I didn’t think anyone could write a better “set in a restaurant” novel than Monica Ali’s In the Kitchen. (Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster is a close second, but only because The Red Lobster isn’t exactly fine dining, as much as I love their cheddar bisquits.) Ali managed to create a story and characters that were interesting independent of the restaurant details – yet enhanced by all of the back-kitchen facts and fascinating dining did-you-knows.
Move over, Monica. Meet Michelle Wildgen and her latest novel, Bread & Butter. Although it’s more upbeat than In the Kitchen (which is relentlessly, devastatingly dark), Bread & Butter manages to be just as psychologically astute and character-rich, while also being chock-a-block with restaurant secrets and hidden rules.
It features three brothers. The two oldest already own and operate a successful decade-old restaurant, while the youngest returns home to open his own, fresher, hipper fine dining establishment.
As the youngest brother builds his space, hires servers and sous-chefs, and prepares to open, there is not a head-to-head competition between the older restaurant and the new, but there are natural family tensions among the brothers – which Wildgen describes in beautiful, cut-to-the-quick prose.
But what I loved almost as much as the well-drawn characters were the delicious dining background details, many of which I did not know. For example, diners tend to order more beef when the night is cold and rainy – talented pastry chefs often get bored with serving the same chocolate lava cakes over and over again (and like to create strange concoctions like apricot-bacon mousse) – and the best sous-chefs know that they should start a pot of boiling water before they do anything else. Oh, and if you order lobster on Valentine’s Day instead of something more ambitious like lamb’s neck, the chef will look down on you.
The only danger of Bread & Butter was that it made me want to snack compulsively – or at least make a reservation at one of my favorite nice restaurants in Tulsa.