Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen

Three brothers are on Bread & Butter's menu, but the protagonist of Michelle Wildgen's latest novel isn't a person; it's a fledgling restaurant. After years of drifting between graduate degrees and menial jobs, Harry has moved back home to open a restaurant/tapas bar. A working class town outside Philadelphia, Linden has recently attracted yuppies in search of affordable Craftsman homes and neighborhood dining.

Ahead of the curve, Harry's older brothers opened Winesap a decade ago to serve mainstream gourmet food. Taciturn Leo has years of experience in the industry and handsome Britt offers excellent taste and PR finesse. Harry is an innovative chef, but he can't do this on his own. Restless and energetic, he has a track record of jumping ship for new endeavors. His brothers eye him warily. Harry could be a culinary genius or a ticking time bomb. Romance adds further complications.

Wildgen's previous two novels gave a shout out to eating local, but Bread & Butter puts the restaurant business on center stage. We learn about the tension between back room kitchen staff and front room servers and the precarious orchestration of the cooking line. In this world, limp vegetables are tragic and a broken dishwasher is high drama. The plot is driven by "quotidian details," but it moves at a good pace.

The biggest problem with this book is it makes you hungry:
"...a flawless napoleon of crackling pastry layered with coconut and kaffir lime custard. He'd sprinkled it with a vivid emerald powder that sent Leo's mouth alight when he tasted it, a fragrant tartness that intensified the creamy custard and the buttered shards of crust. It turned out to be sugared lime leaf powder." 
"He remembered Harry calling the toro sea heroin, and looked up into the chef's lupine eyes with a faint chill of apprehension. Certainly he was about to taste something he might not taste again. That was the problem with such a place: once you'd had toro like this, fish like this, you developed a taste beyond your means."
The characters are equally well described:
"It was never easy talking to Shelly. She always seemed to be responding to something happening just beyond or over your shoulder, or something you said in your last conversation but didn't remember."
My husband flipping a crepe.
Wildgen doesn't just know food, she knows people and their inner struggles. Britt dominates the limited point-of-view third person narration with Leo and Harry offering alternate perspectives, but the book holds its focus. At times I wanted to shout at Britt or to help Harry. I never really bonded with Leo. Although Wildgen does a fine job writing from the male perspective, my favorite character was Thea, an executive chef/single mom. Camille was intriguing too. It was nice to see competent women in the dominant roles usually played by men. Not all of the characters were lovable, but they felt real. I was sorry to say goodbye to them on the last page.

If you enjoy good food, Gordon Ramsay's TV shows or ever dreamed of opening a restaurant yourself, you will love Bread & Butter. I read it slowly, savoring the pages. The book has been called food porn. Would someone please open a restaurant like Stray in my town?

Bread and Butter will be released on February 11, 2014. If you want to understand why Michelle Wildgen is one of my favorite authors, check out her other two books as well:

You're Not You
But Not For Long (includes my author interview)

Reviewer's Disclosure: Doubleday, Michelle Wildgen's publisher, asked me to review this book and sent me a free galley. I was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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@Barrie Summy

Weather Watch: We finally got a snow day: 6-12 inches are expected today! This is good news in Maine. I love the fresh white peacefulness and being able to ski out the back door again.


Ellen Booraem said...

First of all, yay for skiing out the back door! My skis are out there waiting, nicely chilled, next to the snowshoes for dog-walking.

And thanks a lot--I really want crepes now. This does sound like a fun book, but not one to read if you're dieting!

A Cuban In London said...

First of all, thanks for your comment on my blog. I felt like filling in the end of your sentence with... to the edge of seventeen? :-)

Food in novels is something that I love. Sometimes it works (the famous banquet in the Cuban novel Paradiso is well worth the wait. It arrives on page one-hundred and something) and sometimes it doesn't (like Chocolat. Loved the food but not the book). This novel sounds like a treat. Your husband is brave, by the way. I tried to flip an omelette once and... well, I haven't done it since. :-)

Loved your post.

Greetings from London.

Gloria Baker said...

Of course I love this book and love this post, really enjoyed, I will try to find the book here, ahh your hubby make crepes??
so good:)

Linda McLaughlin said...

Glad you enjoyed the book so much. It sounds different and interesting. I'm not a Gordon Ramsay fan, though, I'll admit.

Anonymous said...

I like a book that makes me hungry. And that picture of Henry! I'll be right over!

Liviania said...

This sounds really good. I love stories about the restaurant business (and decadent descriptions of food).

Unknown said...

This book sounds lovely--I love a food-oriented book every now and then. :)

Great review! And yay for snow! I can't even imagine skiing out my back door…


Barrie said...

Nice picture of the hubby! Not surprised to hear the publisher sought you out. You do write a mean review! I'm sure I'd like this book. After all, I actually read cookbooks....and there's not much plot in those! Thanks for reviewing and happy skiing!

Rose said...

I'm not sure I could read this--I would probably gain another 10 pounds! If I'd known you wanted some snow, I would have gladly sent you some, Sarah:)

I'm really late this month, but finally got my review posted. If it weren't for some good books, I'd be bored out of my mind this winter!

Booksnyc said...

great review! This sounds like a book I would really enjoy and I also want to recommend it to a friend who dreams of leaving her corporate consulting gig to open a restaurant.

Thanks for the warning about it making you hungry - I may need to hold off until I am back on solid food again :)

Amanda Summer said...

Like grocery shopping, I'm not sure reading that book is something I will do when hungry! Love the shot of your husband flipping the crepe.

troutbirder said...

Food porn. Somehow the concept appeals to me. Though my last read (True North) written by a supposed gourmand, Harrison, wasn't all that tasty...

Jenn Jilks said...

What a wonderful review! This is why you are a writer!
I love the photo of your hubby.
I'm really ignorant of haute cuisine. I think I'd need to google all these dishes!
Well done.
P.S. Yes, snow days. Love 'em, but had enough of them!

Cid said...

So glad you finally got some snow and we are happy to send lots more your way! And thanks for being my lone commenter, guess I better get back to writing.

Stacy said...

I'm late in commenting, but this book sounds great.