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.
The Last Bit of Milk was, despite Robertson’s best efforts to spend it into the ground, doing OK. The finance gnome was setting the prices, the laws of buzz, supply, and demand were ensuring that people continued to pay those prices, and a strange uneasy truce ruled the day. Gorenfeld had hoped to ruin Robertson’s reputation, but failed. Robertson had hoped to ruin Gorenfeld’s finances, but in the process of saving his reputation, he had also failed. The finance gnome wanted Robertson fired, but understood that his talent and the shining of his chef star meant that would ultimately likely cost more money than it saved. Just about the only person happy was John Giambese.
Robertson waved back from the open kitchen and went back to searing a Fruit Loops-crusted poulet rouge chicken breast that would eventually be stuffed with aged domestic goat cheese and plumped dry apricots. “Christ,” he muttered under his breath.
Things had progressed with Lastri. They were seeing one another weekly, more or less. Once, on a rare weekend off, she flew him to Dubai. They’d had a really good fight; she had pressed him to quit and work for her, or, as she’d put it:
“You don’t even have to work at all. Cook for me, be my chef. Hang out with me. Travel a bit. You might have fun! I think we would have fun!”
“Can’t,” said Robertson. “Won’t, can’t. Got this situation with the Last Bit of Milk. I gotta figure out a way out.”
“I can …”
“For fuck’s sake,” Robertson said. “This is something I need to work out. And I don’t want to not work.”
“Oh, poor baby…” said Lastri. “If you don’t work, what do you do? Do you stop existing? Do you just curl up into a little ball?”
“Fuck you!” Robertson said. “Fuck you!” He stomped out of the hotel suite, something which took a lot longer than he’d planned, due to the sheer square footage. He strode toward the elevator. “What the fuck you going to do?” yelled Lastri. “Walk home? Get back here!”
He flipped her off, pushed his way past the Indian doorman, and grunted “lobby.”
Within five minutes of stomping into the oven-hot streets of Dubai, he realized that stomping around was pointless. “I might as well,” he said to himself, quietly, “be on Mars.” The buildings were tall, modern, gorgeous. Millions, if not billions of dollars worth of people sloshed through the streets, many of them attended to by virtual slaves imported from Bangladesh or India. There was still a touch of the ancient desert about the place that gave Robert the willies. In every possible way, this was the furthest he’d ever been from home.
“What would you like, sir?” asked the bartender, in flawless English. Robertson glanced at the bottles.
“Brandy,” he said. “Something I won’t forget.”
The brandy the bartender came up with was a Torres Jaime I. It came in a spiral-cut bottle, and tasted of mellow caramel and orange marmalade. The kick was smooth but powerful.
24 hours later, Robertson was back in New Amsterdam. The jet ride back had been quiet. Lastri had glowered and sulked; Robertson had tried his best to sleep.
A couple weeks went by after they parted ways, and he was fairly confident that she’d left his life.
“Non violently!” Kaplan had exulted one night while the two lounged in a plush craft beer bar. They were talking over a couple bottles of Avery Beast Grand Cru, a most peculiar dessert beer that somehow had the nose of a Caribbean rum drunk. “That’s great, man! She’s supposed to do some crazy shit, sometimes. I know her company has a budget line item just to settle lawsuits aimed at her personally. Battery, sexual assault, kicking the shit of out some guy’s Jaguar E-Type… throwing drinks on people… often good drinks… man, there was a shareholder’s meeting, an informal one, really a pre-meeting, where she chucked — I’m not kidding — a whole bottle of 1947 Cheval Blanc at an analyst’s head… a three liter bottle! I would’ve bet against her being able to lift it, but she really whipped it…”
“Yeah, yeah,” said Robertson. “I’m well aware of her temperament. Christ. You’re right though, it’s a goddamn blessing. She almost left me in Dubai and had me arrested, I swear on all that’s holy. Did you know she speaks Arabic?”
“I’m not surprised,” said Kaplan. “Anyway, to freedom.” The men clinked their Averys and sat back in their plush leather chairs.
48 hours passed, and Lastri walked into The Last Bit of Milk at the end of Robertson’s shift.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “How are you?”
“More like: ‘How are you, boss!'” she exclaimed, a bit giddy. Tonight she was wearing some kind of ridiculous sequined white angora sweater and an insufficiently long skirt. Ben trailed her, flipping through a stack of paperwork, pen clutched in his mouth.
“Ben,” said Robertson. “Tell me that she didn’t buy this place.”
“I can tell you that,” said Ben, “but it wouldn’t be true. Gorenfeld was pleased to get out of this with his street rep and nut intact, and Giambese, it turns out, likes money. I still say we overpaid.”
“I quit,” said Robertson.
“What!” shouted Lastri.
“You can’t work for a woman!” yelled Lastri. The five or so employees still left in the place looked over nervously. Robertson put his face in his hand. “You can’t work for a woman!” Lastri yelled again. “You’re such a stupid country piece of shit, you can’t see that I am running circles around my dogshit competition! You run with me, and we kick their asses!”
“You can’t — fuck,” said Robertson. He paused. Lastri was staring at him, seething. Ben shrugged, not even apologetically — Robertson was no longer a civilian, as far as he was concerned. “You can’t own me,” said Robertson. “I’m not a toy. I am a motherfucking chef. I cook, I hire and fire, I write menus, that’s pretty much the stuff I do. I totally respect what you do, Lastri. Your restaurants are solid. You push your people hard, but you reward them. But –” Robertson looked around the place. “Ah, fuck it, we’ve fucked, everyone knows that. What we’ve got is –”
Lastri broke a plate on the floor and stared at him. “There,” she said. “I broke my plate. You want me to break more? Just keep up with your stupid ‘wah wah wah’ I can’t work for a woman because I’m such a pussy that my dick will fall off if I feel like I’m not in control for 10 seconds!”
“Can we can continue this –”
Lastri threw an oversized bowl, half full of food, at a display of candles. “You shit, you can’t quit! Why you fuck up your reputation like this? You will never work again! I will bury you until you can only get a job at Perkins reheating that shitty garbage that rats in laboratories won’t even eat because it is not made of food! You will fucking kill yourself!”
Ben poured some water over the napkin fire that Lastri had started. The employees had huddled up near the kitchen and were chatting quietly. Someone giggled, and Lastri whipped a plate in the direction of the group, which scattered.
“Whoever I threw that plate at, you are fired!” yelled Lastri. “You giggling cunt, hee hee hee, go find a new job!”
“Seriously?” asked Ben.
“You fucking believe I am serious, Ben,” she said, momentarily calm. “Robertson, you quit, I fire all these fucks who work here. I burn this place down. Ben can we get permits to burn this place…”
“No,” said Ben.
“Lastri,” said Robertson. “Hold on. Let me try this again. You’re a — no, that won’t work. I’ll tell you what a special lady you are some other time.”
“You can tell me now!” said Lastri, brightly, suddenly smiling.
“You’re a very special lady,” said Robertson. “You’re a brilliant, funny, hard-charging crazy bitch, and I am very very fond of you.”
“Thank you!” she smiled. “I will see you at work tomorrow! Whenever you like!”
“No! I won’t!” said Robertson, picking up her bubbly inflection. “I honestly, really, totally have to quit. If you want to take that out on innocent bystanders, that’s on your head and conscience. Yours too, Ben. Don’t be such a fucking lackey.”
“Does it work for me? Yes,” said Ben, quietly sending out a text message to his own underling, ordering the “Robertson Quits” hiring contingency plan to be swung into effect immediately.
“Lastri,” said Robertson, “buying this restaurant so you would effectively buy me was really sweet. It was really stupid, and I’m sure you knew it wouldn’t work, but if you goal was to charm the hell out of me, I am charmed. And I will miss you, momentarily, as I throw my little bowl-esque chef hat to the ground, go back to the kitchen to get my knife, and then walk out the front door.”
“Dammit,” said Lastri. And Robertson did just that: hat, knives, beeline for the door.
“Can I kiss you goodbye?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Lastri, cross. “I hate you,” she added. They kissed. They both held on a minute too long. And then he was gone.
“We got a new guy lined up,” said Ben. “It’s that McMahon guy I was telling you about. He’s a lot more docile.”
“Yeah, great,” said Lastri. “Fuck it. Let’s get something to eat.”