up-front costs. No worries, though. People are out every night blowing their bonuses on champagne and lobster. Oh wait, they’re not. They’re stocking up on cat food ’cause the roof just fell in on them.”
This speech gave Simon a chance to savor his second piece of sushi. He was drawn this time to the edges of the eel. They looked as dark and crispy as the skin of a Thanksgiving turkey. Almost tasted like it, too.
“So you’re saying you can’t afford it?” he asked when the sansho’s after-burn had faded.
“I’m saying this: if we’re talking about politics, you’re a good investment. If we’re talking about restaurants, I might as well set my money on fire.”
Fair enough. Some rich people thought about money constantly, some never thought about it at all. Marcus was in one camp, Simon the other. He’d have to try a different pitch.
“Come on, can’t you see it? Your own private booth. Running tab at the bar. Maybe a sandwich named after you. The Marcus.”
“And where are you while I’m drinking my money and eating myself?”
Marcus couldn’t commit to a spit-take. He just jerked his shoulders forward and let a little beer dribble in the space between the bottle and his lips. “You’re the chef in this fantasy?”
“You don’t know how to cook,” Marcus said.
“I’ll go to culinary school,” Simon said. “What is that, like six months?”
“Have you ever even made a peanut butter sandwich?”
Simon preferred his peanut butter straight out of the jar. But how did Marcus know? A memory from their childhood?
“You’re talking about what I do at home,” Simon said. “I’m talking about an occupation. I want to make things for people. Don’t you ever want to make things for people?”
“I make buildings!” Marcus said.
“But don’t you ever wish you could be the one breaking the ground, welding the beams?”
“Welding the beams?”
“You know what I mean, man.”
Marcus looked at Simon like he was begging for drug money.
“You want to make something, make a crib for the baby,” he said.
Simon’s throat closed.
“Yeah, that’s right. Marissa told Leonie. You think she’s going to be on board with you getting off work at one, sleeping all day? You think I want to be party to that shit storm?”
Simon looked down at the table.
“Okay, I get it,” Marcus said. “You’re just a kid with a crazy dream. Why don’t you ask your dad for the money?”
Because, unlike Marcus, he wasn’t his father’s business partner and never could be. Because what money his father gave him came with an unspoken condition: do not embarrass me. And the idea of his son making other people’s dinner for a living would embarrass him.
There was a grain of rice still hiding against the white of Simon’s plate. He pressed his fingertip to it, raised it to eye level.
“How do you get to make something like this?” he said. “I need to know.”
“Ask,” Marcus said, “if you need to know so bad.”
He tipped his bottle in the direction of the sushi bar, where the master worked like a surgeon in an operating theater, the mystery of life taking shape under his hands.
Certain assumptions about the master were dispelled as soon as Simon was close enough to share his light. His hands, for instance, weren’t delicate surgeon’s hands at all. Nor were they bent by time into a grip fit for chopsticks. Rather, they were large and smooth, almost sculptural. His face was no mask of Zen concentration. His brow was uncreased, but smile lines stretched from his dark eyes to his hairless temples. When he looked up, he gave a grin almost as straight and white as Simon’s own.
He was slicing salmon pink as grapefruit, then tossing it in a thin sauce, brownish but lighter than soy.
“It looks so good,” Simon said.
The master dipped his bald head in thanks, shaved off a sliver of fish, and presented it to Simon on the flat of his chef’s knife.
“Please try,” he said, his words heavily accented, soft but clipped.
Simon hesitated to take the offering.
“No sauce?” he asked.
The master shook his head.
“Fresh from Scotland,” he said. “Today. Better with no sauce.”
“Better?” Having experienced the master’s way with oils and spices, Simon found this hard to believe.
“In my restaurant in Japan, I serve with no sauce, nothing,” the master said. “Here, customer wants sauce and, and…” He dipped his fingers into a wooden bowl and tossed a pinch of what looked like shredded radish into the air. “Confetti!” he said, finishing the thought. He shrugged and laughed. His laugh actually sounded like, “ha ha ha,” like he was translating it into English for him. “For three hundred dollars, I give customer what he wants,” he said.
Three hundred dollars? This was news to Simon. No menu, no price. So the master was a salesman, too, giving the people what they want, disciple of the customer-is-always-right dojo. This shouldn’t have come as a surprise to him, but innocent that he was, it did.
“Please,” the master said, extending the knife in his direction, “try.”
The subtle flavors of the earlier courses had opened his mind, but at heart he’d always been a meat and potatoes guy. This salmon was the prime rib of fish. The master had only given him a morsel, but its stippling of creamy fat gave that morsel a density the other dishes lacked. It was better than magic; it was a miracle.
It made him think of college.
Simon’s roommate at Bates was a scholarship kid. The summer following their junior year, he went to Alaska to work on a fishing boat, which supposedly paid better than waiting tables. As fall closed in and another languorous Bridgehampton vacation washed away on the tide, Simon got a call from Greg. He and a woman with a fused leg had slow-danced to Bob Seger at a Juneau dive. He’d read the complete works of Nietzsche and only understood the concept of the superman when he had to fist fight a crewmate who stole his weed. And he’d tasted salmon so gasping fresh the stuff served in restaurants was like another species by comparison. All of which was to say he wasn’t coming back.
Of course, he learned over the next three months there isn’t much work once the season ends and the weather turns homicidal. He was back at Bates by December, but he’d lost his student housing, so he slept at the library and showered at the gym until graduation. They all laughed at him, but secretly Simon envied Greg. No family expectations to weigh him down, no down pillows and exotic beers to keep him lazy.
The master was grinning, waiting for him to give a verdict.
“Do you need an apprentice?” Simon asked.
“Hahaha,” the master laughed. “Sorry, Japanese only.”
He pointed at the men in black chef coats and elastic pants gliding in the shadows behind him. Simon hadn’t really noticed their faces before.
“You have good job, I bet,” the master said.
“I work for a city councilman. He represents the West Side.”
The master slapped his palm on the steel counter. Simon’s shoulders jumped.
“I live on West Side!” he said. “My son’s school, terrible, terrible.”
“Have you applied for a transfer?”
“We apply. No one listens.”
“I know the district superintendent pretty well. You tell me where you want your son to go, I could probably work something out for you.”
The master’s eyes widened, as if Simon were offering to do something far more incredible than flying salmon from Scotland every morning for a rich man’s dinner.
“You do this,” the master said, waving his hand to take in the whole restaurant, his domain, “you eat here free for life.”
“Every night if you want. Bring your girl.”
This is how it would always be for him. Just like those summers in Bridgehampton, life would unfold too easily, choices would practically make themselves. He wouldn’t quit his job, he wouldn’t become a chef. Not when the master was giving him such an enticing reason to stay the course. How could he stop selling himself when the product was always in demand?
Hey, he thought, you wanted to make people happy.
“It’s a deal,” he said.
The master reached for a dishtowel and wiped his work from his hands. He and Simon shook on it.
Simon got some more information from the master, then returned to his table. Marcus was intent on his iPhone, probably checking the scores, a fresh Sapporo in front of him.
“You make me some rice?” he asked without looking up.
“You cut me a check?” Simon said.
“Welcome back,” he said. “Is this for you or your boss?”
“This one goes to the party for the councilman’s campaign. You can back me next time around.”
“The way things are going,” Marcus said, “Let’s hope there is a next time.”
Simon waited while Marcus made a show of writing out the check. He in turn took his time folding it up and putting it in his pocket. Nothing wrong with a little ceremony.
“Well,” Simon said, “it’s been a pleasure.”
“Are you kidding?” Marcus said. “We’ve got four more courses. He puts kimchi on the oysters!”
He could stay and stuff himself, revel in the excess, but there was no need. He’d be back in a day or two when he’d solved the master’s problem. And he would, easily, he was sure of it. So there’d be plenty of time to try the oysters and kimchi, endless occasions to revisit the dishes that had already made this night a revelation for him. He could even ask the master to make him a meal the way he would in Japan, no sauce, no confetti, just the untouched harvest of the vast, mysterious ocean.
Bring your girl, he’d said. Marissa couldn’t eat sushi till the baby came, but they’d work something out with the kitchen. He was a VIP, after all. And if Marissa didn’t want to join him, that was fine, too. Baby-proofing the apartment was her thing. This would be his.
“I’ll walk you to Papaya King,” he said.
Marcus shook his head.
“You’re a piece of work,” he said.
“No,” Simon said, “I’m full.”
It was a strange feeling for him. Get used to it, he told himself. You can’t stay hungry forever.
Daniel Browne’s fiction has previously appeared in Slice, Gulf Stream, and Precipitate magazines and will be featured this fall in Stymie: A Journal of Sport & Literature. He has also written about culture and the arts for The Believer, Mojo, and an upcoming issue of The Oxford American, among others. He lives in Brooklyn, where front stoops outnumber porches.
“I’ve never had a front porch to call my own, but I don’t feel deprived. I live in a brownstone, and the stoop has its own charms. It’s a trading post, a children’s art gallery, and an observation deck. Also a great place to eat take-out falafel on a summer night when the apartment is an oven and you don’t want to drip hot sauce on the rug.”