Entertainment Weekly

Subscribe

Stay Connected

Subscribe

Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content

Article

Jessica Tom's novel 'Food Whore' excerpt

Posted on

Jessica Tom’s forthcoming novel, Food Whore, explores the glamorous world of New York City food culture, as Tia Monroe, a food-obsessed NYC transplant, meets a legendary New York Times restaurant critic with a big secret: He’s lost his sense of taste. Tia begins ghostwriting his reviews, but before long, she realizes she’s not content sitting behind the curtain letting someone else take credit for her work. Food Whore hits shelves Oct. 27, 2015, but to whet your appetite before then, EW has an exclusive excerpt below: The pivotal scene where Tia meets critic Michael Saltz.

Check out the excerpt, and the novel’s gorgeous cover (Tom, a former creative director, spearheaded the jacket design herself, which you can read about in this fascinating blog post), below:

Excerpt from FOOD WHORE: A NOVEL OF DINING AND DECEIT by Jessica Tom

That night, September turned from summer into fall.

I slid through the revolving door and found the restaurant had already transformed to match. My first official night at Madison Park Tavern. A tall bouquet hung over the front foyer: winding tapering sticks, eucalyptus leaves, tiny bells hanging on wayward stems, exotic berry-colored flowers the shape of lily pads, purple-veined curly kale, featherlight white poppies ringed on the inside with black, like a goth girl’s eyeliner. I smoothed my Jil Sander skirt against my hips and walked up to the dining room. The fireplace crackled and the linens were a tad more gold, not the crisp white of newness, but something with a more weathered patina.

“Happy first day,” Carey said. “Are you excited?”

I paused to get my bearings. Even though from coat check I couldn’t see anyone eating or smell the aromas from the kitchen, I could still appreciate where I was: Madison Park Tavern, a four-star restaurant in New York City.

“Yeah, really excited,” I replied.

The cooler temperatures outside made coat check the place to be. I coddled every coat and bag, warmly welcomed every guest. There were big potbellied men and soft-in-the-shoulders women who looked like the adoring and generous Pop-Pop and Grammy children love to visit. There were younger men who shoved their packages in my face. One gave me a twenty-dollar tip in front of his guests, who didn’t look all that impressed. I got a small thrill taking the coats of some local news anchors and one big-time news anchor, and an even bigger thrill when about ten reality TV show contestants came in to celebrate something.

But of all the faces and facelifts, one man caught my attention. He handed me his coat with two hands, as if handing a flag to a fallen soldier’s family. I mirrored his movements and his cold fingers touched the insides of my wrists. I watched his skinny silhouette walk upstairs, his slacks hitting more air than leg. He wore a linen shirt with a Nehru collar, the look of a genteel Indian diplomat, which threw me off. But something about him seemed familiar.

When I got a free moment—between a fur-collared jacket from MaxMara and a bag from Ferragamo—I looked at his coat again, in case it provided a clue. Even in my short coat check career, I knew cashmere was normally just the shell of the coat, with silk or wool for the lining. His coat had cashmere inside and out. It was cold out, but not that cold. Though if I had a coat this soft, I’d find any excuse to wear it.

A note dropped out.

Good evening. Stay on your toes tonight.

A tingle ran down my spine as I turned the velvety blue cardstock in my hands.  Stay on your toes? Who should stay on their toes? For what?

I heard a cough at the coat check opening, then turned and held out my hands.

It was Jake. “Oh. Hi, sorry, I thought you were a guest.”

“Tia. I have a couple questions for you.” Jake’s usually composed hands moved double-time and a cowlick was showing itself on top of his otherwise perfectly styled hair.

“Okay, what do you need?”

“I don’t need anything. I want to know what you know. How is the shrimp toast prepared?”

“Oh, um,” I said, collecting myself. “Brioche is marinated overnight in shrimp stock, then caked with Indian prawn and langoustine mousse.” I had read that in Carey’s Wiki last night.

“Where are the langoustines from?”

“Montauk.”

“And how would you recommend serving the salmon?”

“Which salmon?”

“Both salmons. The sous-vide and the salad.”

“The sous-vide should be served well.” I remembered reading that sometime between two and three a.m. “Because it stays moist in the pouch no matter what and the greater cooking time allows the flavors to infuse longer. Medium-rare to rare for the salad, to show off the quality of the product.”

“And where do you put the bone bowl for the frog legs in tarragon gremolata?”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you put the bowl on the right or left of the guest?”

“Neither. The frog legs are deboned. No bowl is necessary.”

“Good answer,” he said, visibly relaxing. “Listen, we have a full house and thirty PX tables, most of them unexpected. We’re in the weeds in there. This is a very unusual circumstance and I need your help. Will you backserve regular tables so we can concentrate on the PXs? You’ll trail Henri on half his tables and we’ll let the hostess do coat check.”

“Backserve tonight? You mean work in the dining room?” My voice must have jumped an octave.

“Yes, work in the dining room. My God, let’s not say everything twice, okay?”

I immediately lost interest in the mystery note and stuffed it in my pocket.

“Of course,” I said. “Whatever you need.”

As Jake handed me my white apron, I saw that Jake’s idea of “in the weeds” would have looked serene to 98 percent of other restaurants. But I had already gotten a sense of the staff’s collective competence, and indeed the air had turned tense. In the back, a couple of waiters were sorting out the chits, little cheat sheets on tables’ preferences.

“No! Dean Chariss is on table nine,” a waiter whispered. “No, that’s Frank Harris. He’s a friend of Yael Jean.”

I saw a waitress anxiously watching a wine chiller water bath, waiting for a bottle of champagne to come to the guest’s exact preferred temperature.

Jake was already in service mode, smiling and shaking hands, patting backs and pouring wine.

I only had to watch Angel, the wait captain, to learn how to act. I hadn’t yet seen him on the dining room stage and found he moved with a regal grace, his usual swagger tightened to a light-footed march.

Henri flagged me and led the way toward the “regular” tables. Each table silently screamed for a fresh this, a folded that. As backserver, I was to set the table (with the right silverware), take away the plates (without rushing the guests), and perform a variety of hand-touches—grating cheese, pouring soup, ladling sauce. Steaks needed a steak knife. A fish dish required a fish fork and fish spoon, and a fish soup needed yet another designated spoon. Surf and turf was a bridge I’d cross when I got to it.

“Here’s place one, two, three, four,” Henri said pointedly. “Two and four are the same. Don’t get them mixed up.”

I loved the food at my fingertips and the smells in my nostrils. I loved being inside the meticulous clockwork, and for the first time since I had arrived in New York, I hit my stride.

During a short lull in service, Jake gave me and a couple other waiters and backservers a quick run-down of the PXs, most of whom I hadn’t recognized at coat check. “It’s a perfect storm. A third of these people used fake names and another third dropped in after the New Yorker Festival. They weren’t on the books and we had to open up the private dining room.”

Saveur magazine editors doing a tasting at table 7. There, at table 3, a kindhearted food science expert. Tucked in the corner, a chef with a ten-restaurant empire in Chicago, eating with his family. Then, at table 12, a celebrity news anchor and her famous director husband. I had noticed her at coat check, but not her date. At table 1, a disgusting lecher of a man with a prostitute dressed in red lace. No one wanted to sit next to him, but he always spent more than $5,000 on dinner for two, making him the most important—and therefore most pampered—guest that night. Barring few exceptions, money put the extraordinaire in personne extraordinaire.

A couple of diplomats, some restaurant investors, wine importers. They all needed varying degrees of special treatment. For some, the whole meal was comped; for others, just a glass of champagne.

I moved around the room, picking up bread baskets, refill- ing water. My suit had an obvious air of quality to it. Guests re- spected my space and my actions, though at the end of the day, I was the one serving them. I mimicked the other backservers and soon I got into their rhythm. The dining room was my dance floor and I was enjoying myself.

“You’re doing great,” Angel said in passing. He rushed away before I could say anything back.

I enjoyed Angel’s approval and knew that Jake had been watching me all night. If I played my cards right, maybe he’d promote me and I’d be in the dining room after all.

Then Henri nodded his head and I followed him to a table in the private dining room, where the mystery man from the coat check sat.

Strangely, Jake hadn’t mentioned him. He sat tucked in a dark corner of the room, which was too small to have a “view,” only a narrow line of sight into the main dining room. His three dining companions looked mild-mannered and a little serious. I couldn’t get a good look at his face.

I lowered their midmeal palate cleansers to the table as Henri walked away.

“Excuse me? Can you tell me what this is?” asked one man, not the mystery guy.

Instead of pointing, I gestured with my whole hand as Jake had taught me. “This is a grapefruit terrine with pickled borage flower.” I felt the mystery man studying me as I tried to keep my voice steady.

“Thank you,” a woman said. “Looks delicious.”

Was he from Yonkers? Someone I had seen around NYU? I rotated to the other side of the table to make sure the silverware was ready for their next course. And then my eyes met his. Eyeliner rimmed his eyes and I think he was wearing some sort of dark foundation. But I recognized him.

Of course, he looked nothing like his pictures in the restaurant, big-cheeked and round-gutted.  This man was thin, frail, the same man who had touched his cold nose to my wrist. Here he was—the New York Times restaurant critic, Michael Saltz— eating out in makeup. He was keeping me on my toes—but who was that note meant for? Surely not me.

But what if it was?

And yet it seemed preposterous that he was there reviewing the restaurant. Jake knew all the PXs in the house—their names, occupations, favorite wines, and even some random story he’d casually drop, a hint to say, I see you, I know you, you’re in good hands.

But even I knew that he couldn’t know everything. He hadn’t known that the restaurant would be slammed with PXs tonight, or that we’d have to open the private dining room.

After the table ordered more wine, Henri returned to the kitchen but I stayed behind in the doorway between the private and main dining rooms, figuring out how I could tell someone.

Angel and Henri had been instructing me with grunts and urgent commands, unable to chat for any length of time. Carey was sorting out silverware at the other end of the restaurant. The hostess was away from her post, working her charm on an elderly couple lugging their heavy and unsightly bags, not content with their prime table by the window. No one knew.

Then I remembered his note and looked at it again. Even though it seemed farfetched that he’d come to the restaurant to see me and give me that note, part of me thrilled at the thought. What would he want to do with me, anyway?

I looked up and saw him staring at me. He winked and brought his finger to his lips. To anyone else, it might have looked like he was wiping his mouth, but to me, the message was very different.

Keep quiet.

So I did. The dining room went on without me. The world didn’t end. I focused on my job and avoided eye contact with Jake, Angel, and the rest of them. They couldn’t see the guilt in my eyes. I had to see what Michael Saltz had in store for me.

Once the crowd had died down around eleven, Jake told me I could take a break, then return to the coatroom to finish out the night. I took one last look at the private dining room, to absorb my first day working in a restaurant. And then Michael Saltz’s eyes met mine again and he put down his napkin.

He was ready to talk.

I brainstormed for a place to hide, then decided on the basement, knowing full well he would follow me. We had to be fast since the staff could figure out Michael Saltz’s presence at any time. But then again, the last of the PX tables were still keeping them busy. They didn’t realize their number one target was al- ready dining among them.

“Hello, Tia. Good to see you again,” he said when he arrived in the basement, as if we’d bumped into each other on the street. The hallway was dark and severe, white concrete walls and red doors leading to the boiler room and storage. You never would have known we were in a fine-dining restaurant.

“Good to see you, too, sir.” I thought for a brief second that nothing good would come out of this basement conversation, that I should get out now. But then he spoke, and his riptide pulled me in.

“Well, I’m very happy to see you again. And I wanted to ask your opinion. Seeing as you’re the college cooking prodigy and all. Did you serve a good meal tonight?” he asked, his voice slink- ing up like a snake in the grass.

The college cooking prodigy… At the time, it had seemed like such a big deal, but now it was just an old title, a trophy losing its luster. Though I still liked the sound of it.

“I think your amuse-bouche …” I started slowly. Sure, I had opinions about it, but when it came to Michael Saltz, I couldn’t say much. I bit my nails and stared off into the hallway, imagin- ing Jake catching on. Surely he must have suspected something?

“Yes, my amuse-bouche what?”

I finally met his eyes and saw he was genuinely interested. I could tell him a little bit. Talking about food was the thing that made me me. What made me shine.

“The edamame puree with clementines and endives is genius. It’s bright and bitter, soulful and singing. It’s a summer dish with autumn actors.”

“Oh, yes? That’s a lovely turn of phrase. Tell me more.”

I felt only vaguely aware of who I was talking to. If I really thought about it, I’d have stopped. He was too important and I couldn’t imagine his motives. But I was also flattered. Shocked, really. Michael Saltz remembered me. Sure, it had been an oddly indelible first encounter, but I was just a grad student and he was the New York Times restaurant critic. He shouldn’t have given me a second thought. But he was. More than a thought. He was listening to me.

“I’ve read that when he was a line cook at Vrai, Chef Dar- ling would cook the most amazing staff meals—daring,  auda- cious flavor combinations. This amuse-bouche is more reckless than anything else on the menu, and is probably a taste of his cuisine before he took on leadership positions.” I was basically paraphrasing Helen’s article, but there was power in her words coming from my lips.

“I see. You seem to know a lot about Chef Darling. And his food. W hat else did you like?” Michael Saltz asked, arching his brows.

The words rushed out of me. I feared someone would find us, but maybe more than that I feared that this moment would end and I’d lose this audience. And then I’d be back to square one. That wasn’t the end of the world, but it wasn’t the NBT.

“Well, the opposite of the amuse-bouche  is the short rib with kale and black-eyed peas. From the most fundamental taste per- spective, I find it… flawed. The black-eyed peas have a funk to them that clashes with the short ribs. Short ribs are soft, smooth, fatty—like  vanilla. And black-eyed  peas… they taste like dirt, and not in a good way. The two don’t harmonize. I think Chef has been phoning these plates in. Short ribs are the restaurant’s signatures, but I don’t think Chef Darling wants to step into someone else’s shoes. He’s having adjustment issues and it’s obvious.”

I hadn’t admitted this to myself during the staff tasting, but now in the basement, the thought sprang forward. Things I was afraid to think or say or do surfaced in the dark. Was I going against the restaurant?  Yes. But it felt so good to just talk. My roommate was a mystery. Things had been feeling funky with Elliott. Michael Saltz may have been a stranger—a very sketchy stranger—but having him listen satisfied some deep, aching part of me. A part that must have been starving for a while, because I leaped into his attention like my life depended on it.

“And the chicken? W hat’s your opinion on that?”

“I think the chicken is very good,” I said, my voice steadying and my volume growing. “It comes from a local farm where we also get our eggs. If you taste carefully, you can detect a slight herbaciousness in the meat. Matthew doesn’t add that, that’s in the product. It’s very subtle, but I’m sure you—”

“Yes, yes, that’s right…” He took out a tall, skinny pad of paper and furiously wrote something in mangled handwriting. “And the cassoulet?”

“The cassoulet is one of my favorites,” I said, gaining steam. “We use fresh, not dried, white beans, and homemade rabbit sausage. It’s only stewed for an hour or two, so it retains lovely freshness.”

“Yes, yes, freshness,” he said. “Now tell me about the seafood paella.”

“Well, I’m allergic to some types of shellfish, so I didn’t try the paella at our menu meeting.”

He looked up from his pad abruptly.  “Allergic?” He looked mad for a moment, then suddenly, he let out a giant grin that seemed to unhinge his jaw. “That’s not ideal. But I have a rather complicated relationship to certain shellfish dishes, so I’ll take that as a sign.” He looked down at his pad again, excited. “What did you think of the pork loin? Enlighten me!”

Here he was, Michael Saltz, writing down my thoughts about food. It was unreal. Insane. A dream I didn’t know I wanted, come true.

“You got the pork with the ras el hanout?” I asked. There were two pork preparations that night—one homier preparation with carrots, corn, and okra on the regular menu, and a pork loin with Middle Eastern spices, butternut squash, and radicchio on the specials menu.

“Yes… yes, that’s the one. What do you think of it?”

“The one with the roasted butternut squash and caramelized radicchio, right? Not the one with the carrots and corn? They sound similar, but they’re very different.”

“The ras el hanout. The first one you described.”

“Okay.” I filled my lungs and let it all out. I was onstage, just me, performing for Michael Saltz. This was the climax.

“I think it’s awful. The pork is overdone and the dry spice rub accents that. Ras el hanout has a beautiful bouquet of tastes, but when overcooked the spices wick all the moisture out of your mouth. Then the radicchio furthers the dryness. The butternut squash adds a dose of heart and lusciousness, but there’s not enough of it to save the dish.”

I knew I was betraying the restaurant, but I tried to shed that self-doubt. I wanted to forget about the meek girl who never believed in her voice and thoughts. In that dark basement, with the exit light flickering, I made myself heard.

He wrote for several more seconds before looking up at me. “Thank you. You’re impressing me a great deal.”

“Is that what you thought of it?”

“Absolutely. The ras el hanout was too strong. I can still taste it.” His dry lips split as he talked. “And the desserts?”

The meal we were reviewing was coming to a close and I was feeling as if I’d said too much. But I continued anyway

Call it inertia. My words didn’t want to stop. Or call it hunger. I craved the recognition.

Or call it searching for the NBT. The New York way. Would

Emerald or the ice pop girl have done any differently?

“Desserts … did you have the sweet potato cassava pie with the hazelnut praline crunch?” I asked.

“Yes, I had the cassava pie.” “What did you think of it?”

He closed his eyes and swayed into the wall. “Tell me what you thought of it.”

I heard footsteps above us. “We should get going. Maybe you can email me? Can this wait?”

“Why?” he asked. “You’ve held nothing back so far. Tell me what’s on your mind.” He smiled. Though he’d been smiling up a storm, the expression looked unnatural and pasted on.

“I… I don’t know.” Surely someone would show up any minute now. My heart sped up again. I didn’t know what he wanted out of this conversation, but whatever it was, I knew I had just cheated on my new restaurant family. Irreversibly.

“Yes, you do. Don’t be afraid of your opinions. Tell me.”

Now I could hear the sounds from upstairs with unsettling clarity. People walking, people worrying. People searching for the man standing in front of me right now?

“I can’t. I shouldn’t be talking to you like this,” I said, wishing I could turn back time. And short of that, I wished Michael Saltz was so drunk that he’d forget this ever happened. I didn’t want to be a traitor. I just wanted my moment.

He pursed his lips and for a second I saw the wheels turning, his mind clicking on a decision.

“I read your essay, you know. Before I gave it to Helen. I couldn’t resist.”

“Oh!” I said, yet another puff of wind blown beneath my wings. My heart slowed down. I hadn’t thought he’d bother to read my application.

“It was fabulous. You have a way with words, and as I can tell from this conversation, a way with thoughtful criticism. I have to say, I’m glad you received this placement over Helen. She can be an aggressive, demanding boss. I should know. You’re lucky you’re here. I’m lucky you’re here.”

“Oh, well, thanks?” I said, but I didn’t understand the meaning behind his words. I still didn’t have Helen. And why was this situation lucky for him?

“You owe it to yourself to be heard,” he said, interrupting my thought. “It would be a shame to go your whole life without sharing your gifts. Don’t you think, Tia? You were quite the star in college. Front page of the New York Times Food section. But it’s too easy to get left behind in New York City. There are thousands of people like you. Some make it. Some disappear. And some get an opportunity like this… to be heard.”

His voice was low, vibrating, and pointed in its aim. He got under my skin. “Now, I’ll ask you again. Tell me about the dessert.”

“Well, the dessert … I think it’s interesting,” I started. “The pie has sweet potato for the sweetness and cassava for the body and heft, but what gives it its unusual taste and structure is kabocha.”

“Kabocha! Fascinating.”

“Oh, so you noticed the kabocha?” I asked. “It’s subtle. But, yeah, of course you would notice.”

“… I did notice. It was much firmer? That’s what gives it the dryness?” he said.

I made a face. Was he joking? “No, that’s the thing, right? The kabocha ties the cassava and the sweet potato, and together it feels substantial, yet cloudlike and souffléed.”

“Indeed. You are correct. I’ve had way too much wine. Much too much wine. And the strudel?” His head tilted and he quickly righted it. “Tell me about that one.”

Now that my nerves had settled, I could see Michael Saltz more clearly. He had a pointed nose and a head of dark, thin hair sharpened by a widow’s peak on his forehead. He fiddled with the edge of his linen shirt.

In fact, if you looked closely, his disguise was utterly unconvincing. You could tell he wasn’t a diplomat or even a rich guy with a penchant for “Eastern cultures.” His eyeliner hovered too far from his eyelashes so he looked more like a kid playing in his mom’s makeup bag than a foreign gentleman.

“I find the berries too tart and the walnut brittle too sweet,” I said. “It’s gummy and heavy.”

Now I could hear someone down the hall. Someone was in the basement.

“Meet me upstairs! At coat check!” Michael Saltz whispered, just as Carey rounded the corner. I turned away as fast as I could, but still saw Carey’s face freeze the second she saw us. Her shaking hands told me everything: she knew who he was.

What had I done? Did I really say all that to Michael Saltz?

The Michael Saltz, the guy the whole restaurant obsessed over? “Oh, hey,” she said to me. Then she looked at Michael Saltz.

Then back at me.

“Oh, I didn’t realize you were there, sir,” I said to Michael Saltz. Then, to Carey, “I had to pick something up from my locker, and I think this gentleman took a wrong turn looking for the restroom.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Michael Saltz silently gleam at my diversion tactic.

Carey chuckled hesitantly.  “Well…” she started. “Sir, can I show you back upstairs?”

“You may,” he said. He didn’t look at me. To do so would suggest that we knew each other, and Carey was watching us closely. I followed Michael Saltz’s lead and walked away.

From the end of the hallway, I heard Carey say to him, “I hope you had a good dinner?” Anxiety had crept into her voice.

Part of me wanted to cry out, Don’t let him see you sweat!

But there was another part that reveled in the thought—He’s hiding from Carey. From everyone. But not me.

Finally, the last thing I heard was Michael Saltz saying, “The dinner here was quite nice. I’m in town for a conference, and this was a lovely respite.”

They went upstairs, then I followed up a couple of minutes afterward. I didn’t want people to suspect I’d been with Michael Saltz the whole time and I hoped Carey wouldn’t tell anyone she had seen me with him. It was bad enough I’d spotted him and told no one. What I’d said to him in the basement … that was treason.

I went back to the coatroom and gathered my composure. Five minutes later, he arrived at the booth with his guests behind him, waiting. Jake had positioned himself at the top of the dining room stairs, looking down at me and Michael Saltz’s back.

I handed him his coat with a smile and a slight nod.

He took it and reached into his pants, as if retrieving a tip. “Tia,” he mumbled, the sound articulating inside his mouth but not on his lips. “You did a good job downstairs. I want to see you again. You’re qualified.”

I repositioned myself so Jake wouldn’t be able to see me from the landing. Qualified for what? He handed me a piece of paper: his dinner receipt with his email address written on the back.

“Thank you…” I said, as the reality of the last few minutes sank in. The New York Times restaurant critic wanted me to contact him. And not through a random throwaway email anymore, but his actual New York Times address. I had graduated somehow.

“Shh…” he whispered, then he was out the door.

I shoved the receipt in my suit jacket as Jake ran down.

“Did Carey tell you who that was? What did he say? Did he say anything about the dinner?”

“No,” I said. “He didn’t say a thing.”

It was true—he hadn’t said anything. Only I had.