The Wilde Room: Chapter 3

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The Signature Dish

In the preceding chapters:

Just before service in Chef Jeremy’s Dublin restaurant The Wilde Room, he gets a phone call. It’s Dante, a former business partner, calling from Jeremy’s long-ago hometown of Vancouver. Sad news about Jeremy’s father. The man everyone knew as “the Professor”, with whom Jeremy had difficulties over the years, has died. Cardiac arrest apparently, althogh Jeremy wonders. During service, Jeremy drifts on memories of his father, old friends, and the life left behind. And as if sensing Jeremy doing so, that old life then breathes again, from very close.


Dante signed off with kind words. He said: “We need you here. Your family needs you here.”

Jeremy said: “What family?”

And Dante didn’t come back with anything maudlin or inappropriate. He didn’t proclaim himself to be a surrogate father, or any of the stupid things Jeremy remembered him being very good at saying in difficult moments. He didn’t mention their brief joint effort, the upscale Gerriamos, which Dante had sponsored and which Jeremy had nearly destroyed. Dante didn’t say: Jeremy we became like family that night you cooked for me and a few hundred of my closest friends and produced a meal made with wildlife harvested from Stanley Park just to make your point about whatever the fuck it is you were making your point about.

No, none of that. Perhaps Dante had changed, become warmer and more forgiving. Which was an odd thing to imagine because Jeremy knew that there had been a certain attraction between them from the beginning. Jeremy certainly had something Dante wanted, a freshness and media-readiness (oh, how long ago). But Dante had something that Jeremy wanted as well. Way back then, when he’d accepted Dante’s offer of assistance and fired his own best friend Jules. (Oh god, that one still hurt, still brought him to his knees. The kernel of bad truth there. Bad faith.) Jeremy had wanted something, wanted it enough to lose her, of all people, the person in his life who’d been quietly and unfailingly nearest to him. Jules, Jules. And now, the Professor would not even be around to try to balance the way Dante upended things in him. The Professor’s relentless pestering, that quest of his to put things right in his son, to straighten a path which to Jeremy remained forever invisible anyway.

Last words from Dante on the phone. He said: “Come home. Your father’s affairs will need attending to. There’s the house. There will be other things. You do these jobs when you’re the only one left.”

So Jeremy tumbled into service forced to think again about Dante in the Brioni suit and the Gulfstream and the cellar full of wine bought by an oenological consultant. Dante of the polymorphous good taste, every facet of which had been artfully polished to exquisite gloss. Jeremy was forced to bend to the reality that this man was right again. And Jeremy would indeed have to go home.

Easier said than done, of course. At The Wilde Room – which Jeremy himself had made into something of a surprise success, time to give himself a little credit, he thought – service was charging down, as it always was.  The reservations would begin to arrive within the hour and they wouldn’t stop until midnight, when the bar would fill up and stay full until 2 AM although Jeremy would be thankfully long gone by then. As it stood at the moment – service in 60, in 55 minutes – prep was done, hydrocolloids cooked and in the hopper. Locust bean gums and sodium alginates bubbling and popping in their beakers over low flame. The assembly line of white-clad apprentices and line cooks standing to, the back-aroma of stocks and roasting organic proteins never allowing the clean room sensation of kitchen to lose its grounding.

His thoughts spilling. He was numb, cold with knowing.  Cardiac arrest, Jeremy thought, walking slowing from the front phone over to the bar, where he rapped a knuckle on the long varnished sheet of oak, the color of carmelized sugar. His chest ached. He felt his heart and thought of its specifications and tolerances, all unknown. So his father had taken his heart to the limits, or so the story had been told by Dante. But why did he doubt this? Because his father was too tough to die of a heart attack? Because he lived out doors, eschewing the comfort of his perfectly good house in the West Vancouver burbs? That or maybe because his father had never been the kind of person to over-strain his heart. Aloof and disapproving. These were heart-light functions. A man too busy to phone Dublin even once. Or perhaps it had been just once, twice at the most. But that was in five years. Jeremy pushed away a mini-wash of resentment, keeping his mind on that impending service that didn’t stop for anyone. Service, Jeremy thought with some relief, was a beast with knowledge of its own. It continued with or without you.

Two people approached. His twin Wilde Room angels. Jeremy in his Dublin restaurant directly under the mounted stag’s head that had been shot in Norway by the owner’s brother.

“Yeah?” said the first angel, who was also The Wilde Room bartender. And he made a shape with his fingers to suggest the rocks glass of Fernet Branca that might nestle there. Jeremy gave him the short nod required and off that first angel went.

The second was Martine. At his elbow now. Lean Martine. Mean Martine. He called her this, but she was neither of those things really. She was slender and capable of kindness. Beautiful by global standards. Jeremy was occasionally in awe. One of the legendary Dublin Foley’s here. And Jeremy shared her bed three days a week, sometimes four. Martine just now creasing a linen napkin between long fingers and leaning in towards him. Lychee and citrus, a hint of mineral, pebble, stream bed. As Jeremy was absorbed into the floral ambit of her attentions, it occurred to him that without Martine touching a drop of alcohol, ever, she yet exuded faintly the classic un-oaked essence of Chablis.

Martine said: “You’ll have to go home, of course, Jer. Don’t worry though, we’ll get Ethan in for a week.”

“Have you reached him?” Jeremy asked as the Fernet Branca appeared, whispering onto the bar in front of him.

Their sous chef was out in Donegal visiting his mother, who was 94 and still drank a half pint of Guinness a day and had no phone. Martine shook her head and said that Ethan wasn’t picking up his mobile either.

“Put a call into Kanopka, would you?” Jeremy asked her. “He’ll know who to call out there.” And so off she went, a willow wand disturbance of the air. Grey skirt. Toned calves and ankles. She worked out at a gym called Paddy’s. Boxed apparently. Jeremy was scared to go in the place which was, of course, owned by the same uncle who shot the hovering stag.

40 minutes to service. Make that 30 minutes. Jeremy went back and tasted a cube of pea soup solidified with guava extract. He watched one of the new kids make Cashel blue cheese potato ice cream to be served with hasselback potato crisps. Hot and cold. Each crisp singed with a mark made by a category IV laser fired through a die cut with the restaurant logo.

The wild Wilde Room. Jeremy’s great idea, pitched to wary Irishmen with scotch tumblers and shadowy associations. Cillian and Eamon Foley in the sheet glass expanse of their offices north of the Liffey. Smoke and the odor of old and valuable books from custom made shelves. Skepticism turned to enthusiasm when Jeremy laid out what was to become their most popular dish, their signature, right there at the intersection of new and old school. He had notebooks with scribbled recipes to show them. These were flattened out on Eamon’s leather desk top and sprinkled with cigar ash as he spoke.

Roast chicken with pig’s trotter reduction served over apple-infused pork broth macaroni noodles.

“Pork broth fucking macaroni noodles,” said Cillian. But this was appetite and imagination swirling, not criticism. They didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but they thought they liked it. Jeremy explained and they liked it more.

So it was that Wilde Room began to shift acres of this sort of thing to the men who soon would colonize the restaurant and the WAGs who came along with them. Old school, new school. Who knew that the just-then waning Celtic Tiger would be so easy to read? The enshrined old. The ever-potential new.

So: a roasted capon, a pig’s foot. A lot of pig’s feet in fact. And then some magic dreamed up in a laboratory where you turned pungent pork stock into firm little noodles. Gellan powder was the trick, added and boiled into the stock. Cooled to make it a pliable, opaque solid. Sliced by mandolin into thin sheets, which were then spooled by hand over lengths of PVC piping to make the shape of a tubular noodle which you snipped into macaroni with shears. Terroire via the laboratory. Magical and earthy at the same time. And no paradox in that mix either, especially if you were from Ireland. What was more magical, after all, to the Irish, than the peaty depths, the broom-swept lichened expanses of their own soil?

Deep in service now. Thoughts of this and his father who once lost himself deep in the magic of a different soil.  A man who cooked duck over an open fire. Remember that? Jeremy remembered the duck. He thought the Professor had been ripping a page out of his book, for a long time. The simple bistro phase. But Jeremy knew he might as well have been copying the Professor. A man whose forest contained the ghosts and the bodies of many who had come before. Lakes with water lilies. Trees with nests in them. People moving in the undergrowth. The Professor took notes and registered the magic that would never leave the soil alone.

Of course, Jeremy was deep into it with Dante by the time he learned any of this about his father.

The Professor, for his part did not criticize. He only asked: “And Jules? What ever happened to the lovely Jules?”

In Dublin, after the news, after the service that followed the news, after the walk home with Martine that followed the service that followed the news: Jeremy woke in a sweat at two in the morning, at three in the morning. When he jolted back to consciousness at four o’clock he could hear it raining. The trees in the courtyard were alive with falling water. The sound of it was on the roof. The running of it was in the eaves and the down spouts, in the gutters below. The world alive with running water. Martine, who was the best sleeper Jeremy had ever known, did not wake up when he slipped out of her bed and crossed the long dark boards of her apartment, out into the living room and across to the big front window with its view down the quays. Martine didn’t hear him pull the blinds aside, the whispering length of them. She didn’t hear him crack the balcony door and stick his head out into the cool and still-dark air. Martine was deep in her own dreams when Jeremy put his bare feet to the cold slab, slid the door shut behind him. And stood to find the stars shimmering in blackness above. No rain at all. The air completely dry.

He turned sharply again. A voice. A movement at the periphery of vision. Invisible and silent rain now flowing not in the world but in him. Sheets of it in his eyes, obscuring his view of the Liffey, the beacons at its mouth. One a slender tower at the top of which the U2 studios could be found. Glittering bulbs now blurred and running.

A breath. A sense of something close. Somebody.

Jeremy’s heart was pounding. He was imagining these things, of course. People do not transmit energy across the world. They do not connect remotely to one another even when, Jeremy thought, there were times when you wish they would.

He heard himself say it. A wet word in dry air. He said: “Jules?”