Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review: Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen

I have never worked in a restaurant, never waited table or washed dishes like so many others. My first jobs were lifeguarding and teaching swimming lessons so I was far from the restaurant world. But I have always liked to cook, am decent at it, and I definitely love to eat. So books about chefs, restaurants, and cooking have always attracted me like a bee to honey. Michelle Wildgen's newest novel, Bread and Butter, centered on three brothers, foodies and restaurateurs, offered to give me a glimpse into the world I've never experienced but have certainly romanticized plenty.

Older brothers Leo and Britt run Winesap, the upscale but traditional and conventional restaurant, in their small commuter town of Linden outside of Philadelphia. They are successful and grounded and have honed their restaurant to be exactly what they want it to be and what their customers expect. At least they think so until their younger brother Harry, the unconventional brother who has flitted from one thing to another comes home with the plan to open his own, much edgier, experimental restaurant. Given his plan for avant garde dishes, the scruffy location, and open yet small and intimate space, Harry's restaurant, Stray, will cater to a much different clientele than Winesap does so there shouldn't be any rivalry between the brothers. If there isn't any rivalry professionally, there certainly is a complicated family dynamic at play between the three men. And when Britt, the face of the front of Winesap throws his lot in with Harry, making him a partner in both restaurants, while Leo doesn't, things get even more complicated.

The intensity of restaurant life, the immense amount of work involved in opening a new one, and the constant worry about an enduring one becoming stagnant are all well captured here. And although the restaurants consume much of the brothers' working lives, Winesap and Stray also drive their personal lives. Leo, feeling Britt's diverted attention, needs to become a bigger part of the face of Winesap, which leads him to a growing relationship with his executive chef, Thea, a heretofore taboo connection. Britt finds himself captivated by a frequent customer, Camille, and worried that her involvement in Stray's creation means she is involved with Harry and out of bounds for him. Meanwhile, Harry is striving to be more than just the much younger brother, an outsider to the other two, deep down wanting to belong and to prove and believe in his importance to the other two as he fights his own personal demons.

But the private lives and secrets of the three brothers and the ways they interact with each other take a backseat to the insider view of restaurants and professional kitchens. Wildgen lingers over her descriptions of the dishes Harry creates, and she captures well the tension in all its manifestations between the front and back of the house staff in a restaurant. The detailed descriptions will appeal to adventurous foodies and gourmands but overwhelm the narrative for other readers. The opening vignette is charming and sets out the brothers' personalities way back in childhood but once through that short introduction, the novel is slow moving with the frenetic pacing of life in restaurants in direct contrast with the plodding pacing of the novel as a whole. The writing is technically good and some of the food descriptions will make you salivate (others not so much) but the novel remains, as a whole, unfortunately emotionally flat.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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