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 was halfway through plating the pheasant when the police showed up. “Hey, boss,” said the red-headed and earnest busboy that Robertson had deemed more or less reliable. “The police are here.”
“You mean ‘Lastri,’ right?” Robertson asked through clenched teeth. Lastri’s non-appearance had thrown Robertson into the awkward role of MCing someone else’s extremely expensive and painstakingly planned-out dinner. Kenji Ota, her fat, round, sarcastic Japanese Nero Wolfe-loving friend, had apparently passed through his Nero Wolfe phase; now it was all Battlestar Galactica, all the time. Ota found Robertson’s lovingly crafted saucisse minuit mildly amusing, but he was spending most of his time exalting a molecular gastronomy three-ring circus he’d ingested at a restaurant in Chicago. Ota left half his sausage on the plate, even as others at the table demanded seconds.
As a point of information: The ingredients of saucisse minuit include: onions, garlic, goose fat, brandy, red wine, beef broth, thyme, rosemary, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, bread crumbs, bacon, pork, goose, pheasant, salt, black pepper, pistachio nuts, and pigs’ intestines. No proportions were given in the recipe — “Mr. Berin told Wolfe that they should vary with the climate, the season, the temperaments involved, the dishes to be eaten before and after, and the wine to be served.”
Robertson had put a fair bit of work into figuring out the proportions. He stared at the uneaten half sausage with a baleful eye as it was toted back into the kitchen. “Whose was that?” he asked the busboy. “Ota’s,” the guy replied. “And, like I said, cops.”
Robertson, with great difficulty, resisted bringing a pheasant out of the kitchen and braining Ota in front of his nine or so friends.
The little bits and pieces of the ongoing disaster were starting to knit themselves together in Robertson’s head.
Lastri had left him a rambling and somewhat emotional message on his phone the night before, but he’d only listened to the first half of it, losing interest and reading a travel magazine article about the best way to serve and enjoy kangaroo meat. He suddenly pined for his phone, which was currently lost somewhere. As if on cue, one of the pheasants, finally on the way out to the dining room, rang.
“Shit,” said Robertson. “Hold it! Hold it, you, guy, you with the ringing pheasant. Fucking A. Did nobody see that thing fall into the stuffing? For real?” The room was silent. A couple of waiters stared him. One coughed nervously, trying to stifle a giggle.
“Yeah, it’s fucking funny,” said Robertson, digging into the bird to recover his phone. We don’t have a lot of extra birds left.”
The phone, roasted and covered in delicious juices, stopped ringing and went to voicemail. Robertson fielded the message: It was from Ben.
“Robert,” said the message, “the police headed are over to shut down the restaurant. I honestly don’t know what’s going on, but I think Lastri pissed off someone in the D.A.’s office, probably at a party. As far as I can tell, she’s lambing it in Jakarta, but God only knows. So she’s not showing up. I’ll try to make it over but… well, oh they’re here too.”
The message ended. Two cops in uniform, bemused, walked into the kitchen. “We’re shutting this down,” said the first one, older, stocky, mustachioed.
“No we’re not,” said Robertson. “We’re halfway through this dinner. I killed myself to put it together, and we’ve got about $3,000 of food yet to go. We’re shutting this down in an hour.”
“Look,” said the cop, emotionless and cool, “Don’t fucking talk back. We’re shutting this down, and if you want to be taken away for resisting arrest, that’s easy to do.”
“Do you understand what this is,” said Robertson to the cop, picking up the pheasant that had contained his phone. “This is a wild-caught pheasant that I marinated in a good dry Hungarian Tokay. It will be served on a bed of dried rice. Not serving isn’t an option. Give me 45… hell, 30 minutes here. I’ll serve the birds, then you can swoop in and do whatever you want.”
“Can’t do it,” said the cop, a bit of sympathy sweeping into his voice. “Look, I know you’re not the financial mastermind here, but a lot of people are going nuclear over the shit this woman pulled. Interrupting this dinner isn’t an accident. It’s over.”
“Fucking hell,” said Robertson under his breath.
“Hey!” came the voice of Kenji Ota, from the dining room. “Where’s my pheasant, you lazy chef!” There was a warm wave on enthusiastic laughter from the diners.
Robertson put his hands on his temples.
“Alright, look,” said Robertson to the cop. “I’m just going to take out this pie, then I’m out of here.” The cop shrugged. “Whatever, guy. Everyone else, call it a night. We’re emptying this place out.”
Robertson picked up a painstakingly made armagnac-maple pumpkin pie and carried it out into the dining room with all the dignity he could muster, and walked up to Ota.
“What is the hold up, man?” said Ota. “Lastri said you were good at what you do, but I haven’t seen much yet, I have to admit.”
“Well, we’ve hit a hitch,” said Robertson. “The cops are here, and they’re shutting down this dinner.”
“What? The cops? We’re not getting a main course?” Ota’s face fell. “What the fuck, man? We’re seriously not getting our pheasants?”
“No,” said Robertson regretfully, “you’re not. But you are getting dessert.”
He pushed the pie gently into Ota’s cherubic face, where it stuck tenaciously. Robertson left and hailed a cab, still wearing his apron. About 10 seconds later, Ota peeled the pie off of his face, taking his glasses with it.
“Can someone explain to me what just happened?” he asked.
“I think he quit for the night,” said the cop, emerging from the kitchen. “Everybody clear out, please.”