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.
Robertson wandered into the restaurant near closing on an off-night, which wasn’t typically his practice. But he’d been pacing the streets of New Amsterdam, and the rats were getting to him. A procession had dashed across an alley from one pile of uncollected garbage to another, and it had given him the distinct feeling that he was being followed and assessed as a possible future carcass.
He strolled up to the black marble bar, which was largely deserted. Kaplan caught his eye.
“You! I’ve got something you’ve got to try,” said the barkeep.
“Now, keep in mind that I understand that you’re a flinty son-of-a-bitch who would just as soon eat someone’s heart as shake their hand, and that you’re naturally inclined to gravitate toward the fiercer of the Highland and Islay Scotches. That said, you’re going to like this.”
Robertson grinned. “Fine, as long as it’s on the house if I don’t like it.”
Kaplan said nothing in reply and produced a bottle from a locked black lacquer cabinet under the liquor on display. “Auchentoshan 1983,” he said. “Lowland.” He poured a dram of the stuff and slid the glass ceremoniously toward Robertson.
Robertson picked it up and rotated the glass, and then nosed the Scotch carefully, bringing it up from about a foot below his nose up to about six inches away. “Mild, you’re right,” he said, “but there’s already some interesting stuff going on there.”
Kaplan studiously polished some glassware as the chef took a sip of the liquid. “Huh,” said Robertson.
“It deserves more than a ‘huh,'” said Kaplan, a bit huffily. “How about a ‘wow’! Or a ‘zowie!’ Or a ‘great thunderfuck, this is interesting!'”
“Ha, it is interesting…” said Robertson. “It’s like honey. It’s like honey straight from the fields. The floral stuff isn’t too perfumey or insistent, but it’s there, and it’s got just a touch of sweetness. Crazy. It’s like the opposite of the stuff I like…”
“But it’s good, right?” asked Kaplan.
“Totally is good,” said Robertson, taking another sip.
“What?” said Robertson, nearly spitting several dollars worth of Scotch onto the bar. “What do you mean back on board?”
“Yeah,” said Kaplan. “Thursday brought him in as some kind of executive manager. I don’t have the slightest idea how that happens after Linneman goes over to Lastri, other than Thursday was using him as a double agent.”
“That’s… that’s just fucking stupid,” said Robertson. “Do they really have nothing better to do? I mean, I guess I shouldn’t blame Lastri, other than for making the mistake of hiring a — well, hiring Linneman.”
A portly looking customer in an impeccable business suit cleared his throat. Kaplan caught he eye: “What’ll it be, sir?”
“An Old Fashioned.”
Kaplan’s eyes twinkled. “A Wisconsin Old Fashioned or a real Old Fashioned?”
“I, uh…” the customer hesitated. “I guess I’d never considered it. What’s the difference?”
“The difference is whether you want brandy, maraschino cherries, and 7 Up or house-made bitters, a sugar cube, and rye.”
The man frowned and then smiled. “I’ll take the latter, please.” Kaplan nodded curtly and set to work on making the cocktail.
“I guess if I were the kind of guy to worry about my job, I’d worry about my job,” said Robertson. “I think Linneman thinks I don’t give a fuck about the restaurant group.”
“Do you?” asked Kaplan.
“Ha! Hell no,” Robertson laughed. He put back the rest of the Auchentoshan. Kaplan poured another dram. “Although… I care about Kami.”
“It’ll go to shit if they kick you out, I know it,” said Kaplan. “I can’t believe that sushi bar stuff isn’t dead yet.”
“It isn’t dead yet? Good gravy,” said Robertson. “Motherfuck.”
Kaplan slid the Old Fashioned, a simple, elegant, and un-fruit bedecked affair, down to the man who’d ordered it. The man took a sip. “This is a totally different drink!”
“It is a totally better drink,” replied Kaplan, cooly.
“It is indeed,” said the man, who tipped a five-spot.
“Thank you sir,” said Kaplan.
“I guess I’d better act fast, then…” said Robertson.
“On what?” asked Kaplan. “Thursday’s glory hogging aside, people give you a lot of credit for this place. You can work again, probably even move up to a place not owned –” at this Kaplan looked around as though the bar was bugged “– by such a colorful but ultimately inspired genius of a character.”
“Oh, there’s this thing with a job.” Robertson looked pensive. “Fuck, I’d meant to talk to Emily about this.”
“Wife?” asked Kaplan. The two men had already talked 100 times in the few months the restaurant had been open, but never about anything past business.
“Ex-girlfriend,” said Robertson. “Quality person, all the same.”
“Ha!” said Kaplan, gently. “Another side to you.”
“We… yeah, we were close. Hard to… Well, shit. Do you think about death?”
“Only when I’m watching House, and that’s usually because blood starts shooting out of the apparently stabilized — but actually gravely ill — patient’s nose 12 minutes into any given episode. Or ears. Or mouth.” Kaplan paused in thought. “Maybe anus, once.”
“Yeah. So, I used to have this crazy thing — where I’d wake up in the middle of the night.” Robertson looked around the bar and restaurant. The place was nearly empty, and service was winding down. The gentleman with the Old Fashioned had paid his tab in cash and moved on. “So, I’d wake up in the middle of the night, and know what it was like to be dead. To be annihilated. No senses anymore — no touch, no taste, no sight, no sound, no smell — no consciousness. Just total oblivion. I’d go instantly from sound asleep to awake and knowing that thing, and that thing was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever known.”
“Christ,” said Kaplan. “Hell of a way to wake up.”
“You’re telling me. So, Emily and I broke up — we didn’t even date that long, three or four years. We broke up and I hit the skids, a bit… And I had — was it a dream? The experience, that death experience. Except this time, instead of being pure terror, it was a relief. Just that sense of total annihilation — it was peaceful. I felt better after that — never had the experience since.”
“So you were close to Emily,” concluded Kaplan.
Robertson smirked, “Round about way of saying it, but yeah. I trust her. Anyway, I should’ve asked her… so, there’s this guy. Really good cook. Tried his food — it just screamed out, even within the context, which was what should’ve been a shitty mid-town diner.” Robertson paused. “What’s that?”
Kaplan had been putzing around, making a drink with blended Scotch, lemon juice, and a couple of other miscellaneous bottled liquids.
“It’s a Penicillin,” Kaplan said. “For you, try it. Honey syrup, Scotch, lemon juice, ginger juice, garnished with a quarter shot of Islay scotch. I used Laphroaig 15, I think Thursday would want it that way.”
“Honey and Scotch seems to be the theme of the night,” said Robertson. “Works for me. Jesus, that’s great,” he said.
Kaplan gave a tiny theatrical bow.
“Anyway, long story short, this guy worked for the Red Tower, pissed off Dale Gorenfeld by ditching out for some corporate hack job for a bunch of money, and now Gorenfeld keeps getting him canned. If I could get him hired here… well, hell, Thursday would make it a point of pride to defend him against Gorenfeld, I bet.”
“Probably,” said Kaplan, “but you can never tell.”
“You can never tell,” agreed Robertson. “But I fundamentally think that what this guy did was wrong and / or stupid and / or greedy. But I think he’s taken enough shit. But I’m not sure getting him a job here would do him any favors.”
“Plus,” said Kaplan, “If you get him a job here and Linneman gets you axed, and he’s your guy, the axe is going to fall on him, too.”
“That it will,” agreed Robertson.
“The guy can really cook?” asked Kaplan.
“He really can,” said Robertson.
“Shit, I’ll get him hired at one of our other places and keep your name out of it. If you want me to.”
“Let me think on it,” said Robertson.
“Okay,” said Kaplan. “Last call.”