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 arrived at a private room on some mystery floor of Archipelago with a copy of The Nero Wolfe Cookbook tucked under his arm. The small grey book was the pure gastronomic juice of the Rex Stout books, extracted and reduced into a compact series of excerpts, recipes, and musings on food. He was pleased to see that Lastri had one, too, in front of her and to the right of a half-finished bottle of vintage wine. He was surprised that, upon entering the room, he’d blundered into an argument about the price of the wine between Lastri and her assistant, Ben.
“… all I’m saying is that $4,000 for a weeknight business meeting is the kind of thing…”
“Blah blah blah!” said Lastri. “We are high rolling gamblers in the casino of life, and that does not call for wine of shitty quality! It calls for…” here she squinted at the bottle “…Screaming Eagle! Anyway, shut up. Hi, Robert! So good to see you!”
She gave him a big hug, and he patted her on the back a bit before disconnecting and sitting down across from her.
“So, there is some good stuff that I think we can work with here,” said Lastri. “I’m getting more excited about this dinner. I was just sort of phoning it in, I guess, but now we’re up to 25 people and I think it’s going to be a party. Have you read the cookbook yet?”
“I like this part,” said Lastri, reading from the book. “It’s by Fritz Brenner the cook.”
“I know who Fritz is,” said Robertson, quietly and with only a dash of irritation.
“The facts about food and cooking can be learned and understood by anyone with good sense, but if the feeling of the art of cooking is not in your blood and bones the most you can expect is that what you put on your table will be mangeable,” she read. “If it is sometimes mémorable that will be only good luck. Mr. Wolfe says that the secrets of the art of great cooking, like those of any art, are not in the brain. He says that no one knows where they are.”
She smiled. “Remember when you made me that mie goreng? That was supposed to be Indonesian, because you saw it in Better Homes and Gardens or Cooking for Dummies or whatever, and they were all like: ‘Blah blah this is Indonesian, Indonesia is a country with a lot of islands and you can buy everything you need at your local Cub Foods grocery store in Indiana’?”
“Yeah,” said Robertson, “you liked it.”
“I loved it. It was so wrong, you had everything wrong, but it didn’t matter — your stupid, wrong, reinvented fried noodles were supple and rich, your wrong meatballs were mindblowing… what was that, anyway? What the hell did you put in those? I forgot to ask because I was liking them too much.”
“Homemade chicken stock and foie gras. Just enough foie gras to lend it flavor…”
“Fuck me now!” said Lastri excitedly, clapping her hands for dramatic effect.
Ben rolled his eyes.
“Beats working for a law firm,” said Ben. “Just barely, though…”
“I don’t know, you just nail stuff. I love it. I know you’ll do great. Can you give me a sense of what you’ll be doing?”
“Uh,” said Robertson. “I’m not 100 percent sure. Some big main that impresses everyone. Maybe the Veal Bird in Casserole. Maybe pheasant. Saucisse minuit, if that’s not a big hit, I’m going to quit cooking and join the Marines. Some perfect pumpkin pies for dessert, I’m thinking.”
“I’ve never had a good pumpkin pie before,” said Lastri. “But I trust you!”
“Damn right,” said Robertson. “And odds are, if you think something is not very good, it’s only because you haven’t had the right version of it yet. I thought for a while that maybe tripe was the exception, but I’ve had to walk that back…”
“Because of here?” Lastri asked. Archipelago served a Soto Babat — a beef tripe soup — that had become known as one of the best renditions in the world, Indonesia included.
“Yeah, because of here,” said Robertson. “You guys don’t play around.”
Lastri smiled. “Not with the Soto Babat, anyway.”
“So,” said Robertson, “25 people. Not too bad. Anything else I should know?”
“You can use one of the kitchens here,” Lastri said. “We’re a little under-capacity right now, so you can have it for a few days ahead of time. Uhm, I don’t know! Normally, I would say: ‘Make it look effortless!’ But maybe for this dinner, make it look like it was not quite effortless?”
“Heh, it won’t be. That’ll make the illusion pretty easy to project.”
Rejecting an offer by Lastri to dip into another obscenely priced bottle, Robertson bid the duo good evening and headed home by cab, cookbook in hand, reading by the ambient light of the city.