World's Best Langoustines
“I think in order for him to take me seriously, I have to send the money in advance.”
The CFO agreed. Bartolotta wired the man money, a lot of it, in an attempt to call his bluff.
But the stalemate persisted. After more than two years of back-and-forth, and having already deposited a lump sum of cash into the man’s bank account, Bartolotta realized he had never actually asked about cost. When he finally did, he was admonished. “These are expensive,” the exporter said. “They are the most expensive in the world. But they are also the only truly great-quality langoustines on the planet.” Bartolotta, despite wondering if he’d become the mark in a long con, didn’t ask another question about money and decided to cede all control. “I started to figure out the exchange had nothing to do with business,” he says. “It was really a conversation about ideals and ego.”
So Bartolotta sent the man a one-line e-mail: “Please send me the Best Langoustine on the Planet.”
The man replied: “You will receive a shipment Wednesday.”
Wednesday found Bartolotta eagerly waiting. He could all but taste them. Scampi on the grill, scampi sautéed with garlic, translucent slivers of raw scampi dressed with the smallest squeeze of lemon. He could feel Ristorante di Mare becoming even more Italian, more truthful, more verace.
The box arrived that night, and Bartolotta went through all the steps the man had prescribed. He opened it slowly to introduce ambient air at a controlled rate so as not to the rattle the fragile, slumbering langoustines with the kind of quick shift in temperature that would surely kill them. He cut off the bottom foam wall of the box. Carefully he peeled back the layers and layers of insulation. He removed several gel packs, pulling each out with surgical precision. He reminded all the cooks circled around him that these were incredibly sensitive creatures. He held his breath.
And the box was empty. Bartolotta reached for the phone. “Yes, yes, yes, Paul. I know. No langoustines,” said the man. “Don’t worry. You will have them. I need to organize. You need to wait.”
The man asked Bartolotta his local time. Ten-thirty, Bartolotta told him. “Okay,” said the man, “now I know how long it takes from me to Vegas.” He still couldn’t say the city’s name without laughing. “Now I know how to pack the box.”
He set to work calibrating the shipment, making sure he could maintain the right temperature in the box over a known period of time. A couple days after the arrival of the dummy shipment, Bartolotta got a call: His langoustines were finally coming.
When the new box arrived, the chef once again followed the procedures as directed. But again, the box was empty. And the three shipments after that were all empty, too.
“Every time,” says Bartolotta, “the guy was like, ‘Listen, Paul, you need to understand. I am doing what I need to do in order to make sure you one day have live langoustines. You just have to trust me and know I am working on the program.”
The night Paul Bartolotta finally got his langoustines, his dining room was packed. He was mentally prepared for another empty box. “But I cut it open,” he says, “and oh my God! So I called him: ‘I have them!’ And he says, ‘Well, Paul, are they alive or are they dead?’”
They were alive.
“Immediately,” says Bartolotta, “I piled some up on a tray, and they were moving and squirming, and I ran out to the tables, literally ran. I had my customers ordering them right away. They weren’t on the menu, didn’t have a price, but who cares? So we’re grilling them up and getting everyone excited. I remember the color of them, that orangey-pink-red. They were so amazing, and they smelled like the ocean and were getting more and more lively, really waking up. My Italian waiters couldn’t believe what they were seeing. They were like, ‘No way! How did you get these?’ And then I ran the rest down to the tanks and put them in, and all of a sudden they were swimming. I thought, ‘This is going to be easy.’”
The next morning, more than half of them were dead.