In her new novel, Michelle Wildgen, editor of the literary shorts compilation Food and Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast, gets the details of the restaurant biz and the dynamics of those who are part of it just right.
Restaurant staff separates into two groups — front of house (hosts, servers, bussers and bartenders, or mixologists, as they insist on calling themselves these days) and back of house (chefs, line cooks, dishwashers, management). They’re all supposed to be one big, happy family. They rarely are.
In her novel Bread & Butter, Wildgen makes that restaurant family a real family of three brothers. Leo, the eldest, is management. He owns and runs Winesap, a popular restaurant in Linden, their hometown outside Philadelphia. He’s shambling but savvy; you can’t keep a restaurant going for 15 years without smarts. Britt, a year younger, is Winesap’s co-owner and impeccable host who can scan the room for imperfections — a wineglass out of place, a patron out of sorts — and make everything right again. Harry, the youngest by six years, has been away for a decade, “his extensive education punctuated by stints at the Alaskan salmon cannery, an organic farm, a high-end food store, and finally a restaurant on a tourist island.” He returns home with plans to open and chef his own restaurant, creating a culinary family standoff.
Harry, whose last gig was working in a small restaurant in Maine (he caught the fish they served, ground the wheat for flour, cured the house bacon and made ricotta from scratch) is brimming with ideas and passion. But does he have the business sense? The staying power? When he shyly offers his brothers to buy in, Leo stays hands-off, but Britt becomes Harry’s partner. As the restaurant, which goes by the edgy name of Stray, takes shape, Leo and Britt, who still works at Winesap, reassess their own establishment.
As she did in You’re Not You, her compulsively readable literary debut, Wildgen couples vivid description with crisp prose, putting the reader right in the scene — and right at the table. She articulates how working closely with someone professionally creates an odd and not always welcome degree of intimacy, laying bare each person’s “unknown and unknowable depths.” There is romance, including sex with the staff — absolutely verboten, bad for business, but almost impossible to resist.
The real romance, though, is one of family and food. Harry auditions his entire restaurant menu for Britt, cooking and plating with “brute self-sufficiency,” setting the final dish before his brother “with the air of a cat delivering a freshly killed gopher.” Wildgen captures the metalanguage of menu — the farm-to-table earnestness of local greens; the macho swagger of a lamb’s neck entree; how warm chocolate cake, a perennial seller with diners, induces in pastry chefs “a mighty ennui.”
The main question is how Stray will do and what it will do to the brothers. Ultimately, there’s not enough at stake, and such larger issues as stilted exposition and unfocused plot leave you hungry. The book works best as a series of amuse-bouches — little delights — like those few and fleeting moments when a restaurant does come together. “Britt marveled. He felt terribly fond of their employees at the moment, even the servers who drove him to distraction most nights. Right now he liked the look of them all, their insouciant posture and neck tats.”
Bread & Butter isn’t quite a satisfying meal, but scenes like this one are purely delicious.
Ellen Kanner is a writer in Miami.