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 had a vivid dream one night. It started, more or less, with a map of Asia, centered on Pakistan and India. He was, he understood, walking across the breadth of India, starting from the Pakistan-India border. He’d moved from cold and mountainous terrain into a part of the country that was jungle hot, clad in vines and awash in monkeys. He stopped at an open-air market, and, with very little consideration, purchased the head of a boar.
He slung the boar’s head over his shoulder, with the understanding that — somehow — he would extract from it guanciale to fuel him on his journey. In the dream, this made perfect sense.
He hiked down into a ravine — no longer sure of his direction or location — and found an old picnic table covered in a tapestry of hundreds of small, multicolored snakes that he understood to be harmless. He waved the boar’s head at them, and they slithered off. He put the head on the table, and only then realized that there was a recipe carved into the wood in a meticulous hand. The words were in some unknown language (the Devanagari alphabet of Hindi, perhaps?) but he could somehow tease out the meaning. The recipe was for curry, but he didn’t approve of it. It was too much, too many spices, too many steps — he knew he could simplify it.
A snake with a man’s head slithered out of the jungle, wielding machete-like blades in each of its six hands. It pored over the recipe with Robertson and offered some advice. Robertson didn’t catch every syllable, but the gist of it seemed to be that you could use instant coffee and potato buds to surprising effect.
Robertson felt skeptical, but, considering the source, didn’t feel like he was in a position to argue. He handed the boar’s head to the snake / man, who traded him two machetes. Robertson strapped the blades onto his back and moved onward.
Some other things happened: a crowded a bus ride. A McDonald’s where all the food was colored black — the fries, the buns, the meat, the condiments. Fireworks at night, all green and white. At the end of the dream, Robertson found himself alone, at the bottom of a 10-story-tall tree with long, outstretched arms, an American road atlas in his lap.
“I’ve been working on a cocktail called Grounds for Divorce,” said Kaplan, grinning.
“Nice,” said Robertson. “What’s in it?”
“Coffee,” said Jon. “Plus cinnamon schnapps, scalded milk, and amaretto, in half, and whisky plus simple syrup in the other. Served in two glasses.”
“What a mess,” said Robertson.
“I know, right?” said Kaplan.
The two had talked for an hour or two, the main topic being Robertson’s next career move. Grounds for Divorce did not sit with him well.
“What are you trying to accomplish?” asked Kaplan. “It seems to me that most of your current predicament is predicated on the fact that you don’t have any fucking idea what you’re doing. You take jobs on a whim, and you leave them the same way. You’ve pretty much got a reputation as the most talented and unreliable person in the New Amsterdam culinary scene, which really cuts both ways. Also, it’s an achievement unto itself. A dubious achievement, but I’m still impressed.”
“I saw an internship for an organic farm upstate,” said Robertson. “You put in, you know, 10 hour days and just work the earth. They teach you about growing produce from the ground up.”
“Oh, that’s an interesting idea,” said Kaplan, pouring a finger of single malt for Robertson. “Rather than taking a conventional job where you are head chef of an interesting restaurant in one of the world’s three most cosmopolitan cities, you warp back to the 14th Century and basically become someone else’s personal slave. Sounds like a great idea. This is Oban, it’s got a nice sweetness mixed with a spicy kick. Not my favorite, but it’s a nice change from that pure peat-and-smoke stuff you’re always drinking.”
Robertson sipped the Scotch. “It’s not bad,” he said. “Suits my mood somehow.”
“Of course it does,” said Kaplan. “So, let’s skip this retarded farming thing. Why don’t you get some backers to let you do your own place your own way? I know, I know, money always comes with strings, but I bet we could make it happen. I know some people, actually…”
“What about it? Money? Stimulation? Intelligent and discriminating customers? Best ingredients in the country?”
“Rats? Roaches? Backstabbing? Crowds everywhere?”
“All part of the charm,” said Kaplan. “Seriously, man, organic farming is pretty much the dumbest idea you’ve ever come up with, and that’s saying a lot. I know I can get you started on whatever within three months, let’s just start doing some door-knocking. I bet I can get you a preliminary meeting within a week.”
“Nah,” said Robertson. “Thank you, really, thank you a lot. I appreciate it. But I gotta get out of here for a while.”
Robertson left the bar feeling as though he’d made up his mind. He went home, went to sleep, had a dream, woke up, and felt considerably less sure. He called the farm. The phone rang, and rang. He was about to hang up, when, on ring nine, a man answered.
“Hello,” said Robertson. “Is this Briar Hill Organics?”
“Yep,” said the man. “This is Mike.”
“Are you still looking for interns for this summer?”
“Depends,” said the man. “What’s your story?”
“I’ve opened up 23 restaurants as executive chef,” said Robertson. “I’ve worked with ingredients from all over the world, juggled multi-million budgets, and cooked my way through just about every classic dish that exists. I’ve never grown a damn thing in my life. Just seems like maybe that’s an oversight. I’m a good worker, and I suspect I’d be of help to you.”
“That’s a good story,” said Mike. “It’s February 15 now. Can you start March 1? We’ve got lodging on the farm, and we handle food, etc., plus we pay a small stipend.”
“Keep the stipend,” said Robertson. “Think of that as my tuition. I just want to work and figure out what’s going on.”
“OK. We’ll see you March 1. Just show up sometime that morning, we’ll get you situated, and you can help us with seedling transplantation.”
“OK,” said Robertson. He ended the call, and sat down at his desk, and starting Googling anything he could find about farming. It turned out to be a pretty broad topic.