THE DOWN & DIRTY ON UPSCALE DINING
by Poppy Z. Brite
Poppy Z. Brite is a popular New Orleans author who, following in the footsteps of Ann Rice, came to popularity with homo-erotic horror stories often involving vampires, though apparently upping the ante on violence, weirdness, and explicit scenes. Or so I hear. I wasn’t familiar with Brite until recommended by friend and native Chris Tusa, and when I headed to the library, one of the books that abandons horror for the gritty realism of the New Orleans restaurant world, Prime, was his only book available. (We’ll use the masculine pronoun per the author’s preference, as the issue of Brite’s gender identification is a story unto itself and doesn’t concern me.) After a long-term relationship with a local chef, Brite was apparently fascinated with the inner working and dirty underbelly of the local fine dining scene, and though I stumbled into this work blindly, it ended up being a great choice and compelling portrait of this unseen side of New Orleans.
Prime, it turns out, is the second in a series of books about ‘Rickie’ and ‘G-man,’ two chefs who grew up together in the rough Lower 9th Ward but escaped into local kitchens to rise to budding celebrity chefs with a popular restaurant, Liquor (also the name of their first book), despite their lack of education. These three-dimensional characters ring true, and I suspect their background is true of a lot of highly regarded chefs. Despite an aura of glamor, this isn’t a prep school to college career path.
The book opens with the two protagonists struggling with a devastating review of popular Liquor, whose name reflects the gimmick of including alcohol as an ingredient in every dish. Their hit restaurant, we soon learn, was partially bankrolled by a local celebrity chef of massive wealth and fame who has a callous, social Darwinist streak inspired by the writings of that great Watergate philosopher: G. Gordon Liddy. This ruthlessness in business dealings, along with the sin of succeeding wildly in the New Orleans restaurant scene despite not being local by birth, has earned him more than a few enemies.
Rickey, the ‘face’ of the restaurant (G-Man serves as the silent source of strength to his prototypically mercurial genius partner), looks to Lenny Duvatuex as an uneasy mentor; nevertheless, he and G-Man are content with their modest success and quiet lives and aspire to eventually buy their way out of his influence. It turns out they have good reason to dissociate, for when the powerful local D.A. comes gunning for Lenny bearing an old grudge, he mistakenly assumes Rickey and G-Man will have the knowledge he needs to secure a conviction. The crushing review was the first shot fired in a war where Rickey and G-Man unwittingly find themselves in the crosshairs.
Prime is at heart a mystery, and has the kind of wham-bam adventure ending that generally turns me off to the genre. It’s not bad, just a little too cliché, but everything leading up to these last 30 pages make it worth the ride. Poppy Z. Brite seems to understand the high pressure world of fine dining as well as the accepted mechanizations of political corruption that make New Orleans tick, and with this knowledge paints a compelling portrait of the city that feels much more sincere than a Chamber of Commerce whitewash. Although the dining room of these culinary cathedrals may cradle wide-eyed tourists, local fashionistas, and connected power-brokers, behind the scenes it’s anything but glamorous.
Having the two main characters come up poor to working class in the Lower Ninth creates a striking but real paradox. Rickie’s education is so lacking he has trouble composing a letter to a rival and later fully reading and comprehending a coroner’s report (it is a mystery, after all!), yet he is a masterful chef of refined palate who stews marrow and whips foie gras with a natural ease, disdaining unrefined tastes that would stereotypically be projected on him. This doesn’t seem like a cutesy literary trick, however, but a reflection of reality. Unless you’re a superstar chef, kitchen work pays poorly. The people who prepare the meals of the rich and powerful understand them to a depth and degree that most of their posing clients can only pretend, yet live on fast food wages.
There is a ton of literature out there that tries to catch the glamor or hypocrisy of those who dine out front, but this view behind the swinging doors give a fascinating glimpse into a side of the city that even most locals miss if not employed in the service industry. Yes, Rickey and G-Man are a couple, and such strong gay leads clearly appeal to Brite’s LGBT fan base, but it would be a disservice to categorize it as LGBT lit. This isn’t a story about two gay men, it’s a story about two men who just happen to be gay. It’s not a major plot point, though it does come up at times, just like it would if they were straight. (I’d have to read the horror fiction before commenting, though I get the impression sexuality is more of a theme in those novels.) I’d like to think this wouldn’t keep otherwise interested readers away, but I’m not so naive. For everyone else, I’d highly recommend this compulsive and fascinating glimpse into the world of high pressure kitchens. I can’t wait to read and review Liquor once I catch up on waiting reviews!