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.
When Robertson walked into the cocktail lounge, he was loaded for bear. In the week leading up to the week before the dinner, he’d been trying — with no success — to get a $2,500 cost overrun added to his budget. The item in question — 12 first-rate wild pheasants overnighted from the Dakotas and Montana so they could be properly aged out in a rented kitchen — wasn’t simply a luxury; it was key to the meal.
The pheasants were to be hung for 3 days, washed, cleaned, trussed, put into pots, covered with dry Hungarian Tokay (the other major player in the cost overrun in question), and then marinaded for 20 hours in a refrigerated room. Eventually they would be served on a bed of Minnesota wild rice and garnished with a ring of brandied kumquats. They were serious business. It wasn’t Robertson’s fault that they were neither cheap nor particularly easy to prepare — he blamed Nero Wolfe.
Ben Bratt, Lastri’s right-hand man, had dodged him. He’d failed to make Lastri’s new number available. He’d failed to return emails. Finally, at the 11th hour, he’d proposed a drink at a hotel lounge known for its martinis. When Robertson arrived, Ben was halfway through one — or three-quarters of the way through two. He had a feeling that it would be impossible to tell. Ben, dressed in a dark suit with a plaid pocket square, looked as composed as always, bookish with sharply creased edges, aggressively neutral, and confrontationally put together.
Robertson shook Ben’s hand, and ordered a martini from the 60-something bartender, who was in no mood to chat. “What he’s having,” he told the bartender, jabbing his thumb at Ben’s drink. What arrived was a gin martini with a splash — not a waft, not a rub, not a vaporized puff — of top-notch vermouth, plus olive. It was powerful.
“So,” said Robertson, taking his first big sip of the cocktail, and pleasantly reeling a little. “About my pheasants.”
“About your pheasants,” said Ben, coolly. “I have to tell you something.” He took a sip of his drink, then another, then he killed it and ordered a third. “I have to tell you something in confidence. I’m going to tell you this because whatever your damage, you’ve always struck me as honorable, and that’s something I pay attention to.”
“How flattering,” said Robertson.
“Don’t be pissy,” said Ben. “Look, I come from old money. Or what passes for it in the Americas, at any rate. If you want to know how old money gets to be old, here’s part of the secret: You get other people to pay for things, and you don’t pay for anything yourself if you can possibly avoid it. When my family goes on vacation, we go to a resort we own on the Baja peninsula. We own that resort because it’s profitable. We stay there when there are vacant rooms, and we write it off as a business expense. We get other people to pay for our plane tickets. I didn’t even see Tokyo until I was 16, and I had to go with family friends who were footing the bill.”
“Sounds like a tough upbringing,” said Robertson, his voice quivering with sympathy. “I can only imagine the grade of caviar you guys must’ve been stuck with at Christmastime. And I don’t even want to talk about the quality and thickness of the blini if you’re not comfortable with the topic. I’m sure you’re still dealing with the emotional fallout.”
Ben rubbed the bridge of his nose, jostling his $500 eyeglasses in the process.
“Look. Lastri — and I’ve told her this many, many times — Lastri has fallen into one of the biggest traps that new money can fall into, the trap of keeping up appearances. She leases private jets and pays the full rate. She hosts $100,000 dinner parties on the assumption that they’ll somehow lead to new business she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to snag. She flies her gigolos around the world on the company dime.”
“No offense taken,” said Robertson, a bit grimly.
“None intended,” said Ben, evenly. “But you get what I’m driving at. We’re… well, we’re in debt. Not, uh, good debt, really. To be perfectly honest, we’re fucked. At a certain point, I’m going to have to account for my actions, and so I’m holding the line — wherever I can. One place I can hold the line is here, this ridiculous dinner. I can’t get you your pheasants. I’m sorry.”
“Against my advice,” said Ben. “But yes.”
“OK, buy me those pheasants, and take it out of my fee.”
“Look, we can’t reimburse you after the fact, and if you talk to Lastri about it…”
“Don’t talk to her about it, and I won’t either. I don’t give a shit if I make 5 grand or 2.5. Or 1.5. Or zero. I’ve committed to do this thing, and I’m going to do it right. Are we cool? You raise my budget by $2,500, and you dock my fee to compensate?”
“Listen, you don’t have to do this. I’m sure I can make some calls… we can scrap together a grand or so and figure out a work-around…”
“At this point, there’s no work-around. I need those birds tomorrow — Tuesday at the latest — so I can age them out. I’m in touch with the supplier, he’s gathered the birds, and I need to give him the go-ahead to ship. Whatever your budget problems are, fine. I’m not going to cry any tears for you, but I’m not going to jam you up, either. Can I get my birds, or what?”
“Go for it,” said Ben, slurping into Martini Number Three. “Look, I’m sorry it’s coming down to this.”
“Me too,” said Robertson, paying the tab for both of them.
“Hey,” said Ben, “I could’ve…”
“No, no,” said Robertson, leaving a tip and walking out of the bar. “Old money never pays. I feel genuinely bad for you.”