To kick off my new release, DINNER AT FIORELLO'S (where love is on the menu), I'm talking today on the Dreamspinner Press blog about the connection. Stop by, leave a comment, and be entered to win a free copy of my other food/romance concoction, DINNER AT HOME.
Read the post.
And here's a little more about the book:
Henry Appleby stared at the Craigslist ad on his iMac screen. No, it was not in the Men Seeking Men or the Casual Encounters section. Henry had perused those ads, but at eighteen years old, he found most of those ads were more for education, titillation, and fantasy. He couldn’t imagine the guys who posted them, nor could he picture the brave souls who had the courage to respond. Still, they showed Henry a part of the world he was curious about, even if he was not ready to take such a seedy plunge, if he ever would be.
No, the ad that had caught Henry’s eye was in the Jobs section. More specifically, it was in the “food/bev/hosp” subsection. It read:
Henry had been staring at the ad for more than fifteen minutes. The only break had been the few minutes he took to leave Craigslist to Google Fiorello’s and locate their address on Jarvis Avenue. Even though Henry lived in Evanston, only a short drive away from Rogers Park, Chicago’s farthest-north lakefront neighborhood, he had never been by the place.
Henry’s father, Theodore, but known to everyone else as “Tank,” startled Henry out of his reverie. Henry jumped a little as his father swept into the room without warning.
“You looking at porn sites again? Damn, to be young!” His booming voice intruded on the sunny early June morning.
Henry quickly shifted the Google tab on his computer to the website for NYU and turned to give what he knew was a sheepish grin to his strapping father. Even though he had been doing nothing close to what his dad had suggested, heat still rose to Henry’s cheeks. “What? No, no, of course not.”
His father, already dressed in his Ermenegildo Zegna suit, crisp white shirt, and rep tie, whacked him playfully on the back of the head. “Lighten up, kid. I was just kidding.” He laughed. “And if you’re lookin’ at a little T&A, who am I to complain? You’re a red-blooded American male, just like your dad.”
Henry could only keep grinning stupidly. Porn would have been one thing. His father would have accepted, maybe even welcomed, his son looking at the ubiquitous one-handed art so prevalent on the Web, but he would have had a shit fit if he had known his son was getting excited over a employment ad for kitchen help.
Now there was horror. Kitchen help was not appropriate. Not in the Appleby family.
His father moved back toward the entrance to Henry’s room. “That summer help position at my law firm is still waiting for you. I told the partners you could start next week. You okay with that?”
Henry still could not find a single word to say. He knew his father wasn’t really asking if he was okay with it; he was simply reminding Henry of his obligation. Henry scratched his blond hair as if fleas had suddenly invaded it. He kept grinning and wondered if he resembled a chimp. He nodded weakly. “Sure, Dad,” he finally managed to utter. In a bold move for Henry, he added, “I’m just considering all my options for the summer. You know, last time to be free and all that.”
“What options?” his father asked in a chiding voice. “You’re prelaw at NYU this fall, right? What could be better than working for one of the best investment law firms in Chicago? That’s some solid résumé shit, son.”
“You’re right, Dad.” Henry said the words but experienced a sinking sensation, as one does when one speaks something that comes from the head but not the heart.
“Well, enjoy the life of Riley for a few more days. I don’t blame you. They’re gonna work you to the bone down there, but you’ll learn a lot.”
“Sounds great,” Henry said without much conviction. He let his gaze roam back to his iMac screen, staring at the Craigslist tab. Could he dare?
“See you later, kiddo. The early bird and all that. And by the way, what the hell are you doing up at 7:00 a.m.?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I was awake.”
“And decided to go online before anything else. You kids. Typical.” Tank ran his fingers playfully through his son’s mop of hair. “We’ll need to get this cut before Monday. Go see Giovanni,” he said, referring to his barber on Main Street.
Henry’s shoulders relaxed, and he let out a long breath as his father exited the room. He got up and crept to his bedroom door, watching as Tank descended the winding staircase. His father paused to pick up his metal briefcase from its place in the foyer, slipped the Wall Street Journal under his arm, and then headed outside.
The sound of the Lexus starting up in the drive let Henry know it was safe to go back in his room and return to Craigslist, where he could ponder such an outrageous position as “General Kitchen Help.”
In the kitchen, their housekeeper, Maxine, was making herself some breakfast. Henry paused to watch the woman who’d been a part of the Applebys’ daily life since he was a little boy. She was what his mother would call “pleasingly plump,” with broad shoulders—like a linebacker, his dad joked—and even wider hips. She didn’t wear a uniform but always came to work dressed the same: black polyester slacks and a polyblend loose-fitting top, usually floral-patterned. Her hair, once a startling shade of red, had dulled over the years and was now shot through with gray. Still, it was a riot of curls, and Henry thought that a few extra pounds or gray hairs could not diminish the vibrant beauty he saw in their housekeeper.
He watched as she cracked eggs one-handed into a bowl, whisked them, then added a few torn basil leaves, some grated cheese, and a handful of cherry tomatoes, cut in half. She poured the egg mixture into a pan Henry knew would be coated with a thick layer of melted butter.
“I know you’re watchin’ me, kid. That’s why I made enough for two.”
Maxine turned and bestowed upon him one of her trademark grins. The gap in her front teeth made her look impish. The one thing that never aged about Maxine was her smile. It had the ability to illuminate a room and made Henry feel warm all over, loved. The smile he gave in return bore no relation, he thought, to the sheepish grin he must have given his father moments ago.
“Thanks, Maxine. You have to show me how you do that sometime.”
“This? This is nothin’. Tomorrow you can cook for us. Just don’t let Mr. Appleby see.” She laughed.
It was like a donkey’s bray, and Henry giggled, a little boy again. But she was right. His father would have ridiculed him, at best, if he saw his son cooking in the kitchen. Cooking was work for the help when they were at home or for kitchen staff when they went out to a restaurant or to their country club.
Maxine finished up with the eggs in short order, jerking the frying pan rapidly toward her over and over until, like magic, a perfectly rolled omelet appeared. She pulled down a couple of plates from the cabinet, loaded them up, and handed one to Henry. They sat on stools at the kitchen’s marble-topped island to eat. “You want some toast with that?” Maxine asked after a while. “Just take me a minute. I got sourdough.”
“Nah, I’m good.” Henry went back to eating. Maxine had been with the family since Henry was eight years old and was kind of like a mother. Unlike his own mom, though, this was a woman with whom he could talk and share secrets, knowing she would never pass judgment.
“You’re kinda tight-lipped this morning,” Maxine said once they’d finished their amazing eggs. They were soft, buttery, and silky, unlike any other Henry had ever had. There was something delicate about their texture, yet the taste was a melding of layers: sweet herb, acidic tomato, salty Parmigiano-Reggiano. Henry swore Maxine threw a little handful of magic into everything she cooked.
“Just thinking about all I have to do today.”
“Right.” Maxine covered her mouth as she belched. “What’s on your agenda? Wait. Don’t tell me. The beach with Kade? A bike ride along the Green Bay Trail? Maybe head out to Old Orchard, charge up your dad’s Visa at Nordstrom?” She winked. “Get somethin’ for me. I could use a new pair of shoes. Size ten. Kitten heels. I like red.” She giggled.
At the mention of Kade, Henry’s thoughts went dark. He hadn’t spoken to his best friend since the night of Henry’s graduation party ten days ago—but who was counting? What had happened between them on the beach after all the guests left was something Henry had been at first gleeful about, but as time wore on with no calls, texts, or e-mails from Kade, Henry had begun to worry he had pushed things too far and maybe lost his best friend. Yet he could still recall the satiny feel of Kade’s skin against his own, the seawater-sweet taste of his come.
Had it been worth it? If he had lost a buddy he’d had since boyhood, no. But he couldn’t help but savor the memory of that night, a fantasy he had never thought would come true.
Maxine nudged him, knocking her shoulder into Henry’s. “You mind putting the dishes in the dishwasher? Your mother wants me to clean floors today, and the marble ones are a chore—especially with only bein’ allowed to use vinegar and a little water.”
“Maxine, cleaning up breakfast dishes is not my son’s job. It’s yours.”
Henry turned to see his mother enter the kitchen. As always, when he saw her he was confounded by his perception and mix of feelings. For one, Megan Appleby was beautiful. She was only in her early forties but looked closer to someone in her thirties, maybe even twenties if the light was right. Her blonde hair was like silk, hanging to her shoulders, fashionably cut and woven in with strands of gold, brown, and platinum that looked perfectly natural but cost well over a hundred bucks every time she visited her “colorist” in Winnetka. Her face was very much like her only son’s: full lips, startling blue eyes, and a nose that was slightly too long but gave her an aura of aristocracy. Both she and Henry had fine bone structure, strong, but where Henry’s was chiseled, his mother’s was more delicate. Her skin was, to labor a cliché, like porcelain. That was as it should be too—Megan spent a lot of money on not only expensive toners and lotions, but saw a doctor, also in Winnetka, for regular Botox injections.
Today she wore a form-fitting floral dress that seemed too formal for a hot summer day. Henry wasn’t sure if his mother even owned a pair of jeans.
In spite of her head-turning beauty, there was something cold about his mom, something that kept people at a distance. Like right now. What need was there to talk to Maxine that way? Maxine was like family. He hated to see the way Maxine stiffened at the sound of his mother’s voice.
Henry moved away from the table, hands up, knowing it wouldn’t be prudent to grab the dishes from the island anyway.
“Sure thing, Mrs. A.” Maxine busied herself running the dishes under the tap and loading them into the dishwasher. Henry couldn’t see her face, but if he could, he was certain she’d be rolling her eyes.
Megan walked over to Henry and gave him a kiss he barely felt on his cheek. She smelled subtly of lavender and money.
Maxine closed the dishwasher. “You want anything for breakfast, Mrs. A? I can make you some eggs or pancakes.”
Pancakes! Henry wanted to bust a gut at that one. He knew Maxine was making fun of his mom without her even knowing it. Pancakes would no more pass Megan Appleby’s lips than a cup of hemlock.
“Thank you, Maxine. I’ll just have a cup of green tea, if you wouldn’t mind putting the kettle on.”
“And a carrot?” Henry couldn’t resist asking.
Mom wagged a finger at him. “Henry,” she chided. “You know I’m trying to shed a few pounds. It’s beach season, after all.”
Henry thought if his mother succeeded in shedding a few pounds, she would waste away to a skeleton, but he kept his own counsel.
Megan sat down at the island and fingered the pieces of fruit—pineapple, bananas, mangos, and kiwis—before drawing her hand away from them as though they were something distasteful.
“Have one, Mom. It won’t kill you. That’s healthy stuff.”
“It’s all sugar,” she said softly.
Getting his mother to eat was mostly a lost cause. Somehow she managed to subsist on green tea and rice cakes, with the occasional stalk of celery if she was feeling wild.
Henry started out. “Well, I think I’m gonna head back up to my room. See what I can get up to today.”
“Yes. That’s a good idea. Enjoy your free time while you have it. Your father wants you at the firm bright and early Monday morning.”
If Henry had any guts at all, he might have said to his mother, “Well, that may be what he wants, but what about what I want?” But all he said was, “Right.” He hurried from the room with the sound of Megan’s musical voice instructing Maxine to use only vinegar and water on the windows. Windex was toxic, she said.
In his room, Henry debated: what to do with his day, what to do with his life, what to do about his summer employment. He lay down on his bed and pulled the sheet over himself.
There was a thrumming in his veins even as he lay on his back. He didn’t know if the surge was due to dread or excitement.
First, there was dread. He could do what every North Shore kid was probably doing today—this glorious early summer (technically still spring) day when the rigors of school were but a memory—head out the beach. Bake in the sun. Dip his toes in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan. Maybe he’d run into Kade there. Maybe they could talk, clear the air.
Maybe not. The thought filled him with both longing and trepidation.
Sure, he could spend the day leisurely working on his tan or wandering Old Orchard, the outdoor mall in Skokie, or just go out in his family’s backyard, which faced Lake Michigan, and plop down in one of the Adirondack chairs out there and read all day. He was in the middle of David Sedaris’s latest, and that guy always cracked him up.
Henry recognized all these things for what they were—distractions. He made a list of things he didn’t want to think about.
The first was getting on the train Monday morning with his father, wearing a Brooks Brothers button-down shirt, khakis, and sensible shoes, looking like the little junior attorney his father was expecting him to be.
The second was talking to Kade. He and his best friend had gone skinny-dipping in the freezing waters of Lake Michigan after Henry’s graduation party. They had emerged near the boulders bordering the beach, and, in a bit of a tipsy state, Kade had remarked that neither of them seemed to be suffering the effects of “shrinkage” from the frigid waters. One thing led to another, as they say, and Henry had ended up somewhere he had always dreamed of being, on his knees between Kade’s spread thighs. At the time, Henry thought the act might bring their friendship to a new and more intimate level, but the radio silence that followed their brief tryst had proved otherwise. Still, he needed to make things right with Kade, show him he wasn’t a threat and they could go back to where they were before.
But could they? Could anyone after they’d been intimate? Henry was too inexperienced to know, and he certainly had no one to ask.
Not going to Fiorello’s and applying for a job he thought he would love was third on the list of things Henry didn’t want to think about. Sure, the work would be hard, he imagined, and sweaty. It would be tedious. He’d be treated like the underling he knew he’d be. But he would be around food and cooking all day, things he was passionate about. In his wildest fantasies, he imagined being a chef, somebody like Grant Achatz or Rick Bayless or even someone as big as Thomas Keller. He was already, with Maxine, honing his knife skills, learning the difference between a dice, a mince, and a julienne.
When Henry dreamed, he dreamed about food.
Not once had he ever dreamed about investment law.
Henry knew spending the day doing what other rich North Shore kids do would only take him away from pursuing his dream.
But that dream went against the core of what his family wanted for him. He’d always been the golden boy, doing exactly what his family expected. He felt like no one really knew him, knew his passion for food, for cooking (well, except for maybe Maxine).
As people often do when faced with life-altering decisions or yielding to temptations that may or may not be the right thing to do, Henry tried bargaining in baby steps for what he would do with the day.
I’ll just hop on the ‘L’ and go down there, check the place out. Maybe I’ll even have lunch. And if I like what I see, maybe I could ask for an application and fill it out. Odds are, they won’t even call me. I don’t have any real-world experience. They’ll probably have lots of other people with years under their belts lining up for that job, even though it sounds like grunt work, entry level, or bottom of the barrel, depending on your point of view.
So why do I want it so, so much?
Never mind. Just go there. See what it’s like. You may not even want to apply once you see it.
Henry got up from his bed, stripped out of his plaid boxers and T-shirt, and headed for the shower in his bath. He had to admit to himself that there was a certain relief in thinking that, by going to the place, he would see it for the dismal work environment it was and would come home with more enthusiasm for working downtown at his father’s law firm.
Part of him even wished for that outcome.
Life would be so much easier.
He switched the shower on and waited for it to get hot. Once the temperature was as he liked it, he slid under the showerhead and turned under it. He closed his eyes, trying just to let himself relax and not think.
But one thought stayed with him—it won’t hurt just to go see. No one has to know.
Back in his room, Henry debated what to wear. He knew his father recommended a suit and tie for any interview situation. But Henry didn’t even know if there would be an interview. If he even wanted to fill out an application, all he might be faced with would be filling in the blanks.
His mother always said, “I never apologize for being overdressed.”
Yet Henry didn’t want to walk into the place looking like some privileged, private school, North Shore teenager—which he was. That could be off-putting, especially since he was imagining Fiorello’s as a small family restaurant. Otherwise, why would they be looking for a jack-of-all-trades kind of kitchen person?
In the end, he thought he couldn’t go wrong with a pair of soft gray jeans and a pink button-down shirt, tucked in. He’d wear his Cole Haan black monk strap shoes. They were comfy and not too dressy, he thought. All in all, he thought he’d look neat and not trying too hard.
Besides, the pink of the shirt set off his skin, blue eyes, and blond hair in a very fetching way. Dressed, he turned in front of the mirror and thought he didn’t look too bad, not too bad at all.
Now his only challenge would be getting out of the house unnoticed by either his mother or Maxine. Both women would be immediately suspicious if he left the house in anything other than board shorts and a tank top.
That’s why we have a back staircase to the kitchen, he told himself, creeping down its carpeted length. Besides, if I run into Maxine, I can confide in her if I need to. She’d understand. Mom, not so much.
As if to allay his worries, he heard the sound of his mother’s Mercedes two-seater convertible start up. He hurried over to his window to see her pulling out of the driveway onto Michigan Avenue.
It’s meant to be, Henry thought.
The kitchen was empty. Maxine must be in the foyer, scrubbing the floor.