It started out as usual. Murphy announced the specials for the night.
"We got your appetizers. Two of 'em, as usual. Frijoles Charros which is just heirloom beans with some applewood smoked bacon. Push that. Chef got too much bacon this week. It's gotta be used.
He stared at Jesse, expecting her to mouth off. Not this time.
"So, going on, we got the other one. Ostiones Empanizados. Okay, I'll translate. No need to raise your hand, Craig. So that's crispy oysters with some Tabasco aioli and salsa fresca. Got that?"
Nods all around from the servers in their white tops, black skinny ties, and pressed black slacks. The cooks were in the back doing prep right now. Good smells and shouts emanated from the huge kitchen. Chef knew what he was preparing and his brigade knew it as well by now. The shouts came from the sous chef, Ginger. She was seriously wanting Chef's job someday.
"The main course is gonna be a chuleta. You know, it's an adobo marinated bone-in pork chop. Made on the new grill. It's got carrots, potatoes, zucchini and with a side of salsa macha. You don't need to know what that is, Jesse. Just tell them 'salsa macha' is a sauce and move on.
"The other main course special is Codorniz con Cola de Res. Okay, okay. Put your hands down! It's a grilled Lockhart quail stuffed with some bison oxtail. It's gonna be served with some brown buttered sunchokes, mulato, pine nuts, onion escabeche. That's pickled, morons.
"Lastly, my dears, we got the tres leches ice cream. Just made with three kinds of milk, you know? That's it for the night. Plus the usual menu items. Please, you gotta push the specials. Chef bought too much, as usual."
"Ain't there the special kinda drinks, Murphy?" the plaintive voice of Pepe called out.
"Jeez. Yeah, losing my mind. We got some mojitos, pisco sour, and a Silvercoin margarita. Don't ask, just look at the menu. It's printed right there, you guys. Jeez. Head to your stations. We open in about ten. And, Jesse, change that shirt. You gotta spot on it.
"Oh, and you gotta remember the five cases of Sauvignon Blanc from Chile." The crew got slightly restive. "I know, I know. Jeez, we talked this all out. Push the darned wine. Miss Genevieve had some in Buenos Aires and loved it. That reminds me, Pepe, don't bother to put out her bottle for her later. She's out of town, in Toronto."
That was the first indications that the night would be different. The owner lady was out of town and Murphy seldom made mistakes. He had been the maître d' at this place, and other places, for centuries. A long time any way. But it would be fine. He was always in charge. It didn't matter if this was a Latino place now or that it had been French cuisine a couple of years ago. Food was food and service was service.
The evening was progressing smoothly, it seemed, until somewhat later. Felicity was at the front with a large group. Raised voices could be heard. Murphy approached the restive gathering.
"Felicity, may I be of assistance?" He stood upright, bringing all of his modest height and slight figure to bear, and gazed around the well dressed customers. He was the only staff member who wore an ebony colored suit, with satin cuffs, along with his perfectly worked bow-tie.
"Yessir. I'm sorry. Mr. Travis has reservations for his party of twelve. Only, sir, they were made for tomorrow. See, it's right here on the reservations list for the week. Tomorrow, sir."
"It's not a problem in any way. Please, Mr. Travis, we do know you, sir. We will be fine tonight with your group here at this time. No problem at all."
"But, sir..." started Felicity. Murphy gestured to the nearest server who quickly came to him. That was Jesse.
"Please give Mr. Travis and his guests the Cottonwood Room, Jesse." He shook his head as she opened her mouth. "I know it is not prepared. You will be in charge. Take care of it." He spoke again to the gentleman who was appearing to be mollified for the moment. "If you don't mind just waiting here at the bar for a few minutes your room will be ready soon. Thank you for allowing us to accommodate you, sir."
Felicity was giving him the evil eye but he took her elbow and steered her over to the front counter.
"I know, my dear girl. Not to worry. We handle this as we handle everything. True? They are wrong, we are right, but we accommodate our clientele. Yes? Of course. When Jesse has the room ready she will tell you and you will escort them back. Yes? And just remember. I know Mr. Travis. He is a profligate spender when he is happy." He smiled at her and his pencil mustache crinkled just a bit. "You take care of it, Felicity."
As she passed Jesse, who was moving towards the back of the restaurant, she gestured, moving her hand as if slicing something on a cutting board. She lifted her brows in a query. Jesse shook her head, but grinned. Within fifteen minutes the group was giving its dinner orders, happy to be seated and laughing as they began to enjoy the mixed drinks.
Chef appeared from his office area next to the kitchen. He was walking to Murphy in the front. "Hey, you, little Master, what is this I hear about opening the Cottonwood Room? I am short one cook tonight. I didn't expect to be serving a group of twelve tonight. We are clear on this, are we not? I need to know what I have to be ready for every night, little man."
Murphy drew himself up to his greatest stature and looked up into Chef's brooding blue eyes. "Pish tosh. I will handle the front. I know you can handle the back. This is a trifle, Chef. It is a trifle. They are ordering your specials, or so I'm told. Using up the food you ordered too much of. Please, just allow me to work the front, sir."
"Take care, little Master. You go too far at times. Of course, I was anticipating the popularity of my dishes. As always. Now let me get back to work. I have little time for your tiny worries." He turned on a fat heel and returned to his office, after glancing into the kitchen, noting that all was well for the time being.
"Hey, Murphy. What's the story 'bout the road trip? You know, the taxi drive from New York to Key West?" Jesse had stopped on her way back with an order to the cooks and was whispering to him as he stood at the front desk, surveying the folk waiting for tables to open. It was busy tonight. He nodded to himself in pleasure then noticed the short waitperson and recalled her question.
"Don't be silly, Jesse. It's work time here. Not the time for fun and games. Chop, chop, missie. Orders are coming in." He smiled to himself, remembering, as one finger stroked his mustache.
Years ago. He and McGonigle had got drunk in a pub down on the East Side. They'd both been paid off when the restaurant where they worked went bottom up and they were flush with greenbacks. They had been talking about magic and the green light winking on a sunset over the gulf of Mexico, off of Florida.
They called a hack, laid out the plan, and were on their way posthaste after some colorful debate about the pros and cons with the cabbie. They watched the sunrise over Chesapeake bay and found a cheap motel north of Charleston. Slept off the booze, had some waffles and fried chicken, and took in some more cheap liquor while the driver was heading down along the coast.
The next day was spent heading out over the keys. They made it to Key West just in time. Unfortunately, they missed the sunset. Construction was going on right along the highway and blocking off the beach where the locals usually had the evening ceremony.
"Ain't it a pisser, Murphy? Missed the damn green light."
"We missed nothing you silly Irish mutt. It's our story. We tell like it happened in our heads." He held up his thumb, grinned, then stroked the little pencil mustache freshly grown with this trip along the coast of their youth.
They let the cabbie head back towards home as they used up what was left of their final salaries to find a job in Savannah where he finally let them off. That's where Murphy learned a lot about Southern cuisine. He hadn't seen McGonigle in years.
He jerked his attention back to the young lady when something metallic crashed loudly onto the tile floor in back. "Jeez! See what that was. Off with you, Jesse. I'll tell you the whole story someday. No worries."
With disappointment Jesse walked back to the order window. She saw butts in the air as cooking staff picked up something from the floor. Then she found she'd lost her order chit.
She cursed under her breath to Warren, one of the cooks, sweating from the heat of the grills and stoves.
"Whatha hell was that, Paco? It's all over the floor."
"Ay, it's the special. You know? The stuffed quail crap. That's the last of it, gone now. Chef's gonna piss a brick. Ginger already has."
"Chop, chop?" she voiced in a whisper. He grinned, wiping a bandana across his brow, returning her wink. She trudged back out to get the order once again from the old crone who kept forgetting what she wanted. She passed along the disaster to Murphy and quickly skipped away from him as he left his post and headed back to discuss tactics with Chef for completing dinner service this evening.
Mr. Travis and his group left without leaving a tip. They had tried the Sauvignon Blanc. Not a success. And they had wanted the special. He also canceled the 'mistaken' reservation for the next day.
Somehow they finished the service. All the staff that had been around for years knew. Each whispered to the others as they passed, taking orders, completing service. All the cooking brigade hissed under their breath the special words.
"Knives. Hot knives."
Passing it along to everyone. Except Chef. The newbies had no clue, but they were hushed and told to be patient. "Just wait. It's a night of hot knives. Just wait."
"All staff are staying late," Murphy stated as they were standing in front of him near the back. The front was closed off and all the customers were gone out the front door minutes earlier. "Wait staff and cooking staff. All are staying late. Our mess must be addressed the way we always address it under my charge."
Chef stepped out of his office with his wrap over his arm. "You try to correct this disaster, little Master. I am off. This is none of my affair." He flounced towards the rear exit. All eyes were on him as he passed out the door and it whooshed closed.
"Lock it, Pepe. You know what to do. Stand back and learn, young 'uns." And with that he yelled out. "Knives! Hot knives!"
Jesse and Ginger joined in. "Hot knives! Hot knives!" Then everyone was sounding the cry and hands were eagerly grabbing the freshly sharpened blades, the carving knives, the butcher knives, the cleavers. They were grasped and thrust into the still burning grills.
Other voices rang out as they passed packets and bags of herbs into the center of the kitchen area. The greenery was dropped onto the serving tables and then onto the now scorching blades. Other heated carbon steel was slapped down to cover and hold the precious spicy grass as all the while "hot knives, hot knives" was echoing from wall to wall.
Everyone, every soul, was chanting and marching about the large kitchen, staying in step and chiming out the magic words "hot knives" and taking deep, stuttering breaths of the smokey, pungent, hazy, delicious aroma of the cannabis, the Mary Jane, held aloft on the burning blades.
The night of hot knives played out at it should. Memories left in their addled brains were cherished, often recalled, and never regretted.