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.
Robertson always enjoyed the first minute or two of sensation that followed walking through the glass double doors of the East Buffet. The place was a blur of motion, the air was a blizzard of tonal syllables, the atmosphere was a tangle of scents. If you’re a guy who respects the power of the variable, thought Robertson, you’ve got to respect a serious dim sum house. Dozens of dishes, hundreds of ingredients, seemingly thousands of people, carts everywhere, endless transactions — trays of dumplings being tossed back and forth from cart to table, chopsticks being raised, lowered, jabbed, pushed away at meal’s end. He felt simultaneously lost in another world and utterly content, at home. He wandered toward the side of the restaurant, which contained a row of booths that could hold the local equivalent of small groups — six people or fewer.
He became momentarily distracted by a slim, angular woman with long dark hair, and noticed, startled, that it was Elena, his in-house blogger.
It took Robertson a moment to realize that a man was sitting across from her. The man was built like a quarterback, had immaculate sandy brown hair, came equipped with small expensive glasses, and was wearing pants that looked like operating scrubs. By the time Robertson was cognizant of the need to disengage, Elena made eye contact and spotted him. She bounced up and down in the booth a bit as she waved him over.
“Robert! Chef! Come on over! Sit with us! We’re just getting started!”
It was true — the only thing on their table was a humble metal pot full of tea.
Robertson’s brain whirled, looking for a graceful social exit. He had nothing. “Sure,” he said, “sure, OK.” He strolled over to the table, stepping deftly to the left of an oncoming cart.
“This is my husband David!” said Elena, enthusiastically. “David, this is Chef Robertson — the guy who I’ve been serially harassing online for the amusement of the masses.”
The two men shook hands and Robertson plunked himself down the booth, feeling a bit small and underdressed.
“So, Elena likes your cooking,” said David. “What’s your background?”
“White… Midwestern… what do you mean?”
“Oh, here and there. I get a lot of stuff out of books.”
“There isn’t always a formal path to education for chefs,” said Elena. “It’s often more of an apprenticeship thing.”
“True,” said Robertson. “I could list a bunch of places I’d worked, but it wouldn’t mean much — even the names you recognized wouldn’t mean much.”
“What do you mean?” asked David.
“So, let’s say there’s a big restaurant. A really big one. La Tour D’Argent in Paris, say. And you worked there.”
“OK,” said David.
“Well, what does that mean? Did you ever get past brunoising the carrots? Did the executive chef know your name? Is it a place famous for turning out world-killing superstars of cooking, or just grinding through the cogs? So, you know, I worked in this little place in Door County, in Wisconsin, for a while.”
The shumai cart came by and Robertson gestured a couple containers onto the table, plus some marinated tofu. The waiter stamped the table’s check and moved on.
“Anyway,” said Robertson, “it was kind of a shitty place. The tourist trade was June through September, maybe October, and we were just doing… stupid shit, blue cheese hamburgers, bacon pizzas, crap like that. But the owners, for some insane reason, didn’t close over the winter, and me the other guy there, Geoff, we just got to fuck around for six months. So we did. We started to collect a group of locals who would come in and order ‘the special’ of the day. And who the hell knows what that might be. We did a three course meal one time… scallion smoked lake trout, classic Eastern Chinese red-cooked pine-nut chicken, and Scotch eggs made with prosciutto and a Sriracha herbed house-made mayo. I think we charged $8 for that.”
Another cart came by — shrimp balls and spare ribs hit the table.
“So it was stupid, really — we’re up in Fish Creek at some absurd tourist trap, but we’ve got total creative freedom, infinite time, and the content of the freezer to play with. One time we did Pressed Duck — simmered and boned, flattened, coated and steamed, and then deep fried. What a pain in the ass, but what an awesome dish.”
“Are you a Chinese chef by training…?” asked Elena. “I didn’t know that.”
“No, not really — I mean, yeah, I guess, if by ‘training’ you mean ‘worked a Wisconsin winter in Door County cooking page by page out of Irene Kuo’s Key to Chinese Cooking.’ Does that count? I mean, probably not. It’s not like I was in Shanghai, it’s not like I was picking up tricks from a Chinese cook. I had to adapt to an American kitchen and an American supply chain in terms of meat and spices and produce. But now I know what I can do. And what works.”
“Huh,” said David. “So you didn’t go to school for it?”
“David’s got a thing about school,” said Elena. “He went to U-Penn, then Johns Hopkins.”
“I guess it’s a medical thing,” said David. “This idea that you need the best training to do the best job.”
“I totally agree,” said Robertson. “I just don’t think the best training for what I do necessarily comes from a school. You’ve got a couple really good cooking schools out there… but even those cost you a metric fuckton. Or you could get out and work, and read, and practice, and get good at what you do.”
“Robert’s very good at what he does,” said Elena, seriously. “He’s pretty much the go-to guy for restaurant openings at this point — I don’t think the country of Italy would have picked him as their go-to guy otherwise.”
“Fair enough,” said David, frowning a bit. Another waiter walked up, pushing a cart.
“How about the chicken feet?” asked David, gesturing over to the cart, which boasted several stacked containers full of the things.
“If you guys want,” said Robertson. “I’m kind of looking for bao and maybe more shumai…”
“Ooh, bao, exotic,” said David with a hint of sarcasm. “You really aren’t intrigued by the chicken feet?”
“That’s not fair…” said Elena, putting her hand on David’s shoulder.
“Oh, it’s completely fair,” said Robertson, shrugging. “Those who cook for a living should be able to get their heads around even the most alien concepts in food. That said, I’ve had chicken feet before.”
“And?” said David.
“And, well, if you like chewing on and then spitting out a foot, it’s great. I’ve had chicken hearts, too. If you’re into the taste of ventricles, again, great thing to order.”
“Isn’t just a case of having a closed mind? Projecting too many Western prejudices onto the food you’re eating?” asked David, mildly.
“I think you’re missing the point of being into food,” said Robertson. “I like to make and eat things that taste good, not things that freak people out. So, yeah, if I had a choice between a cow eyeball dumpling flavored with ras al hanout and a toasted sandwich containing a house-made sausage, herbs, and peppers, I’d opt for the latter. I don’t think it’s a cultural prejudice thing, I think it’s just a matter of not growing up in China, eating every possible part of the chicken.”
“Fair enough,” said Elena.
“I gotta jet,” said Robertson, throwing a twenty onto the table. “I gotta get set up at work…”
“Bye!” said Elena. “See you tonight!”
“You see more of her than I do,” said David, grumbling half-comically.
“You chose your own career, man,” said Robertson, grinning, turning on his heels to stroll out of the restaurant.