He’d made it.
Voleo was a Scandinavian joint off Bowery in Lower Manhattan. Not an easy reservation, let alone spot to get hired. The papers couldn’t get enough of head chef Oscar Eriksen. His lemongrass fries, those Venus clams lathered in garlic and white wine, the blackberry cream scones… all of it foraged from the ground with care, prepared with vigor.
Once Eriksen appeared on Top Chef in a patchy leather jacket, it was really and truly over. Voleo was solid gold. It would inspire spinoffs, its menu would change, perhaps someday fall flat, but then so did everything else in life. Leonard had weaved around too many mariachi bands, thrown out too many crayons and listened to far too many barside renditions of “Piano Man” in his career waiting tables, but now, at last, he was part of something. He was a Voleo man. And his first table was waiting.
* * *
“…I was a bit resistant to joining the app,” a young woman was saying. She looked like she owned a Peloton and used it often, and had rolled out her finest dress for the dinner, a glossy caramel number that matched her dangling earrings. “But, then, I didn’t know it would mean a dinner at Voleo,” she said with her eyes glittering, staring at the man before her.
“Good evening, I’ll be your server tonight, my name is Leonard…” Leonard heard himself interrupt. He dove into a carefully rehearsed spiel on house intricacies. (Eriksen preferred to order for his guests, and often gave tables right next to each other different plates. This way their “envy” would bring out greater flavors in the food before them.) Leonard took in the woman’s date as he spoke. The man was a bit older, but it was a seasoned age, which he wore well in his shoulders and the crow’s feet smiling at the corners of his eyes.
“Do we know what we’d like to drink?” Leonard asked.
“Oh! I hadn’t even looked at the drinks menu,” the young woman replied. Leonard guided her to the wine list.
“Beaufort. 1986,” the man said.
Leonard blinked, trying to keep his eyebrows straight. The man knew his wine. That bottle cost north of $1,600. He grabbed the pitcher of water and began delicately pouring into each glass.
“How long have you been on the app?” the man asked, picking the conversation back up.
“A little over a month. This is my first date actually.”
“Ever?” he joked.
“Yes, precisely,” she laughed.
“Well, then, I hope to do it justice,” he said, winking before taking the water from Leonard.
Leonard almost audibly sighed as he walked away. The man had game. He fetched the Beaufort from the cellar and returned to the table a few minutes later. The woman was discussing her work with an environmental institute and the man replied with an impressive knowledge on the decline of puffins in southwestern Iceland.
“Are we ready to order?” Leonard asked, after the man gave a taste of the wine his approval. Not that they’d be “ordering,” really. Eriksen gave customers the option between “Night” and “Day.” Sometimes he served them the other based on his mood. It all tasted delicious either way.
“I’ll go with the Day,” the woman said.
“Excellent choice, ma’am,” Leonard accepted her menu. “And you, sir?”
“I’ll do an order of animal crackers,” the man said. He stretched his menu out for Leonard to take.
The woman let out a bark of a laugh. Leonard chuckled politely.
“Very good, sir, but I’m not sure that’s on the menu at the moment.”
The man looked at Leonard, dead serious. “Does Oscar Eriksen not cook off-menu?”
Leonard scrunched his eyebrows. Was this some kind of strange joke to impress his date? She looked equally confused.
“He does, of course, sir, just… not tonight. Do you require more explanation on the Night or Day options?”
“No thank you,” the man said, his menu still stretched out to Leonard. “I want animal crackers. Or we’ll be taking our business elsewhere.”
Leonard’s collar felt very tight all of a sudden. He nodded at the man, took his menu and gunned it for his manager, Victor, who was talking to a waitress, Beatrice, in the hall outside the kitchen.
“Victor,” Leonard hissed. “Victor.”
“What’s wrong, young man?” Victor turned towards him.
“Table 6. See the guy in the suit jacket? He wouldn’t order off the menu. Wanted animal crackers.”
Beatrice laughed. Victor looked at Leonard like he’d walked over and dumped ketchup on his jacket.
“Are you serious?”
“I know, I came here right awa–”
“No. I mean are you serious?” Victor glared at Leonard. “The man is messing with you, Leonard. Maybe she dared him. Get out there and get his goddamn order, goddamnit!”
Leonard hesitated for a moment. Too long. Victor grunted, pushing his shoulder into Leonard and rumbled towards the table. Beatrice shot him a concerned look and tilted her head. Go!
Things had escalated quickly. Victor was unsuccessfully trying to engage the couple.
“YOU ONLY EAT ANIMAL CRACKERS?! YOU DIDN’T THINK THAT MIGHT BE IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR ME TO KNOW BEFORE A DINNER DATE?”
“I don’t understand what the big deal is–”
“HOW OLD ARE YOU? HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE? WHERE DO YOU GET ANY SOURCES OF VITAMI–”
“Animal crackers are actually very rich in calcium and–”
Victor turned to Leonard, his eyes wild. “This is bad. In all my years, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. We must kick them out.”
Other tables were starting to stare, and a man at the bar had even taken out his phone to record the scene. Leonard shook his head. No. He would not go viral. Not again. Not for this.
“I have an idea,” he whispered. He patted Victor on the chest and started for the kitchen. “Stall. Stall!”
“Do not disturb Oscar, Leonard! Do not enter his dojo!”
Leonard burst through the kitchen doors. Oscar was playing The Doobie Brothers and whale sounds at competing volumes, and his legion of line cooks was busy churning out Nights and Days, a waltz chaotic and perfected.
“Chef!” Leonard yelled blindly. His forehead was drenched in sweat. “Chef!”
The Dane poked his head out from behind a fridge. He pressed a couple buttons on an iPad and the kitchen went deathly silent, save for the sizzling of butter in pans. The chef simply stared at Leonard, waiting for him to speak.
“There’s a man out there. H-He wants… animal crackers!”
The entire kitchen, quiet, turned to Oscar, waiting for his reaction. Leonard just waited for the laughter, already imagining his Monday morning job search.
Then Oscar smiled.
* * *
“Sir, here we have an array of biscuit beasts, foraged from a Trader Joe’s, a shelf in the back of the bodega down the street and a box from one of our own line cook’s pantries. While the predominant fixture is Barnum’s, you will detect Keebler’s, and possibly even some aged Stauffer’s, which our kitchen has crushed, flamed, and drizzled over the top. For dessert, if you can be coaxed, we’ve paired Cadbury’s chocolate coated crackers with a housemade whipped cream.” Oscar wiped his brown and bowed. “We do hope you enjoy.”
The man brought a forkful to his mouth. Cameras flashed as he chewed.
“Fantastic,” he nodded in approval. “Fantastic!” The restaurant went insane.
“Chef, can we try the dish over here?”
“Two orders of animal crackers at Table 7!”
“You knew just what you were doing when you made that reservation this morning, didn’t you?” the woman whispered with a playful grin.
“Want to have my last elephant?” the man asked. They began making out over the table.
As for Leonard, the young waiter set out with Victor and Beatrice to buy out the city’s animal cracker supply. He’d be on the phone with Nabisco first thing in the morning.
He was home.