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 only real hitch came about four months in, on a Monday morning. Things had been disappearing. A few days after Robertson conclusively figured out that the lack of truffle oil could no longer be explained by heavy-handed pouring or shady suppliers, Latini turned up. He’d been back in Italy for a few weeks, and his appearance caught Robertson off guard.
“Chef Latini!” said Robertson, as the Italian chef strolled into his office.
“Yes, hello, it is me, good to see you, wonderful to be back,” said Latini, clearly unhappy. “So, what is going on with inventory?”
“Ah, you’ve caught on to that.”
“We are seeing about $2,500 of unexplained cost overrun for the past two weeks, and that’s just since we have started looking into it. We’re not in this to make money, but we’re not here to piss it away, either.”
“I, uh, know. I’ve poked around a bit, but I’m not hearing anything useful.”
“Well,” said Latini, “look, this is clearly a problem. Or ‘issue,’ I guess you Americans don’t believe in problems anymore, is all ‘issues.’ Have you tried a camera?”
“It got disabled.”
“Watching the drug addicts?”
“I think I managed to not hire any… well… many, anyway. Whoever’s doing this is working after hours and doing a good job.”
“Well, what is our next move?”
“We’ll call an all-hands meeting for Wednesday.”
“OK. I look forward to it.” Latini strode out. Robertson rested his head in his hands for a minute, and then got up from his chair and started looking for a brick.
On Wednesday morning at around 9, the staff assembled: The waiters, the general manager, the assistant managers, the sous chefs and prep chefs, the hostesses and waitstaff, the janitorial staff — the whole 25-person gang, all shifts.
“Well, hello everybody. Thanks for making the time to be here,” said Robertson.
Robertson was pleasant. Icily pleasant. The craftier members of the kitchen crew cast unsettled glances at one another or stared persistently at the floor.
“Does anybody know what this is?” asked Robertson. He held up a brick. Nobody said anything. One prep cook opened his mouth to say something funny and everybody swiveled to look at him with mixes of dark curiosity and schadenfreude splashed smugly across their faces. He shut his mouth again.
“This is a brick,” said Robertson. He threw it to the floor. CrrAAAAK. The brick cracked on the concrete floor.
“It cracked,” he noted. “Now, you’re probably wondering how that connects with the reason I’ve called you all here today. It connects like this: It’s an object lesson in collective fucking punishment.”
He paused, and sat on a box of artichokes.
“I thought about saying something positive today, about how I’ve been a pleasant man to work for, or about how we should all be grateful to be part of this wonderful, if temporary restaurant. But it occurred to me that a bunch of horseshit like that won’t make much of an impact, so let’s take a little trip through time.”
Robertson pulled out a stick of spearmint gum and popped it in his mouth. He chewed slowly and thoughfully, swallowed deliberately, and picked up where he left off.
“Back in ancient China, the emperor would require all of the bricks in his tomb to be stamped with a seal of the village that made the brick. Now, barring earthquakes, if just one of those bricks broke — within a 100-year period — then the imperial army would visit the village and exterminate its inhabitants to the last child. The result of this was that the emperor’s tomb contained some very, very durable bricks.”
“Uh,” began Alfredo, a full-time waiter who was also a chemistry grad student, and was also something of a blossoming cokehead.
“Just arriving at that,” said Robertson. “Sometimes collective punishment works, if the terms are clear and the consequences are explicit. So let me tell everyone here about a little problem we’ve been having here. We’ve suffered thefts to the tune of about $5000 over the past two weeks. If it’s good, and it’s not nailed down, it’s walking out the door. The olive oil and parmesan I can kind of understand but we really needed that goddamned imported proscuitto, and who — who in their fucking right mind — takes an industrial food blender? You fucks. Jesus. You’re pissing in the mouth of Italy with this, you know that?”
There was a stony silence from the staff.
“I’m not here,” said Robertson, relaxing again, “to tell you that if you’ve been taking stuff that you’ll be prosecuted and fired. I understand everybody’s code of honor and all that, and clearly if I’m up here shaking my fists and making threats it’s because I don’t know what’s going on. But here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give you three options.”
“Option one,” said Robertson, “someone confesses to the thefts, anonymously or to my face, and repays the money. I’m putting the amount at $5K because I’m a nice guy. I’m sure there’s stuff missing that I haven’t seen yet. Under this sunny scenario, no one gets prosecuted or even fired.”
“Option two, someone rats out the thief or, more likely, thieves. If the rat was involved, he or she keeps his or her job and we don’t press charges, although good luck with your social life. The other people get fired, prosecuted, and — from what I heard from the embassy — reminded at inconvenient times of your crime, for like a decade so. This is a crime that will follow you for a long, long time.”
“Anyway, the clock’s ticking. Thanks for showing up. I expect to hear something really conclusive from someone among you by tomorrow morning.”
“Wait,” said Alfredo. “You said three options.”
“That’s right!” chimed in one of the waitresses.
“Oh, right, yeah, I did,” said Robertson. “If no one confesses — or no one rats out someone else — you’re all fired. All of you.”
The room exploded with indignation, finally setting down just enough for Alfredo to shout out: “What the fuck! You can’t fire all of us!”
“I can and will,” said Robertson. “I will close this place for three days, and fire and replace every last one of you unless someone steps up either confesses or indicts — using — hey SHUT UP” — the room went quiet again — “or points the finger at someone else using evidence that we can follow up on.”
There was a lot of excited chatter as the lecture was interpreted for the Italian- and Spanish-speaking contingent of the staff.
People began to drift out of the supply room in ones and twos, speaking in angry whispers, and casting suspicious glances.
“That was an interesting move,” said Latini, who had spent the duration of the meeting sitting quietly behind Robertson, backing him up with his physical presence.
“It’s foolproof,” said Robertson. “This should be wrapped up with an hour.”
Two minutes later, Alfredo walked back into the room. “I did it,” he said quietly.
“Drugs?” asked Robertson.
“Drugs,” affirmed Alfredo.
Another waiter dashed into the room. “Alf-” he began, stopping as he noticed Alfredo talking to Roberton. “Alfredo,” he tried again, “uh, I was just looking for you.”
“Thank you very much, helpful young man,” said Latini, waving bye-bye to the sheepish, retreating waiter. Alfredo kept his gaze directed at the floor, clenching and unclenching his fists.
“Drugs,” repeated Robertson. “How bad? Are you fucking melting down here? Do we need to get you help? Or are you just an enterprising fucking thief?”
“The other one…” said Alfredo. “Enterprising.”
“I want to not only prosecute you,” said Robertson, cooly, “but also kick your ass into that metal shelving unit. Does that compute for you?”
“Yes,” said Alfredo. “It computes.” He exuded the slow burn of rage common to the cornered criminal. Robertson had been hoping for more fear and gratitude.
“Good,” said Robertson. “Here’s the story. How much stuff do you think you still have? Dollarwise?”
“Ah, fuck, there’s a bunch of stuff I haven’t even moved yet… I probably got $3000 worth…”
“The blender?” asked Latini.
“No, sold that,”
“GodDAMMIT,” said Robertson. “You crazy sack of dicks. Anyway, here’s the story. In addition to your normal duties, you’re our new head of security. If anything else goes missing around here, it’s your ass — we prosecute you for this shit. If it doesn’t, and we ride out the next two months without serious incident — you’re golden. And I want you to get all that shit back here by midnight tonight. Everything you’ve got. Latini and I will tally it up and figure out what you owe, which will be promptly docked from your salary, plus vig.”
“WHAT?” said Alfredo.
“3 points,” added Robertson.
“I think that’s steep,” said Latini.
“Fuck 3 points,” said Alfredo.
“Fuck YOU!” said Robertson.
“Yeah,” conceded Alfredo. “Fuck me.”
“Fine, 2 points, that won’t be so bad,” said Robertson. “And that shit goes right back to… some Italian charity.”
“They’re building a memorial to Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino in my old hometown,” said Latini.
“Works for me,” said Robertson. “Who are those guys?”
“Heroes,” said Latini, leaving the room.
Alfredo took off. Robertson exhaled, and started digging around for the truffles he’d need for the next day’s dinner service. “DAMMIT!” he yelled.
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