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 Lastri walked into the private preview party for Robertson’s new cereal restaurant, she was caught off guard by the elegance of the room, which was mostly lit by mirror-reflected candlelight and skylights that let the ambient glow of the city stream softly through the ceiling. Ovoid black lacquer tables wasted space in a decadent fashion. The crowd was well dressed, and neatly folded, hand-lettered notecards announced the evening’s fare.
(single Shredded Wheat soaked in armagnac and dressed with brunoised bacon and smoked Alaskan wild salmon)
Parmesan Salad Cup
(Parmesan “netting” bowl with microgreens, herb-glazed Cheerio croutons, and black cherry balsamic dressing)
Bay Scallops ala Apple Jacks
(a trio of freshly harvested High Island bay scallops seared and crusted with powdered Apple Jacks, served with an apple balsamic gastrique)
(hand-made pasta noodles tossed with Just Bunches and crushed pecans, topped with a lightly fried egg and house-made honey sriracha)
New Amsterdam Strip Steak with Special K Wild Rice Risotto
Flight of miniature Adult Milkshakes; huckleberry brandy and Booberry, Scotch and oatmeal, Chardonnay and Raisin Bran
Across the room, she spotted Robertson standing beside John Giambese and talking to Richard Schulz, Gorenfeld’s man in New Amsterdam. She glided over toward the gathering, attempting to eavesdrop.
“I worked with John on this extensively,” said Robertson, his arm around the boss, who was sipping on an amaretto milkshake blended with ground Corn Pops, sweet corn, and honey. “For a guy who’s not in the business, he’s got a lot of fantastic ideas.”
“I cook at home,” said John, “You know, and after talking to Robert here, we were thinking — yeah, the cereal idea’s great, but let’s take it to the next level. Let’s use it as a jumping off point. We’re gonna blow some minds with this thing here!”
Gorenfeld’s manager, a bearded little gnome of a man, scowled. “But… we’d had it all figured out,” he said. “We weren’t going to go elaborate with it, we were going to do it unironically and pocket the difference between breakfast cereal and the people who paid for it.”
“Yeah,” said John, “but Robert here got me thinking — is that really sustainable? In the long run? Yeah, you got your tourist crowd that might jump on it as flavor of the month or whatever, but why not — why not ‘baffle expectations,’ right?”
Robertson smiled. “Exactly right, man. Exactly right.”
“We’re way over budget,” growled the gnome.
“Eh, whatever,” said Giambese. “We’re going to open this thing up, snare some good reviews, and ride it where it takes us, right? You guys aren’t going to pussy out on this, are you? Not with your name attached to it, right?”
“That’s the beautiful thing about this,” muttered Schulz. “At least Gorenfeld’s a step removed from the place.”
“Nu-uh,” said Giambese, producing his iPhone. “Check this out.” After a moment of fumbling, he brought up a page from a New Amsterdam food blog entitled “Gorenfeld’s Dirty Little Cereal Secret.”
“Goddammit,” snapped Schulz.
“Funny stuff,” said Robertson. “So we all have something to lose. Let’s make this a good opening. Hey, hello there,” he added, spotting Lastri. “I’m going to take a moment, if that’s OK, guys.”
Robertson drifted away from the pair and took Lastri’s arm as he guided her toward the milkshake stand, which was designed to look like stained glass chapel, in keeping with the restaurant’s overall low-key medieval-chic vibe.
“Good to see you,” he said. “I fucking hate these things.”
“You do?” she asked. “You seem perfectly at ease.”
“That just because I’m pissing off Gorenfeld. I think I’ve already run him $200K into the red, based on his initial budget projections.”
“Ha!” laughed Lastri. “I love it. But what are you going to do when your clever plan to ruin him from the inside runs aground because the restaurant is actually a success?”
“You think it will be?” asked Robertson, a bit skeptical. He glanced around the room. People were enthusiastic about the food. The kitchen was almost out of Bay Scallops, and it was only eight o’clock.
“I think it will be,” she said. “You guys have done a brilliant job setting low expectations. Every critic in the city is going to come in loaded for bear, and if you provide food that doesn’t totally insult them, they’ll leave thinking you walked on water.”
“Huh,” said Robertson. “Well, it’s a start, anyway. I’ll figure out where the payback happens at some point.”
“What’s the –” Lastri began to ask, but Jon Kaplan bound over from across the room, impeccably dressed in a black tuxedo and carrying a milkshake in each hand.
“Robert!” he said, enthusiastically. “You dick-eating bastard! This stuff is great! I thought the point was to take the job and embarrass Gorenfeld!” He suddenly lowered his volume, looking around conspiratorially. “Ah, shit.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Robertson. “I don’t really know what’s going on. All I really know is that this probably won’t destroy my reputation, although sometimes it occurs to me that that might make life easier. I could just ship out to Minnesota or Wisconsin and make potatoes and T-bones in some supper club somewhere. Maybe Stillwater, or Door County.”
“Longing for the provinces?” asked Lastri, amused. “Isn’t the whole point of being here not being there? To some extent?”
“Lastri,” said Robertson, taking an unamused tone, “this is Jon Kaplan, the head bartender at Kami.”
“Charmed,” said Kaplan, taking her hand momentarily.
“You’re the guy…” began Lastri. “You used to work at Hibbard, Philips, and Davis, right?”
“Yeah, that was me,” said Jon, using a spoon to snaffle up a mouthful of mango balsamic / coconut / Fruity Pebbles shake. “Thank God that’s done with.”
“Unconventional career arc,” said Lastri.
“No such thing as a conventional career arc where that kind of thing is concerned. At a certain point, you’ve had enough of numbers and miss talking to people. And on some nights, bartending provides that.”
“And on other nights?”
“I still get to contemplate the wretched state of the human condition from a choice vantage point. It’s fun stuff! Well, I’ll leave you two guys… I’ve got a lady to see and two… well, almost one and a half milkshakes to share…”
A series of staffers, accountants, “friends” of Giambese, guest bloggers and journalists, PR people, and other assorted attendees began shuffling up to Robertson in series, asking for and receiving various bits of information, encouragement, and gastronomic insight. An hour later, the stream dropped to a trickle. Robertson was gratified to see that Lastri was still at his side.
“Fuuuuck,” said Robertson. “Do you think I can leave yet?”
“You can do whatever you want,” said Lastri. “That may be the single least appreciated great insight about life. Sometimes you face consequences, but, ultimately, it’s nice to be free. And you put in about 85 more minutes on that stuff than I would’ve, so I’ve got to hand it to you. I’ve got a car waiting, would you like a ride home?”
“I’d like a ride somewhere,” said Robertson. “To be honest, I’m wound up. Are you game for a drink?”
“Absolutely!” said Lastri. “I know a great place.”