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.
Lastri stepped into the street. She was 37 years old, a native of the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta, and rich as a Saudi oil prince. Her crown jewel was Archipelago, a 750-person capacity restaurant with eight kitchens that purported to serve every Indonesian dish worth talking about. Indonesian bigwigs and princelings would fly out regularly to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, and the staff could, with few exceptions, greet them in their preferred dialect. In addition, she held the leases on half the reputable restaurants in the real Chinatown, the Chinatown in the borough of Rockaway, the Chinatown that wasn’t cute and contained and easy to miss, but rather was the Chinatown that swallowed people alive and entombed them in the smelly, crazy, furiously alive gullet of the Mainland. Lastri had conquered Rockaway Chinatown, opened a series of lucrative Belgian beer bars, and bought up a number of well-positioned Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises while she was at it.
Because of the cost of fees and a uniform — about $50, US — Lastri had been taken out of school when she was 12, and sent to work as a hotel domestic in the city of Yogyakarta. There, she learned about how businessmen think.
Now, dressed in red silk brocade, she was staring at the intersection of 6th Ave. and 6th St., where Kami was scheduled to open. A work crew was wrestling with the sign, a kanji character done up in verdigris copper. She turned to Ben Bratt, her indispensible Yale man, impeccable in a dark suit that was so perfectly tailored that you would forget what it looked like before he’d even left your sight.
She pointed at the innocuous Greek diner operating across the street from Kami’s location.
“Yes,” he said, without bothering to check his iPhone.
“What if we renovated it, hired a serious chef, and gave it a full-on media push, all in time to match Kami’s planned date of opening?”
“Three months?” he asked.
“Thereabouts,” she said.
“We can do it. We cut into profit, we risk…”
“Doesn’t matter, it’ll be funny.” She grinned. “What’s Kami, Japanese? Japanese tapas, or something, like that even makes sense? Does Thursday even know?”
“Not a lot of evidence for that,” Ben said, wryly.
“Who’s the chef?” she asked.
“They say he’s bringing in a guy from Minneapolis. Robert T. Robertson.”
“Good?” she asked.
“Fine,” he said. “Loose cannon, but talented. Always gets results. Opens restaurants, gets solid reviews, makes money, wanders away.”
“So we need to bring in someone equally good for the Japanese tapas restaurant we’re opening across the street. Maybe… Robert T. Robertson?”
“I don’t unders–”
“Nevermind,” she grinned. “Just get me a meeting with the guy. And I want a press release about our place fired off by the end of the week. Thursday’s eating his own shit this time.”
Thursday’s cellphone rang while he was trying to concentrate on a game of poker and a $600 bottle of Bowmore 25 year Scotch. He wanted to ignore the phone, but had failed at his one and only gambit to ignore the thing, which was to lose it. Normally he succeeded in this, but tonight he was so drunk so early that he’d brought it along with him. Now he was irrationally angry at whomever was calling. He picked it up.
“Hello? I’m playing cards! Fuck you!”
“Best of luck to you,” said Robertson, sober, on the other end. “I’ve been summoned to a meeting tomorrow with a woman named Lastri. I thought I should tell you, since she seems to be in the restaurant game here. I’m only meeting her…”
“That hash-faced bint,” said Thursday, cheerfully and quietly. “That brown rice-eating acid cunt. How dare she. Fuck her face with a fork.”
“…I’m only meeting her to hear her out, because…”
“I know, I know,” said Thursday, far more sober than Robertson had expected. “I know. She put it to you in terms that were so intriguing and potentially lucrative that you couldn’t resist. Did you know… did you know she’s opening a Japanese place ACROSS THE STREET from us? From Kami?”
“I didn’t, but…”
“How dare she. She’s feeling flush… She KNEW Kami… hang on, I need to step away from this table. Don’t — someone else bet for me. I don’t know, eleven thousand. Hang on. OK. I’m back. Look, Robertson, it’s important that Kami works… It’s not life or death, but… for TNEG… the group…”
“Mr. Thursday,” said Robertson. “Did I sign a contract with you, or not?”
“You did, but…”
“I’ll tell you what I find out. See you this weekend. We’ll talk menu ideas. Big picture.”
Thursday hung up, went back to the game, and lost $124,000 and his watch.
To be fair: $75,000 of that was on a bad beat. The watch, too.