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 reached into the pocket of his corduroy jacket, and unfolded an unceremoniously stuffed piece of paper. The paper was black, and it was written upon by a silver pen, very high school, but the penmanship was impeccable soaring waves of cursive script and was supposedly in Lastri’s own hand.
“Go to the 70th floor of the Fleischman Tower. Exit the elevator. Walk up to the desk. Tell the receptionist you’ve arrived for a lunch meeting at the south meeting room. She’ll wave you through. Immediately turn right, and walk through the room as though you belong. You’ll see a black door marked ‘South.’ Open it! I’ll be waiting!”
Her signature was unreadable but undeniably beautiful. It looked like a school of fish tangled up in a silver net.
When Robertson arrived at the 70th floor, he was slightly nonplussed to discover that he’d arrived at J.P. Rosenstock and Lunge, one of the city’s newest and most notoriously reckless hedge funds. It was a group famous for betting $500 million (in order to leverage $5 billion) on a thoroughbred horse race in Dubai. The group essentially doubled its money while destroying most of the economy of an entire Pakistani province in the process. Everyone was consoled by the fact that most of the money forfeited was made from heroin, and would quickly be replenished.
The receptionist was tiny and crisply beautiful, with all the warmth and friendliness of a department store mannequin. “Yes?” she asked, arching a neatly coiffed black eyebrow at Robertson. Robertson was poorly coiffed. He was wearing jeans, a red T-shirt emblazoned with a series of illustrations of kitchen knives, a dark brown corduroy jacket and black sneakers. He removed his earbuds before speaking, and tucked them into his pocket.
“I’m here for a lunch meeting. South meeting room,” he said, fingering the paper in his pocket.
She waved him through and went back to her text messaging. He took a sharp right, and found himself walking through a labyrinth of cubicles. Well-dressed men and women talked streams of numbers into black telephones, worked furiously fast on text messages, played around on what he had to assume were spreadsheets of some sort, and occasionally shot the breeze with one another. They didn’t give him a second look. He kept walking, and, after passing what felt like a city block’s worth of desks, he arrived at black door. The door looked as though it was carved from marble. The “South” marking was emblazoned in silver. He pushed it open, squeezed in, and let the door shut itself behind him.
He was somewhat shocked to see a panoramic view of the city. Four low wooden tables, each big enough for two occupants, were all that the meeting room could hold. Two Korean businessmen sat at a far table, poring over something that looked like a schematic for a sailing ship. A hand-labeled bottle of what looked like tequila rested on the edge of the table. The next table was filled by a silver-haired African American man in his early 50s, and his mistress, an academic-looking young white woman with horn-rimmed glasses and a white cashmere sweater pulled over a bright blue top. At the third table was a man that Robertson thought might be Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago, scribbling something on a yellow legal pad, slowly working his way through a bowl of what seemed to be tartare and caviar. At the final table was a small Asian woman wearing a brilliant blue patterned dress that looked like a shimmering snowstorm. She stood to greet him.
“Thank you for joining me! Come on over, sit down, thank you.” She smiled brightly, without guile. She seemed legitimately pleased to meet him.
“Lastri, hi, thanks for inviting me,” said Robertson. There was no evidence of waitstaff or even a second door through which food and drink might arrive. The other patrons seemed content, however. He tried to decipher the pattern on Lastri’s dress, but was unable to focus and had to look away, dazzled.
“I appreciate you taking the time,” she said. “From what I’ve heard about you, I’m wasting my time, but that’s OK. Sometimes it’s just nice to put faces to names.” She stared at him intently. He averted his gaze, and let it sweep across the room again. Saramago seemed to be dozing off in his chair.
“Where are we?” he asked. “What is this place?”
“It’s called ‘South,’ said Lastri, tucking a stray hair behind one of her ears. She was neat as a pin, with delicate features that harmoniously set off a rather long but ultimately elegant nose. “I don’t own it, not entirely anyway… Just a piece of it. You ever hear of a chef named Fujiwara Motonobu?”
“Yeah — big deal five years ago, right? Magazine spreads, and so on? What happened to him?” Robertson drummed his fingers on the table, wondering in spite of himself whether there might be a menu to glance at.
“He got sick of the Tokyo scene. Moved up to Hokkaido and hid out for a while. Eventually, the partners behind South tracked him down and said: ‘How about we pay you what you’d like to be paid, you work as many or as few hours a day as you’d like, and you serve eight customers a day, maximum.’ He said: ‘Other than the money, that sounds like cooking for my family, and I don’t really need the money.'”
“How’d they sell him on it?”
“They told him he could try anything he felt like, and they’d make it happen — molecular gastronomy, rare ingredients, extreme temperatures — the idea would be that he would push the frontiers of cooking, and they would take whatever he came up with and incorporate it into their various high-end restaurants. He’d be a one-man lab. He’s been here for a couple years — misses home, but he’s just addicted to the situation. It’s not just that the partners buy him what he needs, it’s that they’re interested in him — creatively, you know? They care about what he’s working on, they understand it, and when they don’t understand it, they work on understanding it. It’s like a hobby for everyone involved, except that millions of dollars go into it each year. South probably loses… Oh, let’s not go there,” she smiled.
Robertson looked at the table, and there were two crystal tumblers of a clear liquid sitting on it. A small white card read:
He blinked. He didn’t remember seeing them on the table.
“Try it,” said Lastri.
He put the liquid to his lips. It tasted wetter than water, nearly as cold as ice, dominated a single crisp alcohol-kissed note of pure lemon. There was no aftertaste; as the beverage left his mouth, the taste was gone, extinguished.
“Neat, right?” Lastri asked. She’d drained hers. “I love this stuff, I think it goes great with fish. Speaking of which.”
This time he saw the waiter, but just barely — a lean, super thin racially indeterminate guy with fat black glasses, moving with catlike grace, bringing two white bone plates to the table. Each had a fan of 25 or 30 individual triangles of what looked like colorful paper.
“Micro-sashimi, I love it!” said Lastri. She unselfconsciously clapped her hands a couple of times and then grabbed the small white chopsticks that sat in front of her. She slowly placed one of the triangles onto her tongue, which curled up a bit as it cradled the flesh. She closed her mouth and her eyes. “Mmm, hamachi,” she said. “At least I think it is. Things get a little delicate when they get so thin!”
He tasted another piece, from a different type of fish. “Mackerel, man. Fantastic. How does he cut these?”
“My understanding is that he finally settled on using a recirculating high-frequency water saw… the end result is fish that’s thinner than paper. I think he tried using a laser at one point.”
Robertson’s eyes goggled a bit.
“It’s true!” she exclaimed. “The fish kept catching fire!” She laughed, and it was high-pitched but melodious, smooth, not shrill. “You wouldn’t think it would catch fire… well, maybe it was more like burning a hole in it, but it was a pretty big waste of a $500,000 laser. I think they were able to return it.”
“So,” said Robertson. He let it hang in the air.
“So!” said Lastri. “Are you willing to come work for me?”
“I’m otherwise committed, you know that.”
“What’s he pay…”
“I’m not getting into any of that,” said Robertson. “Not interested. I’ve committed.”
“What’s your long-term dream, though?” asked Lastri. “I know you don’t want to just knock around from restaurant to restaurant. You want to own a place? You got it. You want to own a cooking school…? I can make it…”
“No, listen — listen, thank you,” said Robertson. “But no. I don’t take this lightly. Any of this. When I sign up to do a job, that’s it. I do it. I appreciate what you’re up to — you’ve got a clear shot at Thursday, and locking me up costs him more time and money to get up and running.”
“And maybe you’re not even replaceable!” said Lastri, smiling at Robertson in a way he wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret. “Maybe you and me… well, you’ve made yourself relatively clear. I have a question for you, though.”
“You can ask,” said Robertson, tucking into the rest of his meal.
“So, how much of the Sriracha story is really true?”
The Sriracha story. A simple tale. A customer at a restaurant in Milwaukee asks the chef to please hold about half the ingredients in the restaurant’s signature pho. The waiter finds this request reasonable. The chef balks. The customer repeats his demand. The waiter brings the demand back to the chef and amplifies it. The chef walks out to the table, followed by the waiter, and explains that he’s been working 80 and 90 hour weeks, and then coming in after work in order to do things like fine tune the restaurant’s signature pho, which is not customizable, because it’s perfect as it is. The customer threatens to talk to a manager. The chef picks up a bottle of Sriracha hot sauce and sprays her in the face with it. The waiter attempts to intercede by throwing a roundhouse punch that connects with a perfectly innocent passing busboy. The chef sprays the waiter. The manager, coincidentally sitting in a corner booth and watching this unfold, fires both of them on the spot. Robertson throws the bottle of Sriracha at the manager, takes off his baker’s cap, and stomps out, both middle fingers in the air.
Other variations in circulation include Robertson chasing the waiter with a knife, Robertson spitting in the customer’s face after spraying her with the hot sauce, Robertson hitting the manager in the face with the bottle, the customer punching Robertson in the stomach, an onlooking group of nuns tipping over their table in their haste to flee, a drunken Robertson vomiting on the waiter’s shoes before leaving, and Robertson coming back and burning down the restaurant.
Robertson repeated the Sriracha story for Lastri, matter-of-factly. “I LOVE it!” she said. “I know I probably shouldn’t ask, being in the owner / manager camp, but how are you going to get real food if there isn’t someone who is crazy about making it, right?”
“I was overtired,” said Robertson, without any visible enthusiasm. He’d heard enough about the fucking Sriracha already.
Robertson looked down at the table, and it was now sporting two delicate white gloves, each of which had a white almost-gumlike bubble somehow attached to the tip of each finger.
“I’ll follow your lead,” said Robertson.
“These are fun,” said Lastri. She slid the glove onto her right hand. “All you do is bite the bubbles!” She bit and sucked the bubble off of her index finger. “MMM,” she said. “Manchego and serrano ham, I think. Here, try one!” She extended her pinky, waving it around near Robertson’s mouth. He glanced over at Saramago, who was still asleep. Shrugging imperceptibly, Robertson leaned forward and sucked the bubble off the glove’s pinky.
The bubble itself was tasteless and almost without structure — shockingly soft and gentle. Its contents were quince paste and something that tasted like a fatty, salty bacon — lardon, perhaps.
“OK,” said Lastri. “Now I get to try one of yours, so it’s all evened up.”
Robertson put on the glove and extended his index finger. Lastri leaned forward, puckering her lips. She gingerly sucked the bubble from the glove. Latri’s eyes lit up with pleasure. “Mmm, bravas sauce, very delicate flakes of potato and what I think is probably eel. That worked better than I thought it might.”
By the time Robertson was through with his glove, he was burned out. He glanced down at the table. There was a tiny shot glass of foamy rum ice cream, and a McDonald’s coffee cup. Lastri had the same.
Lastri was sipping from her coffee cup and giggling. “Oh, this is fantastic.”
He picked up his cup, which was mostly empty. He drank from it. He tasted chaos, thought about it for a second, and realized he was drinking finely aged port.
“Hilarious,” he said. He finished his port.
“So,” said Lastri. “We are competitors now. If I really wanted to play this game seriously, I would ask you to split the bill with me.” She grinned.
“It’s already taken care of,” she grinned. “My treat. Robert, come talk to me if you get unhappy with Thursday. The man is a buffoon. Not in a fun way, either.”
“You can’t say anything, so that’s fine. Just listen. I’m telling you this because I’m fond of you. Thursday thinks everyone is his enemy. The best thing you can do if you want a long future with him is let him find dirt on you. Don’t let him know you let him find it. Steal some good liquor, or something else that’s petty but clear-cut. He’ll always feel that he has the upper hand, then, and he can relax and worry about all his other enemies. He can’t trust anyone he can’t dispose of. Firing’s usually not enough for him.”
Robertson said nothing, and his face revealed nothing. “Lastri,” he said at last. “Thank you for a wonderful lunch.” He pushed back his chair, and looked around the room. He and Lastri were the last people there.
“Thank you for a wonderful lunch,” said Lastri. “Maybe you’ll cook for me someday?”
Robertson smiled a bit, and walked back out through the maze of cubicles. He staggered a bit. Had that only been an ounce of port? Was it actually port in the first place?