Bread and Butter

Bread and Butter

by Michelle Wildgen


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Britt and Leo have spent ten years establishing Winesap as the best restaurant in their small Pennsylvania town. They cater to their loyal customers, they don’t sleep with the staff, and business is good, even if their temperamental pastry chef is bored with making the same chocolate cake night after night.
But when their dilettante younger brother, Harry, opens his own restaurant, Britt and Leo find their lives thrown off-kilter. Important employees quit and reappear in Harry’s kitchen, their “classic” menu starts to seem overly safe, and romance threatens to bubble up in the most inconvenient of places. As the brothers struggle to find a new family dynamic, Bread and Butter proves to be a dazzling novel that’s as much about siblinghood as it is about the mysterious world behind the kitchen door. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345805430
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 1,014,222
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michelle Wildgen is the executive editor of the literary quarterly Tin House. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin, Wildgen received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her fiction, personal essays, and food writing have appeared in The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine; Best New American Voices; Best Food Writing; Prairie Schooner; and elsewhere. Michelle is the author of the novels But Not for Long and You're Not You, and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. You're Not You has been optioned for film by Hilary Swank and Denise Di Novi.

Read an Excerpt

Bread and Butter


Every few months, in the grips of their parents’ civic and vicarious ethnic pride, Leo, Britt, and Harry went on a forced excursion to the last Italian market in town. Most people in Linden would make a day of it and drive ninety minutes east into Philadelphia, to hit 9th Street or Reading Terminal, but Leo’s parents were diehards. As long as Moretti’s was open, they would insist it was the best.
Inside a butcher’s case, denuded rabbits curled pink and trusting in white bins, while the sheep’s heads appeared chagrined and surprised by the depth of their eyeballs, the narrow clamp of their own teeth. The display of calves’ brains and kidneys, livers and tripe, repulsed Britt, struck Leo as regrettable but unavoidable, and entranced Harry, who was six. He stood with his hands on the glass, chewed-looking mittens dangling from his sleeves.
Britt and Leo, who were twelve and thirteen, were supposed to be watching their brother but were primarily lurking several feet away near the bulk section, peering over patrons’ shoulders at the hooves and teeth.
Their father appeared beside them, holding a pink slice of prosciutto, which he did not offer. These Saturdays sometimes left their parents flushed and high-spirited in a slightly confrontational way.
“We’re not even Italian,” Britt pointed out.
“Since when are you purists?” their father asked. “Would you be happier if we were in a haggis store?”
“I was happy playing basketball,” Leo said wanly. But the store was an invigorating riot of noise and meaty fragrance, and he found it difficult not to join in the hollering and sampling as his parents did with such mortifying enthusiasm.
“It smells like death in here,” Britt said. “Death and spices.”
“That’s fennel seed,” their father said.
Eventually their parents completed their tasting and shopping and returned, each holding a large brown paper bag.
“Where’s Harry?” their mother asked. She craned her neck, peering through the crowd. Her red hair was coming out of its ponytail. “Boys? Where’d Harry go?”
“He was here,” said Britt, and he and his brother both looked down to where Harry had been. The last they had seen of him, Harry was storming off into the sea of bodies, miffed that Leo and Britt refused to emote over the case of organ meat. They had not followed.
“Well, look,” their father said. Their parents began working their way through the crowd.
The street was gray and quiet, cars rumbling past Leo on the pitted streets. What a terrible place for Harry to be wandering around, his vividness like a target. Why did their parents bring them here? Leo jogged up the block and around the corner, fruitlessly, before returning to the store, where he stood in the mass of people, sweating, his heart pounding, realizing that he had ruined his family.
And then the crowd shifted and Leo glimpsed them all: a cluster of ginger-colored heads back by the meat counter, his father’s darker head in its Eagles cap. Harry was holding something wrapped in white paper. His parents’ faces were a volatile blend of anger and relief.
As they left the store Leo glanced at Britt, who rolled his eyes in a way that conveyed complicity and gladness, the latter something Britt was clearly embarrassed to feel.
Harry refused to hold either parent’s hand and was clutching his white package. Leo took in the oblivious bounce of Harry’s shoulders, the round curve of his cheek, and the cowlick on one side of his forehead. He probably hadn’t even gotten scolded. Leo took one lengthy stride, long enough to catch the heel of Harry’s shoe, a punk-ass little gesture that almost made him feel better.
“Thanks for scaring everybody,” Britt said.
“I was talking to the meat guy,” Harry said. “He has all the good stuff.”
“It’s a lamb’s tongue, by the way,” said Britt, nodding at the white package. “He got a lamb’s tongue.”
“To eat?” Leo said to his parents. “You bought him a lamb’s tongue?”
Their mother set her bag down on the sidewalk, pulled a stocking cap out of her pocket, and tugged[LD2]  it down over Harry’s head. Then she straightened up and said, “We didn’t buy it for him.” Her eyelids lowered just slightly, slyly, because Harry hated to be laughed at, and she added, “He used his allowance.”

Part 1

Chapter 1

Leo had imagined a cavernous space filled with sunlight and flaking pillars, but as he explored his brother’s future restaurant, he feared he had overestimated Harry’s ambition.
Britt trailed behind them as Leo followed Harry into the long, narrow room. Harry’s shaggy red hair and his blue-and-green shirt were the only spots of color in the dusky room as he gestured, all lanky arms and skinny wrists, toward where he planned to put the bar, the tables, and the server station. Harry’s forearms and wrists bore short faded purplish scars from hot pans and oven edges and errant knife blades, just like the arms on the cooks in Leo’s restaurant.
Leo glanced behind him; Britt was not paying attention but was swiping at the screen of his phone and swearing under his breath about the linen service. Periodically Britt swatted his blazer, making Leo realize that he too was smeared with pale washes of dust at a knee, an elbow, and a shoulder, but he merely whacked perfunctorily at his clothes. This was why Britt ran the dining room while Leo ran the back of the house. Britt could sense a flaw from yards away—a spotty wineglass or a tablecloth scattered with pollen dropped from a centerpiece—and correct it almost without realizing he’d done so.
“What’s the name?” Leo asked. His restaurant was called Winesap, the name a nod to the apple variety that grew in their parents’ backyard.
“71 King. Same as the address,” Harry said. He pointed up at fat ducts grown minty with age. “That’s copper piping. And I think this wall is, like, three feet thick.” He demonstrated the wall’s soundness with a flick of his hand against the brick, a gesture that looked as if it hurt. But Harry shook it off and looked back over his shoulder. “You don’t like the name?”
Leo chewed the inside of his lip. “It doesn’t say a lot,” he said gently. “It might be hard for people to picture what they’ll get here just from the name.”
“I guess it doesn’t really fit,” Harry admitted, looking thoughtful. “Although what does Winesap convey, exactly?”
“Well, for a while, not much,” Leo admitted. “Heirloom apple varieties didn’t evoke much in an old mill town. But now that we have more Philadelphia transplants I think it says farmers’ markets and rarity and quality.”
“Plus it’s just a great word,” said Britt. “Maybe it lets people forget for a second that they even got priced out of the suburbs.”
“And anyway, now it evokes you, right? See, that’s the thing,” Harry said. “I’m hoping that soon this address will say something, something totally different from what it does now. I’m trying to get ahead of the curve. Or to set the curve. Call it what you will.” He looked behind Leo. “Britt. 71 King. What’s it say to you?”
Britt looked up from his phone. Whereas Harry’s long, lean face was softened by his red beard and Leo bore a coarser nose and darker, down-turned eyes, Britt’s face was elegant and spare, high-cheekboned and fine-lipped. “I picture a pit bull,” he said apologetically. “Like a fighting dog named King.”
Leo winced. Now that Britt had said it, he couldn’t picture anything else.
Harry sighed.
“Listen,” said Britt, “you haven’t made any huge announcements, you haven’t paid for any signs. You can still think about it.”
“Okay,” Harry said, but he’d lost a little of his spring as he continued the tour.
It was September now, and Harry had been back in Pennsylvania since April. He’d allowed only bits and pieces about his nascent restaurant to emerge during the basketball games the three played a couple of times a month, until the build-out began and Harry was too busy to play. He’d been secretive and cheerful on these Sunday mornings in the park, reluctant to lay bare the details until the whole thing came together. Leo had the feeling that Harry both hoped to surprise them and somewhat dreaded the opinions of two brothers who’d already logged ten years—more in Leo’s case—in the restaurant business. Harry was still quite new to it.
Leo had worked hard not to pry. He understood how fragile these early ideas could feel, how easily you could get off track if you got input too soon. Instead he had contented himself with coaxing along his own creakily returning jump shot. Britt, who in their teens had painstakingly honed a swooping outside shot until it seemed effortless, tended to lope easily around the court, more concerned with form than points, while Harry had never lost the wiry zeal that could have carried him into an athletic scholarship instead of an academic one. Neither of his brothers would ever admit this. What they said aloud was that Harry could have gone as far as second string on an emerging semipro team in Iceland.
Now they finally got to see the restaurant space and to see Harry, who’d been out of communication for several weeks. To Leo, the entire space seemed more like a hallway than a dining room, and the farther into the building they went, the darker and more forbidding it became. The ceiling seemed to descend as they walked. The west wall was brick, the east wall flaking plaster, and the wall facing the street was three-quarters glass. At the back of the rectangular space was a thick steel door painted a military green.
“That was carpeted,” Harry said, glancing down at the floor.
“That’s maple,” said Britt. “Refinish it.”
Harry looked to Leo, who shrugged. “It’s probably maple,” he said.
Britt said, “What was this space before, anyway? A bar? Apartments? If you found carpet in here, you’ve got to assume that food and crumbs were ground into it for a while before you tore it out. Could mean mice.”
Leo watched Harry gaze doubtfully at the floor for as long as he could stand it, then clapped Harry on the back. “I’ll give you the number of the exterminator we use, Hare,” he heard himself say heartily. “This is an easy decision, trust me.” Around his youngest brother he became bluff and jocular, issuing definitive statements he only occasionally believed in. Somehow he never affected the same persona with Britt; they were too close in age, had grown up playing on too many of the same baseball teams and going to the same parties.
Harry nodded. “You may be right.” It was clear he was deciding which way to go—to allocate money to a potentially mythical rodent problem, to laugh it off, or to argue. He settled for shaking his head, and then took a sip from Britt’s coffee, which had been left on top of a stepladder, and considered the mouthful. Then he said, “See, this is why I need partners, Leo. You guys know all this stuff already.”
“And I’ll tell you for free,” Leo said, deliberately keeping his tone light, “you don’t need me.”
“When this place gets huge, you’re going to wish you were in on it,” Harry said, almost matching the playful tone. “Besides, how’s it going to look if I open a restaurant without you? People will think we’re feuding. They’ll think you have no faith in me.”
“I do have faith in you,” Leo said. “You just jumped in really fast. You’ve set yourself a real climb.” This was as far as Leo would go in expressing his fears. Leo himself had worked for years in the restaurant business before he’d finally gathered financing and opened his own place. He hadn’t put together a few years in the food industry in between graduate degrees and other endeavors and then decided to start a business.
“I think it seems faster than it is,” Harry said, unperturbed. “Besides, an industry needs new blood. Britt didn’t have any experience when he started working with you.”
“I had spite,” said Britt. “That’ll carry you further than you’d think. I got to quit a job I hated and I was upset with Frances for walking out on Leo.”
Leo was circling the room, only half listening to his brothers. It made him realize how long it had been since Harry had come home.
Their parents still lived in the house where all three had grown up, a three-bedroom white Colonial with red trim perched on a sloping hillside. His father used the steep side yard as a terraced garden, green beans, tomatoes, squash, carrots, onions, and herbs all fenced in with grapevines. At the top of the yard were the two eponymous apple trees. The neighborhood was a tightly packed grid of older houses kept in careful though elderly repair, beginning to age out and turn over once again, and there would come a day when the next wave would mean renovation instead of mere upkeep. But for now their father patrolled his yard and garden and made wine in his basement. Their mother hauled out a giant wooden jack-o’-lantern sign in the fall and red and green Christmas lights in December.
They’d been older parents for their generation. Their father had retired years earlier from engineering and their mother from being the principal of a local junior high school, but well into their seventies they remained bustling and flustered, talking at one another about different topics at once and lamenting their lack of free time. The house alone seemed to require all their attention. Every time Leo spoke to his father, he was on his way to the hardware store for some minuscule item: a hinge, a flange, a yard of weather stripping.
Leo and Britt were eleven months apart, a lingering intimation of their parents’ sexuality that never ceased to cause both men some embarrassment, and perhaps because of the closeness in age their parents were forever conflating their two older sons, forgetting that Britt had not put in years of restaurant work in high school and college, thinking that Leo was alert to sales on good suits. Only Harry, six years younger than Britt and seven younger than Leo, seemed entirely distinct to them. They kept careful track of his many endeavors, enumerating his degrees, years later still talking about the goat he had served them when he was working on a farm in upstate New York. (“Gin!” their father would exclaim. “He added gin to give it a piney flavor. Who thinks of such a thing?”)
Leo noted how the sun poured into the restaurant space behind Britt and pooled on the brick before them. Britt’s closely clipped reddish blond hair was alight with it; the lines around his eyes had taken on a powdery fineness. The room was tight, but the space was not all wrong. Harry would be able to fit three rows of tables if he turned them diagonally to allow servers to swivel through. There was little room for a bar, much less the great zinc J that was currently propped up against the east wall awaiting its moment, and what Leo assumed would be the kitchen, back behind that mossy-looking door, was too cramped for more than two cooks or three at the very most, who would be elbow to elbow, knife handles knocking over each other’s prep dishes. Yet the dining room was not appalling. The length offset the width—you had the feeling of journeying deep into the old building toward a cache of ’66 Bordeaux and a scattering of dusty jewels—and the wood floors would look good refinished. There would be patched corners and spaces between some of the floorboards—try getting crumbs out of there—but it would feel welcomingly worn and intimate. This place would be more casual and rough-edged than Winesap, but Leo felt that for Harry, this made sense.
Of the three, Harry was the tallest and the truest redhead, a throwback to the great-grandmother who’d spent years lecturing all three on the meanings of the family tartan. To this day none of the brothers wore plaid. Leo favored pinstripes so faint as to be theoretical, Britt preferred some mix of charcoal or beige set off by blocks of saturated gray-greens or citrus, and Harry bought vintage cotton button-downs for ten bucks a handful, the sort that were printed with typewriters, horses, or paisley. All the brothers had gone to college, but only Harry had collected, as if by accident, several more college degrees than most people required. Leo was equally chagrined by and proud of his little brother’s roving and uncontainable intelligence. Harry had strong opinions on pierogi and loved to read terrible popular novels about werewolves or hit men for the pleasure of analyzing their mass appeal, right down to the verb choice. Harry wanted to revitalize Linden—which had long ago lost its steel and textile mills and never quite replaced them—not through its citizens’ altruism but through their appetites.
At the moment, however, Harry was exclaiming over Britt’s diner coffee, trying to get him to inhale the staleness. Leo believed that Britt drank shitty coffee for the irony of it—that he liked to be the guy in a cashmere sweater with a blue-and-white Greek-patterned coffee cup from the dingy corner pastry stand. Once a week, on Tuesdays, he also bought a square of baklava made by the wife of the Ethiopian guy who sold the coffee, and left the pastry in its butter-spotted white paper package on Leo’s desk.
“The river’s what, two blocks from here?” Leo called over the sound of his brothers’ voices. Harry joined him at the window, peering out at the Irish bar across the street and the corner store—bodega, really—down the block. A few blocks away the river ran south, and just north of them was city hall, the DMV, the restored old mansion of some robber baron where the mayor now lived, and beyond that a mix of abandoned houses, chain-link fences, and bars with plywood on the windows.
The compact city of Linden perched on a tributary of the Schuylkill, the town shaped in an arc of gentrified neighborhoods and new construction fanning outward from the struggling downtown where Harry had rented his space. Several blocks from 71 King Street, the rest of Linden was becoming aggressively charming. All those city transplants hadn’t left Philadelphia so they could be pioneers in some crumbling suburban downtown but for velvety green lawns and newly built mock Tudors. Harry’s neighborhood was forever expected to gentrify; during the time it had been poised for renewal a slew of businesses had sprouted and wilted. On some blocks, Leo could believe in the hope for a moment, but then he’d take a left turn and discover the prehistoric limbs of the industrial equipment still blocking the riverfront, or the lines of tired civil servants and spiritually battered auto owners smoking cigarettes at the DMV. Harry wanted to charge eight bucks for spiced almonds and quince paste.
“Yeah,” Harry said. “There’s talk of a new development on this block, new business to use the waterfront.”
“Mixed-use condo and commercial, right?” said Britt. Harry nodded. “It always is,” Britt continued. “I just hope it’s not just another mall.”
“Say they put in a Target,” Harry argued. “Ugly, sure, but people would come.” But his cheer had lessened once again.
“Come on,” Leo said softly. “It’s getting late.” He went back to Harry and patted him on the shoulder, momentarily surprised at the hard planes beneath his palm. As a boy Harry had been so round and freckled, until he stretched out at thirteen. Leo still found it startling sometimes. “Britt’s tired,” he said. He looked over his shoulder. Britt was leaning against the window, plucking the cuffs of his shirt so they showed beneath his jacket. “Long hours.”
Harry kept polishing. “I know,” he said. “I know the hours will be long.”
Behind them, Britt slurped his coffee pointedly. “You want me to find out the distributor for these coffee beans?” Britt asked. “Since you like it so much. I can even write up some tasting notes for the menu. ‘Boxy, with top notes of resin and defeat.’”
Harry rubbed more creamy greenish polish on the metal and didn’t look up.
“Come spring this stuff will make your name,” Britt went on. “‘Bursting with the freshness of the Linden waterfront. A lingering finish of stevedore.’”
Leo stepped to the side so he could see Harry’s profile. Harry was still covering the grimy zinc surface with polish, but Leo saw the perk at the corner of his mouth.
“An intriguing balance of sparkling acidity and robust municipal corruption,” Harry said, and Britt laughed. He crouched next to Harry, picked up an extra rag, and rubbed at the cloudy polish, opening a circlet of blurry light on the metal, glowing somewhere between silver and pewter. All three of them gazed at the circle, the shiniest spot in the whole place.
“It’ll fly,” Britt said.
“Even if it doesn’t,” said Leo, “it won’t be the end of everything.” Both brothers turned to stare at him. “Well, what business did you think this was? A lot of great places fail. Don’t think I’m all smug—a lot of successful places go downhill and fail later too.”
“I’m kind of regretting asking you guys over here,” said Harry.
“It’s just risky,” Leo said. “You weren’t living here when we were first getting Winesap off the ground.”
“Come on. You’re doing great.”
“Now we are. It takes a while. You don’t know how scary it is. I’m worried we made it sound easier than it was.”
For years Leo had admired his brother’s basic optimism and the sheer energy with which he plunged into any new endeavor. Maybe Harry’s forays into graduate school fellowships and overseas trips and a stint in a salmon cannery had been just as treacherous as this but too foreign for Leo to have realized it. But now Harry was plunging into Leo’s own business, the demands and financial cruelties of which would daunt even a veteran if he ever stopped to think about it. Maybe he should have been urging caution all along. He feared that the restaurant business, which outsiders adored and thought would be so relaxing and congenial until they waded in and found it was all oil spatter and mayhem, might spell the destruction of Harry’s many, if poorly applied, gifts. For once, Harry might have come upon a task where sheer energy and will might not be enough.
Harry leaned back on his heels and looked up at Leo. “I do know,” he said.
“Okay,” said Leo. “Hey, who’d you get for investors, anyway?”
“Mostly the landlord. He gets to have a long-term tenant for once, he hopes, and he can swan in anytime he likes.” He paused. “Then a small business loan. Mom and Dad chipped in a little too.”
Britt’s head jerked back in surprise. Leo’s eyebrows darted up as he said, “You took Mom and Dad’s money? They’re retired. It’s enough you’re staying with them.”
“They offered. Insisted, even. I didn’t clean out their savings. It was very modest. And you know I’m paying them rent, right? More than what they wanted me to pay, if you must know. I didn’t just show up and ask Mom to do my laundry.” He delivered the last part with equal measures of defensiveness and amusement, and was rewarded with a collective snort at the idea of their mother doing laundry for any of them. There’d been an individual laundry policy in place since Leo was still standing on a chair to reach the washing machine.
“But, man, Harry,” said Britt, “we never asked them to invest in Winesap.”
“I know,” Harry said. “They didn’t pay for any schooling for me, though. I did it all with scholarships and work-study. I think they felt it was unequal.”
“Oh,” said Leo. Britt, who’d also long forgotten about the expenses of his education, looked sheepish. For Winesap, Leo and Britt had cobbled together their own small business and personal loans along with money from a few wealthy investors who liked the tax break and the special treatment. No one in his right mind bet on a nonfranchised restaurant to be a moneymaking investment, but now and again people got lucky.
There was a silence until Britt said, “Tell him where you got the bar top, Harry.”
“Craigslist, for a hundred bucks,” Harry said, his voice lightening. “Some lady in Pottstown’s grandfather died and this was in his attic, can you believe it? I’m going to have people cooking behind it, since the space isn’t big enough just to use it as a straight-up bar.”
Leo shrugged, more to himself than to anyone else. It was not a bad solution. He didn’t love to watch cooks at work when he went out, but other people were into these things. He gazed at the round of light on the metal, which was widening as Harry polished.
“It’s amazing,” Leo said.
Britt hadn’t come to this neighborhood in years, and as he drove away from Harry’s restaurant space, with Leo brooding in the passenger seat, he remembered why. This section of town had always had a certain amount of . . . call it grit, he decided, but when they were kids, even teenagers, it had felt more gruff and working-class. No frills, but not dangerous. Now the bars he drove past looked not like shot-and-a-beer joints where you might go after a shift but crooked-limbed and grimy, with more than one window boarded up, the kinds of places frequented by the real alcoholics, the ones who’d made a profession of it.
“Did you try to talk him into another location?” Britt asked. He glanced toward Leo, who was peering out his window with a frown.
“He’d already signed the lease,” Leo said. “I didn’t realize the landlord was the main investor. I told him he could break it. I told him he should break it.”
“How’d that go over?”
“About like you’d expect.”
Britt nodded. Harry had waited until he was deep into this venture before bringing it to them. He suspected that Harry didn’t really want their input at all.
He hummed under his breath as they entered the greener, cleaner part of town on the way to their restaurant. The sugar maples were turning crimson and golden. Leo was quiet as they neared the gray stone façade of Winesap and pulled around the back. He seemed to become focused and inward as they began each day at the restaurant, so interior that when summoned, he often looked at Britt for a split second before he took in who was speaking to him and why.
Britt looked forward to each day’s fresh scan of the dining room, the bar, and the maitre d’ station, the straightening of its crooked tables, polishing of its liquor bottles, and dispatching of its droopy flowers. He liked a space in which flaws could be tangibly whisked away, order and grace visibly restored. He liked walls the color of some creature’s muted underside or the soft inner petal of a plant, slippery leather banquettes and a silky curl of gravlax served on a slick white plate. Britt knew that some people found the repetitiveness of the restaurant business rather crushing, but to him it was rhythmic and satisfying. Somehow Leo must have known he would find it so.
The first time the Daily Journal had covered Winesap’s opening, many years earlier, the photo that accompanied the article had showed Britt in a sand-colored linen suit and a tangerine tie, looming before the bar seeming taller and more handsome than he was in real life, a mirthful, conspiratorial expression on his face. Leo was in the photo too, hunched and rumpled on a barstool, with his dark auburn hair showing too much scalp.
The article was respectfully interested, the Journal unwilling to tip its hand before the dining critic (who was also the arts editor) had a chance to eat there. She’d attempted a bit of a disguise, but Britt had recognized her in spite of the hair stuffed beneath a hat and what appeared to be extra sweaters to add bulk.
This was the sort of thing you ended up obsessing over: not only the critic in halfhearted costume in your dining room, but the fact that critics sometimes relied on such dowdy disguises. Britt didn’t believe in relegating poorly dressed people to the back tables, but there was no denying that people walked into a new restaurant and judged their company as they considered whether to join it. A dress code had seemed too off-putting for a new place back when Winesap opened, so they’d just had to concentrate on outfitting the staff and space as stylishly and simply as they could, so that anyone who showed up in running shoes or a T-shirt would be sufficiently aware of the contrast to step it up if they returned.
He had considered not telling Leo that the critic was there. He’d considered not even telling the kitchen or the server or the backwaiters, as an experiment. It shouldn’t matter who this woman was; there should be no higher standard reserved for VIPs, but of course there was. It gave customers something to aspire to: the martini materializing as soon as they were settled, the reserving of one last lamb loin for a late reservation known to be partial. Guests who dined out only now and again might not even realize such a possibility existed, but those in the industry and its frequent visitors would have felt slighted by having the same experience others experienced every day, one in which they were forced to verbalize every wish and then received no more than what they’d asked for.
In the end Britt had entered the kitchen and told Kenneth about the critic. Kenneth was expediting that night and smelled perceptibly of gin even back then. Britt still marveled that Leo had been right about Kenneth—he’d hired him saying that they might get a few years out of him before Kenneth imploded somehow, but that those impeccable years might be enough. How did Leo know these things when he spent his time squirreled away in the upstairs office like a dotty aunt? But there was nothing to be done about it right then: the critic was in the house; Kenneth seemed sober and brisk and so maybe he only reeked of the booze from the night before; and the servers, summoned, had stood before Britt in a dark-clad phalanx in the kitchen, hands clasped behind their backs, been admonished to be unobtrusively perfect, and melted back out into the dining room, where they gave no sign they knew who had just asked for the rillettes au lapin and homard à la vanille. (They had flirted with French menus at first, a wish of Leo’s that Britt had indulged for a few months before it became too ridiculous and dated to continue. Say what you would about Leo, he was gracious when he’d been wrong.)
And so the article heralding their opening appeared, and the review a few weeks later was so good it drew not only local papers but even a mention in the Inquirer’s “Neighbors” section. Britt found it hard to believe they’d managed such attention, but Leo had shrugged. “This city is just starting to climb out from a sinkhole,” he said. “They want to be able to cover an economic recovery. Do you see anyone else insane enough to open a restaurant in Linden?”
Britt had swayed for a moment—somehow he had not realized how big a risk Leo had so easily talked him into. Britt had replaced Leo’s ex-wife, Frances, who’d originally been in charge of the front of the house, and at the time Britt had found this reassuring: surely Leo would not risk the livelihoods of two family members. He’d assumed that Leo had some knowledge he did not, some secret that assured him the restaurant would be a success despite the city’s teetering municipal services and seedy downtown, but now he realized Leo had been banking on the fact that they were going to be pioneers. Perhaps Linden could join other outlying cities in being revitalized even after steel and textiles were gone. It had the advantage of distinct neighborhoods that still bore a faint ethnic imprint. It had a waterfront with some commercial potential, and it had a nearby college that helped bring in a few more adventurous eaters and support the farmers’ markets thirty minutes away. For years anyone who wanted to eat a good meal had gone into Philadelphia while Linden concentrated on eggplant parm, diners, and grungy but tasty Asian or Mexican food. Now, spurred by Winesap’s success, a few local restaurants were venturing further afield, with seasonal cuisine or menus showing cross-pollination of various countries.
But it was always precarious. Linden wasn’t close enough or rich enough to be one of the posh suburbs, and businesses like Winesap would either grow fat on the gold rush or be forced to eat one other during the pitiless winter. This rather stately place was balanced on the head of a pin—that was why the Inquirer thought it worth a mention.
For the first two years they were alone in the endeavor. The local diners kept slinging eggs and soggy toast; the local taco joints kept delivering grease-soaked paper bags. And meanwhile Winesap operated out of a converted old stone house on the edge of Linden, where, not coincidentally, the city’s most upscale neighborhood clung to the adjacent town like a barnacle, still shamefaced about its Linden mailing address.
They were carefully positioned between blowout expensive and pleasantly upscale. To some extent, Winesap had to replace that sense of occasion people got by driving into Philadelphia, and so certain requirements were nonnegotiable. In choosing the location, Leo had ensured that no strip malls were nearby, for example. Even expensive places near Linden often operated out of strip malls. The concession horrified Leo, who communicated this horror to Britt until Britt accepted it as his own. Because it was awful, walking into a mall and dropping two hundred dollars on lamb shank and Barolo in the shadow of a Radio Shack.
Slowly, other places began to open. Britt began to receive press requests for quotes not as the ingénue but as the elder. For it was Britt they called: Leo had taken one look at the photo that accompanied their first write-up, Britt looking so elegant and confident while Leo huddled homuncularly to one side, and entrusted Britt with the press. Britt did his best to live up to the task with the same alacrity with which he had shouldered so many demanding yet rewarding endeavors: high-strung girls who dabbled in modeling and French, a degree from Penn, a weathered barn door that turned out to be dark golden cherry and that he made into a grand dining table. He liked to talk, he liked making his seamless way through a crowd of people, he liked to know what was happening, and he’d found that reporters were always willing to dole out bits of city info in exchange for his take on, say, a revered pizza place opening a branch in Linden. Britt’s take was often actually Leo’s take first, but Britt generally agreed. Of the pizza place, Leo had said, “They don’t need real estate, they don’t need ambience. Serious pizza goes anywhere—it’s currency.” And he was right. In any city of mildly Italian extraction, a truly fine pizza transcended every class stratum. Italians could be counted on to influence everyone that way. Leo loved Italians. It crushed him not to be one.
When the restaurant was about three years old, Leo had told Kenneth to start making his own pasta, and two weeks later Britt entered the kitchen to find two women, one ancient and one about forty, set up near the walk-in, chatting in Italian and rolling satiny yellow sheets to be cut into tagliatelle. At first Britt thought Leo had imported them from Sicily like a case of plum tomatoes, but it turned out they spoke English and were Kenneth’s landladies. Britt phoned a reporter he’d been talking to now and again and offhandedly mentioned the growing trend of Linden discovering its own pockets of culinary talent for economic gain, embodied in the heartwarming story of the Torsini family, and then everyone knew Winesap served a glorious dish of tagliatelle as well as a perfectly crusted sea bream. Weeknight sales rose accordingly.
He was made for it, just as Leo was made for the position of watcher and string-puller. If the arrangement bruised Leo’s ego, he never said so. And Britt believed that Leo would never be bothered by occupying the less heralded role. This was one of Leo’s greatest strengths: he knew himself.
When Britt and Leo entered the kitchen door, evening service was gearing up to a bad start. In the dining room, servers swabbed grimly at the crumbs left on the floor from staff dinner while Alan, the bartender, observed them and polished a snifter. He stood very straight, motionless but for a slow, murderous circling of his thumb.
Watching him, Britt shuddered. “What the hell is wrong with these people?”
“They keep sleeping together,” Leo said. “Annette never trades shifts with anyone and now she can’t find people to cover her vacation. And Alan’s pissed that Helene never pushes people toward the bar to eat. He wants the tips.”
Britt rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Have you been holding round tables with the front-of-the-house staff about their romantic lives?”
Leo said, “My office window is right above the dining room. You think I don’t open that up?”
In the kitchen the cooks were frantic and silent, the Hobart mixer batting at a vat of butter in one corner, while across from it a stainless steel prep table held two hotel pans of putty-colored cow’s tongues, steam swirling off them as they cooled.
“Where’s Thea?” Leo asked the room at large. Manny, his dishwasher, jerked his head toward the walk-in. Inside the fridge he found Thea with one clog braced on a sealed bucket of chicken stock, counting sardines. Leo closed the door behind him.
Thea glanced up at him and then returned to marking her checklist. The sardines were layered in a flat pan of ice, crescents of blood threading from their gills. “Hector quit,” she said.
“Shit. Really?”
“Really. We have to keep a dessert chef more than six months sometime.”
“We have,” Leo said. “We will again.”
“He got bored silly doing warm chocolate cake.” Thea flipped a sheet of paper over in her binder and began noting the dates, written on masking tape, that marked every item in the walk-in and freezers.
“There’s room to maneuver,” Leo said, slightly stung. “Every workable idea Hector had, we served. He just gave us a lot of stuff we couldn’t use. The place is what it is. We couldn’t serve tobacco as a garnish, no matter how avant-garde he felt that week.” None of it made him feel any better. He’d known he’d never keep Hector forever, that Hector would go to New York, Philadelphia, or Chicago, but he’d tried. He gave bonuses. He was judicious in his criticism.
“He’s not big on workable,” said Thea. Hector would spend a week perfecting a sesame grapefruit mousse that Britt had described as the union of grainy and puckering, but then ditch the mousse and debut 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. No one knew how he’d made it. Leo had tried at home, just to see, and turned out a murky, unchewable paste. They’d all learned to wait out dishes like the sesame grapefruit mousse, the servers exchanging glances at each tasting but tactfully silent, because the two weren’t unrelated. Thea had pointed out that Hector seemed to need to work a bad dish with his hands while he worked his way through a stunning dish in his head.
“Oh well, I guess. That’s how it goes.” It was a blow. Hector had begun knocking away the restaurant’s reputation for classic but staid desserts, but no one kept the best talent forever. You found the next guy. Leo was already thinking about pouring a cup of coffee and getting upstairs, forgetting about Hector’s departure in a mountain of invoices. From the dining room he heard the familiar shift in ambience: the music had come on, the sounds of furniture being moved had quieted, and just outside the kitchen door he heard the clink of knives on ceramic as backwaiters filled ramekins of butter. “Where’d he go, anyway?”
Thea shrugged. “He said he was going to take a vacation and travel for a couple months.” She hefted the pan of iced sardines and bumped open the walk-in door with her hip.
The door closed behind her, but Leo stayed in the walk-in. He poked idly at a plastic bag of demi-glace, gleaming mahogany cylinders like a row of sliced horn. Thea liked to add a calf’s foot for texture. Maybe next time he came in Thea would be handing in her notice too. Leo would have to promise her a mountain of calves’ feet.
No. Thea was happy here. She had a three-year-old daughter and an ex-husband in school; she’d be loath to mess with a well-established routine—a routine Leo was as much a part of as, say, the ex-husband, if you really thought about it. Britt handled the front of the house and channeled Leo’s directives to the kitchen staff, but it was Leo who had noticed Thea as a quiet, focused prep cook slowly emerging each day from behind a mound of carrots, celery, and shallot, which she turned into great bowls of perfect dice.
Back then, Kenneth was still executive chef. He’d made the restaurant’s reputation, but the drinking problem had curdled his brash personality into an abusive one, and it was Thea, by then the sous chef, who’d slowly taken on responsibility, developing the nightly specials and training new staff, whom Kenneth either threatened or ignored. Leo had been upstairs all day and night, or out front watching the service, and for months he hadn’t seen that Kenneth was deteriorating. When he finally did realize whose dishes he’d been praising and whose guidance had been steering the back of the house, he’d called Thea up to the office, expecting protectiveness of her boss or total self-effacement, in service to a kitchen’s military protocol. Neither appeared: Thea had run the place because she hated disarray and she hated failure, but she had also seen a chance and taken it, and she expected recognition. And Leo gave her what she’d earned. He still did.
Harry might have youth and energy and possibly vision—it was too soon to tell; Britt could charm journalists and angry patrons; but did either of them have any idea how to wrangle the kitchen that kept them all employed? Because the most dedicated, talented, and downright martial kitchen staff were still crazy. They were inked with full-sleeve tattoos and they picked fights about offal; they wore scuffed leather jackets and smelled of smoke and whiskey; they spent their meager salaries on top-shelf brown liquor and execrable fast food; and they placed bizarre wholesale orders for items like duck tongue, Jew’s mallow, persimmons, and blood clams, which they paid for in crumpled bills and then took home to create menus for the decadent, spiteful, all-staff dinner parties they would then dissect throughout service for the rest of the week. Even stern, responsible Thea had joined in, sensing a threat to her authority after a particularly successful paella party hosted by a previously unknown prep cook named Jaime. She’d packed off her kid to her parents’ house and set about breaking down an entire pig into a twenty-four-hour feast of barbecue and charcuterie that had left the whole kitchen staff awed and overstuffed, with a respectful chartreuse tinge lingering in the whites of their eyes.
Britt might get to be the face of the restaurant, but Leo knew that he, Leo, was the brains. Now Leo paused, just out of the way of the swinging kitchen door, to look over the staff: Thea moving into place at the pass to expedite, a towel tucked into her belt and one tight curl of strawberry-blond hair disappearing into her collar; Manny humming to himself while he raised and lowered the door to the dishwasher as decisively as if it were a guillotine; Dennis slicing the tongue into circles with that gelatinous starburst in their centers, horrid but also rather beautiful; Suzanne at the fish station tasting a spoonful of fish stock; and at the meat station the sous chef Leo had found in a pasta place up in Bingham, where the cavatelli was gluey but the lamb shank had silenced him for a whole minute: Jason, an automaton, a pale bearded carnivore with a preternatural sense for meat temps.
The call-and-response of the first orders had begun; he listened to Thea firing one tongue, two ceviche, one venison, one escolar, one gnocchi, all day. He liked to stay for a few minutes during service—later he would return for more coffee and would stand silently near the espresso machine, observing—because when Leo was up in his office he would hear muted servers’ chatter but not this, not the rhythm of the kitchen as orders shuttled through it, the steaming roar of the dishwasher and the click of metal hotel pans on stainless steel counters and the constant verbal assertion and confirmation between the expediter and line cooks, like an animal talking to itself.

Chapter 2

Leo spent the better part of that autumn preoccupied with the belief that somewhere near Linden lurked an unknown pastry prodigy just waiting to be discovered. Britt, meanwhile, devoted himself to concealing his fixation on one of Winesap’s new regulars.
She had appeared in early September, a few days after their first and only visit to Harry’s restaurant space. She arrived wearing a charcoal sleeveless dress that could have been dull except that it was fitted so snugly, with tall heels and dangling, faintly Egyptian gold earrings. When she turned, the skirt flared and Britt saw a flash of a lime silk lining. At first he assumed she was a visitor from New York or Philadelphia, but bigger-city dwellers tended to radiate an air of parental delight at having uncovered a decent place. She might look like a transplant from some larger, chicer city, but she behaved like a local.
The woman handed a credit card to Alan and snapped her purse shut with a brisk click, shaking back a heavy, shining length of nutmeg-colored hair. Alan looked dazed. He had assumed the slightly openmouthed smile of a Labrador retriever, and Britt stepped forward to save him.
“My father,” she said, when she saw Britt approach. “It’s his birthday, but he’ll still try to pay.”
“Not mine,” said Britt. He raised an eyebrow at Alan, who murmured, “Table eight,” and Britt gestured for her to precede him to her table. As they walked, he added, “My father would drop a few hints about college tuition and order a dozen extra oysters.”
They paused at her table and Britt pulled out a chair for her. He was about to introduce himself when she said, “Ah, there they are,” and he turned to see a couple who were an older version of her enter the restaurant, followed by a man his own age. Maybe a brother but more likely a husband. And yet not much of one that he could see: the man was shorter than this woman, who stood eye to eye with Britt (hers were hazel), and he was balding. Disappointed, Britt returned to Alan and told him to send out glasses of champagne.
It was a Friday evening, and Britt was lurking about, observing Alan’s first solo night running the dining room. They had struck a bargain after several shifts of Alan’s carefully reasoned arguments for a trial as maitre d’. Britt assumed that Alan was only campaigning out of spite for Helene, the maitre d’ who never let people eat at the bar, but Helene was going on vacation and needed someone to replace her, and Alan, who was ABD in philosophy, made a first-rate argument. But now Britt was having doubts. Alan was relaxed and genuine as a bartender, but as a maitre d’ the weight of responsibility seemed to get to him, and he took on a peculiar pan-European accent and kept clasping his hands before him like an undertaker. Britt was petrified that he might bow.
She returned the next week, occupying a table of five with two couples, and a few weeks after that, in early October, with three heavy-shouldered young men of a sort of collegiate-warehouse hybrid. Then Britt didn’t see her for almost a month, until she was there with a blond, reedy man in his forties, and a week after that with a group of women who appeared to be very much like her: midthirties, chic, with smooth hair and notable eyewear. Britt greeted her the same way each time, warm but professional, never quite willing to turn her over to Alan or Helene but too baffled by her companions to try any further innovation. The two couples had seemed nervous and sweet-tempered, all ordering chicken. They had brought a large box with them, which sat tucked beneath the table until dessert, when they’d opened it and pulled out prettily wrapped jars of jam, handing each to this woman for her examination. The young men, who gave the impression of wearing baseball caps but who in fact were suitably dressed, had listened to her speak with rapt attention, pausing only for the burliest one to order an obscure bottle of Belgian ale to accompany the mussels. And the blond man, who looked familiar to Britt though he could not quite place him, had ordered cheese as an appetizer and foie gras terrine as a main course and spent the dinner dabbing at his eyes with a transparent ivory handkerchief—too distraught and bilious to seduce anyone, Britt decided. When she turned up with the group of women, Britt circumnavigated Alan and bounded forward, delighted to see her in a recognizable configuration. They ordered champagne as an aperitif, slurped at the heads of shrimp, and leaned back languidly in their chairs, flashing the scarlet soles of their expensive shoes. They seemed to have more and whiter teeth than the rest of the diners. Entranced and perhaps faintly threatened, Alan had sent out an extra first course without even asking Britt first.
What did this woman do? Was she a therapist, an etiquette coach? She did not dominate the conversation at any of her dinners, but she was nevertheless clearly central in some way to all—her companions oriented their bodies in her direction subtly but unmistakably. Watching each set of shoulders angled toward her, Britt was not sure it was even conscious. She ordered last and differently from the rest of the table but always shared tastes of her rabbit ragù with pappardelle, her saddle of lamb with potatoes dauphinoise. With the two couples she seemed solicitous and gentle, almost maternal, and she let the weeping man talk at her for an hour, nodding calmly, but then just before the chocolate truffle she reached over and tapped his knuckle. Whatever she said made the man rear back and drop his handkerchief. A passing server swooped in, folded it, and placed it at the edge of the table. Britt made a note to compliment her on the grace and subtlety of the move; the man seemed unaware that he had dropped it, and therefore that anyone had noticed whatever little shock had caused it. The woman just signaled for the bill.
Britt made a point of being accessible each time she departed so they could discuss the finer points of whatever she had chosen that evening. He made casual circuits of the room, noting the details of her frame with what even he could tell was a strange and orthopedic kind of attention: the diagonal sweep of her jaw, the length of her fingers, the smooth cup-and-ball of her bare, gleaming shoulder.
At the time, Britt was distracted and defensive thanks to a dying relationship, and the appearances of this woman were a respite not only from that but from arguments with Leo over finding a new pastry chef and from unreliable suppliers and the kitchen’s latest turf war with the servers.
She was also a useful barometer for Alan’s progress as a maitre d’, a position he had continued to occupy a few nights a week after Helene returned from vacation. Alan was slowly abandoning his Continental undertaker mode and honing his instincts for how and when to woo a guest with small displays of welcome, which had to be dispensed judiciously or else the guest would expect some free thing every time.
By this time Britt had learned her name, and so despite his general distraction he brightened when, just after Halloween, he saw her on the reservations sheet, slated for a window table overlooking the half-leaved trees and the darkening gray sky. He had noted a BC next to her name, which was Camille.
BC no longer stood for an actual blue index card but for a file on the computer system of frequent guests and their habits. A note on the servers’ ticket would alert them to check it before approaching the table, so they would know who hated salmon, who was allergic to gluten, who adored soft-shell crab, and who liked to linger over coffee. It was a habit Leo had picked up years ago, at a place where he had worked in college. There the staff had kept a small recipe-card box at the bar, containing alphabetically arranged blue index cards with additional notes jotted on, crossed out, and amended. The cards bore family names and configurations, the dead and the divorced neatly crossed out, new names in fresh ink to one side. They knew who married, separated, and gave birth. They knew birthdays and anniversaries and odd food wonks like an aversion to onions but a love of chiles, a rotating circuit of odd diets, favorite cheeses, and beliefs about meat temperature. However wise a business move the files were, scrutiny of them revealed lives in a way that was also oddly moving, and sometimes—perhaps—unflattering.
The staff was continually admonished to keep the cards’ language simple and neutral. No jokes, no giving in to moments of rage. Nevertheless, unable to resist, several servers had amused themselves by writing cards for one another: Often leaves table to weep in lavatory, read Alan’s file, likes server to offer brave smiles upon return. The file for a long-time server named David was nearly a novel, from Likely to arrive with chorizo in pockets; do not be persuaded to cook it for him to Frequently unmanned by hiccups. No one had made a card for Leo, who was just distant and intimidating enough that the servers weren’t sure how he’d take it. Britt would have told them to write one for him—Leo would love it—but the cards were not the kind of thing one could direct. Every now and again Britt read through them, hoping to see one for Leo appear. Britt’s blue card file read simply, Mouth breather.
When they first set up the filing system, Britt had had the idea to try to configure it so that descriptions could be sent to a portion of the servers’ tickets but would not print out with the final bill. The idea was to eliminate a step, precisely the sort of efficiency that kept a restaurant lean and quick. And it might have worked quite nicely except for a glitch that left the notes on the bill, forcing Britt to be summoned by a woman with silver hair in a brutal little knot at the back of her head, who opened her billfold and read aloud, “‘Likes to talk, but not to server.’” He’d had to buy her table an additional round of cognac to smooth it over, and afterward Britt and Leo had accepted the need for a less efficient filing system and an additional procedure even on the busiest nights—whatever it took to safeguard their guests from knowledge of themselves.
The blue card for Camille was no help at all. Britt stood at the maitre d’ podium, watching Helene rearrange flowers and the servers nudge place settings into alignment, and opened her file. Often dines with business (?) colleagues, it noted. Omnivore. And that was it. The servers she’d dealt with were as baffled by this woman as Britt was.
Britt stepped away from the podium, shutting down the blue card, as Helene returned. “How many covers tonight?” he asked, solely to redirect his own attention. He knew how many.
“One twenty-nine,” Helene said. “Good night.” She paused to look around the room—at the bar, Alan was holding a jar of cocktail onions to the light—and then gave a satisfied nod. Helene was as small and neatly turned out as a carved figurine, with a short, chic flutter of dark hair and a superhuman tolerance for high heels. She had returned from two weeks in France with a smattering of sun-induced freckles across her nose and a cool polish on her tableside manner.
“Who did the blocking?” Britt asked. The computer program handled the basics for booking reservations, but he insisted that a live brain reexamine the books each evening as well.
“Alan,” Helene said, “and he did a nice job too, I have to say.” Both of them glanced discreetly over at the bar. Alan had pointedly set out two place settings at one end and was now refusing any acknowledgment of Britt and Helene. “I think he got some of his friends to book the bar,” she added.
Britt nodded but said nothing. Overall he preferred to leave territorial spats to the participants. Like Leo, he felt it was undignified and unnecessary for the owners to get involved. “What’s the deal with Camille Lewis?” he asked. “Her blue card is no help, but she’s been coming in a ton.”
Helene eyed the reservation list. Camille was on it with a two-top for 8:30. “I have no idea,” she said. “I’m trying to get a handle on her myself. She’s very easygoing, I can tell you that.”
Britt nodded, a bit embarrassed to have asked. He shouldn’t be, he knew—it was his business to ask about guests who had all but declared themselves regulars—but he feared some new interest showed in his expression. Helene was eyeing him, alert as a rabbit, her dangling earrings vibrating with attention.
“I’m going upstairs to chat with Leo,” he said, and, ever discreet, she simply nodded.
Upstairs was where they kept a small library of cookbooks and culinary guides, two rooms filled with dry goods, and climate-controlled wine storage. In the dressing room the later shift of servers and backwaiters had arrived. David was standing in a white undershirt and unbuttoned black pants, ironing his shirt for service while around him several servers twisted their hair into knots or looped ties around their necks. They saluted Britt as he passed.
Leo was in their office, which perched over the front dining room. Two desks faced each other, one Britt’s, one Leo’s. Leo was concentrating on the computer screen. “What’s up?” he said without turning.
“Just checking in,” Britt said.
Leo glanced up and considered Britt for several seconds. “Helene may be too chic,” he said.
“Chic is good.”
“Chic is good, intimidating not. People go to bigger cities for that.”
“I’ll ask her to warm it up a notch,” Britt said, and Leo nodded, satisfied.
“You want to grab dessert tonight?” he asked. “I’ve been checking out this kid at Hot Springs. She’s a little up-and-down, but she might have something.”
“Sure,” said Britt. “Just let me stick around till the eight-thirty turn.”
“Invite her if you want,” said Leo.
“Who?” Britt said stupidly.
“This Camille person you keep hovering over. You’d better change things up. At some point she’s going to tip you for something and then you’re fucked.”
“You’re right,” Britt said. “I can’t quite figure out who she is.”
“That’s what dinner’s for,” said Leo. Britt nodded and stood there, waiting to see if Leo had divined anything else up here in his aerie, but Leo flipped over an invoice with a decisive thwack, said, “They’re nuts if they think we’ll pay four hundred a case for that Oregon plonk,” and ignored him until Britt headed back downstairs.
When Camille appeared a couple of hours later, the night was in full swing. The bar was three deep and Alan was neglecting his patrons in order to mix an elaborate nineteenth-century cocktail under the direction of a guest who was obviously making it up as he went along. The newest backwaiter was zooming around with a generally hunted aspect, and Helene was striding between the tables, pouring water, whisking away soiled napkins and crumbed plates, and calming people by virtue of her faint scent of laundered linen and her very presence. Britt delivered a cognac and glanced up to see Camille through the scrum near the door: a swirl of maple hair, the white flash of an incisor. He made his way back to the maitre d’ station, where Camille, color in her cheeks from the chill outside, was shrugging off her coat. He was looking forward to seeing what peculiar assortment she had collected this evening and—galvanized by Leo’s prediction—whether it would be easy to extricate her from them for dessert, for champagne, for some late-night wandering.
She waved, and Britt smiled and extended a hand as he neared, because the opened hand could do anything, really—it could become a kiss on the cheek, it could be a simple clasping of hers, but either way it was a clear invitation and yet a thoroughly appropriate welcome, an approach he had perfected long ago. And so it was all the more disconcerting when she did in fact lean into him for the briefest and silkiest of cheek brushes, and even more so when this motion revealed behind her Britt’s brother Harry.
Britt nodded at Harry, who could be counted on to understand a delayed greeting when a woman was there, and returned his attention to Camille. “It’s been too long,” he said.
“Weeks,” she agreed. “I tried out that Italian place on Sommers, which I probably shouldn’t tell you.”
“Not at all,” said Britt. “How was it?”
“Prefab.” Camille glanced behind her.
“This is my younger brother, Harry,” Britt said, and Harry and Camille both laughed.
“I know,” she said. “We’re having dinner.”
“Oh,” Britt said. “Well. I didn’t know you knew each other.”
Britt was rather warm inside his suit now. Was this development helpful or not? Out of his work boots and paint-splattered jeans, Harry was looking altogether presentable. He had trimmed his beard, appeared to have gotten a haircut, and had finally found a decent suit long enough in the limbs.
As the three of them made their way to a table by the front window, Britt heard his own voice saying various things, but he had no idea what any of them were. He seemed to be recommending the pasta. When Harry and Camille were seated, Britt stood for a moment gazing down at them in the avuncular way in which he often regarded Harry, which was, catastrophically, now directed at Camille as well. Then he told them to enjoy and departed for the kitchen to inform Thea that his brother was in the house.
Thea was expediting, standing with her feet planted well apart, hands braced on the stainless steel counter before her, observing the line cooks at work. She wore houndstooth pants, a white chef’s jacket that tied like a robe instead of being buttoned or double-breasted, and the surgeon’s cap she preferred to the house baseball cap with the restaurant’s logo on it. She believed the surgeon’s caps were more effective, and they did somehow contain the untamable headdress of strawberry-blond curls that was the bane of her existence. People touched her hair compulsively, unable to believe the coppery springs weren’t formed of metal filings or some resinous material; when they reached up for her hair, Thea would go as still as a cat and endure it. She was sturdy and long-limbed, broad-shouldered and slim-hipped as a swimmer.
On the line she radiated a steely calm that had taken some time for the kitchen to adjust to after Kenneth. At first many cooks had been unaware that they were being chastised for an uneven sear or an insufficiency of acidity. They thought she was commiserating. Where was the name-calling, the hoarse roar, the flash of the spatula Kenneth had wielded, ridiculously yet effectively, like a chef’s knife? Yet this misapprehension worked in her favor: the understanding of their failures surfaced later, over cigarettes and bourbon at Mack’s, the shithole bar around the corner, where around one a.m. a cook would often go quiet and stare at his knees in humiliated comprehension. When they returned the next day they found Thea already in the kitchen beside a vat of some vegetable awaiting their attention, a reminder that in the end they were there to peel, mince, blend, or sear, to be yeomen and craftsmen, whatever she asked them to be, and slowly they settled in and reoriented themselves to the kitchen as the seat of a controlled burn instead of a constant apocalypse. Britt had taken tremendous pleasure that first month after Kenneth’s ouster, watching Thea bring the kitchen staff in line one by one, like a game of psychological Whack-A-Mole. She had done it without raising her voice or losing composure; she had done it all by subtext.
Britt also found her rigid and distant—he was always thrown off by an uncharmed woman—but he trusted her with everything, and in a way he felt the two of them had the same job. Britt might be part owner, but to some extent he and Thea both executed Leo’s vision, internalized his tastes and hatreds and sensitivities, and smoothed their respective staffs into the same mold.
He was just about to let her know which table Harry and Camille were at when Thea looked beyond him and smiled. Britt turned, expecting to see Leo, but instead found it was Harry, strolling right through the kitchen doors to shake Thea’s hand and kiss her high on the cheekbone.
Harry clapped him on the shoulder. “Am I in the way if I say hello?” he asked. “Leo said it was okay.”
“Not at all,” Britt said. “It’s good to have you back here again.”
Harry was nodding, taking in the kitchen. He raised a hand in the direction of Suzanne and Jason. “Nice to see you guys,” he said.
“You too,” they said in unison. Britt frowned, wondering where they’d met.
“I’m dying to get my hands on that lamb,” Harry told Britt. “And the foie. I don’t think I’m going to be able to get away with serving that anytime soon. You guys can do those really high-end things over here. Maybe if I keep it casual it’ll hide the learning curve.”
“I’m not even all that big a fan of foie gras,” Britt said. “I feel like we kind of have to serve it. You’ll get more flexibility.”
Britt had always thought of Harry as the freest one of all three, unhindered by the same nervousness or expectations their parents had had for Britt and Leo. And so Harry had been gone 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. Meanwhile Britt had toiled in a PR firm and Leo had worked his way through restaurant after restaurant. Harry returned for Leo’s wedding and for a commiserating lost weekend when Leo divorced. Over the years photos had arrived: Harry looking like a serial killer in blood-spattered coveralls at the cannery, or on a boat before a glacial backdrop, his hands thrust beneath the flared scarlet gills of a great silver salmon. He clustered with a group of rumpled scholars before a grand stone library in Ann Arbor or stood, hands on hips, in a field where two spotted goats nosed at his denimed knees, his red hair lifted by the breeze. He was no sap, though; those goats had been braised with juniper berries and thyme not long afterward.
Britt had realized guiltily that he’d ceased paying close attention to these missives, nor had he kept up with answering them. By the time he replied that the farm sounded great, Harry was eating raw salmon straight out of the Alaskan waters, then had landed a research grant for his dissertation. All that resourcefulness made Britt feel old and staid.
But then again, Harry had never appeared to have a long-term plan, either, and Britt was discomfited by the suspicion that Harry’s path to opening his restaurant was just a little too random. Britt didn’t believe in randomness; he did not believe in serendipity. He felt a dark turn of uneasiness every time he really thought about Harry hoping to save the waterfront and awaken the city’s palate all at once. Britt was afraid Harry had gotten the impression that there was some single obscure trick to opening a restaurant, as there was to unhinging a mussel. It wasn’t like making a few great meals or decorating one pleasant room. Leo had drilled that into Britt before they’d opened Winesap, because back then Britt had been more of a newbie than Harry was now. But Britt had approached it with lists and spreadsheets and research, because although he found it important to appear effortless in all things, few things truly were.
Maybe Harry had a pile of spreadsheets and research at home that Britt didn’t know about. He was a scholar, after all.
Out in the dining room Britt could see the vivid blur of Camille’s dress. “So how do you know Camille?” he asked.
Harry smiled mysteriously. “Oh, you might call it a professional relationship through one of my investors,” he said. To Thea he added, “She’s a knockout.”
Thea nodded. “I know,” she said, “I saw her résumé.” Harry and Britt looked at her in confusion, but Thea only shook her head, disappointed in them both. Jason handed her a plate of rabbit ragù, and she inspected it before finishing it with a fresh grating of Parmigiano. She snapped a damp towel from her belt and wiped a smear of sauce off the plate, marked the dish on the ticket, and reached for a fish plate from Suzanne. Most of the time she was quiet, but now and again she noted a plating that displeased her, a mirepoix on the verge of being unrefined. Thea was not charmed by rusticity or idiosyncrasy.
“I was going to take her out for sushi,” Harry was saying. “I wanted to introduce her to this place I just found with the most incredible toro. Did you know most toro is days old, and it’s thawed? It’d shock you, man, it really would. Anyway, I think my guy has a line on some black-market toro or something—you should see his little unmarked restaurant door. This tuna is like heroin. It’s like sea heroin. I think she’d love it. But I haven’t been here in so long, I couldn’t go somewhere else first.”
“It’s been a while,” Britt agreed. “Since Kenneth? No, that can’t be right.” But he was distracted, thinking that Harry knew the secrets of Camille’s desires and tastes, while Britt, after months of observation, was still grasping sadly at details. Britt glanced down at the line, where a halibut and a venison had joined the rabbit ragù and been wiped clean by Thea, finished with a drizzle of olive oil, and capped with a metal dish cover. The backwaiter had left a scattering of breadcrumbs near the cutting board, and Britt brushed them into an empty basket and stashed it beneath the counter. He turned back to Harry just as Alan came bustling into the kitchen to retrieve his dinners.
“Completely purposeful,” Alan was saying. “Finally she seats the bar, knowing perfectly well I’d get slammed. Where’s the brittle?” Thea silently handed him a plate with a shard of salty pistachio brittle to accompany the venison. It had to be placed on the plate immediately before serving or else it softened up. Harry was eyeing the brittle closely as Alan remembered himself, said to Thea, “Thank you, chef,” and dashed away.
“Salted brittle?” Harry asked thoughtfully.
Thea smiled. “It’s actually pretty savory.”
Harry crossed his arms and bent forward. “How do you do that? Brittle is sugar.”
“I know!” Thea said. “It took forever to get the proportions right. Our pastry chef actually came up with it. Well. Former pastry chef. Anyway, it’s not that there’s no sugar, it’s more that it’s so caramelized that you perceive the salt and nuttiness and roastiness. But also there’s the tiniest bit of dried currant. Tarts it up.”
“You should try it,” said Britt.
Harry said, “I’d love it. I don’t know if Camille’s a venison person.”
“I think she’s had the venison here before,” Britt said.
Harry peered back into the dining room. “She’s gorgeous, don’t you think? I’m still looking for an in. Maybe tonight. Maybe some wine.”
“You know what?” Britt said. “Let us take care of ordering tonight. Don’t even bother looking at your menus.”
“Really?” Harry said. “We’d love it. I mean, I want to try the venison—”
Britt interrupted him smoothly. “Not one look. Go relax, and we’ll plan it all from here.”
Harry’s eyes darted between Thea and Britt, a tentative smile working at his mouth. “Okay, then,” he said. “That’s fantastic, you guys. Thanks.” He gave Britt a winning smile, punched him on the arm, pointed a finger at Thea, and said, “You. Me. Brittle. Later,” and then headed back out to the dining room. Britt watched him go, feeling guilty but also faintly relieved to have a little control again after the careening sensation he’d had when he’d seen Harry with Camille.
“What’s he doing back in town?” Thea asked. She had returned to work now, firing the next round of dishes. She had always been fond of Harry, who joshed her and teased her in a way no one else was allowed to. Certainly no one at Winesap would dare to flirt with Thea. Britt suspected even her ex-husband had never enjoyed the privilege.
“He’s been staying at our parents’ house since April, while he gets settled,” Britt said. Then he lifted one shoulder and admitted, “And he’s opening a restaurant.” Thea glanced sharply at him.
“You’re kidding,” she said.
“I am not.”
Thea’s face clouded, and Britt experienced a rare flash of genuine warmth for her. It was ridiculous, he was about to say, for his brother to assume that he could so easily step right into what Leo and Britt had built. Of course it was!
“Why wouldn’t I have heard about this?” Thea said. “Are you guys in it with him?”
“Nope. We may have offered an idea or two, but that’s it. We didn’t want to mention it till it was clear he was really going to do it.”
She shook her head. “Jason! Did you know about this?”
Jason handed her a plate. “Yes, chef.”
“You did?” said Britt.
“Yeah,” said Jason. “We heard over at Mack’s. He came in to buy drinks and meet the locals.”
“Tell them what they’re calling it,” said Suzanne. Jason shot her a look, but Suzanne had served up a plate of fish and turned back to the range, leaving Jason to his fate.
“Crab Apple,” Jason admitted. He wiped a sheen of sweat from his ivory forehead, looking faintly ill, but Jason always looked faintly ill. “I heard the real name is 71 King.”
“Goddammit,” said Thea. “People are going to compare us, whether it makes any sense or not. I need to be aware of it. If my own sous chef hears something like this, I should know.” She looked at Britt accusingly. “Now I have to hang out at that dive bar once a week or else I’ll be out of the loop.”
“I’m sorry,” Britt said. “I should’ve told you.” Britt thought of the front table, the window table, where he had installed Camille and Harry, where even now Camille would be working her way through a glass of champagne. The taut pull of her throat as she swallowed, the swing of her hair on her bare shoulder blades. Professional acquaintance or not, Harry would be laying some groundwork, a glancing touch on the shoulder as he returned to the table, a disarming opinion of some recent movie.
“Oyster fritter,” Britt said. Thea whipped out a pad and began to write. “Oyster fritter, then the foie gras terrine, then a little taste of the pork rillettes.” Thea raised an eyebrow. “The sea bream with potato-truffle galette, the lamb, and a half course of the venison. And a half course of the rabbit ragù, before the bream. What’s the soup situation?”
“Plenty of the bourride,” said Thea.
“Well, then, a little bourride early on as well,” said Britt. “Finish with the rib eye, and give them the works on dessert. I’ll have Helene do the cheese.”
Thea had finished writing—the meal order had gone on to a second page—and now she looked at him. “No halibut?”
Britt blanked. “What’s the prep?”
“Clementine gremolata, saffron broth.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed, “it’s the light-bright.” This was their term for the dishes that were high in acidity and low in cream; every night’s menu had one, to appease the dieters and the faint of heart. “Nah. Make it a full order each of bourride and we’ll take it from there.”
He headed back out to the dining room, where the tenor had shifted slightly. It had taken him a full year, maybe even longer, to calm down during the madhouse period of a Saturday night and accept that it would always eventually smooth out into this: Britt thought of it as the acceptance phase. The pace was no less frantic, but the servers had settled into their groove and the backwaiters remembered how to think only three or four tasks ahead instead of trying to see their way through the whole evening. Alan was pouring out martinis in a perfect silver thread, with not so much as a pause between glasses, and Helene was removing the empty plates from the diners at the end of the bar. They would all keep going like this until a couple of hours from now, when the last turn would filter in and the room would suddenly be dotted with a few blessedly empty tables and the welcome sight of coffee cups and brandy snifters. The moment always arrived as an abrupt shift in perception, marked every night by the instant when Britt realized the music was now too loud. Inevitably, at the very same moment he would see Helene reaching inside the maitre d’ stand to lower the volume on the sound system.
Thea watched Jason plate a venison rib chop, curious how long he would try to avoid looking at her. He finally looked at her as he handed over the plate. “I thought they told you, chef,” Jason said. “Sorry.” Thea waited. “Leo didn’t say anything?”
Thea shook her head as she placed the ticket for Harry’s table at one end of her board.
“Can I get a down-the-road?” Suzanne asked.
“Yup. Ordering one fritter, split,” Thea replied. “Firing two amuse-bouches. That’s all you.”
“One fritter, split,” Suzanne replied. “Firing two amuse.”
Thea sighed. “You know how Leo is. If we hear anything from anyone, it’ll be Britt. And it should’ve been them. I shouldn’t give you guys a hard time. So I won’t, but still—you hear anything further, you let me know.”
“Of course,” Suzanne said piously.
Thea decided she had taken it as far as she could. She was more concerned about Leo—either he didn’t think she knew the local scene, minimal though it was, or else he didn’t think she needed to know. He was hard to catch hold of these days, weaving his way through the restaurant silently and unexpectedly, ever-present but difficult to pin down. Often the cooks looked up to realize he’d been standing by the espresso machine for who knows how long, observing the movement of the kitchen with a look of calm, if unsmiling, contentment. Yet he rarely spoke at staff meal or offered more than polite greetings when she ran into him in the office. It was tough to believe that his brother was Harry, who seemed to like everyone and who over the years had stopped in to charm the staff whenever he was in town. Apparently he’d strolled into Mack’s and started introducing himself and within a night or two had had cooks practically fighting to name the best staff in the local industry. Even Britt, whose charisma was so professional and yet so unconscious, only gave the impression of intimacy, the constant promise of it. But she could imagine Harry leaning back in his plastic chair, listening as intently as a therapist. Yet he too kept some silences. It seemed he hadn’t said much about the kind of place he was opening. Maybe those three were related after all.
A new ticket spat out of the printer. “Ordering three venison, firing one bourride, split,” Thea called. Jason nodded and repeated the venison portion of the order, pulling chops from the reach-in to let them come to temp. Only when Thea fired them would he begin to cook each dish.
“Sure you want to split these dishes?” Jason said. “I think Britt wants us to double ’em up.”
Thea laughed. “We should send out an extra course too, come to think of it. Poor Harry. He’s gonna end up sleeping here.”

Reading Group Guide

The information and questions in this guide are intended to help you in your discussion of Michelle Wildgen's Bread and Butter.

1. How are Harry, Leo, and Britt different?  How are they alike?

2. What is Harry trying to prove by opening up a restaurant in the same town where his brothers have their restaurant? Is his experience a useful background for a restaurateur, or do you think Leo and Britt followed a more helpful path toward owning a restaurant?

3. How does the relationship between the brothers evolve over the course of the novel?

4.  How would you define the roles the brothers occupy in their family? How do those roles shift over the course of the book?

5. What do you think about the names of the restaurants?  What do they reflect about each one?

6. How has the novel changed the way you think about restaurants and the people who work in them?

7. Do Leo and Britt own their restaurant or does it own them?  What about Harry?

8. What are the implications (moral and practical) of Leo dating Thea?  Is he wrong to do so?

9. How does Camille change Britt?  What about Thea and Leo?

10. What was your favorite main course described in the novel?  Favorite dessert?

11. How would you describe your attitude toward food?  Passionate?  Perfunctory?  Adventurous?  Would you order the lamb’s neck?

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Bread and Butter 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The premise is promising. I wanted to enjoy it. I was ready to delve into the sibling rivalry of Britt, Leo and Harry and embrace the foodie culture the book is surrounded in, only to find a meandering slog of a novel, with too much food snobbery going on. It was an ordeal to finish and despite a story that could have been more, Wildgen wastes an opportunity. I do not recommend it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
casab More than 1 year ago
Ever wondered what's going on in the kitchen while you're enjoying your dining experience? Bread and Butter is an interesting behind-the-scenes peek at what is involved in putting that perfect plate on the table before you while at the same time providing an enjoyable fictional story of three family members caught in the web of culinary competition. Not recommended for reading on an empty stomach! Only thing missing was recipes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cute story set in anywhere PA attempting gentrification. You feel affection toward all the characters. Lots of food references and description...perfect for the foodie but possibly too much if you are not. I adored this book :)