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This is a transcription of Episode 2 — Restaurants: Hot Stoves and Steamy Relationships.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: And I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We’ve searched for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe. One great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
David: Welcome to season one, episode two of strong sense of place. Today we’re talking about the boisterous life inside of a restaurant. So restaurants are thick with atmosphere and story and backstory. So let’s talk for a minute about what makes restaurants so great for storytelling.
Melissa: Well, I should it tell everyone that I grew up in my dad’s restaurant. We lived in rural Pennsylvania and he owned a roadside diner that also had a more formal dining room and a bar and a motel attached… It was great. My earliest memories are being there at the restaurant and he owned it until I was a senior in high school. So all through my childhood and teenage years, I ate there. I hung out with people who work there. I had every job imaginable in a restaurant, but I bet you can’t guess what my first one was…
Melissa: It was not dishwasher.
David: How old were you?
Melissa: When I was 12 yeah, I was the bookkeeper [laughter] because everyone knows people who love to read and write stories are really good with numbers.
David: Yeah. I feel like this was so your dad could set up plausible deniability…
Melissa: but then I moved on from there too. In fact, being a dishwasher with my best friend Renee on the weekends. That’s also where I developed a very strong crush on Vince Morgan, the other dishwasher. I was not a waitress at my dad’s restaurant, but I did waitress later at another restaurant in town. I worked as a hostess and at the checkout at the cash register. So yeah, every part of the restaurant is like embedded in my DNA.
David: I also have a professional background in the food service industry.
Melissa: And how long did that last, Dave?
David: I was with the sandwich shop at the mall for six weeks before we decided to part and seek different professional goals. [laughter] We had a creative misunderstanding and I don’t like to talk about…
Melissa: NDAs were involved…
David: I wasn’t allowed to work in the mall for some time after that.
Melissa: Okay, so back to restaurants and your illustrious career therein. One of the things I think makes restaurants such a rich environment for telling stories is that it’s an enclosed space. Everyone who’s working on their shift is trapped in this space for eight to 10 to 12 hours. And it’s this weird blend of professional environment where everyone has a particular job to do and also it’s own kind of community. Because when you work in a restaurant, there are times of high stress when you’re really, really busy and everyone’s running around and supporting each other and doing their job. And then there’s this downtime when it’s quiet, where maybe you’re, I dunno, rolling silverware in a napkin and gossiping and catching up on your weekend plans and it forms the sort of found family that has everything a real family has good times and bad times and grudges and long histories.
Melissa: There’s also this weird kind of dichotomy in that the customers who are coming to the restaurant are coming maybe to celebrate or for the nurturing feeling of the food and as a customer, it’s like a warm social relaxing experience.
David: It’s a replacement for home almost.
Melissa: Exactly, and then on the other side when you’re working, it is NOT that. The cooking line is hot and sweaty and busy and stressful and the chef is not, in that moment, thinking of I’m making this beautiful food to nurture these people. They’re just trying to get the steak out before it’s over done. Finally, I think the last thing that’s really interesting about restaurants is that there’s both a sort of tribalism of the people who work in the kitchen and the people who work in the front of the house. And there are different relationships with the customers.
David: For sure. Because the front of the house is trying to project warmth and I’m in control and style and sophistication — and the back of the house is screaming and trying to get the plates out.
Melissa: And then there’s also that in the kitchen, particularly, I think, in high-end kitchens, there’s a very clear hierarchy, almost a military approach to how things get done. The chef says something and you say, ‘Yes, chef,’ and you hop to and you do that thing.
David: I was surprised when we were doing the reading about how many stories there are about chefs who are deeply horrible human beings, just awful. Just terrible and are still employed gainfully.
Melissa: Yeah. There can be a lot of kind of questionable behavior in the kitchen. Yeah. Before we jump into are two truths and a lie, I just want to read this quote from the amazing Anthony Bordain and his book Kitchen Confidential because I feel like he really kind of captured what it’s like to be in the kitchen.
David: I want to say if you’re looking for something to read that’s set in the kitchen and you haven’t read Kitchen Confidential, you can start there.
Melissa: Yeah. We’re not covering that book in the podcast because it seems so obvious, But I will start with this quote from him to kind of set the tone for what we’re talking about today. And he’s talking about the chefs in the kitchen.
In the kitchen, they were like gods. They dressed like pirates, chef’s coats with the arms slashed off blue jeans, ragged and faded headbands, Gore covered aprons, gold hoop earrings, wrist cuffs, turquoise necklaces and chokers rings of scrimshaw and ivory tattoos. All the decorative detritus of the long past summer of love.
David: That’s such a great paragraph. That’s a really nice metaphor because it’s like that, right? You’re in the kitchen. It is your small swarthy the gang against the rest of the world.
Melissa: And that is the only way you are going to get through that dinner service is if everyone is committed to that goal.
David: So as you know, uh, since the ’40s when we started this podcast, we have started every one with two truths and a lie about a particular setting. We’re going to do that now. I’m going to say three statements. Two of them absolutely true. One of them completely fiction. Mel does not know which of these are true.
Melissa: I’m ready for the challenge.
David: All right, here we go. Statement number one, the busiest day of the year for restaurants is Valentine’s Day. Statement two. Every month, nine out of 10 American children eat at McDonald’s. Statement three, the world’s largest restaurant seats more than six a thousand people. [laughter]
David: So two of those statements are true. One of them is not.
Melissa: They all sound like outrageous lies.
Melissa: Okay? Valentine’s Day, busiest day of the restaurant year. Oh, if that nine out of 10 children eat at McDonald’s thing is true, that’s going to break my heart a little bit. Okay. I’m going to say the one about McDonald’s is not true. I think it’s less than nine.
David: It’s nine. Nine out of 10 American children eat at McDonald’s. McDonald’s does crazy business. If you stacked up the number of happy meals McDonald’s sells in a single day in the United States, you’d have a tower rising 300 miles into the sky. Also because of happy meals, McDonald’s is the largest toy distributor in the world.
Melissa: Okay. So that leaves me with Valentine’s Day and the restaurant with 6,000 seats, which sounds so crazy. It has to be true. So I’m going to say Valentine’s Day is not the busiest day of the year in a restaurant.
David: Valentine’s Day is not the busiest day in the restaurant, and it is Mother’s Day. Mother’s day is an apocalypse in the restaurant industry. People come all day, right? Because breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner. They’re usually in larger groups. You get a whole age range from tiny kids to the elderly. It’s on a Sunday, which means the restaurant staff was up late on Saturday prepping and then probably got drunk. And now everybody’s hung over. In some cases, I’m not going to say everybody, you’ve got tense family dynamics. Right? And according to the national restaurant association, 87 million adults went to a restaurant for mother’s day last year [laughter]
Melissa: … and they all wanted separate checks. [laughter]
David: I was like reading the write-up somewhere about that. And I was like, Oh man. Yeah, that would be horrible.
Melissa: Okay, so where is this restaurant with 6,000 seats?
David: Right? So the Damascus Gate Restaurant in Damascus, Syria, has a 6,014 seats.They’ve got a 580,000 square foot dining area. To give you some sense of scale, that is 10 football fields of seating. They also have a 26,000 square foot kitchen, which is only four football fields of kitchen and during peak operation. Do you want to guess how many people come to work at the Damascus restaurant when they’re on peak shift?
Melissa: I feel like I’m going to guess wrong, so I feel like you should just tell me, but I bet it’s a lot.
David: It’s 1800 people. 1800 people show up and then park in employee parking.
Melissa: [laughing] Do they bus them in from the employee parking lot?
David: I mean they must, right? The restaurant has features like waterfalls, fountains, and replicas of archeological ruins of Syria, and they have six culinary theme sections for Indian, Chinese, Arab, Iranian, Middle Eastern, and Syrian cuisine.
Melissa: Wow. I’m literally sitting here with my mouth hanging open. I kinda want to go there now.
David: When did that seem like a good idea? Let’s open a little restaurant for 6,000 people.
Melissa: Bless their hearts. Yeah. So I’m betting that kitchen runs like a military operation.
David: Can you imagine that dish washing situation? Yeah, so that’s two truths and a lie.
Melissa: That was a good one.
David: Thanks. Let’s talk about book number one.
Melissa: My first pick is called Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Lee, and this is a multi-generational family saga set in a family-owned restaurant called The Beijing Duck House in Rockville, Maryland. In the book, the restaurant has been a mainstay in the town for decades and it’s one of those old fashioned Chinese restaurants with red and gold decor and lanterns hanging from the ceiling with big, long gold tassels attached to them. Floral carpets, dragon art, framed pictures on the walls of famous people who have eaten there. The whole shlemiel.The menu is super old school. Peking duck, really greasy fried rice. It’s perfect.
David: General Tso’s chicken.
Melissa: Yes. And people have been going there for decades. This is their like neighborhood Chinese restaurant.
Melissa: So one brother wants the restaurant to stay the same. He wants to honor his father who is dead and keep the restaurant just as it is. He likes it the way it is. And of course he has another brother who wants to move toward the future. He wants a hip, slick, sophisticated Asian fusion restaurant.
David: We saw this in San Francisco at that little place across from where we used to work. There was a little Chinese restaurant and it turned into a hip fusion place.
Melissa: It did, although it’s supposed to still be good, but I did like the little, it had the greasiest windows and just the best food. [laughter] So that’s the situation with the brothers and then disaster strikes.
David: What happened?
Melissa: I’m not going to say what it is, that gives it away, but a thing happens with a capital T. I’m not going to say what it is that will ruin it for our listeners. But a big thing happens and it affects everyone in the restaurant: the brothers, all of their family members who work there and the staff… and the staff have worked in this restaurant for like 30 years. They are professional waiters and waitresses who have a long history with each other and the restaurant. I just want to read a quote from the book because I think this is so beautifully sums up not just restaurant life, but life with coworkers anywhere really: They were all friends. If one defined friendship as the natural occurrence between people who after colliding for decades, have finally eroded enough to fit together.
David: Yeah, that’s nice.
Melissa: Yes, you’re friends, but is it only a circumstance of being next to each other for 10 years?
David: And you’vebworked out your relationship, but is that just because you’ve been knocking heads together for two decades?
Melissa: So as you can imagine, there are some pretty complicated and tight relationships between everyone in this restaurant. There are romances, there are old grudges, lots of longtime loyalties and allegiances that have kind of shifted and changed over the years. So it is ripe for human interaction. So this little restaurant completely reminded me of a Chinese restaurant that we used to go to when I was a kid. As I said, I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and the closest city was Reading, which is about half an hour away. If you Google Reading, you will see it is not a large city, but to us, my brother and I, who was younger, it was, ‘Oh, we’re going to Reading, we’re going to the mall, we’re going to the Chinese restaurant.’ And the Chinese restaurant was just like the one I described in the book with one awesome addition. In the middle of the restaurant, there was a koi pond in the floor with trees around it and a little arched bridge that went over the pond.
Melissa: It was big enough for little kids like us to walk on. It was amazing. It was magical.
David: So you could stand on the bridge and look and see the fish swimming under the bridge. That’s nice.
Melissa: And we always ordered the pu pu platter.
David: What’s the pu pu platter?
Melissa: You’ve never had a pu pu platter.
David: I’ve never had a it.
Melissa: Okay. Number one. It’s the funniest thing you can say if you’re like, eight years old. And number two, it’s every appetizer on the menu served at once. So it came in this big wooden bowl with little indentations and in each compartment was a different appetizer: egg rolls, fried shrimp, these little gold foil packets with chicken inside dumplings, skewers of meat. And in the middle was a Sterno jar with blue flames coming out of it. So you would eat your meat on a stick first and then you could use the stick to heat up your other appetizers over the blue flame.
Melissa: Also the name: pu pu platter.
David: Plus, you’re eight and there’s an open flame on the table…
Melissa: Yeah, I mean everything about it was fantastic. Yeah, I mean as you can imagine, reading this book pretty much makes you hungry all the time. And I feel like it really nails what it’s like to be in a family- owned restaurant. There were these like really intense friendships. There’s goofing off when it’s not busy. There’s cliques, there’s the division between management and the floor staff. Like there are a lot of politics going on underneath the surface. And I feel like the author, Lillian Lee just captured it beautifully. She said that she worked in a Chinese restaurant before she wrote the book and she only lasted for a month. Because it made her so lonely to work in the restaurant because the customers would just look right through her and her coworkers.
David: Yeah, of course.
Melissa: She told NPR the customer is always right, which means you partially forfeit the ability to advocate for yourself or your humanity day in and day out. So after she quit, she started graduate school and while she was in school, she kept thinking about her experience at the restaurant and what it would do to your personality and your outlook on life if you didn’t leave, if you stay there year after year, decade after decade, what would that do to you and your relationships? And that was the impetus for writing this book.
Melissa: So I was really invested in these characters as people, but the other thing I loved about it is that a lot of things happen. It’s not just a character study, it’s not just to look at their relationships. Stuff happens that is really exciting. It’s a little bit like a soap opera, but with genuine emotion instead of melodrama.
David: That sounds great.
Melissa: I also really liked that it’s an immigrant story and that it explores what it’s like to be both inside and outside of the culture that you’re living in. This Chinese restaurant has a lot of Chinese customers but also non-Chinese customers and everyone who works there is Chinese, so they’ve formed their own community where they’ve kind of recreated some of their culture kind of in this bubble, but in, so there’s a lot of interesting insight into what it’s like to be in one culture but also still be in another culture.
David: To be in a culture, but not a part of it.
Melissa: Yeah. I am not the only one who liked this book. It was named a must read by Time, Buzzfeed, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, The Village Voice, and a little someone you may have heard of: Oprah.
Melissa: After reading this, if you’re curious about Chinese food and Chinese culture in America, I would also recommend the nonfiction book, Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer Eight Lee, which is all about how Chinese food became so ubiquitous in the United States.
David: Her middle lane is eight?
Melissa: Her middle name is the numeral eight that’s cool. It’s very cool and I did not know that was a thing you could do. Anyway, that is Number Oone Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Lee.
Melissa: Dave, what was your first pick?
David: My first pick is a book called The Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. It’s a fiction, a novella almost. It’s really short. It’s 160 pages. It is about the last night at a Red Lobster, the seafood chain restaurant, otherwise known as the fanciest place in town. If the place where you live is really, really small.
Melissa: I can attest that that is true.
David: Yeah. A red lobster in a strip mall in New England is about to shut down and the book follows its manager through the day. It’s a few days before Christmas and a blizzard is coming.
Melissa: So they’re shutting down the restaurant a few days before Christmas.
David: Yeah. And it’s the last day. And corporate has decided not to tell the customers, but the staff knows. [chuckle]
Melissa: So that’s not awkward at al
David: Yeah. This is going to be a polarizing book. Some people are gonna love it. Some people are not because it’s one of those books where nothing really happens and somehow everything happens.
David: You really get to know this character and the situation. But there is also a read of this book that’s just like, a guy goes to work and he does his thing and he comes home. What’s the big deal? I don’t think that’s a great read on this book, but you could see where people would get that.
Melissa: I read this book a long time ago, I think when it came out and I also really loved it. Yeah. The things that are happening are more internal to the characters then external actions.
David: Yeah, so for me there are a few books that are really take me to the location and it’s almost a hallucination, right? I’ve feel that I am there.Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn had me on a raft on the Mississippi. I remember distinctly, I was sitting in bed next to you reading it, and the bed was on the river and the trees were above us and I could hear the noises. It was crazy. I could see it, I could hear it. Amazing experience and I wish it happened more often, but it also happened with this book. The Last Night at the Lobster does that, but instead of on a raft in the Mississippi, I was in a car on an access road pulling into it rundown mall during winter as the snow is falling and everything’s dim and gray and muffled and you kind of see the brake lights of the care ahead of you. I was in the car with Manny, the Red Lobster manager, the lead of this book. I was there. I had a sensory experiencem and it was amazing.
Melissa: Well, I think that’s really what we’re looking for with Strong Sense of Place, right? We’re looking for those writers who can take what might be a mundane location or a seemingly familiar experience and show it to us in a new way that really transports us there and puts us in someone else’s shoes for the couple of hours that we’re reading.
David: Yeah. I feel like I get that more than I get actually, the feeling of being physically transported. I feel like what it’s like do be in somebody’s head, but the actual physical location is like, well, it’s a little bit harder to see sometimes for me. But too me, The Last Night at the Lobster is amazing. You followed Manny around on his last day. You deal with the drama that to him is everything. The staff is almost mutinous. He’s in love with one of the waitresses who’s an ex of his, he also has a pregnant girlfriend waiting for him at home.
Melissa: Sounds like Manny is life is maybe not completely under control.
David: Manny’s life is not completely under control. He’s, um, he’s a good guy I think. I think he’s a good guy and he’s trying to do his best and I want him to succeed. He’s dedicated to his job in a way that was a little, it made my heart heavy for him. He is simultaneously sad and humble and kind of heroic. Somehow Stewart O’Nan takes this completely dreary setting and turns it into a place that is rich and funny. And for me it was just a great read if you’re okay with books that have nothing and everything, I can’t recommend this highly enough. That’s The Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. So that’s booked too. What’s book three?
Melissa: My next pick is The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken and translated from the Norwegian by Alice Menzies. It’s a literary novel set in old school European style restaurant called The Hills in Oslo, Norway.
David: Okay. What’s, what’s the time period for this?
Melissa: It’s contemporary, but the restaurant itself is a little bit old fashioned. Think like a fancy cafe in Vienna sort of thing. And the waiter is really committed to the idea that things should be more elegant and more refined. And he takes a lot of comfort in the kind of ritual and structure that this fancy restaurant provides for him.
David: He’s sliding into a new age…
Melissa: Uncomfortably… So, yeah. Yeah. Um, he reminded me a little bit of the butler in The Remains of the Day for people who’ve read that. If you haven’t, it’s the story of a butler who is very concerned with dignity and honor and the role that he plays as a butler. And then he kind of has to face that the world is not the way he thought it was. It is a harsh reckoning. And I feel like the waiter in this story is kind of facing the same thing. He’s very committed to a code and a way of life that maybe really isn’t possible or relevant anymore. And the characters in this novel do live in our world. They have the internet, there are online influencers. Like all of this is kind of confounding and upsetting to him because he lives in the world of refinement and dignity.
David: So I’m picturing a snooty waiter watching somebody eat while they look at their phone.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s really upsetting to him. So there’s also a cast of regulars who eat at the restaurant almost daily. And as a reader, you get to know all of their personalities and their names. But the staff of the restaurant are only ever referred to by their titles: The waiter, the maitre D, the chef. So it’s kind of setting up that dichotomy that like, the customers are really the people who matter here. The restaurant staff are playing roles. They are not individuals. As a reader, you get to know their individual personalities, but it’s kind of showing what that world of the restaurant is like.
David: But the story is told from the waiter’s perspective. So that’s the way he views them.
Melissa: Yes… So everyone is going about their business. They’re politely ordering and keeping their conversations at appropriately hushed tones. And then one day a new customer arrives, a young woman and she disrupts everything. The waiter completely loses his footing. It is a major bomb for him.
David: Is it funny or is i…
Melissa: It is both. It is both funny and sad. There are parts of his book that really made me laugh and there are parts of it where you’re, like, your heart aches a little bit because things are changing for him and it’s not super comfortable.
Melissa: This book is not for everybody. I think that just about anyone would like Nnumber One Chinese Restaurant because there’s so much you can relate to in that story. And this book is definitely quirkier. It reminded me as if Wes Anderson took one of his movies and turned it into a novel…
David: So sort of highly stylized and Old World-ish…
Melissa: … quirky and maybe a little weird, smart. So I could also imagine some readers complaining that nothing happens because the bulk of the action is the mundane tasks of the restaurant. Taking orders, talking about the menu, serving food, pouring coffee. But the waiter is actually a very funny narrator. He is super into being a waiter and he’s convinced that he’s superior to everyone in many ways and he is very self-important. So while he’s doing his waitery tasks, he’s also going on flights of fancy about all kinds of things. Coffee, he goes on a riff about coffee. What coffee means to people, what the coffee ritual is like, what his coffee ritual is like. He does not approve of decaf [laughs], that kind of thing.
Melissa: He riffs on transportation and how transportation is what makes the restaurant possible because food comes from all different places and cars bring the people to the restaurant and he’s just off on these flights of fancy. You’re either going to be really into that and go with him on that ride, or you going to be like, What is this bozo talking about? I thought it was really, really well done. And it’s, to me it’s really what it’s like when you’re working in a restaurant and you’re doing the same task over and over and over.
David: Yeah. You’re on autopilot. You’re doing a repetitive thing, but your brain is taking a walk.
Melissa: Yes. Trying to find a way to amuse yourself and for him in particular, I think, he’s not only trying to amuse himself, he’s trying to demonstrate to himself that he is smarter and superior, even though he is serving these people. And now there was this woman who is disrupting everything and interrupting his physical flow and also interrupting his mental flow.
Melissa: It’s worth noting that the author comes from an artistic family. He is a contemporary artist himself and he shows at a gallery in New York. I think he’s really smart and he has a lot of things to say in different ways about the world. The story is a little bit more head than heart, but I really liked it and it did make me laugh.
David: Yeah. Wes Anderson has that kind of thing too, where it’s a little, it’s funny, but you’re like thinking, That’s funny, instead of laughing out loud…
Melissa: But then there’s also moments of sweetness and tenderness that kind of got me. So that is The Waiter by Matias Faldbakken, but I’m going to cheat before I hand off to you and mentioned another book which I was really torn about. If I was going to talk about the waiter, which obviously I loved and The Dishwasher by Stéphane Larue.
David: Oh! There’s a series! The Waiter, The Dishwasher, The Maitre D’.
Melissa: [laughs] I really, really enjoyed The Dishwasher, as well. It takes place in an upscale restaurant in Montreal and the hero, the dishwasher, is struggling to get his life together because he has a gambling addiction which he is fighting really hard to overcome.
David: You never hear about psychologically stable dishwasher. [laughs]
Melissa: Anyway, it’s a really cool look at how the kitchen in a fine dining restaurant works and he is kind of the definitely the lowest man on the totem pole, but he kind of helps out in the kitchen sometimes and kind of moves up if not in the titled ranks, at least in the esteem of the other people in the restaurant. While he is trying to overcome this gambling addiction. It’s a coming-of-age story and it has a lot of insider details about what it’s like to work in a restaurant. And that is The Dishwasher by Stéphane Larue. So those are books three and three and a half…
Melissa: Because I’m a cheater…
David: Because you’re a cheater… a known book cheater. The next book is Restaurant Success by the Numbers by Roger Fields. This is a nonfiction book about how to start and operate a restaurant, written by an accountant.
Melissa: I bring people cool contemporary artists, and you’re giving us accounting.
David: That is exactly what happened. So based on your reaction, I’m going to justify this selection a little bit. Not everyone’s going to read a book on restaurant management. I totally get that. But when we said that we were gonna cover restaurants, I really wanted to read a book about how restaurants work, and this is the closest thing that I could find to a book about how restaurants work. And I think I wanted to know how restaurants worked for two reasons. First, in general, I like hearing about how things work. It changes the way that I see things, and a restaurant is like a really complicated system that I think most of us take for granted. And two, you and I have had ideas about restaurants before and I was curious about what it would take to make one of our ideas go.
Melissa: Toast and chocolate, the dream that I don’t want to let die.
David: Yeah, yeah. We had a dream about a coffee shop that sold artisanal toast of different kinds and then also chocolate. And I think mostly for me, the thing that I love about that is the smell would be fantastic.
Melissa: It would be so beautiful…. and comforting.
David: [laughs] So it turns out there’s a lot to running a restaurant.
David: Yeah. It turns out there’s a whole lot. There is, for instance, deciding on your concept, which we’ve already done, so…
Melissa: That’s really the fun part.
David: That’s the fun part. The fun stops there. Fun line is like firmly drawn right after the concept…
Melissa: … and eating the samples.
David: So there’s designing your concept, there’s making the menu, there’s finding a space, there’s designing that space, which would also be a little bit fun, but there’s designing the kitchen and the flow and then there’s telling people about your restaurant and then figuring out what items on your menu costs you and what you can sell them for.
Melissa: That part does not sound fun to me.
David: No. Oh no. It was interesting, but yeah, not fun. Hiring your staff and getting legal advice and worrying about your inventory. All of that is touched on on this book and it seems completely daunting, but at the same time the book took the idea of running a restaurant and made it seem like something that can be done. It’s something that people do. Obviously, lots of people do that.
Melissa: It seems very stressful to me though. And I grew up at my dad’s restaurant, and I was not aware of all of the machinations really of keeping that place running, even though I was there. Yeah. Hanging out with the people and talking to them about the customers. I was not aware of that inventory, and I did not go in the basement where they stored stuff. As a dishwasher, there were certain things that I was supposed to do in the basement, and I was just, like, Nope.
David: Yeah, yeah, so that’s why I liked reading this book is it kind of took the everything that’s under the under the sheet and just was like, here it is. So I found out little details that I thought were really interesting. Like, for instance, of every dollar spent on food in the United States, 47 cents of that is spent in a restaurant.
Melissa: Wow. So almost 50% is restaurant food. Someone is eating at restaurants way more than we do.
David: It’s true. It’s true. I also found out that square and rectangular tables turn over faster than round ones.
David: Isn’t that weird?
David: Why would that be?
Melissa: When I had my first job after college at an advertising agency, I wrote an advertising pamphlet for a China company that explained the psychology of color to help restaurants choose what color plates to have in their restaurant.
David: Yes. That’s another thing. Going through this book made me realize that you can, and people have, taken deep dives on any little tiny bit in this…What’s the proper restaurant flow? And for instance, there was a little bit about how a bartender should be able to complete 87% of his tasks with taking one step. In addition to those little details, I also found out big sweeping bits lik how you can go about figuring out what a particular dish should cost…
Melissa: Which seems really complicated to me. That is overwhelming when I think about the financial side of the restaurant business.
David: Yes, spreadsheets are involved, right? You sit there and figure out of these ingredients cost me this much, and I only use this much in this dish. And so that’s three cents of spices and so on and so forth. And then, yeah, uh, I also found out the kind of people you might want to look for if you’re hiring for a restaurant in the different positions.
Melissa: Not you?
David: I’m none of them. I’m absolutely zero of the positions that you would want working for a restaurant. And I found all of that stuff interesting. If you’re interested in how a restaurant works or if you’ve had dreams of running a restaurant, this book is absolutely worth a look. It’s Restaurant Success by the Numbers by Roger Fields. We’re on the last book. What’s your final pick?
Melissa: It’s a really good one. It is called Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber who has such an awesome last name.
David: That’s a great name.
Melissa: Thank you, Diana Abu-Jaber for your book and your beautiful name. Yes, so this is a love story set in 1999 at a Lebanese restaurant in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. The restaurant is called Nadia’s Café and the neighborhood, and this is true, this is not a fiction for the book — the neighborhood which is filled with Iraqi and Irani families is referred to as Tehrangeles. Tehrangeles is a part of Los Angeles that is also known as little Persia. It’s the largest Iranian population outside of Iran. The signs in the neighborhood are written in Farsi. They were Farsi TV stations and there’s a stretch of Westwood Boulevard that’s right on the edge of UCLA campus and in real life, Diana Abu-Jaber ate at a cafe there when she taught at UCLA. And that’s what inspired this story.
Melissa: The setting is really awesome. She did a beautiful job recreating it. And I don’t want to give away too much about the central love story because it really spools out in a beautiful way, but it is between a male Iraqi professor who is exiled from Iraq and a female Iraqi-American chef. So she’s half and half. And we meet them and watch them fall in love and then a big thing happens and there are ramifications. So along the way, as we’re getting to know our two romantic leads, we’re also meeting the other characters who hang out at the restaurant. There are a lot of foreign students and professors, other family members and Nadia who owns the cafe, and she is a trip. I loved her. She’s like the best version of a mother hen. And at one point early in the book, she says ‘Chefs, know nothing lasts. In the mouth then gone.’ So she’s very practical, but she’s also like the soft place to land for everyone in the book.
David: Oh that’s nice. Sort of the heart of the restaurant.
Melissa: Yes, exactly. And then Sirine, who is the heroine of the story, is the cook at the cafe and she is nurturing and warm and thoughtful, like everything you would want in your idealized cafe cook. But she’s also not a pushover. She’s really like a snappy, interesting, fun character. And you pretty much like her immediately. And then the author is really, really good about writing about food. She’s written several food related memoirs, including a book called The Language of Baklava, which we’ll probably be talking about in a future episode. And her descriptions of food are really lush and they make you really hungry. But it’s not just window dressing. It’s an integral part of the story because it’s telling you things about the characters.
David: Oh, that’s cool.
Melissa: For example, Sirine explains that Monday is baklava day. Let’s just pause for a moment and thinking about having Monday be baklava day. For listeners who are not familiar with baklava, number one, you need to go get some immediately. And number two, it is phyllo dough, which is very, very thin pastry, spread with butter between the layers. And then you mush a bunch of the layers together and put chopped nuts and honey and rosewater and then repeat the layers. So it’s almost like nut and pastry lasagna, but it’s sweet pastry and buttery.
David: Also I’ll say… so good baklava… bad baklava is a travesty.
Melissa: It’s very disappointing.
David: It’s very disappointing and good baklava…
Melissa: … will change your life basically. So there’s this really beautiful part of the book where Sirine is talking about how Monday is baklava day and she reminisces about her dad buttering the layers of pastry. And it’s just such a beautiful, evocative moment.
Melissa: And I think kind of points up what food can represent for people. And that’s what Diana Abu-Jaber so good at writing about because the food, yes, it’s just food, but it also brings people together and it’s almost a stand in for conversation because it’s a shared experience. She actually said in an NPR interview that she can speak whole paragraphs about the Middle East, but she’d rather give somebody a shish kebab.
David: Aw, that’s such a nice idea. That’s an interesting bit about restaurants that food can carry so much emotional way with it and sometimes truly does tastes like home. That’s a really powerful idea in the right frame. If you’re far from home or if you can’t get the home food is significant
Melissa: Yeah, it’s like the closest you can get to that nurturing feeling of home
David: And memory, too, right? There’s something about food that triggers memory that’s also powerful.
Melissa: Yeah. So that is exactly what is happening for these characters at the cafe. They’re longing for familiarity and safety and trust, and the food just represents all of that. And then Sirina is a really interesting character because she is half-Iraqi, but she has blonde hair, green eyes and skin so pale, it’s compared to the bluish white of milk.
David: Oh! That sounds like you.
Melissa: Yeah, that should sound familiar.
David: Your part Lebanese, but blonde and green eyes and skin like milk.
Melissa: That is correct. People are looking at my picture now and being like, ‘She doesn’t have blonde hair.’ Yeah, that is the magic of hair dye. I am naturally blonde. I’m 22% Lebanese according to 23andMe.
David: Very specific percentage.
Melissa: Yes, and I grew up, I grew up thinking of myself as half-Lebanese and half-Italian because my mom is Italian and my dad is Lebanese, but my grandparents also have other stuff going on, so I’m a mutt, but I’m 22% Lebanese and my great grandmother emigrated to the United States from Lebanon.
Melissa: So I grew up eating homemade stuffed grape leaves and hummus and kibbeh nayyeh, which is the raw version of kibbeh, which is a little bit like beef tartare, but with middle Eastern seasonings in it. Not Dave’s favorite.
David: Yeah, not my favorite. I like some of the other foods that you mentioned a lot better.
Melissa: Yeah, it’s not for everyone. So I grew up being really envious of my cousins because they had olive skin and dark hair…
David: … because nobody anywhere is satisfied with the way they look.
Melissa: Well, and to me they looked like they belonged more in a Lebanese family. And that’s kind of a thing that Sirine is juggling in this book, too. She is struggling with her identity, questioning where she fits in because she does feel really American, but she also wants to embrace the Iraqi side of her heritage. So it’s kind of a quiet story, but it tackles really big issues around identity and what it’s like living in exile and how dictatorship affects people on an actual personal, intimate level.
David: Yeah. Yikes, dictators.
Melissa: So for example, in the story we see how a news story about Iraq in the Iraqi paper is covered in a way that’s really different from the way it’s covered in the American paper. And so the students and the professors come to the cafe and they’re eating the foods from home and they’re reading stories about what is happening to their families in Iraq. And it’s a really powerful way for us as Americans to see what that immigrant experience is like.
David: But it is not all super heavy politics. That’s just one small aspect of the story. The primary plot also alternates with snippets of an Arabic fairy tale, which is really fun, a little magical and it’s kind of a nod to One Thousand and One Nights, which is really nice. And then finally, one more thing I want to say to sell this book, there’s a really sweet scene at Thanksgiving. Sirine decides to throw an Arabic Thanksgiving. So she stuffs a Turkey with rice and lamb and pine nuts. And then all of the customers and the staff from the cafe also bring food. So there’s the cranberry sauce, like, dumped out on the plate that’s still in the shape of the can because someone really likes that. And there’s an American pumpkin pie with whipped cream. But then there’s also lentils cooked with tomatoes, and greens with vinegar. So it’s a big melting pot Thanksgiving of both sides of her culture.
David: That sounds delicious.
Melissa: Yes, it sounded really good. And then Sirina’s uncle stands up and makes a toast. And I’m going to end my description of this book with the toast because it’s really beautiful:
Here’s to sweet, unusual families, pleasant dogs who behave, food of this nature, the seven types of smiles, the crescent moon and a nice cup of tea with mint every day. Sutton.
David: Oh that’s so nice.
Melissa: And that is Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber.
David: So those are five books we love set in the heat of the restaurant kitchen Visit our shownotes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, can you talk about the special blog posts you wrote for this episode?
Melissa: I had a really hard time narrowing down my picks for this podcast because I’ve been reading restaurant books pretty much my whole life. So we have a blog post of 7 books that explore life inside of the restaurant.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place for more on the books we discussed today visit our website at strongsenseofplace.com. Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things.
Melissa: And please follow us on Instagram where we are at @strongsenseof for photos, illustrations, short book reviews, and more bookish fun.
David: If you enjoyed the podcast, please rate it, review it, and tell a friend. And don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode. Mel, what are we covering in our next show?
Melissa: We’re heading to the land of the midnight sun: Japan.
David: Fantastic! We will see you then. Thanks so much for listening.
Top image courtesy of Spencer Davis.
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