Knife Skills, A Serial Novel – Part 3

Each Friday, the Heavy Table presents a new installment of Knife Skills, a culinary novel presented piece by piece as it’s written. If you’re uncomfortable with salty language, please be aware that characters regularly use words and phrases unacceptable in polite conversation. In the author’s imagination, some members of the food service industry have a tendency to swear. For previous and subsequent installments, visit the Heavy Table’s Fiction directory.

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Robert T. Robertson was summoned to a final interview on a Monday morning at one of Jim Thursday’s more successful gastropubs. The Hammermill, which served breakfast Tuesday through Sunday, was mostly quiet. Stores were being restocked, bathrooms were being cleaned, but for all intents and purposes, the restaurant was effectively napping.

Robertson’s impression of Thursday was that the food magnate must be some kind of giant. On initial observation, he seemed to be 6 foot 10 inches tall and broad as a Volvo, although more careful observation revealed that he was probably around 5 foot eight. At nine in the morning, Thursday was unshaven, his blue necktie already loosened to the point of abstraction. His hair and beard — bright red, flame red — burst forth from his lumpen face like a car bombing. His eyebrows jutted like cliffs. His eyes widened as Robertson walked through the door.

knifeskillssquare“YOU are the man!” said Thursday, leaping to his feet and rushing toward Robertson. He shook Robertson’s hand enthusiastically, involving his left hand in the process in order to add emphasis. “You are the man, the MAN! Welcome to New Amsterdam, welcome to The Hammermill, welcome to your new life. This is a THRILL.” By the time he’d finished the sentence, he’d plunked back into his wrought-iron and plexiglass chair, which quietly complained about his weight and violent gestures using a language consisting of sorrowful little peeps and squeaks.

“Good morning,” said Robertson. He took a seat at the table, looking, with interest, at the single sheet of paper that was spread across it. It was his contract, a deal to hire him as executive chef at Kami. Even reading it upside down, Robertson was able to note that the numbers looked right.

“Before we ink this thing, there’s one thing I’d like you to do for me.” Thursday grinned broadly and benignly through his facial thicket.

“What’s that?” asked Robertson.

“Make me breakfast. I’m fucking hungry.” Thursday patted his enormous stomach, currently concealed beneath an untucked tailored white dress shirt.

Robertson blinked at the request. He shrugged his shoulders slightly. “OK. Sweet or savory?”

Thursday stared at him for a minute, running his right hand vigorously through the red underbrush of his face. “Both,” he grunted.

“High end? Low end?”

“Just make it stuff I haven’t seen a thousand times before,” said Thursday. “Please,” he added, delighted that he’d remembered the word and used it in a socially appropriate context.

“OK, then.” Robertson strolled into the kitchen like he owned the place.

The kitchen was open, so Thursday was able to follow Robertson’s progress, which he did with considerable interest. Robertson scanned the pots and pans, picking out a heavy skillet and a few bowls. He located a knife, sharpened it, assembled a handful of small dishes and prep bowls.

“Clean,” he said to Thursday.

“Goddamn right,” said Thursday. “Dirty kitchen won’t do.”

“Won’t,” said Robertson, strolling off to inspect the walk-in.

knifeskillsvertRobertson began to assemble ingredients. “You’ll spoil the surprise,” he said to Thursday. Thursday nodded — he could accept that. He turned around to read the cooking magazine that he nominally edited, and was, within moments, swearing under his breath and composing an email bristling with complaints. “Can’t… fucking… split infinitive…” he muttered. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, there was chopping and clanking, and — soon enough — sizzling and good smells. Coffee arrived at the table, unbidden.

“No cream? No sugar?” asked Thursday.

“Doesn’t need it,” said Robertson. “You’ve got good beans and a stout machine here — much respect to the Clover.” He jabbed his thumb toward the modestly sized plastic and stainless steel box.

“Fucking thing cost us $11,000 and I can get a better cup at McDonald’s,” said Thursday, bitterly. He sipped at his coffee. “Hmm, nice.”

Robertson missed the compliment. He was back in the kitchen, spooning white, ethereal batter into the All-Clad. Another pan was going, too. And a saucier. Soon, Robertson was carrying a platter out to the dining room. It was laden with six chive-garnished brown discs of pan-fried potatoes, and six improbably fluffy little pancakes.

Thursday eyed the contents of his plate with an expression of intrigued suspicion. “What do we got here?” he asked, poking at one of the pancakes with a fork.

“Cinnamon Cloudcakes,” said Robertson.

“Egg whites folded into the batter?”

“And sour cream. Also, bubble and squeak,” he said, referring to the savory discs.

“British?”

“English, yes. Pan-fried potatoes, boiled cabbage…”

By now, Thursday had stuffed an entire patty of bubble and squeak into his mouth, and was chewing heartily, talking as he did so. “…peas, onions… lardon? Curry powder? Fuck me, I like this. Doing it curried was a nice twist.”

“I do what I can, yeah,” said Robertson, letting a tight grin momentarily sprint across his face. “Fresh sour cream right in the metal bowl there. And I’ve made a maple and cloudberry syrup for the cloudcakes.”

“Hell, I didn’t know we had cloudberries.”

“There’s lakkalikööri — cloudberry liquor — back there too,” said Robertson. “You seem to have a Finn loose in the kitchen.”

“Kai Mannerheim, yeah, great guy, hell yeah,” said Thursday, packing a syrup-smeared cloudcake into his gullet and washing it down with good black coffee. “His great-grandpa was some big shot in the army. Shit, you’re hired, man.”

“Listen, I know we talked about money…”

“$15,000 a month, up front, no problem, we get you an apartment, no problem,” said Thursday. At this point in the meal, he’d lost interest in Robertson and seized a second fork. He began playing around with the theory and practice of packing one of each variety of round breakfast item into his mouth.

“Yeah, money is great. Three other things.”

Thursday paused, fork in each hand, cloudcake on left fork, bubble and squeak on the right. Thursday wasn’t typically dictated to. Generally, he had his choice of being bored or raging, but, now, in his own dining room, he felt strangely at a loss.

“First thing is my books,” said Robertson. “I need them all shipped out from Minneapolis. I don’t start work until they’ve all arrived in good condition.”

“That’s all? No problem…”

“No, I mean, I’m serious about that. The books need to be here before I start. I’ve gone through this before.”

“I know, I looked at your resume. You should be glad I’m giving you another chance — you’ve been at 15 fucking places in 10 years!”

“Eighteen,” said Robertson, back in the kitchen, tidying up pots and pans. “That brings me to point number two. I work for you for nine months, tops. I get the place in shape. I make the menu and the staff function. We get good reviews and customers like it. Money comes in. Then I’m gone.”

“But…”

“But nothing, I’m not interested in Kami, or New Amsterdam, or your company or whatever. That’s not what I’m here for.”

“Then what the fuck…”

“Not important. If you don’t like my resume or my reputation or my cooking, tell me, and I’m on the first –”

“Fuck fuck fuck fuck shut up fuck just get on with it,” growled Thursday, who was sputtering like an overloaded Ukrainian cargo plane struggling to get airborne.

“Third thing,” and Robertson said this calmly, raising his grey eyebrows slightly but otherwise fixing Thursday with a rock steady stare, “You don’t ever, ever, ever tell me how to cook.”

“But…”

“No. We can and will consult about the menu. You can give me feedback. You control the pursestrings, so you hire and fire as much or as little as you want.”

“But –”

“I’ve worked with… I worked with a guy who killed his girlfriend with a grapefruit spoon and kept her, at one point, in the meat locker,” said Robertson. Thursday’s eyes bugged out a little. “She was a math teacher, a nice girl, from Appleton, Wisconsin. I turned him in as soon as I could make it stick. For 14 shifts I worked with that Bavarian son-of-a-bitch knowing what he’d done, and I kept it professional. So I don’t care what kind of sociopaths, mongoloids, or relatives you want to employ in my kitchen. I’ll make it work.” Robertson paused. “Just don’t tell me how to cook. Ever.”

“How the hell do you kill someon–”

“Better not to know. Do we have a deal?”

“Yeah,” said Thursday, talking through a pile of warm potatoes and cabbage. “We got a deal, welcome aboard.”

“See you once my books get here,” said Robertson, walking out the door.

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James Norton

James Norton is editor and co-founder of the Heavy Table. He is also the co-author of Lake Superior Flavors, the co-author of a book about Wisconsin’s master cheesemakers, and a regular on-air contributor to Minnesota Public Radio.

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