The Grill / Isaac Prospero
In fact it is a bit of a shock to end up in a place with an open kitchen. Who wants to see your indentured servants perspire? Certainly a trend of 2000s. Not that it isn't entertaining. All those pans for searing animal flesh. The towels for wiping down minutely smudged plates. The fantastically named salamander. Even the demonically hot grill, which is so familiar to anyone who has plied the ironic and non-ironic diner counters of a large city.
You can trace the beginning of the end of my marriage back to a solo late brunch – 2 o'clock on Sunday the 27th to be precise. The timing made it easier to grab a seat at the hip single Michelin star “faux-diner” place just down the street from my hotel. I'd flown into the city on Saturday. An unimportant, but necessary, work meeting staring me down for Monday and Tuesday. Our entire division at had been working long hours and I was not going to turn down my boss’s offer to take a couple extra days and catch a breath in NYC.
By the time I arrived at the restaurant, things had calmed down. The perky hostess with the perky tits immediately ushered me to my single stool at the counter. Gleaming appliances and depressingly naive young people coming together to perform an industrial ballet before me very eyes. All for barely minimum wage.
I glance down at the menu, and hear: “Hi. My name is Gwen. What can I get you, hunh?”
Really? Hunh? An incongruous affectation from someone without a trace of the south in her voice.
“Hunh?” I ask, looking up.
She smiles. “Gotta have a little fun, sometimes.”
The polite part of my brain innocuously spit out “What do you recommend?” The lizard part drank her in. A t-shirt with the sleeves cut-off. A small tattoo of a tangled tree on her wrist momentarily covered and then uncovered by a silver bracelet. The hint of a shy smile on her lips and the irresistible air of indifference.
“The French Toast! You have to try the blueberry-cinnamon french toast! That is what we’re known for.”
I smile. She smiles. “Of course,” I say. Letting my imagination momentarily wonder what it would be like to sweep the bangs out of her eyes before slowly trailing my hand down her face to her shoulders.
“And a cup of coffee, too.” I blurt out as her attention starts to wane.
She smiles and turns. I guiltily take a long lingering look at her as she slides over to expertly input my order. Her lithe body leaning over ever so slightly accentuating the mysterious curves shrouded in the soft cotton t-shirt that looks so inviting.
She shoots me a quick knowing glance, and my mind seizes up. Mechanical gears grind together as the image of my wife, Lisa, comes flooding in. My face flushes in a combination of guilt and embarrassment.
What time is it? 2:30 here? So, 11:30 back home in Bakersfield. Lisa must be getting the kids ready to spend the next couple days at the grandparents. She's finagled a couple days off work and is coming out late tonight.
Lisa and I have been going through a bit of a rough patch. We don't really connect on an interpersonal level anymore, but we form a good unit for raising the kids and at this point that seems more important than my own satisfaction. I'm certainly looking forward to spending a couple days in a fancy NYC hotel without the kids. Maybe a late night walk through SoHo.
My wandering thoughts are abruptly ended with the slight crash of plate full of french toast landing in front of me.
“Hope you like it. New York magazine included it on their list of 10 best brunch dishes.”
I lustily dig into what turns out to be really fantastic french toast, as Gwen pivots gracefully and floats away to help another customer.
Fortunately, the Monday work meeting went well. At least those people had some fucking clue what they were talking about.
Unfortunately, I'd agreed to meet Lisa back at the hotel for an early dinner and we had capped off the meeting with a quick tipple. I didn't feel too bad about being late. Lisa's flight in the night before was delayed and our “date night” plans got converted into ordering room service (a staple of the expense account traveler) and falling asleep to an HGTV marathon – compromise TV that I have begrudgingly placed on our mutually acceptable list of TV to watch.
By the time our after work “meeting” wrapped and I got to the hotel, Lisa was already a little pissed. Admittedly, we'd blown our reservations, but in a city like New York, what does it matter?
I suggested we go the Michelin star place down the street. Thankfully, I hadn't told Lisa I'd been for brunch the day before. I'm sure she would have rolled her eyes and called me unadventurous if she knew. Plus, the french toast was really great and if the last waitress was anything to go by, at least I'd have something to look at while we dined. Maybe unsurprisingly, the wait was an hour plus, but counter seats were first come first serve. 15 minutes of unobtrusive hovering near a couple that seemed to be wrapping things up yielded a pair of seats staring into the open kitchen.
To my disappointment, the server was such a hipster-wanker that he literally had a handle bar mustache. he also had a visible tattoo of the ship from Firefly on his exposed triceps. I start to get the slightest sense of unease that maybe the relaxed vibe of brunch is not reflected in the evening service. Nonetheless, I rather foolishly try and order their “famous” french toast off the menu to “impress” my wife.
“Hey, I have a favor to ask. Me and my date have a big night planned.” I give my wife a slight knowing smile.
“Yeah?” He says rather sourly.
“I don’t want to impose, but it would be really appreciated.”
“What is it?” There is no mistaking his impatience this time.
“I’d love it if you guys could make us something off the menu. Maybe your famous french toast?”
The server doesn't say a word to me. He looks at me like I'd ordered a well done steak covered in ranch dressing. I start to think I'd hallucinated the whole french toast thing.
Instead, he slowly points across the open kitchen at the flattop grill. I look. I mean, I really look at the grill for the first time since coming in. Obviously, I'd been here twice now and even watched the guys cook while I was alone for brunch. But this was the first time I'd really looked at the grill. Frankly, it was unremarkable. The standard commercial steel grill with a smoke hood and some uninspiring safety sprinklers. A rough circle of char built up from the nights service, but otherwise shining immaculately as befits a “fancy” diner. I guess the correct term is griddle and other than being on the smaller side, nothing that would distinguish this one from the 100 others you've assuredly seen on those dumb Food Network shows. Best Meatloaf in Florida. Top Chef Rockford.
I'm a little flummoxed, but manage to croak out a mildly inquisitive “what?”
“Look at the grill. We cook the french toast on the grill.”
Ok, yeah. No shit Sherlock.
My wife gives me one of those looks that I will never understand. Is she perplexed by this asshole? Or, is it me that she thinks is the asshole? Is she embarrassed by me trying to order off the menu? Is it all of those things and something more? God only knows.
I simply say, “yeah, I see the grill.”
This was 5 years ago, and I had not then or ever since seen an eye roll quite as dramatic as what he gave me.
“Look!” as he gestures more animatedly at the grill.
I do. I really look. It had a glistening sheen of oil on top. The rendered fat smoking and popping. I swear it was so hot that I could see the heat radiating off. There was that little scouring pad. One of those blocks you see in diners for weighting burgers down, and a giant spatula resting upside down with just the tip on the grill and the handle resting on the stainless steal counter abutting the grill. The guy in front of it was, maybe unsurprisingly Hispanic. He shot a brief glance at our server pointing at him and languidly snapped up the spatula, made a couple of precise looping swings, and expertly flipped the handful of fish fillets browning in front of him.
“What’s the big deal?” I stammer, becoming more and more unsettled.
I stare even more intently. The identically proportioned fillets sizzling away with no discernible problems.
I try one more time to get an explanation out of him. In a quizzical voice I simply say, “Yeah, the grill.” Followed up by the slightly encouraging, “You cook french toast on a grill...? I'd really like french toast.”
“See that grill with all the fish on it! That’s where we would have to cook the french toast.” Another eye roll for good measure.
It hits me and my stomach flips. The fish! THE FISH! The grill was completely covered in fish. Spitting and crackling fish fillets. Each popping in its own greasy juices. A shimmering sea below.
My wife gave me another, even more, intense look.
My face flushes and I meekly respond.“Fish-flavored french toast probably isn’t the tastiest dish.”
He smiles the smile of a back-room hustler who just won $100 from some rube he roped into playing pool. Without missing a beat, he smoothly transitions into giving me the specials in irritatingly fake obsequiousness. Quinoa this, infused that...
“And finally we have the chef's famous fried sweatbreads.” He says with a huge smirk almost bursting with uncontrollable glee from the fortuitous coincidence. “Maybe you’d like that instead of the french toast?”
My self-confidence rallies. I’m no dumb-dumb. I know that sweatbreads are actually breaded and fried thymus glands. Every half-rate foodie knows that. So what if they were grilling fish tonight? Make the damn french toast in a skillet if you have to.
I try to think of a way to put him in his place. Who is he to talk to me like that? He's a fucking poorly-paid servant in a soon to be forgotten hipster gastro-pub. I've sold over $5m worth of supply-chain management software in 5 of the last 6 consecutive quarters. I'm on pace to walk away with close to $300k in commissions this year. Fuck this guy for thinking he can trick me. Offal is played out and everyone is doing it anyway. What a poser.
My wife looks at me again like she can read my thoughts.
God dammit! At the very least I need to demonstrate to this smug little prick that I'm not some cripplingly unsophisticated, fly-over state, yokel. My mind latches onto a“listicle” I read a year ago. “The sweatbreads are from veal, correct? You guys were on Time Out Magazine’s top five list of Brooklyn restaurants serving offal?” See, you little fucker. I know what you're talking about and you and your fucking sweat breads are so played out you're in a trash magazine. I bet Guy Fieri was here last week filming “Triple D.”
“Offal?” He says acting surprised. “Were you one of the top five BROOKLYN restaurants serving offal?” he repeats back to me in a slightly sing-song voice.
“Yeah, were you on Time Out Magazine’s top five Brooklyn restaurants serving... sweat breads?” I say with a cloying grin.
“No, sir. You must be mistaken. I know it can be confusing, but New York is a big place and we are currently in Manhattan.”
It took me half a second to realize he had won. “Top five restaurants in Brooklyn.” “Top five restaurants in BROOKLYN.” Lisa and I were sitting at 47th and Broadway square in the heart of Manhattan. MANHATTAN!
“Maybe you'd like to try the chicken nuggets?”
He smirks. I lose it. Rocketing up off the stool I start with a classic “Fuck you!” loud enough for the place to go completely quite.
“I'm going to shove your fucking face down on that grill, you fucking faggot! You think you're better than me? You won't be laughing when your face is seared medium well.”
I feel Lisa's hand on my thigh. I look at the grill with the golden fillets. The cook nonchalantly flipped one like nothing had happened. I hear a singular “GET OUT!” from somewhere to my right and I storm out slamming the door behind me with one final “Fuck this pretentious shithole and all you assholes” for good measure.
It is a solid couple minutes before my wife follows. To this day I don't know what she was doing for that period of time. Did she apologize? Pretend she didn't know me? What was going through her head?
She eventually found me half a block away fuming incoherently over the goddamn grill. That dumb shiny grill. I can still smell the smell of that grill even though it was years ago. Golden fish fillets cooking away on the unflinchingly hot expanse. The delicately translucent river perch flesh quickly puckering into its final opaque form. The grill itself, a technical marvel of contained fury. Fiery ambition domesticated.
Lisa left me 23 days later. The final death spiral of a 15 year marriage kicked off by simply ordering french toast at a diner in Manhattan.
*inspired by an anecdote from Steve Biletti