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.
A week later, Lastri and Ben turned up at Robertson’s apartment, which was a veritable tornado touchdown of Buffalo Trace bourbon bottles, Chinese takeout containers, energy bar wrappers, half-empty water glasses, dogeared books, magazines, and junk mail. He greeted them dressed only in a bathrobe, which filled out his lean frame and made him look imposing, rather than merely wiry.
“You,” Robertson said with mild surprise.
“Hello, Robert,” said Lastri. Her trim frame was nicely accentuated by a neat black pantsuit trimmed by an improbable amount of red and silver lame. The trim was fluid, and looked like Arabic script; Lastri looked like the queen of a lost tribe of Asian elves. Silver bangles helped complete the effect, and gave it a bit of a gypsy twist.
“This is Ben — Ben, meet Chef Robertson,” said Lastri. Ben looked up from his iPhone distractedly, and shook Robertson’s hand before going back to his email.
“He’s normally more polite,” said Lastri, stepping into the cramped living quarters. “He’s just a bit pre-occupied today. We just lost one of our key people.”
“I should be managing this on site,” said Ben, smoothly but with a trace of frustration shining through. “People are pissed.”
“People are often pissed,” said Lastri. “You know what Sun Tzu said about anger?” she asked Robertson.
“‘Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by contentment’? Something like that?” Robertson said, a bit numbly. “Can I offer you guys…” he cast around dismally. “Tap water? Bourbon?”
“That’s… that’s the gist of it,” said Lastri, knocked off kilter. “Ben, my point is that people will get over it. I need you here today in case we have to hire someone.”
Ben raised his eyebrows superciliously at Robertson, who didn’t seem to even have the energy to glower back. Then: The glower sparked up. Lastri smiled.
“I can’t work for you,” said Robertson. “I took another job.”
“Oh!” said Lastri. “I hadn’t heard.”
“It’s not exactly big news on the Internet or anything,” said Robertson. “Dale Gorenfeld’s group gave me a commission to head up a new restaurant.”
“That’s wonderful for you!” said Lastri expansively. “I’m so pleased.”
“It’s meant to teach me a lesson and probably drive me out of town,” said Robertson. “Gorenfeld is still after my hide for the way I left the Red Tower. The fucker.”
“What did you do?” asked Lastri.
“I asked for a month-long leave of absence because my father was dying. He didn’t grant it. I flew out for a weekend to say my goodbyes, and then went back to work. Worked for five weeks while dad clung to life and I heard about the evolving situation from my brother. Threw my hat in Gorenfeld’s face and stormed out, took a cab to the airport. Got the call at the airport: He’d died that afternoon. I was, at least, able to enjoy the funeral in a leisurely fashion.”
“So… now he hires you?”
Robertson had been approached out of the blue by a Swiss man purporting to represent a Swiss restaurant group opening a new, high-profile place. The man appealed to Robertson’s ego; he appealed to his wallet; he appealed to his curiosity. For confidentiality reasons, he couldn’t say much about the restaurant, but assured Robertson it would be a good fit and a rewarding experience.
Robertson pressed the man, mercilessly, on why he, of all chefs, was being courted with such ardor. The man insisted that he’d heard great things, including from his former employer. Robertson knew for a fact that Thursday was telling people he was a prima donna and impossible to work with, so he demurred on the offer, and asked for a week to think about it.
During that week, he bought a share of stock in the man’s Swiss firm, and — as a stockholder — discovered that it was 66% owned by an American holding company. He paid money to acquire a subscription to a professional financial database, and found out that the holding company was owned in whole by a Ronald Gorenfeld of Secaucus, New Jersey. He found out that Ronald was Dale’s brother, and that the company’s PR firm was New Amsterdam based.
After taking an elevator up to the 18th floor of a reasonably pleasant skyscraper in Midtown he knocked on the door of the PR firm.
“I’m Chef Robertson,” he told the principal. “Hans Lange brought me on board for the new restaurant project, and told me you’d have the details…?”
“He wanted me to tell you?” she asked.
“He said it was important that I understand the identity of the place on an organic level, and that no one could tell the story like you could,” said Robertson. The woman practically glowed with self-importance.
“That makes sense!” she said. “Well, as you probably know, it’s a breakfast cereal restaurant. The twist is this: It’s open past bar time. What’s better than a bowl of cereal after you’ve been out on the town?” she asked. “Just so you know, the project is being done in concert with the Our Thing team.”
The “Our Thing” team was, to everyone in the know, recognized as a group of old-school Italian mobsters who had decided to put some of their excess cash back into the community by way of restaurants. The cute name was meant to suggest: “Hey! Nothing could be amiss with a group that jokes about organized crime!”
But, of course, there was a lot amiss with it.
“So,” said Johnson. “It’s a late-night breakfast cereal restaurant half-owned by the mob.”
“The Giambese Family,” said the PR woman. “But we’re supposed to de-emphasize that if it comes up in interviews. The main thing to understand is that we’re fun, we’re accessible, but we’re also — surprisingly — high class. People should get ready to drop $30 on a bowl of cereal and an alcoholic milkshake. That’s where your vision thing comes into it.”
“Sounds good,” said Robertson, before leaving. “Looking forward to working with you.”
Lastri’s jaw dropped. “Why… why would you do that?” Ben was paying attention to him now, and had put away the phone. Robertson enjoyed watching the finely polished cogs in Ben’s brain spinning furiously and almost without friction, like the intricate inner mechanism of a Swiss watch.
“I did it to make a point,” said Robertson, conclusively.
“That point being…?” asked Ben.
“Well, we’ll know once I’m done there,” replied Robertson.
Lastri smiled and shook her head. “Keep in touch,” she said. She extended her hand and Robertson shook it. They both kept the handshake going for longer than Ben thought was necessary. He cleared his throat. Lastri shot him a look. Robertson shot him a look. Ben produced his iPhone, and left the apartment, and Lastri followed.