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.
When Robert Robertson walked into the Italian Workingman’s Association in Little Sicily, the regulars looked up with genuine surprise. Robertson did not carry himself like a cop. He was not known to anyone in the room. He didn’t look particularly Italian, or nervous, or stupid. Nobody said anything — not the three guys at the pool table, nor the bartender, nor the two guys at the bar.
He ordered a limoncello, in passable Italian. The bartender didn’t move, but his eyes at least darted over to the bottle.
“Well, if you’re not going to serve me a drink, at least tell me this: Is Mr. John Giambese around? I’m the new chef for his cereal restaurant.”
The room relaxed instantly, the bartender started pouring, and one of the young guys at the bar leapt to his feet. “Yeah, I can put you in touch with him,” he said. “One second.”
A quick conversation followed, and Robertson sat at the bar sipping his drink while he waited for Giambese to appear. A half hour and another limoncello went by. Another hour and two anisettes went by. By the time Giambese arrived, Robertson was semi-functional.
“So, you’re the guy,” said the capo. The man looked like an accountant: neatly if dourly dressed, with silver-rimmed glasses and neatly cropped black hair. He was supposed to be in his 50s, but he looked late 30s, if that.
“I hear you’re kind of a hardass,” said Giambese, tentatively.
“I’m kind of a hardass,” said Robertson. “But I wanted to come here and see you and talk to you about the restaurant theme.”
Giambese tensed up.
“I think the theme is fucking brilliant,” Robertson said. “I am crazy about it.”
“Yeah?” asked Giambese, warily pleased.
“Yeah,” said Robertson. “It’s visionary. All you see out there is sushi this, pho that… bunch of Asian crap nobody can get their heads around. This… this is going to connect with people.”
“That’s exactly what I said,” said Giambese. “Absolutely.” The looks on the faces of the guys in the bar suggested that he’d said exactly that on a number of occasions before, at great length.
“In fact,” said Robertson, “I like the idea so much that I want to play around with the idea of what breakfast cereal MEANS.” He leaned in conspiratorially. “ANYTHING can be breakfast cereal.”
“What do you mean?” asked Giambese, intrigued and suspicious.
“Steak tartare in a lemon / olive oil marinade. Pheasant roasted and cubed and served with a gravy of bacon and cream. Thinly sliced pork with basil, lime, sprouts, and peppers, maybe a shot of hot sauce. All served in a bowl, sure, called cereal… but we completely change the game on people. Set expectations, blow them away.”
“I like the way you think,” said Giambese. “How’s it going to affect the bottom line?”
“I don’t know,” said Robertson. “It may cost us some money, to be honest. But there’ll be a lot of write-offs in that case.”
“Write-offs are OK,” said Giambese.
“I can’t wait to see you for the tasting menu on the night of the soft launch,” said Robertson, shaking Giambese’s hand. “You’re going to love it. Absolutely love it.”
Giambese clapped Robertson on the back as the chef got up to leave. “I’m looking forward to it.”