Michelle Wildgen is a writer of impeccable tastes. As culinary and literary mentor, she took me for my first scoop of pear and blue cheese ice cream and gave me my first copy of MFK Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me. As an editor at Tin House, she’s brought food writing to the table from the likes of Francine Prose, Steve Almond and Ann Hood. Now, in her third novel, Bread and Butter, Wildgen follows three brothers running two very different restaurants: Leo and Britt’s smartly-polished Winesap, and younger brother Harry’s envelope-pushing startup, Stray. It’s a novel filled not only with the intricate stuff of cooking of the highest order, but of sibling rivalry and affections, as temperamental as any soufflé. It was my pleasure to speak with Wildgen about the world’s best waiter, editing a dish versus an essay, and the supreme goodness of the French fry.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky: For me, a chief pleasure of Bread and Butter lies in not just vicariously tasting all the food being served and eaten by the brothers, but in savoring the sensory details of its preparation as you describe it. The slicing of fish has never sounded sexier than when you write about it here, for example. I wonder, what kind of research did you do for writing so intimately about the making of the food in the book? Did you cook the dishes that we get to read about?
Michelle Wildgen: I’m a home cook and not a professional, but I have enough familiarity with it to feel comfortable describing some of the process and problems of cooking, whether it’s resting your meat or not lowering the temp of your frying oil by over-crowding it. For the most part, I just relied on a lifetime of eating and cooking, which could have been described as “greed” until now, but which we will now commence calling “research” instead. The lamb’s neck dish, for instance, was something I tasted a version of at San Francisco’s Incanto, and Alinea in Chicago was doing a whole chocolate menthol geode thing when I was there a few years back. I’ve cooked many a noodle dish, though, right down to stepping on my plastic-bagged udon noodle dough to knead it (yes, this is a thing). Other dishes, I tried to make but failed to source the ingredients for—it turns out that when you get a yen to make ramen broth on a Sunday afternoon, pig femurs can be a bit thin on the ground. And some dishes I made up, like Hector’s sugared kaffir lime dust, or read about: Harry’s self-saucing duck breast is based on a self-saucing chicken dish by chef Michael Symon, as described by writer Michael Ruhlman in his series on professional cooking.
EKH: I have to confess, I was thinking particularly of that spectacular dessert of Hector’s when I asked that question. I’ve been hoping that it’s real since I read about it; I’m pretty sure I had a dream about that emerald green dust. It makes me think a little about the difference between food rendered on the page, where there’s total authorial control over the brown on a roast or the shimmer of an aspic, versus food in real life. Is it possible that food is sometimes even better in writing than on our plate?
MW: I think if I tried to make Hector’s dessert I’d end up with Leo’s sad paste. (I may have to ask a pastry chef how one could make this.) In some ways it’s hard to beat fictional food, which gets to do and be whatever the author can persuade the reader it is and does. If I am really on my game, I can persuade you that eggplant mousse with chocolate shards is everything you ever needed (okay, if I am a sorcerer). And even aside from the ease of the writer’s ability to fix burned edges and unrisen dough on the page, fictional food may always have an edge on real food because we get to savor it differently, allowing so many other associations and emotions to thread through the experience. That happens in real life, too, but I’m generally too busy eating to stop and think about what a plate of chicken really means—my thought process is less “Why, this unexpected morsel makes me think of Twelfth Night” than “Yay, food!” It’s in the reflecting on what I ate and where it came from that the other layers open up for me.
Then again, to contradict myself entirely, can even the most delicious food on the page compete with a perfect French fry?
EKH: What’s your own trajectory through the world of the restaurant business been like? You work as a writer, teacher, and editor now, but I know that in an earlier life you spent time in the industry—could you ever imagine renouncing the literary life for, say, your own restaurant on an island someplace in Lake Michigan?
MW: Oh god, no. I like to have good restaurants and great movies playing nearby—a smaller city like Madison, where I live now, is as isolated as I can ever see myself getting. My career trajectory has been a mix of food and writing all along. After college, I went to work at 2 jobs: at a trade newspaper for the dairy industry, and a part-time backwaiter at a high-end restaurant. The newspaper showed me how to craft a story and call up strangers and ask them questions, and facilitated my cheese-eating too. I was tireless in covering the artisanal cheesemaking scene, purely out of professional obligation, of course. The restaurant, on the other hand, taught me almost everything about the culinary life. Or rather it laid a foundation, and gave me the basis to know what I didn’t know, whereas before that I was casting about for knowledge, ignorant but enthusiastic. Eventually I quit the newspaper job and went full-time into the restaurant until I left for an MFA program. One of the reasons I was so happy to start working at Tin House is that we publish literary food writing, which can take just about any form at all, so I keep an editorial hand in food. And in fiction I do too—there is something about the hands-on, tactile feeling of food production that I never tire of writing about. So far I haven’t been a food writer who’s all over the world covering trends and testing recipes. I’ve been more the type to ponder the poetic qualities of the egg. I maintain that this has practical applications too.
EKH: As someone who would like to think she can appreciate an exceptional meal but who has never served behind the lines at restaurant, one of the things that struck me most in reading Bread and Butter is just how much thought and finesse goes into not only the nuances of the food, but the totality of the experience. What for you are the details that make a service extraordinary? And how many of your own restaurant pet peeves and best practice beliefs show up in the predilections of the three brothers?
MW: After seeing the lengths to which a good restaurant will go—and going to said lengths myself—I have zero patience with half-assed service, so Britt’s and Leo’s pet peeves are all mine too. I think servers auctioning dishes (“Who has the frog legs?” etc.) is a hack move through and through. I cannot stand it when I ask a server for her opinion on a couple of dishes and get the reply, “It depends on what you want.” The servers know the menu, or they ought to, and they should have something to say about the dishes that clarifies what the menu cannot, or the willingness to say, “Listen, the pig knuckle is good but the handmade pasta tonight is amazing.” The kitchen discussions about kids dining in high-end places are pretty realistic, too: people bitch about kids in restaurants only when they behave badly. We loved it when children ate real food and just enjoyed the experience.
As for what makes a meal extraordinary, I love smart servers and a challenging menu. I’m not into going out for comfort food I can make for myself; I want to try something I haven’t had before. The small things add up, and the details are everything. They show a restaurant knows how to manage the experience, from the amuse to fill the gap between drinks and apps to a basket of tampons in the ladies’ bathroom. It’s about how you handle the imperfections, too. I once was at a restaurant that accidentally served me a house-made raviolo still cold in the center, and I swear the server appeared at the table the second she saw my posture change. I was so impressed with her I barely recall the cold pasta. Now that’s a professional.
EKH: It’s funny, I feel like you as author are in so many ways like this best-ever server—you tell so much of this story through extraordinary observation of nuance, not only in interactions between diner and server, but between brother and brother, or between the smitten and the crushed-upon. You have this incredible ability to convey the way we say so much through our smallest gesture or subtlest inflection in tone. There’s a little gem of a scene, for example, when at a staff dinner at Winesap, Thea observes the very small thing of a staff member stiffen in reaction to a story another one of the staff is telling; from that, she parses from that the bigger issue of this guy’s treatment of women in the kitchen. It’s something we’re sometimes warned against in writing classes—asking body language to tell the story—but your writing is proof plenty that this advice is garbage. I was captivated your ability to show us who these people are and what they think of each other in the same way we come to know each other in life—by observing a waver in someone’s gaze, the sly exposure of the underside of a wrist.
MW: Thank you! That’s about as perfect a compliment as I could ever hope for. I love fiction that pays attention to those little things, and obviously I try to produce it, because really we all take note of everything at an incredibly minute level. We don’t always stop to delineate each clue that gives us an overall impression, but we perceive and respond to this sort of thing constantly—think of how you knew a date wasn’t interested, or that you’d just said the wrong thing among strangers. People rarely say, “I shall never call you,” or “That offended me.” They communicate it through a dozen tiny gestures, glances, sounds, and refusals, and we know so well what to expect from social exchanges that we also know instantly when it deviates somehow. The trick for the writer is how to convey it in a way that conveys the sum and not just a catalogue of weird facial tics.
EKH: In thinking about how carefully a chef and a restaurant staff curate a dinner experience, I also started thinking about the potentially similar kind of work you do as an editor in cultivating a piece of writing. Does that parallel ring true to you? And is running a restaurant to editing what cooking is to writing?
MW: I think cooking has more in common with editing and writing than restaurant-running does, simply because the latter seems so much bigger and more demanding of so many more skills than sitting down to write or edit. You have to thrive on craziness and stress to succeed in restaurants, whereas a writer has to thrive on solitude and weekly bouts of self-hatred. Creating a dish as described in the book, however, certainly has its parallels with writing and editing. Just like a book, you might start with a little idea that is not enough on its own and then build the dish around it. You can edit a dish as you do an essay, taking out the distracting stuff and rejiggering the ratios. Who hasn’t been served a dish with a whole pile of stuff on it that makes you forget what the central taste was intended to be? The same thing happens in a story with too many characters.
EKH: Finally, who are the food writers we should be reading that we’re not?
MW: There are plenty, but a lot of my favorites are well known already. Part of the fun for me of writers like Calvin Trillin or Jeffrey Steingarten is the persona they create for themselves on the page, as well as the glorious food and culinary expertise. Nigel Slater has been a favorite of mine for years and years, for books that look so gorgeous and frankly could teach you not just how to make a recipe but how to cook. I loved the Robicelli’s cookbook (authors of the same name), too, which is from a couple of former restaurant cooks who opened a bakery in Bay Ridge. They don’t stint on the obscenities or the Golden Girls references, and they have zero patience for supercilious bitching about the cupcake craze. Lastly, I will never get over my love of Laurie Colwin’s food essays or food-heavy fiction, so don’t try and make me.
Michelle Wildgen is a writer, editor, and teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. In addition to being an executive editor at the literary journal Tin House, Michelle is the author of the novels Bread and Butter: A Novel, But Not for Long and You’re Not You: A Novel, and the editor of an anthology, Food & Booze: A Tin House Literary Feast. You’re Not You has been adapted for film, starring Hilary Swank and Emmy Rossum.
Emma Komlos-Hrobsky is assistant editor at Tin House. Her writing has appeared in Bookforum, Web Conjunctions, The Story Collider, and Hunger Mountain.