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.
Within minutes, Robertson’s phone was ringing. He ignored it and went to sleep. The next morning, he woke up late, restless, unhappy, pacing the apartment in his boxer shorts, too irritated to bother with coffee or cereal. For lack anything better to do, he checked his messages.
Journalist. Journalist. Journalist. Journalist. Then: Arthur Cho, from The New Amsterdam Journal.
“Robert, this is Arthur Cho from the Journal. Look, I know you’re probably besieged with questions about last night and whatever’s going on with Lastri. If I were you, I’d hide out for a few days or catch a plane to somewhere else and disappear. But if you decide to talk, I’m happy to give you as much anonymity as you want, or go completely off the record. I just want to get my head around the situation. Give me a call if you feel like it, otherwise take care.”
Certain that the other five messages were also from journalists — or possibly confused entreaties or demands from what was left of Lastri’s foundering empire — he hit the callback button on Cho’s message.
“This is Arthur Cho,” said the voice.
“Arthur, Robert Robertson here. Got your message. I’d like to talk.”
“Really? I mean, I wouldn’t expect you to…”
“No, I’m OK with talking, on the record and everything. Should we grab a coffee or something?”
They made arrangements. Here is what the article looked like when it appeared on the Web six hours later.
Q&A: Chef Robert Robertson and the Lastri Debacle
Early last night, Chef Robert Robertson working on a one-off basis to produce a high-end, Nero Wolfe-themed dinner for restaurant magnate Lastri, the woman behind Archipelago and a generous handful of other well-regarded New Amsterdam institutions.
Late last night, Robertson in a cab, headed home without finishing his dinner service. The police had shut down the restaurant; Lastri was unexpectedly abroad (a virtual fugitive by some accounts); and he’d put a pie in the face of the guest of honor. The dinner was a $5000 shambles.
Rumblings about Lastri’s financial troubles have echoed for months, but the eruption last night of a major legal campaign mounted by a group of creditors appears to have brought down her empire — calls to Archipelago are not being answered, police and lawyers have swarmed over various offies connected to her company, and Lastri herself has dropped off the grid. I talked to Robertson to get more insight into the dinner debacle specifically and the implosion of Lastri’s restaurant group more generally.
CHO: You worked closely with Lastri, on and off, for a couple of years. What was your assessment of her talents and character?
ROBERTSON: She was an interesting woman.
CHO: That’s a bland word…
ROBERTSON: It’s an understatement. She, well, she seemed to do everything on impulse. Opening restaurants, international travel, uh, just about everything. I never really comprehended how she kept it all together.
CHO: Apparently she didn’t.
ROBERTSON: Apparently not. She put out some great food, though. I don’t put much stock in awards and reviews, no offense, but Archipelago deserved what it got. She always hired good people.
CHO: Tell me about last night’s dinner. What were you cooking? Why?
ROBERTSON: Lastri got it into her head to impress a friend by hosting a major private dinner themed around the Rex Stout Nero Wolfe books. So, the trusting guy that I am, I agreed to put it together for her — none of her chefs were perfect fits for the style of cuisine and I know it pretty well. The plan was to do a meal revolving around a fairly elaborate presentation of roasted pheasant, the course we were preparing to plate when the cops showed up.
CHO: And they shut you down mid-service?
ROBERTSON: Someone was satisfying a grudge. I’d speculate, but it would be pointless.
CHO: What about the pie?
ROBERTSON: A moment of weakness. You put enough time and energy into something like this, and when it all falls apart… Well, let’s just say there are good times to criticize a chef and his cooking, and bad times.
CHO: Last night was bad.
ROBERTSON: Last night was bad. It’s not typical to have to deal with law enforcement in the middle of a service. A couple weeks of hard work and planning was flushing down the toilet before my eyes.
CHO: What kind of a pie did you put in your guest’s face?
ROBERTSON: Armagnac-maple pumpkin pie. I can pass the recipe along to your readers if they’re interested. The challenge is balancing the liquor and the maple syrup — it’s so easy to overdo the booze, and difficult to really make the maple sing out. But if you get the balance right, you get a rich, layered expression of autumn. Not too sweet, but definitely dessert. Definitely American, armagnac be damned.
CHO: So, when you —
ROBERTSON: Actually, the guy emailed me.
CHO: The guy you hit with the pie?
ROBERTSON: Yeah, he emailed to say the pie was delicious. I sent him the recipe. He wasn’t my favorite person last night, but I appreciate the praise in the context of the overall situation.
CHO: You’ve been involved with a number of high-profile openings in New Amsterdam, and worked with many of the biggest owners in the business. You’ve got a reputation of a guy who can’t sit still, who can’t commit. You lost your cool last night, and now you’re giving an interview to a prominent food writer — not exactly the reliabilty or discretion most owners look for. What’s your plan? What’s next for you?
ROBERTSON: You know, at this point, I don’t care. That sounds like I’m bragging or something, I know that. But you’ve got to understand: I really don’t care right now. You get kicked around by circumstances, by restaurant owners, by your own staff and customers sometimes… you get kicked around enough and you get kind of fatalistic about the whole thing.
ROBERTSON: I didn’t say anything about food. The food’s real. Never stopped being real. You don’t have to be an executive chef to cook, nor do you have to be in New Amsterdam. To be totally honest, a smaller market might be a healthy change of pace for me, excitement be damned. I’m getting tired of having to travel for 90 minutes, minimum, before I see anything resembling natural greenery.
The thing about cooking… Those challenges are always there, and they’re always interesting to me. I love nailing a challenge — figuring out a formula, disentangling something. Like getting the feel for fresh pasta… that was years ago for me, but I still remember when I started to get the feel for it. The moisture level, the way it stretched and cut, all that. When I started to feel it and could do it without thinking or measuring, it was just incredible. Like learning how to ride a bike — like that spring day when you get on your bike, the bike you got for Christmas. Still snow mounded up on people’s lawns. You ride it down the alleys, wobbling and hesitant at first, but then you’re cruising. One of the best feelings available to us as human beings.
CHO: A lot of people are speculating that Lastri’s ruined — even if she comes back to the country, she’s got a mountain of debts. She could be facing jail time.
ROBERTSON: You want me to speculate that she’ll come back despite the odds? Yeah, I’ll speculate the hell out of that. She’ll talk up a storm, hire some good lawyers, probably charm someone with the cash and influence to make a lot of this go away… she’ll be running stuff again in a year or two, tops. People like her … they’re not really people like you or I, they’re forces of nature. They just hammer away at things, until they fall apart, and then they keep hammering until they come back together. You ask me to explain her, I can’t, other than to say that she’s probably having more fun right now — right now, probably eating fistfuls of street food in Jakarta, I’m betting — than she’s had in the past five years. Probably freaked out, too, but that’s the tempo at which she lives her life.
CHO: What’s going to happen with her restaurants? Do you know?
ROBERTSON: From what I’ve heard — and it’s not worth that much — Archipelago is too valuable to close or otherwise mess with. Someone with money is going to buy it. Everything else, who knows. It’s going to be a big mess. That’s the business though, right? Institutions disappear overnight. Your job is only as secure as the last few weeks of business, if that. You’re often at the mercy of idiots and scoundrels who are terrified to do anything risky that doesn’t pay off in 10 minutes, and yet freak out when doing exactly the same thing as everyone else doesn’t catapult them to the heights of success. Everybody lies about everything unless they’re drunk, which is much of the time. Then they probably lie more. I dunno.
CHO: You’ve had a rough run of it. Take care, and I look forward to catching up with you at your next gig. Hopefully something a little more sane.
ROBERTSON: I wouldn’t count on it.