21 December 2009

North Dakota State University

5 Aug 2009. Everything about Fargo was welcoming. No menacing skyscrapers. No grumpy people. No Steve Buscemi.

"Burger's up!"
A slim man in a shirt, tie, and apron, grabbed the oval plate and walked with urgency to table 31.
"I apologize for the delay, sir. I caught one of the chefs putting your bison burger in the microwave. That is not the level of food quality that we here at The Prairie Oyster - "
"That's all right. I understand what a perfectionist you are, Steve."
The customer removed his fedora and looked up. His neatly trimmed mustache widened with his smile.
"Knut?! How are you?"
Knut stood up. The two exchanged hugs and backslaps as old friends would.
Steve removed his apron and handed it to a roving server.
"Tina, watch the line, would you?" Steve sat down.
"So what's new, Knut? What have you been up to?"
"I've been up to what you're going to be up to. Travel research."
"Oh, not again. Knut, Christmas is coming up. I don't have vacation money. Or time. You know that."
Knut already had spread out his brochures in front of him on the table. He took a bite of his bison burger and tapped his temple with his free hand.
"Then I guess I'm a little dense. It's just not getting through to me. Great bison as usual."
Steve flipped through the glossies.
"Thank you. What are you proposing here anyway? ...Nova Scotia? I barely know where that is."
"The Maritimes. Eastern Canada. There's a culinary conference in Halifax in November. It's entirely about seafood. It'd be perfect for you to talk up The Prairie Oyster."
"I don't like being shoehorned as just a seafood restaurant. Our bison burgers have been voted the best in the Fargo micropolitan area."
"Come on. Let's look at your menu again. Prairie Surf and Turf, Tarragon Quail and Mussels, Lobster Cayenne Campanelle, Panko Flounder Flatbread, Red River Trout Soup..."
"Yes, Knut. I know my own menu. What's your point?"
Knut polished off the burger. He wiped his mustache clean and started on the cinnamon sweet potato fries.
"My point is, it'd be great for you to mingle with some other bright restaurateurs outside of Fargo. You've reached the ceiling here. Time to move on to bigger things. The north Atlantic area is a hotbed now for young chefs like you. The Maritimes, Iceland, Scandinavia, even Greenland..."
"Wait a minute, 'reached the ceiling'? There's still work to be done here. I have plans for a heated patio, our cost controls need to be overhauled, our server training program is nonexistent..."
"Okay, Steve, okay. I don't mean to start an argument. And I'm not out for a commission, please don't think that. Your well-being is worth more to me than a couple hundred bucks."
"I'd pay it anyway. It reserves my right to complain."
"God forbid you waive that right." Knut punctuated his jab with a grin. Steve's face remained straight. Knut finished off his water in thirty uncomfortable seconds.
Steve said, "Let me get you a refill here."
He took Knut's glass and walked off. Tina showed up with a full glass and took his empty plate. She quickly returned with the check. Knut understood the indirect message. Although Knut never had to ask, Steve had always taken care of his tab.

Knut looked around at the customers. The place seemed to be pretty full. Tables of downtown businesspeople sat beside others filled with NDSU students. Despite (or because of?) the higher prices, The Prairie Oyster had solid lunch sales.

Steve returned to the table.
"Knut, I have to get back to the line. If I take you up on your offer, how much time does it buy me before the next sales pitch?"
"This is the last one whether or not you go to Halifax."
Steve cocked his head. "Hmm?"
"That's where I'm moving Go Far."
"You're moving - to Halifax? Why??"
"Actually, Halifax is only temporary. My brother-in-law Carl is helping put me up until I am ready for the final move, which is Oslo."
"Oslo, Norway?"
"No, Oslo, Minnesota. Yes, Oslo, Norway!"
"Again, why?"
"Same problem that you don't see as a problem yet. Fargo only provides so many customers for a travel and tour company. And remember when I did study abroad in Norway - "
"Not really."
" - well, I have always wanted to move back since then."
"But even the name - Go Far - is thanks to Fargo!"
"Then it will accurately reflect the company's - and my - roots. I've already gone over all these hurdles, Steve. I knew that you wouldn't come to Halifax just for a personal visit, so I found this seafood conference that you could get some business worth out of."
Steve stood shocked. "I can't believe all this."
Knut folded a twenty into the check book. He slipped a business card in Steve's hand: Knut Ericsen, Go Far Travel.
"You truly can't believe it? Truly? Who would choose to stay in Fargo if they could help it?"
"I could help it. I'll see you later."
Steve walked back to the line, past the servers demanding his attention for something or other, and into the kitchen office beyond anyone's sight lines. He crumpled up the business card and tossed it away. He sat down and rested his forehead on his fist. Was Knut right? Was he wasting his time and talent in Fargo? Why did Knut care? Where was the balance between comfort and ambition?
Steve took a deep breath and slowly stretched his palms down his face. He plucked the card out of the trash. He flattened it out and noticed the handwriting on the back:

Carl Hammerfest
808 Fundy Road
See you in November

NDSU students, chillin'. Seriously, it's, like, 2 degrees there.

No comments: