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.
“How are you, my friend?” said Kai Mannerheim, slapping Robertson on the back. “You look like a frozen piece of shit that has been jumped upon. Tread marks, everything.” Mannerheim was a stocky little man with a shock of white hair. He was in his thirties, but moved with the energy of a teenager and the precision of a commando.
“Ha,” said Robertson, weakly, slumping into his chair. It was 5:10am, and he’d gotten into the Hammermill by tapping on the glass until Mannerheim noticed.
“Here,” said Mannerheim. “I have an idea.” He returned with a pot of coffee, a cup, and a bottle of aquavit. “Coffee cuckoo, just for you, Sweden in a glass.”
He put a dime at the bottom of Robertson’s cup, and poured coffee over the coin until it was no longer visible. He then poured in aquavit until the coin reappeared.
Robertson slurped up a sip, and sat up a bit straighter in his chair.
“See?” said Mannerheim. “We’ll fix you up. Give me a few minutes, I’ll put some breakfast on the table for us.”
Robertson sipped at his coffee, appreciating the clarifying properties of both the beans and the alcohol. Soon Mannerheim reappeared with a couple of bowls, a couple of berry danishes, and a plate of something that looked like beef carpaccio. “Cold smoked reindeer from Salla,” said Mannerheim, gesturing at the meat. “Homemade blueberry soup with honey,” he said, gesturing at the bowls. “And these danishes are something I’ve been working on. Cloudberries and raspberries and some sweetened mascarpone from upstate.”
“Oh, man,” said Robertson. “You guys serving this stuff these days?”
“Ha!” said Mannerheim. “I wish, you know, if I had my own place, yeah, maybe. But Thursday’s got his own stupid ideas, and then Linneman throws in his own pussy-ass ideas, and the menu just turns into a mushy piece of shit. Goddamn breakfast burgers with chorizo and pesto. Chicken breast ‘breakfast pizza.’ God, it makes me want to take my own life in a violent fashion. Putting a microplaner up my dick or something.”
“You still cooking what you want at that Italy place?” asked Mannerheim, jealously.
“What you got lined up after that?” asked Mannerheim.
“I don’t know,” said Robertson. “I don’t even know if I care. I’m kind of hitting a wall here, you know, like every situation is just some new kind of stupid.”
“Yeah…” said Mannerheim.
“And, fuck, I don’t know,” said Robertson. “I was talking to my old girlfriend back home, and she was making fun of me for saying that happiness wasn’t really the point, and I got incredibly pissed off, and now I’m incredibly depressed.”
“About the girl, or about happiness, or what?”
“That’s just it, I don’t know. What’s the point of chasing happiness, right? You just get shat on. So, why not be good at something and take it seriously, and maybe eventually that brings you some kind of stability. Only it doesn’t. I just get bounced around like a… a fucking… I don’t know. Pick a thing. This danish is amazing. It’s so light.”
Mannerheim nodded, taking the compliment. “So. A lot of stories got passed down from great-grandfather to me, from the war. One of the things I heard about was machine gunners who literally went mad from the emotional exertion of killing so many Russian troops. You think it’s hard, you know, to kill a man. Imagine you kill hundreds. Literally hundreds, yourself. Putting the lead into them, hearing them scream, blowing holes through them. You know it’s important, it’s for your country, sure, but you are killing hundreds of human beings, and there really isn’t much they can do about it because their own idiotic government essentially sent them off to certain death.”
“Uh-huh,” said Robertson.
“Right,” said Mannerheim. “So, that’s a problem. You have a problem, too, that you are too successful and aren’t sure what you’re doing with your life, and have yet to pick a wife. I’m not making fun of you.”
“You are making fun of me,” said Robertson, enjoying his reindeer meat too much to be properly irritated.
“OK,” said Mannerheim, “I am making fun of you. But I’m not saying I don’t understand that you are really hurting, and are confused right now. But I am advocating some perspective. You know, that things could be much worse.”
“That’s true,” said Robertson.
“Maybe I could,” said Robertson. “But two things. One, we’re not making much money. Most people would look at the margins and say that there’d have to be so many changes I may as well get hired by Olive Garden. Two, I think Lastri would probably just swoop in and take a dump on my head, unless I was protected by someone big. And Thursday would just as soon take a dump on my head, too.”
“How about Wednesday?” asked Mannerheim.
“Maybe,” said Robertson. “I haven’t really gotten a bead on that guy yet.”
“No one ever does,” said Mannerheim. “That’s his deal. He doesn’t say a lot, and you don’t usually know his move until he’s made it. But you look at his team, and you gather two things about them. They are people who have been with him a long time — 10, 20 years sometimes. And they are mostly people who were nobodies before he acquired them. Sometimes he’s picked people basically out of cooking school and turned them into GMs, executive chefs on a year or two year fast-tracking curve and they’ve turned out brilliantly.”
“Well, that’s nice,” said Robertson. “I may be a little overexposed for him, then.”
“True enough,” said Mannerheim. “But you might want to sit down with him sometime and talk, anyway. And find a woman you can trust and who doesn’t bore the shit out of you.”
“Yeah,” said Robertson. “No problem.”
“Breakfast is on me,” said Mannerheim. “Come by whenever, it’s good to see your face around here.”
“Appreciate it,” said Robertson. “Maybe I will. The invitation is two-way, you know, at least as long as I have a restaurant.”
Mannerheim laughed. “You’ll have a restaurant, man, you’ll always have a restaurant. That’s not your problem. See you around.”