Joyland

The Midwest |

Ossetra

by Sean Bernard

We don’t have misfires. We don’t have a Michelin star, either, though everyone here in Chicago agrees that we deserve one, that restaurant ratings are just politics and bullshit. Chef is from Senegal, and he’s the only African-born chef to ever win a James Beard award. Yet no Michelin, not this year, not last. Some people whisper about racism in the judging. I don’t know about that, but I do know that we deserve at least one star if not more. Two stars. Three. We are, we’re all convinced, the best restaurant in the country. Our dairy manager chugs his Vanagon along a several hundred mile weekly web of back highways, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin – all for merely the aged cheddar portion of our famed cheese plate. (We’re not allowed to reveal where he procures, by hand, the honeycomb.) Our wine list, jokes our lame master sommelier, is as big as his johnson. (That’s Lewis and anyway the wine list, up to and including the 1874 Portuguese port, is bigger than his penis. Our hostess Giada told me so last week while holding a pencil stub at limp dangle. There’s no there there, she said, laughing at her wit.)

We’ve got easily the best caviar flight in America. You ever want to taste the origin of man, I recommend it. And each night our dessert plate – acacia honey parfait, moscato gelée, beet sorbet – quivers rich old men’s jowls.

Everyone knows the marrow craze? We have a dedicated marrow menu. Cow, sure. And rabbit. Squab. Chicken. (Chicken is the superior.) Hell, we serve fallow deer. Exactly what it says on the menu – “fallow deer,” fallow meaning two years or younger. This crazy ex-hunter in the U.P. built a free-range deer farm, electrified fences, and he kills the soft little animals gently, via chloroform rag. They taste like Midwestern soil only better, as if that rich loam had a bit of blood baked in, and also a drop of chipotle-molasses, and it’s been fire-roasted, too, so it’s this big cloud of tender sweet spicy meaty soil blood, and what I guess I mean by that is that eating baby deer tastes the way we all dream America should taste: free and alive and full of depth and meaning.

At least that’s how the chef describes it when he’s bullshitting customers. Taste the hope of a new world, he says in his Afro-French lilt, filled with old promises. The customers coo and he returns to the kitchen, rolling his eyes at how dumb rich people are.

Listen: a single table tipped me two hundred dollars last night. Party of two.

What do you do with all that money? Giada asked me once.

Bikes, I told her. Shimano this, Shimano that. She actually believes I’m a serious cyclist. That I rise early mornings and make flax smoothies and cycle country highways. Me? I couldn’t run a mile without puking. Yet she thinks I’m Lance Armstrong. People want to see better versions of the world around them, they want to see themselves in those worlds.

Since starting here? I’ll admit it, I’ve developed a little bit of a coke habit.

Part of my point, though, is that tonight Rahm Emanuel comes in. Mayor Rahm! He comes in every month or so, always a different woman on his arm. His hands are enormous and his thumbs are chewed up by his famous nerves. But he’s amazingly polite. “Exceedingly” is the word Giada uses, and she should know, she’s studying writing online. Rahm sort of rolls up on his toes when he walks, he does it from entrance to table, table to toilet, toilet to table, etc. We’re in the kitchen, imitating him, looking like muppets and Chef laughs and pours shots of tequila all around. It’s a good start to the night, the kitchen’s humming, service is smooth, we’re relaxed, we’re happy.

Then Lewis walks in, shaking his head. Every damn time I get the poor assholes, he mutters. He and I eye a young couple through the pass-through. The boy is clean-shaven, drowning in a white coat, his hair cut in a days-gone-by high fade. The girl has a pony-tail and a simple yellow dress. The boy’s clearly nervous, as is the girl; as she looks at the menu she keeps touching at her throat, at the hollow of her pale collarbone. They asked for tapwater, Lewis says. Think I get even thirty bucks out of them? Shoot me now.

Lewis makes his real money on the two hundred, three hundred, five hundred dollar wines, but sometimes he helps with service. Every few nights we get these aspirational diners too unsure of themselves to enjoy our restaurant, and lately it’s been Lewis getting stuck with them. Most of our diners are like Mayor Rahm – people comfortable not only with wealth but with spending it. Acclimated to affluence. Non-wealthy diners are a distraction in our restaurant. The guys wear ugly ties, the women are flustered by everything from the marrow to the purse stools. If they do buy wine, they buy the cheapest bottle. They share one tasting menu. They try, as slowly as possible, to relish the experience. Simply, they’re awkward and they are poor, and we hate them.

Up-sell the caviar, I suggest. Black kid with a white girl in a place like this? And with Rahm in the house? Kid’s probably too nervous to be cheap.

As Lewis considers this, we watch Giada escort another couple to a table; on her return path to the hostess stand, she passes Mayor Rahm and his gal, the two picking at their array of river salmon (served on river stones, a cedar plank, and dry ice). But Giada pauses a moment beside the younger couple: she leans over and says something. The two laugh and noticeably relax, and Giada strolls back to the front of the house, smiling.

Lewis rolls his eyes. Seriously – banged her yet?

I like her butt, Chef offers from behind his station, as he eye-droppers little balls of dashi broth into a nitrogen bath for his deconstructed udon. Lewis and I grin and toast and shoot our tequila before heading back to the floor. Things have changed since Chef took over. Most of us have been here since opening, five years ago. The original chef was a CIA alum from Brooklyn who functioned with a tube of tomato paste shoved up his ass. This African guy is way cooler. He gets good weed, isn’t uptight about eggs. The French guy had rules about eggs, rules about everything, including rules related to our various behaviors. He tried to institute drug testing. Wrong. Once, when Giada suggested new draperies, a whimsical polka dot, he yelled, Life’s too serious for play! We told the African about that and he thought it was hilarious. Life is only play! he cried. He basically lets us have our way, which is perfect. Chill dude.

Lewis says, Time to make some magic, my friend, and he heads out to the floor, beaming as he approaches the two kids. His routine, when it works, is impressive: first he’ll extol the virtues of a ninety dollar bottle of wine, then he’ll admit that the thirty dollar is okay, if much simpler, and then he’ll act like he’s suddenly remembered that the forty-five dollar bottle – which we get wholesale for ten – is almost as complex as the one twice its price. Done. Then he’ll add how great the forty-five dollar bottle goes with a caviar, even something simple, sure there’s the cheap wasabi tobiko but why not something elegant like the California sturgeon? It’s only ten dollars more, after all. Or why not make it a little more special and get the Russian ossetra?

Or, hey – and at this point he’s leaned over the table, he’s staring into the woman’s eyes, his voice is hushed with conspiracy – if they want tonight to be totally memorable . . . why not go for it and get the wild Iranian golden ossetra? After all, how many times does a person eat in a place like this? How often in life do we get to choose to have, in a single moment, an unforgettable experience?

At the table, Lewis gestures, laughing. The girl laughs, too. The young guy looks pained and immeasurably caught in a world he had no idea existed. Then he relents, shrugs, and nods, and Lewis shoots me a quick wink. I’d feel bad but why? This is our job: your money for our food. And besides, an hour ago I did a bump and now my skin is magnetic, and there’s more left in my pocket, waiting patiently, a charm against the future. I like a little after I get home. I’ll watch an episode of Top Chef or maybe Bourdain, stay up until it’s so late that the world is still. Then I look out at the lake. In winter, like now? Snow falling on dark waters? The idea of life is beautiful, it gets me.

After course four, though, Mayor Rahm sends back the deer. He tells me, Young man, I’m deeply sorry, I just can’t dine on poor Bambi. He chuckles as I whisk the plate away. I get it – his date is horrified by the dish and he’s feigning sensitivity to impress her. Her face is all angles, east Euro. Mayors pull hot chicks, it’s true. Soon after I serve the squab, Giada says to me outside, sharing a Natural Spirit, She’s not naturally prettier than me, right? It’s unfair rich girls are paid to be pretty.

I shake my head and wave my hands. Lying’s easy.

Weird night, she says. The mayor, in our restaurant! Makes you think anything can happen, you know? She nudges me with her hip, and I get a boner despite both the cold and the dopiness of her comment – we had Bill Clinton in here two months ago.

Then, across the street, these two protesters yell, Do her, dude!

For the last few weeks these and other occupy idiots have camped out, holding stupid signs while someone blows a whistle and yells, Mic check! And everyone yells back, Mic check! And the guy says, Lunch time! And everyone says, Lunch time! And he says, See you in thirty minutes! And they yell, See you in thirty minutes! Not one of them laughing at how dumb it is. They protest the president and Wall Street. They protest Mayor Rahm and faculty wages. They protest how the cops just shot another supposed innocent victim. They protest anything and everything and don’t realize that doing so makes it all meaningless. Most are naïve college students. Bring tuition down! read their signs. Or, Watts was murdered! I enjoy the typos. We our are future! Kills me.

Every time I see them I’m like, really? Plus the girls are ugly. Giada tried explaining the adjunct issue but I didn’t care. You don’t like your job, get another one, is my take. I judge a society based on how many reasonable choices it offers you. How’s life in oppressive China? In radioactive Japan? Psychokiller Scandinavia? Crappy as it seems sometimes, I sincerely believe America gives a pretty fair shake, as fair shakes go.

When I told Giada that she cringed, said, OMG you’re such a spoiled white male.

Fuck you, slave to the wealthy! the occupiers shout now. Clouds of breath rise and linger over their heads, catching the street light. They look like deranged angels.

Giada takes a drag with one hand and rubs the other against her arm for warmth. You see those poor kids inside?Lewis is killing them. She frowns. It makes me feel guilty.

I know I should say something gentle and kind, but what is there to say? Besides, the occupiers are more than happy to fill what would otherwise be an awkward silence.

Fuck fancy food! Fuck you! Fuck police brutality, and fuck Rahm, too!

Giada sighs. Let’s get back in, it’s freezing, it looks like snow.

In the kitchen it’s quiet and warm. All the diners are shifting to cheeses and desserts, most of the cooks are done with their portion of the night, and the dishwashers are working elbows deep in steaming steel sinks. They speak quietly in languages I don’t understand. They always seem happy, which is good. My nose starts running and Chef gives me a look. You got to cut back, man-man. He calls me that. Man-man. I like it. Back in Africa he used to brain monkeys. Swing their tiny skulls into jungle trees. They get a hella stew this way, he told me once. I was in the bathroom. I said, Right on. What else can you say when your boss catches you doing drugs and he’s talking about braining monkeys?

Right now he’s eating from a bowl of udon, sipping from the rim, eyes closed. Then he sets the bowl down and wipes his lips. I killed tonight’s deer, he says softly. Went to Chuck’s farm, killed a little fawn.

That throws me, I’ll admit it. He looks at me, waiting my response.

That’s crazy, I finally say.

Chef shrugs, slips the bowl in one of the dishwasher’s sinks, and goes into his office. I walk out to the floor, to check on Mayor Rahm. As I’m passing by, the young girl waves. Excuse me? she says softly. I pause. She’s cute in an innocent way, a type I don’t see too often. Her boyfriend is probably in the restroom. Maybe not feeling so well.

We didn’t see the bill, she says. Her voice is delicate and a little shaky. She seems awfully small in her seat, hands folded in her lap. As she stares up at me, she smiles bravely. I mean, I never saw the bill, she says. The cost of all this? Could you tell me?

Lewis is at a corner table, watching me.

Giada’s at her hostess station, also watching.

Nearby, Rahm’s watching, too. Within those dark tired circles, his eyes are keen.

And before I can think of what to tell the girl, Lewis is at my side, explaining that service is over – or did she want to try something else? Maybe coffee, it’s on the house!



Work an upscale restaurant any length of time, you see strange things. Celebs, sure. Crazed foodies. Other chefs, taking mental notes. Once we even had some kids dine and dash. A two thousand dollar meal! Chef was understandably upset but we were all so impressed that he didn’t report it. Plus I don’t think he wanted to deal with the cops.

Too often, people act weird at our restaurant. They get nervous or boisterous. They change. Some people seem calm – but it’s funny because those people, the Mayor Rahms, also seem fake. Like they’re from another world, dropping into ours for an hour or two. And we’re all just going through motions. Motions of what, I don’t know, but it seems . . . unreal. It’s the others, the awkward quiet people, the two kids tonight, anxious and afraid of wasting their money, yet trying to deepen their lives: they’re the real ones.

I don’t know if I’m happy, I’ll be honest.

When I close out the Mayor tonight, he nods, barely, toward the window.

Saw those kids. With the signs. Problem outside?

No, sir, I tell him.

He glances over, where the young man clenches his bill like some sort of warrant.

What about inside? Mayor Rahm asks.

No, sir, I tell him again.

Good. But you just let me know if you do, he says softly.

I go back to the kitchen. The dishwashers are wiping counters, mopping floors.

I stand at the door. What’s going on? Giada says. What are we looking at?

Lewis is out on the floor, retrieving the kids’ check. The girl’s face is splotched. The boy is grim. They aren’t even looking at each other. Maybe they blame one another. They probably won’t look at each other the rest of the night. Maybe not ever.

Lewis walks into the kitchen, grinning. A thousand bucks, he says. Boom!

Giada shakes her head. This is terrible, she says.

Out on the floor, Rahm and his date rise to leave. As it’s my job to guide my customers table to door, I stride out. The woman is talking on her phone. Her accent isn’t Euro at all. She sounds like she’s from Green Bay. She bends down for her purse and her breasts are visible to the whole room, the whole world, but I’m too distracted to care, because Giada has gone to the kids’ table and – I can hear her clearly – she’s whispering for them to leave. To just get up and walk out. To make a break for it. To run.

Quickly I lead Mayor Rahm toward the restaurant’s entrance, past the Warhol painting, past the Richter. Thanks for coming, I tell him, trying not to seem like I’m rushing him. He smiles as I help him with his coat. He’s a short guy but big. His neck – I can see his tendons pulsing. That was great food, he says. You all take care, he says.

I don’t care, I told you to record both episodes, his date snaps into her phone.

I open the door, cold blows in, and immediately hear the protesters.

Fuck you, Mayor Fucking Ballet! Fuck you and your fucking Gestapo cops!

I narrow my eyes but Mayor Rahm, to his credit, smiles.

There’s a moment, though, before the smile settles on his face.

Then a dark sedan appears, a door opens, and he and his date are gone.



Inside the restaurant, Chef is out with the two kids. Crouched down. Unsmiling.

After a minute, the guy signs his receipt, and they gather up and leave. Wordlessly.

Giada vanishes, too, and Lewis and I cover the host table for her. As we’re done seating for the night, it’s easy enough, and over the next hour we see the rest of the diners out before cleaning up the floor. We spread the linens, walk together, touch palms. I worry what’s happened to Giada but finally she comes out of the kitchen bathroom, eyes red. Chef appears at his office door and beckons her, a snap of his fingers. She’s only in there a minute. Then she gathers a scarf around her neck, a coat over her shoulders, and goes into the night, and an hour later, after we’re all done, paid out, pleased with ourselves if maybe also a little anxious about what tonight means, Lewis and I are outside smoking when the cops show up. They haul the two occupiers away, just like that, and who’s to say a word? And Lewis goes home, and I meet up with Giada at a warm little pub – dark wood floors, plenty of porters – and we sit quietly at the end of the bar.

It’s good, I tell her. You can focus on your writing now.

She just stares down. I buy her two drinks. Three.

We part at the train station. I ride and exit and walk down the block to my little apartment. Sure, it’s always quiet when I get home these nights but tonight it’s different, hushed, padded. Snowquiet. Though I’m sure it’s worse up north, colder lands, forests. That deer farm. Pretty there in winter, I bet. All white and white and white and then these trees are like dark columns against the pale.

The fawn noses your palm. You bring the damp towel around, hold its neck.

Some days, when no one’s looking, I swoop a spoon into that golden ossetra caviar. The taste! Yeah, yeah, you’ve heard – like the ocean. But it’s older than that. Elemental. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure you do. It’s rich and exclusive. Like eating from ancient seas teeming with dinosaurs. Or even better: like you’re eating your actual ancestors, wrapped into little fish eggs, those first little squiggles of conscious life.

The sweet glimmer of knowledge. Of civilization. The beautiful world.

Pop, pop, ooze.