Extraculinarriculars
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Paperweight, Upon-twisted-Bough: "It was food made by a man that is always hungry." - Restaurant Review

Jay Koperni

As close as we have come, as a community, to losing ourselves.


To my most esteemed readers,

I must apologise for my recent neglect of your loyal readership. It has been months since I wrote a single restaurant review. I have been otherwise occupied. The events I describe within this piece, that I describe to you now, are based on some recent happenings within the Library. As I type this, I have just arrived home, in a daze. I intend to recount these events to you in the most detail possible, to catch every fleeting moment of this incident to refer back to later.

As usual, I awoke at precisely 5:45. In keeping with my resolution to keep more in touch with my spiritual side, I first consulted the indices of Libo Qian’s The Implications of Slumber. The tables therein, cross-referenced with a tea leaf reading and a brief scapulamantic roll of great-grandmother’s knucklebones informed me that I would be ‘well rewarded for sticking to habit and pattern.’

You might think this an easy command to follow, but this actually presented me with quite the conundrum.

Since my last article, I have become obsessed with a new dining establishment, Paperweight, which I have visited each day for the past three months. It sits on the cosy street of Upon-Twisted-Bough, just off Inkway Six. The establishment is unassuming. Seating space has been maximised, with row upon row of benches and tables. The black-stained wood panelling of the interior is nearly as seasoned as the food. Sitting at a back table away from the open windows feels nearly claustrophobic. An open kitchen squats at the centre of it all. Pot, pans and hissing grills form a moat between the chef and his patrons, with a grease-soaked swivel chair occupying the room's epicentre. It is a factory of a place. The layout is designed to feed as many as possible. In many ways, it resembles a soup kitchen, but one would be mistaken to assume that any charity went on here.

I suspect today's visit will be my last. To explain why, I must begin, well, at the beginning.

I do not recall it opening. One day it was not there. The next it was, like a mole on one’s face that they have never noticed. The wear of the furnishings suggested a storied history, but the library had seen stranger sights. I actually had the distinct privilege of being its first patron. I had entered, spurred on by an author’s curiosity, only to be greeted with the imposing sight of Paperweight’s owner.

Paperweight is owned by a wīhtikow who goes by the name of Mormont.1 The erstwhile cannibal’s2 establishment was located just three shelves down from my apartment in the Stacks, and had therefore entrenched itself into my daily routine ever since it opened a few months prior.

But I did not anticipate this on my first visit. The lights had been low, the fires barely lit. For a moment, I thought that I had stumbled into an abandoned home, or perhaps some errant glitch in the Library’s shifting branches, a tumour on the body of knowledge. I still cringe at the ungentlemanly shriek that emanated from me when a furry claw snapped out of the shadows past my head.

The first thing one would likely note about a wīhtikow is their height. They cut imposing figures, rarely shorter than ten feet tall, with oddly proportionate torsos balanced precariously atop stilt-like legs. The arms of a wīhtikow, which are multi-jointed and extendible, stretch all the way from its chest to its calves. His body type contradicted the tight quarters of his dining establishment. He had to bend down at a near ninety degree angle in order to pass through the door. His kitchen was even smaller than that, and he remained seated for the entirety of a service. This did not impede him, for his arms were long and flexible enough that he could reach every corner of his establishment with room to spare.

This was the arm that had stretched past and around me, serpentine. A voice shuddered towards me. His words were oily in that they settled on top of my thoughts, never mixing with them, but leaving a distinct impression on me for days until I could finally shake them off. His tone was one of absence, of desolation, numbness and annihilation.

Would you like something to eat?

I think that I was doomed from that moment. Mormont cooks as if he were a scornful god. He creates food for you as if he were your master, creator, the source of all that made you alive. When I sat down that first time, he asked me what my favourite childhood dish was.

Long-time readers of my column will know the answer. In her happier days, my mother would cook the most wonderful orecchiette puttanesca. Pan-fried chickpeas, heaped over with garam masala, harissa and cumin, were allowed to burn merrily at the bottom of the pan. Throwing in bone marrow stock, she would peel that burnt layer off the bottom of the pan, adding fat and juicy olives, capers and tomatoes, the bounty of the coastline. Bringing it to a simmer, she would then add the orecchiette, and then let it cook, lid on. She always made a show of taking the lid off, the cascading steam carrying smells wafting throughout our house. She made it look like magic. In that very moment, I knew that she loved me, no matter what.

Mormont cooked a version of that dish for me that night that made my mother’s cooking taste like salted ash in comparison. Every ingredient was richer, more polished. It was food made by a man that is always hungry. That is always thinking about how to satiate hunger. But he views hunger as a battle. Eating is a war, not an experience. And he is very talented at fighting that war.

When he finished desecrating my mother's memory, he broke me, on some spiritual level.

I paid my bill, and I have gone back every night since.

Paperweight soon became the talk of the Grand Hall’s tearooms, and the queues to sample Mormont’s menu have stretched on for miles down Inkway Six, stretching all the way from ‘BR’ to ‘CA’. This was my own fault. My friends noticed that I no longer ate with them at the variety of establishments we rotated through. Upon listening to my ravings and warnings, they too joined me at Paperweight, sullenly shuffling in each night as Mormont enslaved each of them to his genius. My reputation as a critic, and the honour of being his very first customer, had earned me a dedicated chair at one of the many benches. Skipping the queue with an air of unearned haughtiness had become a daily delight, the envious glares of my fellow Wanderers gliding off me like oil over water. This did little to dissuade me from my routine. My days wrapped themselves around food. I found my work stalling, as I thought of little else beyond what delights I might sample with my next meal.

Visitors to Paperweight could expect an astounding display of variety. Mormont's kitchen seemed to stock every ingredient one could imagine. He tailored each dish specifically to his customer, every flavour and element designed to teach them something.

I could be feasting on an abalone and dill linguine, whilst my animalistic neighbour to the left sank her jaws into a Schweinshaxe so crispy that each bite resembled a gunshot. Her counterpart on my right had polished off their fourth maki roll and was mentally preparing themselves for a fifth. The room was a whirlwind of variety, but service was always efficient.

I am, like many Wanderers, a consummate vegetarian. There are only so many debates about iambic pentameter one can have with a sentient pig before breakfast sausages start to lose their appeal.3 Meat does not sit well in my stomach.

Mormont made a game out of how many Wanderer’s he could convince to renounce this principle. Myself amongst them. He actually kept a tally on a chalkboard.

From my front row seat, meal by meal, I bore witness Mormont’s meteoric rise. A lucrative industry of placeholders sprang up nearly overnight. Positions in the single digits went for astronomical sums.4 Their pallid faces were scales on a serpent's back, languidly stretching its way across the walkways and branches of the Library in search of sustenance. With each passing day, more of the Library fell under Mormont’s sway. The wīhtikow seemed entirely nonplussed by the entire affair. As if he had expected it from the very start.

The jealous stares of my fellow Wanderers had only increased as of late, their ocular daggers lancing into my back as I jumped a multi-day queue. What had started as polite *harrumphs* had progressed first to whispered slander, then mobbish shouts. Just yesterday, I had been pelted with, amongst other things, a stale bread roll, a Wordsprite5, and a bundle of light novels.6

I made my way to my usual seat, scooting past groaning patrons as they gorged themselves on dish after dish. In the centre of it all, Mormont sat, methodically breaking each and every Wanderer that walked into his restaurant.

I sat in my usual spot, surprised to see Mormont’s eyes following me. We made contact, and he grinned. His teeth are long and needle-thin, like a whale's baleen.

When he spoke, his voice was directly in my ear, cutting through the greasy air, silencing the crunches and slurps of my fellow eaters.

“Ah, Koperni. Are you aware of who is coming today?”

I swallowed. “No?”

He nodded, sagely. “I wouldn’t expect you to have been. But They are coming. In fact, they’re already here.”

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about, but as if to answer my question, a hand placed itself on my shoulder.

I spun. I saw a god spun out of Houndstooth, and they smiled at me.

I stammered out the only question I could think of. “Who… who are you?”

"I am Cary, Chef of the Cosmos, Pursuer of Spices, Butcher of All, They/Them."

Mormont clapped his hands in glee, the remainder of his arms flailing around the restaurant, tipping the precarious towers of stained plates and used dishes. The diners had barely even stopped to look up, pre-occupied on their gorging and swallowing.

Oh, how I’ve waited for this, Cary. What a chance!

Cary turned to Mormont, and the smile faded from their face. As a culinary author, I pride myself on my descriptive talents, but I struggle for the right words to describe the expression that replaced that smile. Pity, but with rage’s eyes?

“I’m sorry, have we met?”

It was the first time I saw the Wendigo express an emotion that he hadn’t intended to leak onto his face. A bolt of indignity distorted his features for a second before that same placid confidence reformed itself.

No. Well. I’ve seen you. Watched you work. But we’ve never spoken.

Cary grinned. “Ah, a fan, then. Well, I am here on business today, so I don’t think I’ll be signin-”

Mormont cut them off at this stage. “No. No jokes. I know why you are here. I've been waiting far too long to sit through a comedy routine.

Cary adjusted their chef’s hat. “Then you won’t mind me giving you a little review, since I am here on business.” They whispered to me. "Not to step on your toes, Jay, darling. I do enjoy your little reviews." Cary scanned the restaurant, their arms sweeping out broadly to emphasise their point.

“One. Your relationship with your customers is wrong, on almost every level. You seek to dominate and control them through nostalgia and memory, plunging them into ecstatic feelings of love and belonging that you had no hand in creating. In effect, culinary plagiarism."

"Two. You do not love eating. That fact alone makes you unworthy to call yourself a chef.”

"Three. You do not know what food truly is. What it truly means to cook, to serve, to eat."

Cary removed one of their blue plastic gloves, and cast it down at Mormont’s feet.

“And so I challenge you to a contest. Three dishes each. Library Rules."7

Mormont cackled. “I accept, on one condition. You say I do not know what food is. Wrong. I understand it in far greater depth than you and your ilk. I therefore propose that we declare the meaning of food as the theme of this contest, the theme of our dishes. Whoever wins will clearly have the superior culinary philosophy."

I could not help but feel that this meeting, this contest, had been his intention since the beginning.

"A splendid idea. Shall we begin?"


The restaurant was cleared of patrons, much to their collective dismay. They crowded outside the windows instead, but I could not tell if they wished to watch the contest or smell it. By virtue of being there, and being a senior food critic for several Library publications,8 I was elected as the judge for the contest.

Cary, as the challenger, was bound by tradition to cook first. They would have to announce their theme. Their statement. This was as important as the food itself. Not only would they be judged on how well they matched that theme, but there was an underlying debate to this contest. Why do we eat? Can food serve a higher purpose, or is it mere sustenance? Cary's choice would set the pace.

They had access to Mormont's cavernous pantry, and came out bearing a hefty bag of long-grain rice, along with baskets of fresh veg and meats.

Cary addressed the entire crowd of onlookers when they announced their theme. "Food is community."

And they began to cook. They began by dicing a glut of vegetables. Mushrooms, as varied in size and shape as the Wanderers watching on in awe. A rainbow of peppers reduced to thin strips. Chestnuts and mushrooms combined in a pan, drizzled with oil, whilst Cary began to prepare chicken gizzards, livers and ground pork in another. The rice, brought to the boil, was mixed through with a cascade of seasonings and fried onions, and then dished out into the two pans in equal portion.

"Food brings us together. Binds us. A shared goal, a common cause."

A heady aroma filled the restaurant. Before, the stench of cooking had been appetising, but overwhelming. Too many disparate elements clashing, a dissonant assault upon my nostrils . Now, one voice prevailed, a synthesized combination of ingredients blending and interweaving with one another.

"We pass it down to those that we leave behind. Every dish is a story as old as time, told by hundreds of authors, delivered to us to enjoy, to leave our own mark on."

They served a plate in front of me, before serving the remainder to the audience outside. The pan seemed to overflow with bounty, never-ending, until all who were hungry had been fed. Dirty rice with black garlic and mushrooms. Spicy and sweet, with the fluffy softness of cooked mushrooms contrasting with the socarrat crispness of the bottom of the pan. A triumph of history, of cultures intermingling, bringing the best of each together in spite of the dark.

Mormont scoffed. "A weak start, Butcher. But what was I to expect? You have grown soft. You teach a filtered version of reality, for you forget that Food is War." And with that, he began to cook.

The air filled with reds, oranges and yellows as spices rained down into oil, quickly congealing into a heady and aromatic sauce. Onions, garlic, ginger, and chilli joined them, simmering merrily into the pan.

"We are greedy above all else. We want the very best, no matter who or what needs to bend, break, or die for us to get there. You know as well as I how much blood has been spilled for mere flavour. I know you were there when worlds were plunged into fire over the rights to grow Eorée crop."

A thick slab of pale paneer was cubed in a blink, hitting the pan and beginning to brown and crisp.

He held a pinch of sugar between his long fingers, sprinkling it into the sauce. "The things we have done to each other over this alone… and you speak of community and shared history? A joke, a farce!"

The curry was served almost disdainfully with a side of Naan. Mormont's façade showed not even the faintest sliver of doubt.

I paused, and he sneered at me.

"Eat. You already know what the verdict will be."

It was a classic. No frills, no whistles. A Shahai Paneer. Perfectly browned cubes of full fat cheese swimming in an extravagant sauce. My mouth sang with heat, the dish quickly winning the battle with my tolerance and sending acrid tears cascading down my cheeks. Snot began to drip, and I had to reach for a white tissue to maintain my dignity. And still, I kept going back for more, unable to stop myself. Mormont chuckled as I gorged, until finally I could bring myself to stop.

I turned to Cary. "I'm sorry. It's not close."

With the first round going to Mormont, it was on him to begin the next.

"But of course, War alone is not enough. One must use food to consolidate, oppress, rule. Because Food is Power."

He did not reach for any spices or oils this time, but for a mixing bowl. Finely ground flour and soft, creamy yoghurt blended into a ball of dough, Mormont's lanky arms becoming a blur as he kneaded and rolled it out.

"The simplest thing. The easiest way to maintain a hold on the masses. For there is no threat more deadly to a despot than a lack of bread."

He basted the thin discs with melted ghee, dusting them with cumin and roughly chopped garlic, and then plopped them into a dry pan where they began to blacken.

"Civilization is carried on the backs of grain. The foundations of authority lie in who controlled the fields, who owned the harvest. Without it, everything we have built ourselves on comes crashing down."

The simple dish was placed in front of me, served with a mild chilli dipping sauce. It was a cleverly calculated move. The last two dishes had been intense bursts of flavour, and this milder affair was precisely what I needed to recover. The bread was warm and doughy. I probably could have slept on it. The flavour, whilst subdued, was precise, and hit the exact spots it needed to.

"We eat because we have to. Elevating dining above that is a waste of effort."

I was worried for the Cosmic Chef's chances. I am no slouch when it comes to eating, but the last two dishes I had been presented were so moreish that I felt near to bursting. Even if presented with a fantastic plate, I was not sure if I would be able to appreciate it.

But Cary did not seem phased.

"A tired argument. Your own dish proves that even the smallest things can be taken to another level, improved, refined. Because Food is Art."

It seemed that I was being treated to a dessert.

Cary began to blend green pistachios and almonds, creating two separate mixes of nutty pastes. They blended these with sugar, water and ice, before leaving them to set in a cooler. A wave of the hand caused a blue sphere to envelop the trays.

"Speeding up the process." Cary clarified. "Food is probably one of the first ways that any species expresses itself creatively. Once our base needs are taken care of, we start to think of how we can do things better. How we can exemplify our thoughts and ideas through the most basic of means."

The two sorbets were carefully carved into rectangular layers, placed on top of each other with only a thin wafer parting them. The top was covered in a light dusting of dark chocolate, with sweet strips of candied lime peel.

"You aren't wrong to appreciate the simplicity and power of food. But what you are doing here, the way you have manipulated the basest desires of these folk, is plainly wrong. It is the job of artists to elevate people beyond what makes them foul, and instil beauty and virtue within them. Good food makes good people, Mormont."

The dish was ecstatic. Both nutty flavours combined with each other, intertwining delicately. An iteration on an iteration, artists recognising each others genius, adding their own thoughts on something, improving and inspiring. A truly enlightening dish.

My decision was clear. Sublime over simple, every time. I am a food critic, after all.

Mormont howled, a foul bleating noise escaping his throat in choking bursts. He rose to his full height, and I wrapped my cloak tighter around me as frost began to cling to each and every surface.

You have the audacity to try to save me! I am trying to show you the truth, Butcher of All. I know that these truths are real. They have shaped me, and shaped my work. I will show you, for you seem to have forgotten it."

He pounded his chest, the leathery skin creating a resounding sound.

"The truth that lies at the very heart of me, what I wanted to show you since I first attended one of your insipid lectures.

Mormont spoke. “Food is a shackle.” - and he began to cook.

Any pretence of this being a competition in the realm of mortals had been cast to the wayside by now. The familiar benches of Paperweight vanished, replaced by a wasteland of frozen mud and ice.

Mormont’s kitchen was still there, a single edifice of life amongst absence.

Since the beginning, mortals have had to eat, and that is our curse.

As one arm began to prepare ingredients, the other snaked out across the ice. It burrowed itself deep into the cracked, frozen earth, and wrenched from it a human corpse. Frostbitten. The face was blank, a smooth surface. Mormont dragged it over to his chopping board, carving a deep furrow into the snow.

We have no choice in the matter. It is eat or die. It is kill or be killed.

With quick incisions, the body was bisected, exposing the chest cavity. Mormont carved out its liver, and diced it into fine cubes. He ground these cubes up, slathering them with wine, salt, and herbs. There was no fire, no heat. Only the inevitable promise of Winter.

Despite it, I did not feel cold. I turned to Cary, and they winked.

Mormont, shaping his paste into perfect spheres, began to dice raw garlic and mix it with lemon.

It is a reminder that, no matter what heights we might climb to, no matter how much knowledge we might stockpile in our great Library”- his words were soaked with disdain -”we are teetering on the brink of the very savagery we condemn. All it takes is one bad harvest, one drought.” He paused for a moment, swallowing. “One harsh winter.

His spheres of liver pate were drizzled with his wild garlic sauce, served atop a simple salad.

No matter how much you might dress it up, intellectualise it, Food is mere inevitability. Nothing more, nothing less. A shackle of mortality around all of our necks.

I tasted his dish. Not a single element of it was cooked. As the gamey, meaty texture spread across my tongue, the acrid bitterness of the raw elements cascaded through me. They evoked life as Mormont saw it. Harsh. Uncompromising. Unforgiving. For a moment so fleeting it may as well have not existed, I saw a boy cast down by the world for the crime of wanting- no, needing something to eat when nothing was there.

And I opened my eyes and found myself back in the restaurant. It had been a remarkable dish, a true encapsulation of thought. I did not expect that I would taste its equal.

Well, Butcher?” Mormont’s glee had largely vanished. He seemed harrowed by his own philosophy, what it reminded him of.

What might your response be?”

Cary paused, only for a moment, and then they spoke. No elaboration this time. They had deemed it unnecessary, because; “Food is a promise to tomorrow."

Their hands were a blur. Water boiled whilst simple root vegetables were carefully cut into cubes. Yams, pumpkins and squash. Little was added, their flavours standing alone. Where Mormont's dish was an experimental wonder that could likely not be repeated, this was heart-achingly simple. Cary seemed to blot out the world as they stirred, their visage one of concentration and focus. Yet still, they spoke.

"Eating, in itself, is a statement that life is worth living. To eat is to prolong one's own existence. To cook is to declare that your future self is someone who deserves better. It is not a shackle. It is an oath to carry on, despite it all."

The aroma began to reach me. Homely. Rustic. Appealing to the deep part of my brain that looked forward to coming home every day and smelling what my mother had cooked for me.

"Food is an act of self-love and self-worship. Cooking yourself something nice is like looking at the person in the mirror and telling them that you love them."

They served the dish, but not to me. The simple bowl of soup was handed to Mormont, who stood dumbfounded.

"I'm so sorry. I hope that this makes it better."

Mormont wavered. A long arm reached for a spoon. Bringing the broth to his mouth, where it seemed to shimmer and sparkle. Each cube of vegetable was nestled at the bottom of the soup, like little treasures waiting to be won.

He drank it. Stopped. Said nothing.

He took another sip. And then one more.

The spoon clattered to the floor as Mormont brought the entire bowl up to his head, drinking it down in greedy gulps. The splatters of soup that missed his mouth intermingled with the tears flowing down his face, staining his fur.

He stopped. The soup finished.

He gently placed the bowl on the table. His eyes met mine, and for the first time, they seemed satisfied.

"I'm sorry."

And with that, he left. I doubt that I will see him again.

Cary, Chef of the Cosmos, Pursuer of Spices, Butcher of All, They/Them, turned to me and smiled.

"I think that means that I win?"


I sit now at my typewriter, in the dark hours of the morning. The sights and flavours that I have tasted today play across my lips still. It will be some time before I taste food of that calibre.

To find oneself plunged into fierce debate over the soul of our industry is a rare chance. I suspect that if I were to leave my cosy apartment and walk to Paperweight, I would find it gone. I hope that Mormont can find what he was looking for, somewhere.

I find myself in an odd position as a food critic. Paperweight was a sensational dining experience, but I found myself entirely lesser for having eaten there. It is now defunct, so my warning to stay away is largely unnecessary. The head chef, I gather, is on a journey of self-discovery. His food was not made with love, or hope, and so he failed to provide for his guests, the ultimate sin on the tally of any gastronomist.

What is Food? For this critic, there has only ever been one answer.

Everything.

All hail to the Cosmic Chef.

p.s.

Forgot my overall verdict. 3/5.

I recommend the vegetable soup.

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