Harada would not look beyond the kitchen’s pass once Takahashi’s presence in the small restaurant had been announced. The chef’s typically quiet manner turned more quiet still as he bent closely over his knife. His sous-chefs danced around him with pots of hot water and crates of fresh vegetables, casting him puzzled looks.
Harada’s mood was perplexing. He need not leap high to clear Takahashi’s bar, for the businessman was as well-known for his tasteless gourmandism as we was for his ruthless corporate conquests. Doubtless the chef who had successfully entertained Adrià, Keller, and Roux could handle this dilettante’s delight! Besides, Takahashi was drunk already, having finished his third bottle of sake before he’d even touched the ginger and salmon salad Harada had sent to him.
Takahashi’s companion, Hisae, stared straight into the bottom of her wine cup. Her new husband’s drunkenness had grown more unrestrained in recent days. She could not look at him in his present state. Instead she eyed her food thoughtfully, marveling at the precision of the knifestroke that had separated the skin from the salmon filets on her plate. She thought of a boy she once knew, a poor fisherman’s son, a young cook who had once boasted of the quickness of his blade.
Takahashi shouted for another bottle of sake. Harada heard his roar, even above the kitchen’s din. He bent closer to his work, a cloud of soft sage leaves sliced into strips as thin as a sheet of paper. “Hiroyuki,” he said softly and without looking up. His assistant appeared at his side and Harada passed the cutting board to him without a word. At once he began slicing persimmons.
One night by an outdoor fire the boy once showed Hisae how to prepare the ayu, the sweetfishthey had caught that morning, rolling it in herbs before searing it with fresh-picked fruit. She’d giggled as he’d done tricks with his knives, flipping them in the air and catching them the wrong way around before feigning confusion and flipping them around again. She knew his playfulness had masked genuine skill, and she had felt the deep affection in the dish he’d made for her.
Takahashi’s sake came and he drank, and he soon finished his salad, just as the next course arrived, a blend of nattō and daikon made in Ibaraki style. This he devoured with relish. “I have been meaning to take you here since we met, my plum,” Takahashi said to his wife between mouthfuls. “The cook is an unpolished gem!” Hisae nodded. She had lent her trust to the unseen chef, asking through their waiter that he prepare for her what he would like, she dared not choose herself. So far she had been delighted.
Harada’s work was nearly done. He turned the fish over in its pan with a pair of enormous chopsticks. He wiped a trail of sweat from his cheek.
Takahashi talked as he ate. “That new outfit in Tsukiji, the one I opened last month? I think this man might find work there. Maybe a nice noodle shop at the street level? A few of these dainty dishes on the side, you think?”
She was no longer listening. In her mind she was dining with a fisherman’s son beside a stream three hundred miles away. Takahashi finished off his nattō just as their main courses arrived, a steaming skipjack steak for him and a simple sweetfish, gently rolled in sage and ringed with fresh persimmons, for his wife.