7 Great Novels That Go Behind The Scenes at Restaurants

7 Great Novels That Go Behind The Scenes at Restaurants

Tuesday, 21 January, 2020

The work is physically grueling, the customers are demanding, and it’s the front-of-the-house versus the back in restaurants all over the world. But in the kitchen, the chef is the ultimate authority.

The closed environment of a restaurant is ripe with stories. If you only read one book about restaurants, please make it Anthony Bourdain’s masterpiece Kitchen Confidential. His thrilling, raunchy memoir takes us into the heat of the kitchen, so we understand the appeal of busting one’s butt to cook and serve food to other people:

I’m asked a lot what the best thing about cooking for a living is. And it’s this: to be a part of a subculture. To be part of a historical continuum, a secret society with its own language and customs. To enjoy the instant gratification of making something good with one’s hands — using all one’s senses. It can be, at times, the purest and most unselfish way of giving pleasure…

I was born into a restaurant family. But before you get the wrong idea, you should know a few facts: We lived in rural Pennsylvania. It was the late sixties/early seventies. And no one was yet treating chefs like rock stars.

My grandfather owned The Garfield in Pottsville. It was one of those shiny chrome diners, where you could sit at the counter, sip on a bottomless cup of coffee, and wisecrack with the waitresses and other regulars. Back in 1960, when John F. Kennedy was a U.S. Senator, he campaigned for president right in front of my poppop’s diner. The town had a population of 21,659 people, and 12,000 of them packed Garfield Square to hear the speech.

jfk giving a speech in front of the garfield diner

My dad ran The Country Squire Restaurant, a combination coffee shop, formal dining room, and motel with a bar attached called The Mediterranean Lounge. Muhammad Ali was a semi-regular, and Andy Warhol ate there once. My family had dinner at the restaurant at least once a week. On one memorable Donut Day, the whole county was snowed in, so we spent the night at the motel, then fried donuts in the restaurant kitchen the next day. Birthday parties, family reunions, family breakfasts — they all happened at The Country Squire. And it was the first place I got a job.

When I was twelve, I helped with the bookkeeping and checking guests into the motel. By the time I was in high school, I was sweating in the kitchen as a dishwasher alongside my best friend and the motley crew of cooks, busboys, and waitresses that formed an off-kilter but irresistible found family. One of the waitresses had been my babysitter when I was a toddler. A hostess — died black hair with a flower tucked behind one ear, smelling like Aquanet and cigarettes — always made me think of the Neal Diamond song Crackling Rosie.

While there always seemed to be shifting allegiances and romantic entanglements going on, there was also a sense that each of them would go to the mat for the others. Nothing creates a bond like the high of surviving the lunch rush or weathering the doldrums between lunch and dinner when the only reasonable activities are folding cloth napkins and shooting the shit out back with a smoke.

These seven novels take us to a family-owned Chinese restaurant in Maryland, a Lebanese Café in L.A., upscale restaurants in Oslo and Montreal, a supernatural catering company, and turn-of-the-20th-century New York. The settings are vividly rendered and dramatically different from each other, but there’s one thing they have in common: complex and compelling characters at crossroads in their lives. — Melissa

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Restaurants: Hot Stoves and Steamy Relationships.


The Dishwasher - Stéphane Larue

The Dishwasher
> Stéphane Larue

In this lyrical, insightful ode to making mistakes, our would-be hero Stéphane is up to his elbows in dirty dishes and kitchen drama at a high-end restaurant in Montreal. What’s a kid with a penchant for Iron Maiden, Dungeons & Dragons, and video gambling to do?

Stéphane is a talented graphic designer with fresh ideas and a legit heavy metal band for a client. But before he can stop himself, he’s gambled away his first commission and blown the deadline. He’s also lying to his friends, his parents, and himself. Hiding out from the angry band members and desperate to stop his downward spiral, he takes the first job he can find: washing dishes at La Trattoria.

He quickly makes enemies and allies in the greasy kitchen, and Larue’s prose vividly conveys the unrelenting noise and aromas, as well as the repetitive, grinding physical effort required to churn out — and clean up from — hundreds of meals a day.

Stéphane makes some bad choices, and it’s almost physically painful to read the passages in which he rides the waves and troughs of his gambling addiction. But you also can’t help but root for him to triumph. {more}

… it made me think of everything I was burning, one twenty-dollar bill at a time. It wasn’t my life that was being burnt; it wasn’t just my body that was subjected to the ravages of my own stupidity. I was burning everything I touched: money, friendships, girls, plans. Deep down, I knew I wouldn’t stop until everything was gone. But I kept right on gambling anyway. — Stéphane Larue

Last Night at the Lobster - Stewart O’Nan

Last Night at the Lobster
> Stewart O'Nan

For one more shift, Manny DeLeon is the manager of the Red Lobster in a small town in Connecticut, and he’s going to make the best of it. Despite his messed-up love life. Despite the approaching blizzard. Despite the fact that it’s just four days until Christmas.

Hunkered down in the far corner of a mall, the Red Lobster has been abandoned by corporate. All but five of the employees are being let go, and Manny is determined to make their last day together worth remembering.

Every word in Stewart O’Nan’s taut prose seems to have been selected, carefully considered, and then placed with precision into the sentences. The people that populate the Lobster — staff lifers, short-term employees, greedy retirees, the guests of a holiday office party — are as fully-rendered as Manny himself. You almost wonder how they’re doing and where they go to eat, now that the Lobster is closed.

This quiet, evocative story celebrates Manny’s dignity even as it recognizes his powerlessness. And when he closes the restaurant for the last time at 11:00 p.m., we know he’ll carry on — well-intentioned, a little bit tragic, but somehow heroic. {more}

Two months ago, Manny had forty-four people working for him, twenty of them full-time. Tonight when he locks the doors, all but five will lose their jobs, and one of those five — unfairly, he thinks, since he was their leader — will be himself. Monday the survivors will start at the Olive Garden… — Stewart O’Nan

Envy of Angels - Matt Wallace

Envy of Angels
> Matt Wallace

A dinner so delicious it’s to die for? That is literally the case at Sin du Jour, the supernatural catering company.

In this tasty urban fantasy — the first in a series of seven novels — superstar chef Byron ‘Bronko’ Luck is the culinary genius behind a catering company with dangerous clientele: demons. When two chefs are banned from the kitchens of upscale restaurants in Manhattan, Bronko makes them an offer they can’t refuse.

Soon they’re introduced to the diabolical world of paranormal recipes, getting to know co-workers who are not entirely human, and practicing arcane culinary techniques. There are devilish gang wars, zombie clowns, a genie, sublime angels, a secret pantry with unusual ingredients, a mysterious stray dog, an enormous enchanted chicken, and so many other reasons to be very, very afraid.

Our hapless heroes are joined by a piquant cast of supporting characters, including a crew of catering veterans who regularly go hunting for rare ingredients. And all of them, humans and beasts alike, are on a mission to find a particular secret ingredient for the most important catering job in the universe. {more}

They being by sampling mini-oxtail taquitos covered with the absolute hottest mole negro either of them has ever tasted… The second appetizer is a tiny Korean short rib pizza with some type of sriracha-based sauce on top. Its flavor is remarkable but also overwrought with surprising heat. The third dish is a bite-sized stuffed pepper.

‘Who are your clients, Chef? Jamaican pepper farmers?’

‘They like their heat,’ he says simply. — Matt Wallace

The Waiter - Matias Faldbakken

The Waiter
> Matias Faldbakken

The Hills is a grand old-school European-style restaurant in Oslo, Norway. Both the café itself and the waiter of the title are throw-back to a more elegant and refined time — even if they’re also becoming a bit rough around the edges.

Our hero is the Waiter, a man who takes himself — and his role as a server — quite seriously. The ritual of the dining room, his white canvas jacket; these are his shields against the unpredictability and crassness of modern life. Within the walls of The Hills, at least, there can be dignity. Conversations are held to an appropriate murmur, a piano player plinks away on the mezzanine, each lunch and dinner unfolds much like the last. Until the day an unexpected female guest invades the Waiter’s domain and upends everything that’s holding him together.

Like a Wes Anderson film turned into a book, this story partially camouflages its warm heart with smooth style and charm. When the chinks begin to show in the Waiter’s defenses, it’s surprising and delightful — a wry look at the insults and absurdities that life serves to all of us. {more}

The morning, as we all know, belongs to coffee. Regardless of the ripple effects that coffee production and motoring have, it’s hard to imagine a life without the two, ideally in combination, and preferably in the morning. The activities of slurping coffee and driving cars are, in one’s very chromosomes, linked to the idea of getting pumped up and underway… Doing away with one of these is like amputating a limb from the body of society: it’s completely out of the question. — Matias Faldbakken

Number One Chinese Restaurant - Lillian Li

Nothing has changed at the family-owned Beijing Duck for decades, including the menu (fried rice and Peking duck precisely cut into 28 slices) and the ‘gaudy, overstuffed décor’ of red upholstered chairs, floral carpet, and tasseled lamps.

Owner Jimmy Han is eager to ditch his father’s traditional approach for a more modern, sophisticated restaurant. But his brother Johnny and the customers like things just as they are. The situation is complicated by their domineering mother, the long shadow of their deceased father, and a sketchy, almost-gangster known as Uncle Pang.

Made foolishly bold by his ambition, Jimmy strikes a losing deal with Pang. Soon, tensions and grievances come to a boiling point, and the ensuing act of violence has a profound impact on everyone: the Han brothers, their families, and the staff, who’ve worked at the restaurant for decades.

Word to the wise: Put your favorite Chinese restaurant on speed-dial because you’ll be craving delivery from page one. {more}

The walk-in was the perfect place to propose! They would both cry freezing tears of joy while the frigid temperatures saved their hearts from exploding. Their embrace would keep them warm. He even spotted a bare pallet that made the prospect of getting down on one knee less daunting. — Lillian Li

Crescent - Diana Abu-Jaber

> Diana Abu-Jaber

Our heroine Sirine is an Iraqi-American chef with blonde hair, green eyes, and a heart she’s kept carefully tucked away from harm. When she meets Han, an Iraqi literature professor in exile from his home country, she allows herself to fall joyously, recklessly in love.

As Sirine and Han’s intimacy grows, she begins to explore her Iraqi identity as he grapples with the memories of the places and people he left behind. When the real world of politics intervenes in their new love, they both must face the past and a dangerously uncertain future.

Most of the action in this poignant love story plays out in a family-owned Lebanese restaurant in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles known as Tehrangeles. Students and professors from UCLA, far from their homelands, find comfort and community at Nadia’s Café where Sirine is the cook. They become a family of sorts, bonding over bowls of hummus and the dire news they read in their day-old Iraqi newspapers.

And Sirine’s kebabs and saffron rice become shorthand for feelings that are far too complex and significant to be expressed in words. {more}

Sirine has lived in her uncle’s calm library of a house nearly all her life; she’s never quite understood how people could trade in quiet spaces and solitary gardens and courtyards, thoughtful walks and the delicious rhythms of work, for the fearful tumult of falling into love. — Diana Abu-Jaber

Take-Out: And Other Tales of Culinary Crime - Rob Hart

> Rob Hart

Author Rob Hart knows his way around the darker alleys of the human psyche. He’s best known for his Ash McKenna detective series and the chilling (and wildly entertaining) near-future dystopian thriller The Warehouse.

In this story collection, he further explores the intersection of human foibles, illicit motives, and humor — while also serving up plenty of tempting plates of grub. Each installment is a sharply detailed, bite-sized world, like a novel that’s been simmered and reduced just right. The characters are multifaceted, the settings are vividly rendered, the atmosphere is thick with aromas and smoke and deception.

Our favorite story, ‘Have you eaten?’ is a slightly sinister celebration of street food in Singapore’s Chinatown. In it, our hero waxes poetic about his favorite eats at hole-in-the-wall joints around the world while tucking into char kway teow (‘…rice noodles and Chinese sausage and blood cockles. There were crisp cubes of pork lard, too…) and Hainanese chicken rice (‘…boiled chicken, served with a sauce, then the rice is cooked in ginger and chicken fat’).

In the title story, a gambler makes suspicious deliveries to work off his debt to a Chinatown gambling parlor; just what is in those white take-out boxes, anyway? ‘How to Make the Perfect New York Bagel’ is a snapshot of shakedowns, enduring friendship, and the savory satisfaction of well-timed payback. {more}

New York’s restaurant scene is surmountable only to the smartest, the most talented, the most willing. This is a city where a week’s salary will buy you a meal at Per Se and a handful of crumbled bills will buy you a meal at a filthy stall in Chinatown, and you’d be hard-pressed to pick a favorite between the two. — Rob Hart

Share your personal food-service horror stories and favorite restaurant books in comments!

Top image courtesy of Cloris Ying.

Want to keep up with our book-related adventures? Sign up for our newsletter!

keep reading

Thanks to the heat of the kitchen and friendship forged during the dinner rush, restaurants are a rich setting for tasty stories. In episode 2 of our new podcast, we take a big bite of books about restaurants.
This Chinese dish is almost a character in the short story 'Have you eaten'? by Rob Hart. We devoured the story, then created this recipe: tender chicken, spicy sauces, and savory rice. It's dangerously delicious.
The Tom Collins is the ultimate highball, a combo of gin, simple syrup, lemon, and bubbly water. This classic is effervescent and refreshing — the ideal go-along for a literary thriller set on a retro luxury liner.

sharing is caring!

Can you help us? If you like this article, share it your friends!

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.