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, Robertson was messing around with spent grain. A friend had homebrewed a Belgian dubbel, and left him with a trashbag of moist, malty, sweet bits of post-brew goodness. A first loaf of bread with spent grain baked into it had been a struggle — the grain’s additional moisture had required the addition of much flour to get the dough to the right consistency, which had, in turn, thrown the whole ratio off. The end product hadn’t been a disaster, but this time he figured he’d try adding the spent grain to the sponge, taking out a bit of water and flour and seeing what came out on the other end. He was just using a spatula to stir the water and grain into the flour and yeast when his phone rang. He glared at it. It was no one particularly good. But then he did something unexpected — he answered it.
“Hello?” he said, surprised to be on the phone with someone when he should be trying to make bread.
“Hello, is this Robert Robertson? This is the Italian Consulate. We would like to talk to you about a matter of life and death. It involves food, of course.”
Robertson didn’t know how to take this. “Hello?” he tried again, hoping that the string of words coming out of the phone would make more sense this time around.
“Hello?” asked the voice on the other end.
“Did you just say that you’re calling from the Italian Consulate?” Robertson asked, trying to get back to square one.
“Mr. Robertson,” said the voice, “My name is David D’Abruzzi, and I AM the consulate. At least until they appoint a new consul-general,” the voice added, lightly.
“Huh,” said Robertson. His eyes wandered back to The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.
“We would like to meet with you,” the consul-general tried again. “Silvio, our attache for cultural affairs, is opening a restaurant. It’s a little complicated. Would you meet Silvio at The Hammermill tomorrow morning around 9 for breakfast?”
“I’d rather not,” said Robertson. “I’ve got some bad blood with that place.”
“Ah, OK. How about… Brunch at the Bachelorette? We have a good table on the patio we can make use of. 10am?”
“Tomorrow? OK, see you there. Or the briefcase, whoever. I’ve got bread to attend to.”
Robertson hung up. He realized that he had a five hour wait before he could really get back to the bread, and he sort of wished he’d asked better questions as long as he had the consul-general on the phone.
He turned up the next morning at 10:20, bleary eyed and smoking a cigarette. A large, clean-shaven, chiseled blond man in his 40s wearing a crisp blue suit was sitting at the table wearing some kind of stupid neckerchief thing and drinking a tiny cup of coffee, somehow managing to pull it off and look good in the process. Next to him was a man of a similar age, but portly, a bit disheveled, scraggly black hair everywhere like a halo or mane, and radiating a sort of disinterested ennui as he picked his way through some sort of brochure about small motorscooters.
“Good morning,” said the blond man. “I am Silvio Hecht, the attache. Please have a seat.”
Robertson sat down, signaled a waiter for coffee, and made eye contact with the big guy to his right. “This is Chef Bruno Latini,” said Hecht.
“Good to meet you,” said the man, putting down his magazine.
The two men had ordered enough pastries for a Viking landing party and their assorted unpaid raiding interns.
“These look good,” said Robertson. Coffee had arrived. He bit into a croissant and was visibly pleased that it was the real deal. Flaky buttery layer after layer after layer melted into his mouth.
“Good stuff, right?” said the big man. Robertson nodded, suspiciously.
“So,” said the attache. “We’ve come up with an idea, and we want to bounce it off of you, if that’s OK.”
Robertson shrugged. “Sure, I’m intrigued.”
“Do you know ‘The Silver Spoon’?”
The Spoon, a 1263-page nearly comprehensive tome documenting Italian cooking in all 20 of the country’s regioni, occupied a place of honor on Robertson’s bookshelves.
Robertson grinned. “It’s a personal favorite. The Cannelloni Alla Besciamella is one of my big-time go-to closer dishes. I’ve been known to sub in pheasant for the veal… different dish, you know, but it works.”
Chef Latini frowned thoughtfully and nodded at the attache, who gave a blank look in return. Robertson noted that the man’s eyes sparkled, however.
“OK then,” said the attache. “We want to make a splash, you know — get people talking about Italian food again. Red sauce on meatballs and pizza is ancient history. Neapolitan pizza and ‘Tuscan’ stuff, you know, that’s getting old too. But there’s a lot in the Spoon that’s completely new around here. It’s the whole boot, Calabria up to Valle D’Aosta. Sicily too, I guess.”
“The idea is we open up a restaurant, and we have a chef literally cook his or her way through the Silver Spoon. Every morning, you know, wake up and say: ‘Lunch will be these four dishes; dinner these four over here, with these three items available as appetizers.’ No repeats, nothing omitted if we can help it. We get some high profile blogger to eat there every meal or something idiotic like that. We think it’ll be about 5-6 months, at 15 recipes a day, and you’ll get through the whole thing. We’ll pick up a nice space on a short-term lease, and just bang stuff out. Latini is the executive chef.”
“Ah, but here comes the nice part,” said Latini speaking with a distinct but intelligible Neapolitan accent. “I show up, you know, for week one and last week, maybe two weeks before last, and maybe a week in between somewhere, but people know we’ve got a good local guy working with me to get stuff done right. The teaching is part of it, I would be your mentor, you know, showing you the magical art of real Italian cuisine — so easy even American chefs can do it!”
The attache winced; Robertson grinned.
“The two of you already seem to be building a rapport,” observed the attache. “I’ll let you talk about whatever’s on your minds, and we’ll touch base about some sort of decision,” he said to Latini. “Chef Latini knows the financial details, and should be able to answer whatever questions you have about the project.”
The attache left.
“Two answers to that. You want the real answer or right answer.”
“Give me both,” said Latini.
“The right answer is that I can’t tell you what it means to ‘cook Italian’ because that’s like trying to tell you what it’s like to ‘cook Indian’ or ‘cook Chinese.’ The flavors, the preferred ingredients, the level and type of spices… the simplicity or complexity… it’s incredible. And the exciting thing about a project like this is that by the end, I might be able to give you an intelligent answer to that question.”
“That’s, yeah, OK, I can say that’s a right answer,” said Latini, nodding and pulling a cigarette out of a half-empty pack.
“The real answer is that it means I’m cooking for myself on a rainy weekend, and making my grandma’s red sauce, the gravy. Or pesto, dumb, simple, wonderful stuff that I can smear on Barilla spaghetti from the bodega. Pure comfort food for me. I mean, I can make pasta from scratch. I can and do make good pasta from scratch, particularly when there’s a woman involved. But where I grew up… ‘Cooking Italian’ meant you were kind of taking a break. I don’t mean that as a slight, but you asked, what does it mean to me.”
Latini nodded. “And I would call making a hamburger ‘cooking American,’ but I have learned that there are more things going on here than that. Sometimes.”
There was a long pause.
“So,” said Latini, looking pointedly at Robertson’s left hand. “Not married?”
“Ah, no,” said Robertson.
“Let me be honest with you, I am encourage by that. I don’t mean to be insulting. But a man without a wife…”
“Works harder?” offered up Robertson.
“More to prove. Is still figuring things out.” Latini took a drag off of his cigarette. A passing jogger, hair in a ponytail, iPod clipped to her waist, shot him a nasty look. He waved back cheerfully. “Marriage is the most underrated thing in this life.”
“You know, everybody — priests, TV hosts, whoever — they say good things about it in this way that tells everyone that it is slavery. Half your comedy on TV is just people bitching and bitching, you know… ‘My wife, she is fire breathing bitch!’ ‘Oh my husband, he is so stupid, he got his balls stuck in the dishwasher and put strawberry jam on his new shirt,’ you know that kind of thing. And then there is that fake ending, oh, they really love each other and marriage is good, but that’s not real — that’s bullshit, nobody believes it. What they believe is the fighting and stupidity.”
Another long drag from the cigarette.
“What is the message? Everybody talks all the time about how great marriage is but we know the truth, it is two people at war, cold war or hot war, whatever. Throwing pans or trading witty remarks. Bunch of bullshit you need to escape by going to Las Vegas and getting happy ending from well-dressed Asian hooker or shopping for whatever, the latest stupid Prada bag with a bunch of gossipy women.”
“Fair enough,” said Robertson.
“The true thing is, you marry well you are completed. You have your teammate, your friend, with you all the time. Of course, they get on your case and you yell at each other about whatever sometimes, stupid things. But somehow the world you are in… the cooking and everything… I don’t know…”
“The restaurants, the food…” supplied Robertson.
“Yeah, the money, the openings, whatever. That world, to you it does not mean the same,” said Latini. “It gets smaller, it seems like a game. The real thing, it is getting in bed with your wife at night and putting your hand on her side and thinking, good, she is mine, I am hers, now I can go to sleep.”
Robertson stared off into space, thoughtfully.
“I hate this shit,” said Latini, waving his hands around, indicating the streets, the buildings, New Amsterdam. “Not the city, it is a good city, but traveling. Being away from home. It is fucking stupid for me now but 10 years ago I loved it, went everywhere, Macau, Sydney, Bombay, Tokyo, Dubai, wherever. I work as much as I can from home now.”
“Don’t you miss — I mean, aren’t you retreating from what matters?” Robertson tore off a piece of croissant and popped it into his mouth.
“Who is to say what matters?” Latini said. “My wife, Angelica, she is having a baby in three months. My baby! We garden, you know, grow all kinds of things. I write a column for the newspaper, I do consulting, most of the time over email or the phone… I love it, it’s magical. Sometimes I don’t wake up until 9 or 10 in the morning and then I bake a good loaf of bread, and I look at the tomatoes and see how they are doing.”
“That sounds nice,” offered Robertson.
“Come on!” said Latini. “You are thinking: ‘Jesus Christ that sounds boring as hell I am glad I am doing what I’m doing, this guy has gone soft and is a sentimental dumbass.’ That’s OK with me. If you want to throw your life into this restaurant we’re talking about and really make it work, that is great, makes my life a little easier. If you mess up a lot I will have to fly back over from Italy and help you, or fire you, or whatever. Pain in the ass. Here is my dream: You take this position, they hire you, you do a very good job and I only have to come over one or two times after we open, and then I shake your hand six months from now and say: ‘Good job, you hard working son of a bitch’ and then wrap things up with a big dinner from someone, I don’t know who, maybe Berlusconi comes over and we all have a coffee together.”
“That sounds nice,” said Robertson.
“Maybe he’ll share a girlfriend with you, who knows, there are certainly a lot to share.”
“No thanks,” said Robertson.
“Ah, so you are single guy, but not an idiot, that’s always a plus. Keeps away the sexual lawsuits. Anyway, I think you will work out well, can you start next week? We have a couple spaces we are considering, and we want to build out and launch within a month.”
Robertson furrowed his brows.
“It’s OK,” said Latini. “We have money. And we have general contractor who is very, very… I guess the best way to put it is that people are very scared of him. He is, I would say, a ballbreak, but not in a funny way, at all. We will be working some very very long days for a while, but it’ll all come together. The PR people will have to work harder than us, all we have to do is get the whole staff together and sort through 2,000 recipes, you know not so bad.”
“Not so bad,” laughed Robertson. He shook Latini’s hand. “OK, I’m in. Oh, money.”
“Ha! Money, yes,” said Latini. “How does $12,000 a month sound with a $24,000 bonus if you survive? You’ll be sous chef de cuisine, but really executive chef most of the time while I play around with tomatoes outside of Naples and drink good cheap wine out of jugs.”
“That works for me.”
“Good,” said Latini. “I’ll clear it with the attache. He trusts me, the poor bastard.”