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.
What followed were six of the happiest months of Robertson’s life. Every day was a fundamentally new challenge. The resources were there. Latini usually wasn’t, and when he was, he stayed out of Robertson’s way — offering ideas, suggesting pointers, demonstrating techniques and approaches that Robertson hadn’t seen before, but acting more like a peer than a bullying demigod.
“You are not cooking that Italian enough,” he would say to Robertson, a lot. He would say it, in fact, every time he watched Robertson cooking anything, but tone said a lot — usually he was playing a character, or laughing, or sending himself up. A few times he said it sternly and stepped in to make a point — and Robertson listened.
A typical day’s menu might look like this:
Catalogna All’Aglio E Olio (Dandelion with Garlic and Olive Oil)
Involtini di Patate al Prosciutto (Ham and Potato Rolls)
Maltagliati Con La Zucca (Maltagliati pasta with pumpkin, nutmeg, and parmesan)
Fagiano Arrosto Ripieno (Stuffed Pot Roast Pheasant)
Amaretti Fritti (Amaretti Fritters)
Or like this:
Ravanelli Glassati (Glazed Radishes)
Polpette Al Brandy (Meatballs in Brandy)
Gnocchi di Patate Alle Noci (Walnut Gnocchi)
Agnello All’Araba (Arabian Lamb)
Anguria al Rum (Watermelon with Rum)
Or like this:
Granchio In Insalata (Crab Salad)
Scampi Alla Salvia (Langoustines with Sage)
Bigoli Alle Acciughe (Bigoli with Anchovies)
Storione Con Salsa Ai Peperoni (Sturgeon with Red Bell Pepper Sauce)
Gelato ai Frutti di Bosco (Fruits of the Forest Ice Cream)
Sometimes, courses hewed to a theme: a particular part of Italy, or style of food. Sometimes, they were arbitrary, determined by Robertson’s mood, or — more typically — a particularly fresh or interesting ingredient he was able to get his hands on.
Robertson had assumed that the schtick with Elena Henderson, the blogger, would wear thin in about 20 minutes, but he found himself liking her. She was quiet, and had long black hair that she styled a different way almost every night — a ponytail, swept into ebony waves, braided into some kind of Princess Leia-like formation. Sometimes it was just the barrettes or earrings that were different. After a few weeks, wherein they’d exchanged very little beyond pleasantries and an initial, somewhat stilted interview for her blog, he stopped by her table at the end of the day.
“How’d I do?” he asked.
“B+,” she said. This was good stuff. She had announced at the outset that she was holding him to his own standard — a bad day for Robertson was a passable day for most, but was still a D or F on her evaluation. One day he got an F- because her Rombo Con Salsa di Olive came out cold, and when she asked for it warmed up, it came back as Rombo allo Spumante because of an undetected cooking accident involving a spilled bottle of sparkling wine. Still, she conceded, it was edible. Good even. But a disappointment considering the circumstances. Most days were C+s or B-s. Robertson didn’t read the blog, but sometimes he’d ask her about it, or ask the waitstaff, who followed it regularly, waiting for themselves to appear under their noms de net — the Tall Warrior, the Tattoo Lady, Ms. Sunshine, Mr. Sunshine Junior, Caesar the Terrible, and so on.
“A B+, eh? What the hell does it take to get an A around here, huh?” He almost followed this up with an obscene proposition, but reined it in — not only was Elena married to a perfectly decent seeming guy, she had a tendency to post entire dialogues that entertained her verbatim. Accurately, but verbatim.
“Don’t ask,” said Elena. “You’d just get all stressed out if you knew.”
“Hey,” Robertson said, “Do you actually put some effort into looking different every time you’re in? I’ve noticed… I mean, you always have something a little different going.”
She smiled shyly. “Well, yeah. I mean. I don’t want you to get tired of me. I mean, that’s not exactly it. But if I’m going to be here for 180 nights, I may as well try to make each of them pop a little bit.”
“Doesn’t the food do that?” he asked.
“You know, I was going to say something mean, but I don’t want to have any nasty surprises turn up in my Riso In Insalata Al Curry.”
“You don’t have to worry about that,” said Robertson, adopting his best gentlemanly pose.
“Oh?” she asked.
“I served that two weeks ago, so you won’t be seeing it again. What you’ll need to worry about is something nasty turning up in your Uova Strapazzate Ai Carciofi.” He grinned. She whacked him with her napkin.