Read an Excerpt
For the first time since her junior prom, Tilly Milek's main goal was not to be featured in Saveur. Her new goal: to hunt down the identity of CarpeChicago's The Eater and shake him until he told her why in the name of Mary the Blessed Virgin he had written that review.
Her day had started out innocuously enough. She had gotten to Babka at nine, spent an hour and a half doing the restaurant's bookkeeping and answering emails, planning today's menu, creating prep lists for AM Carlos and confirming several reservations. All the reservations through OpenTable had real phone numbers. Not a single person had entered 312-123-4567. Guaranteed to be a good day.
Until all the staff had sat down for the family meal, without their hostess, Tilly would have placed serious money on tonight being a big night at Babka.
Clearly, she hadn't said enough rosaries in her lifetime because God was laughing at her.
"We don't have the whole day to waste waiting for Karen. We're going to get started." Tilly looked around at the staff eating their dinner. "Now, about the menu tonight "
"Our first review!" Karen, hyperactive as usual, slammed through the silver swinging doors between the kitchen and the dining room, holding her iPad in front of her as an offering to the kitchen gods. "It's The Eater, on CarpeChicago." She was loud enough they could probably hear her at the bookstore next door. "It's a great place for it, right? I mean, that blog is one of the most widely read in the city and their opinions on everything from food to music are trusted by anyone who can use a mouse. That's what you want, right?"
Right now what she wanted was for Karen to arrive to work on time, Tilly thought, as her hostess skidded to a halt beside the table. Karen should have been at Babka about a half an hour ago finishing up the last of the reservations instead of Candace having to call with confirmations.
"The review seems a little early," Tilly commented.
As far as her records indicated, no one who'd eaten at Babka more than once had ordered enough for a review or taken photos, so she hadn't expected a review out of the Sun-Times or Tribune for at least another month. CarpeChicago might be a blog, but their restaurant reviewer adhered as strictly to professional standards as any newspaper, whether writing about the experimental and constantly-topping-restaurant-lists Alinea or a new hole-in-the-wall noodle shop in Chinatown. The Eater's honesty and willingness to eat anything was what made his reviews so popular. That, and the constant guessing game about who he was. Tilly wasn't even sure The Eater was a man. If her records on their customers were right, The Eater might be a group writing together. Those who knew weren't telling. He (they?) were the best kept secret in Chicago.
Whoever it was, Babka needed a good review.
"Karen, you're late."
"I know, I know. But you'll forgive me because I come bearing such wonderful gifts. We should open a bottle of champagne. Candace" Karen motioned to the bartender, a short, attractive African-American woman "get some glasses and we'll pop a bottle."
Tilly put her arm on Candace's shoulders to stall her. "We'll hold off on the champagne. It's four-thirty in the afternoon. Bubbly can wait until later, when we know what he said. I'd hate to waste a bottle of the best on a crummy review."
"Omigod! I didn't even read it. It popped up on my RSS feed while I was on the bus and I ran here from the bus stop as fast as I could." Karen panted as if to emphasize her mad dash. "How could the review be bad? I mean, look around. No restaurant in Chicago is better."
Babka was everything Tilly had ever wanted in a restaurant of her own, even though the place had cost more to get up and running than she'd planned. Babka was homey and calming, but sophisticated without being snotty. Every time she walked through the door, she got a jolt of pride; the place was all hers. Well, hers and the bank's.
"Don't keep us in suspense any longer," Candace said from her left, looking up from the wine list and tonight's menu. "Read the review already."
Karen tapped her finger on the tablet's screen until she pulled up the review. "'Babka and Polish Cuisine in Chicago Serves World War III.'" Uncharacteristically, Karen was still for a moment. "The headline doesn't sound good." She turned the tablet around to face Tilly. "Do you want to read it, Tilly, before the rest of us do?"
"No, I don't think so. We worked on Babka together and we'll read the reviews together."
Everyone around the table waited.
Karen still didn't start reading so Tilly waved her hand. "Read the stupid thing, will you, before the suspense kills me."
"Okay, here goes." Karen lowered her head to read from the screen. "'Tila Milek's first restaurant, Babka, is one of the most visually pleasing restaurants in Chicago.'" Karen's voice brightened. "Hey, that's good. I'm sure it only gets better. 'While non-Chicagoans will wonder at a fancy Polish restaurant, Milek winks at both her Polish heritage and the city itself. Painted outlines of Chicagoland's Polish landmarks, including her mother's restaurant, are barely one shade lighter than the cream walls. Combined with dark wood and beet-red accent colors, the interior is subtle, without being boring.'"
Tilly took a couple more deep breaths to calm herself, the hummingbird in her stomach settling down. No matter how fabulous the food, customers judged a restaurant based on how it looked when they walked in the door. Every moment of the experience had to meet their expectations if she wanted them to come back on a regular basis.
"'Our reservation was handled swiftly, and we were seated with no wait.'" Karen looked up from the review and giggled. "See. You always knew I was worth the tardiness."
"You're worth every penny, but don't let it go to your head."
Despite Karen's general bounciness and habit of being late, she was well organized and kept details about each customer in her head until she had time to make notes at the end of service. She had a global view of the dining room and, if she were more punctual, Tilly would make her general manager.
Karen beamed at the compliment and returned to her tablet. "'Once seated, the service was flawless. The waitress was at our table quickly and efficiently told us the specials and gave recommendations. I asked her several questions and her knowledge of the menu was extensive. We intended to start with the summer beet soup and mushroom pate, but unfortunately, our meal was rudely interrupted. When we finally sat down to eat, my food was badly oversalted.'"
"Wait," Tilly interrupted. "Why was his meal interrupted?"
"He might say later. Maybe he came back?" Karen's voice jumped an octave with hope. "'Our meal at Babka started with a slightly bitter rye bread and eggy flatbread matched with a tangy smoked fish spread made with a fresh cheese. Every bite of our bread was heartily enjoyable and we might have continued dinner the same way, if not for the cat that snuck in the front door.'"
Mother Mary, he was here that night. A customer's Yorkshire terrier had escaped a woman's purse and another customer let a stray cat slip in through the front door. An epic battle between feline and canine had been fought in her dining room, with customers serving as tactical points of attack. As she'd handed her credit card over to the emergency vet when she picked up the cat the next morning, Tilly had been grateful the only costs seemed to be a dry-cleaning bill, a vet bill and free drinks and desserts for every customer. Surprisingly, not many plates had been broken, especially considering how many tables were turned over before the battle was won.
Tilly flopped her head down onto the table and buried her face on her crossed arms.
Then the other pan dropped. "I do not serve oversalted food," she murmured into her arms.
Even the night of the disaster, the food leaving her kitchen had been impeccable. Just her luck Mother Naturecould a stray cat and spoiled terrier be considered Mother Nature?had crashed the party.
"Should I read on?" Karen asked, her voice shying away from its usual exuberance. "We know what happened next."
Tilly lifted her head with all the pep of a wet noodle. "Yes, I want to hear what he says." Her heart was slowly sliding down to her toes. "Maybe he has some constructive comments about oh, I don't even know what about."
"I don't know if I should. You're a little pale."
Candace reached over and laid her hand on Tilly's. "You're like ice."
Tilly jerked her head up, pulled her hands away and looked at them. Her hands were how she made her money. Her nails were short and a bit ragged. The backs of her hands were dotted with small burn scars from banging her hand on a hot oven eleven too many times. She had a callus along the forefinger of her left hand where she held her knife and one fantastic scar across her palm from a cut at Culinary.
Chef's hands. They weren't useful for anything else. All she'd ever wanted to do was cook, and the end of her career might be on Karen's hateful iPad. She wished her first review had been in the Tribune so she could at least throw the damn thing without owing her employee several hundred dollars.
"If The Eater and his review are going to be the end of my career, I want to hear every word," she said, still studying her hands.
That stupid cat and dog, or some anonymous man hiding behind a ridiculous pseudonym, couldn't be the end of her career. Her handswhat would she do with her hands if she wasn't cooking?
"Um, okay." Karen's voice dropped to a mumble as she read the dreadful tale everyone around the table had witnessed. Customers were said to be helping right tables when Karen interrupted the review with a small voice. "Do I have to go on?"
"How long did he stay?" Tilly strained to keep her voice steady. The effort made her hands shake, but those were now under the table so no one could see them. "What did he eat?"
"Um.. " Karen skimmed ahead and read off The Eater's order. "He says his tablecloth got snagged on the cat's claws and their butter and fish spread ended up in his lap. He wasn't amused, though he does mention some of the customers laughing so hard they could barely stand. He writes you got the chaos under control and he might have overlooked the accident, but each dish he had ordered was like a salt lick. They left before finishing their dinner."
"Okay, so one lesson we've learned is that big purses are banned from Babka." Tilly tried to laugh a little. If she could control her emotions and learn from this calamity, then everything would be okay. Her life and her dream would all be fine. Babka and her grandmother's legacy would survive. No problem. She could turn this mess around. "What other lessons can we learn?"
"Can you work backward from what he ate to see who oversalted the food?" Karen asked.
Tilly shook her head. "I can't pin everything he ate on one cook. His dishes came from different stations, so the only way everything got oversalted was if I added salt at the pass. And I didn't do that."
"The reviewerwhich customer was he?" Candace glanced from Karen to Steve, the runner. "Steve, do you know who got that combination of food? Karen, you're normally so good at remembering customers. Do you remember him?"
"What I want to know is," Steve slipped in, "why he wrote the review when the cat incident was obviously a fluke."
"The Eater is a jerk," Karen said. "No reviewer writes on one visit. Everyone knows this. He should have come back."
Tilly took another deep breath. "Karen's right. No reader would believe a review written about one night, even from The Eater." Her heartbeat slowed to a more normal speed. "Don't worry, Babka will be fine."
Faces at the table just looked at her. Her staff didn't believe her, either.
"Um, Tilly?" Karen's voice was still missing its pre-review cheer and Tilly knew instantly what she was going to say. "You're demonstrating at the Taste of Chicago on Monday. What are you going to do?"
Poof. The tiny feeling of calm she had been clinging to flashed brightly before her eyes and disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Tilly groaned.
The Taste of Chicago was a huge food festival, spanning the week of July Fourth. Thousands of Chicagoans and tourists converged on Grant and Millennium parks to try bites of every kind of food Chicago had to offer, to watch chefs demonstrate their signature dishes and to celebrate warmth in a city famous for its cold.
"How many people at your demonstration will have read the review?" asked one of the waiters.
Something in her stomach bubbled, but he kept talking. "Will you be chopping onions for the birds or will the seats be filled with hecklers?"
Whatever had been bubbling in her stomach was moving up her throat.
"Do you think they'll have stuffed cats to throw?" Karen joined in with a giggle.
No one seemed to notice Tilly's stomach was rebelling, even though her face was surely green.
"What do you think is worse, a tent full of empty chairs or everyone bringing their pets to Tilly's demonstration?" Candace asked with a slight smile on her face.
Could no one see that she was about to be sick? How could they find anything about this situation funny?
Whatever was gurgling was ready.
Tilly jumped up, covered her mouth and ran to the bathroom. Her dream was about to go down the toilet.