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.
Back in New Amsterdam, Robertson cleaned his apartment. It took 48 hours, with breaks for sleep, take-out Chinese food, alcohol, and a consultation with On Food and Cooking about the gyokuro tea sent to him as a gift by Lastri. The goal was to figure out why he should care about the gift. “Huh,” he grunted. The Japanese green tea was made from shoots covered by bamboo boxes and almost completely shaded in the two weeks before harvest, leading to violet notes of flavor.
He tried it one-to-one against Lipton with milk and sugar, and preferred the Lipton. He threw the metal tin into the trash. He walked away, purposefully. He walked back to the trash. He took the tin back out of the trash and put it on the counter. He turned around, turned around again to face it, scowled at it, and threw it back into the trash. Moments passed. He paced the room. He withdrew the tin from the trash again, rooted around in his food cabinet and buried it near the back. He sat down, and looked at his apartment. Clean. Books organized. Counters empty.
“Damn,” he said quietly. He hadn’t worked for months, and hadn’t needed to — his expenses were low (by New Amsterdam standards), his bank account relatively full of money laying dormant, lazily stretching out and filling up zeroes.
The phone rang — the ringtone was “Uncomplicated,” by Elvis Costello. Lastri — one of maybe five people to rate their own ring. She was, no doubt, following up on her gift. Or something.
Impulsively, bored into a stupor by two days of cleaning, he picked up the phone.
“You!” she said. “Hello you! Did you get the tea? What did you think? It’s good, right?”
“I prefer Lipton with milk and sugar,” he said. “What are you up to, this time?”
“Up to?” asked Lastri. “You are so cynical. You are SO cynical! You disappoint me! The one thing I learn from doing business here, in America, is that people really just want a chance to work hard and prove themselves… and that people are basically honest. You know, you talk to a dozen businessmen and you will meet at least 11 people who you can trust. Maybe 12. It is a wonderful country! I just want to do good for myself and my community!”
Robertson laughed warmly. “I like you too, Lastri. What the hell is up, seriously. If it encourages you to cut through the bullshit, I am bored out of my skull. I keep getting pitched chump-ass projects I could do in my sleep. I am willing to bet that whatever you’ve got isn’t boring.”
“You know what isn’t boring,” purred Lastri, “is me taking you to Tokyo and us just doing a fuckload of great raw fish, and some of the world’s best restaurants, and then crazy hotel sex. Good hotel sex.”
Robertson rubbed his temples.
“You are doing that thing where you rub your forehead, aren’t you,” she said, a statement, not a question.
Robertson sighed audibly.
“What is it with you that you are such a lifeless sack,” said Lastri. “Seriously, if I had not seen your nuts I would assume you lost them in a frying accident at some point. Maybe they are replacements. Have you seen those? For pets? Little fake plastic balls you can the vet put in to remind your pet that he is still a virile little male guy even though he has no balls? Hello? Hello?”
Robertson was holding the phone at arm’s length, over the open trashcan.
“Okay!” Lastri yelled. “Okay, I am back. Okay. So, here is the deal. Are you there?”
“I’m here,” said Robertson, begrudgingly.
“Okay. I have this investor, from Japan. Speaking of Tokyo… yes, I’ll stick with it. He went to school in the US, at Wesleyan or something like that. It doesn’t matter, it’s stupid. Anyway, he picked up a love of Nero Wolfe novels. You talked about those, right? I don’t remember.”
“Yep,” said Robertson. He glanced up at his bookcase, which had a dedicated Rex Stout shelf.
“As far as I can tell they are middlebrow detective novels with a lot of old food in them, but whatever. Anyway, here is the thing. He’s coming to New Amsterdam in a couple weeks, and I want to surprise him.”
“I’m not doing anything that requires me to dress in a costume.”
“You didn’t really want me to…”
“I wanted you to dress like Fritz the cook!” she said excitedly. “It would be so fun! And I would dress up like a femme fatale…”
“Fritz doesn’t get the girl,” said Robertson. “That’s more Archie’s territory.”
“OK, you dress as Archie then.”
“Lastri,” said Robertson. “I know that somewhere you’re driving at something here. How the hell do you get all your shit done when you have 25-minute conversations like this?”
Lastri laughed, hard. “I know! I know! If you could just see Ben right now… he’s all: ‘Ooh, I am so uptight and angry but I cannot look angry so I am going to look all blank faced!'”
“Fuck you,” said Ben, quietly but not without humor, just loud enough for Robertson to hear.
“Anyway,” said Lastri. “I want to pay you to put on a Nero Wolfe dinner. Stuff from the books. Pheasants and aspic and that kind of crap. I will pay you $5,000 and all the costs you need for ingredients and incidentals. $6,000 if you dress up.”
“Maximum $3000 on expenses,” Robertson heard Ben say sternly toward the phone. “I’m serious.”
“Would you pay for wardrobe expenses?” asked Robertson.
“Yes!” said Lastri.
“No,” said Ben, audibly. Lastri said something to Ben in Chinese that didn’t sound like a compliment.
“I’ll think about it,” Robertson said.
“Oh this is wonderful! He will love this! Let’s have a planning meeting! I’ll see you tomorrow night! Wherever… I’ll send someone to come get you. Ben, send someone to go get him.”
The phone went dead. Robertson’s tea was cold. He grabbed his Black Bottle, “The Blend With The Heart Of Islay,” and poured himself a finger of the stuff, which he drank neat.