As I peer into the restaurant that sits halfway to hollow, littered with boxes and piles of discarded restaurant equipment, in front of my eyes, tears start to well. I can’t cry, damn it, don’t cry in the middle of this open kitchen. Josh, my sous, will be here any minute and the last thing I need right now is a pity party. I have a very important dinner to prepare; Saltwater’s last family meal. 

Every day before service, for the past 10 years, myself and my sous (before Josh there was Larry, and before him, Jenn) have prepared a light and nutritious meal for the team to enjoy together before welcoming our guests. Recounting the laughs, cries, gasps, and general ridiculousness that I’ve experienced during these meals with people I’ve grown to truly think of as family, I can feel tears trying to poke their way out of my eye sockets again. 

“Wow. Look at this place.” Josh’s soft voice jolts me out of my thoughts and I attempt to wipe my water-streaked face before turning to him. “You’ve been busy today.” He adds, reaching his right arm around my shoulders for a comforting side hug. Josh knows the pain I’m feeling today but, like the hero he is, won’t directly bring it up. 

“Well, it is the 29th. We have two days to be out of here.” Ignoring his side hug, I shuffle and pull him in for a real one. Then the tears really start to flow. 

Josh has been my sous for two years but he’s been working with me at Saltwater since day one. He started as a dishwasher when he was just seventeen, worked his way up to prep cook within the year and it was all uphill from there. He’s the fastest oyster shucker I know and a master of the mignonette. Admittedly an odd title to lend but seriously, try his orange malt mignonette and tell me differently. I dare you. 

After a few minutes of shared tears, Josh and I silently get to work. We have a walk-in to clear out and twenty-five people to feed. Tonight’s meal won’t be our typical family meal, focused on fueling our chefs, bartenders, servers, and support team for a busy service. Tonight’s meal is about savouring our favourite Saltwater menu items together, one last time. 

Queens of the Stone Age “Go With The Flow” blasts from the still-connected sound system while Josh and I chop, season, and shuck for the rather morbid festivities ahead. Queens has always been a comforting go-to for the two of us during prep hours. A quasi-reasonable compromise between Josh’s usual head thrashing metal and my funky alternative underdogs that nobody’s ever heard of. Today, the lyrics are hitting me differently. 

It’s almost five o’clock by the time Josh and I are ready to start setting the community table that runs through the centre of our long, narrow brick dining room. Aromas of buttery seared scallops and citrusy ceviche fill the space, dancing around like preemptive haunting memories of Saltwater’s past. I know I should be proud of everything our team has accomplished over the years, we’ve had a good run; though I can’t help but be consumed by gut-wrenching bitterness. 

“Hey Nat, what can I do to help?” The sound of Eli’s soft voice jolted me out of my pity party and back to the present. She looks incredible in nude satin pants with a cream cashmere turtleneck and matching cream pumps, the sight of her melts me. My best friend, or blonde counterpart as many say, and front of house manager.

“Eli, thank you for being here early.” My voice cracks. Sweet Jesus, those tears again. Ignoring the emotion in my tone and hoping she will too, I continue on. “If you could set roll ups and side plates up at the end of the pass, I’m going to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything in the kitchen.” I give Eli a hug as I scoot past her in a hurry toward the kitchen. 

“Did you remember to make the scallop tartare?” She calls out before I can fully escape, eyebrows raised and tone suggestive. Eli knows that I know she’ll throw a fit if this feast isn’t graced with her favorite dish and truly, as our longest standing front of house employee, she deserves it. 

Of course I remembered!” Praying that my wounded sharade comes off as genuine, masking the fact that I have, in fact, forgotten the scallop tartare. 

Thankfully I saw some ripe looking strawberries in the walk-in earlier and we’re still knee deep in limes. I better get cracking on Eli’s tartare before she comes looking for it and before the rest of the staff begin to arrive. Preparing this simple recipe immediately transports me back to Saltwater’s opening days. The notion of including finely chopped strawberries to raw scallop, I’ll admit, was foreign to me in my newbie state but my god what a mouthwatering outcome. This dish has been on the menu since day one, by the insistence of staff and guests alike that its light, velvety freshness couldn’t possibly grow tiresome. 


“I have something I’d like to say!” I’m standing on the bar top for dramatic effect (might as well get it over with while I’m still sober), prosecco in one hand and a fully loaded Raspberry Point oyster in the other. The entire Saltwater staff of twenty-two, myself, and our two previous sous chefs, Larry and Jenn, are all gathered around our half-gutted dining room with a glass of prosecco, ready to savour this last meal together. 

“I’ve been weeping all day and don’t want to go soft on you all so I’m going to keep this short and sweet.” Not knowing that I’m lying to their faces, my intentions are honest. “I can’t thank every single one of you here tonight enough for the massive success Saltwater has experienced over the past ten years. As most of you know, the decision to close these doors did not come lightly but, with rising food and operating costs, our concept has become too expensive to go on. Each and every one of you has become family and as sad as I am to see us disperse, I know that you’re all going to succeed in your next ventures.” Coming as no shock to anyone, my eyes begin to well (yet again) and I give myself an internal nudge to hurry the hell up and get on with the festivities. “Family forever, I’ll always be in each of your corners and I want you to know the lasting impact you’ve left on me.” With no free hand to wipe my tears, I surrender and let them fall. 

 “Cheers to Saltwater!” Raising both arms in a dramatic double-cheers, I swig my prosecco and chase it with the briny oyster that’s been dripping down my left arm for the past several seconds. 

“Cheers to Saltwater!” Twenty-four teary-eyed family members chant back as they follow suit; oysters and all.

December 14, 2023 19:50

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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