After losing her mother to cancer, Sally Solari quits her job as an attorney to help her dad run his old-style Italian eatery in Santa Cruz, California. But managing the front of the house is far from her dream job.
Then in a sudden twist, her Aunt Letta is found murdered in her own restaurant, and Sally is the only one who can keep the place running. But when her sous chef is accused of the crime and she finds herself suddenly short-staffed, Sally must delve into the world of sustainable farming—not to mention a few family secrets—to help him clear his name and catch the true culprit before her timer runs out.
Leslie Karst serves a platter of intrigue in her stirring and satisfying debut Dying for a Taste, which is sure to become a new favorite of food mystery fans.
About the Author
Leslie Karst has degrees in English literature, law, and culinary arts. After graduating from Stanford Law School, she worked for twenty years as a research and appellate attorney before retiring. Karst now spends her time cooking, gardening, cycling, singing alto in the local community chorus, and of course writing. She and her wife, Robin, and their Jack Russell mix, Ziggy, split their time between Santa Cruz, California and Hilo, Hawaii.
Read an Excerpt
At least twice a week, I have customers tell me how lucky I must feel, having been born into this family. Bellies tight from their lunches of clam chowder and osso buco , they’ll gesture out Solari’s picture window at the flocks of brown pelicans soaring up the coast, wing tips just grazing the waves.
“I can’t even imagine a better place to work than this,” they’ll exclaim, and pull out their phones to take shots of the fishing boats bobbing up and down in the Monterey Bay.
They truly have no idea.
But then again, they’ve never had to talk down a rabid waitress on the verge of walloping a busboy over the head with a serving tray, which happened to be the delightful task occupying me at our family’s restaurant this Monday lunch shift.
Giulia, a hefty gal in a black skirt and form-fitting white blouse, had cornered Sean in the alcove separating the wait station from the now-busy dining room. Animated voices rose above the clatter of cutlery on ceramic dishes, and the pungent aroma of garlic and fried fish hung in the air.
“Put that down this instant,” I said to Giulia, placing myself strategically between her and the cowering busboy, “and tell me what in God’s name is going on here.”
“It wasn’t my fault!” The teenager emerged from behind a rack of soup bowls and stuck out a chin sporting the beginnings of a fuzzy, blond beard. “The man just stood up all of a sudden and threw his arm out, right as I came up to his table.”
“Sean managed to knock three orders of cannoli onto the guy at table nine,” Giulia retorted, “smearing cream all down the front of his fancy suit. He’s been in before and was a huge tipper. That sure won’t happen today.” She glared at the busboy, and he backed up a step. “What the hell were you doing bringing out the dessert anyway?”
“Mario told me to. He said it had been sitting at the window for like ten minutes, and he wanted it out of the way.” There was a hint of triumph on the boy’s face: one point for his side.
Giulia knew she’d been bested, and her eyes blazed. Raising the tray once more, she started forward, but I blocked her way with my tall, lanky frame.
“Hold your horses, sister. Is the table still here?” She nodded. “Right,” I said. “We’re all three going out there right now to make a formal apology. How much did they order?”
“Three specials is all. And the desserts. Which of course never made it to the table,” Giulia added with another glare in Sean’s direction. “No bar tab.”
“Good. So you, Giulia, are going to inform the man that the entire meal is on the house and that we’ll pay for the dry cleaning for his suit as well. That should appease him a bit. Okay, let’s march.”
I followed Giulia and Sean into the dining room and then immediately ducked back into the alcove. But it was too late; he’d already spotted me.
“Why, Ms. Solari,” a deep voice boomed across the room. “Fancy meeting you here!” I slunk back in and crossed to his table, the table: number nine. It was Jack Saroyan, senior partner of Saroyan, Davies & Lang, one of the biggest law firms in Santa Cruz, California.
And my boss from a past life.
“Uh, hi, Jack,” I said, managing a weak smile. “So sorry about all this.” I nodded at the wet splotches down the front of his pale-gray suit. “Do let me know what the dry cleaning bill is, and we’ll cover it for you.”
I glanced at Giulia, who was clearly taken aback by the fact that I knew the gentleman. But she recovered quickly and launched into her spiel about comping the meal. Ever the suave politician type, Jack just laughed it off and assured us all that his clothes would be fine.
After Giulia and Sean had gone back to their duties, Jack introduced me to his tablemates: a pair of expert witnesses he’d hired for a land-subsidence case. “Sally used to be one of our very best associate attorneys,” he informed the two men. “But sadly she left us a few years ago to return to the family business.” He turned back to me. “You know,” he said with a glance down his front and a wink, “perhaps managing waitstaff isn’t the vocation you were meant for after all. You might want to consider coming back to work for us.”
Right , I thought as I headed for the tiny office behind the dry storage room that I shared with my dad. Like that’ll be happening anytime soon. No matter how much I might bitch about being back at Solari’s, the thought of returning to the grind of pumping out endless billable hours was far worse.
I sank into the folding chair and reached across the metal desk for a brown paper bag sitting atop a stack of time sheets. My luncha ham and Swiss on Jewish rye with lots of mayo and Dijon mustardwas inside. Yes, I did work at a restaurant, but after a while, you get tired of fried zucchini and spaghetti carbonara every single day. It was past noon, and I’d had no breakfast. I unwrapped the sandwich and took a large bite just as my phone went off: the Hawaii Five-0 theme song, Eric’s ringtone.
“Sal, thank God I got you.”
“This better be good,” I said, mouth full. “I’m in the middle of lunch, and I have not had a great morning.”
“Oh, Sally...” There was a pause and labored breathing on the other end of the line.
“What?” I finished chewing and sat up. Eric’s my ex-boyfriend, so I know the guy pretty darn well. It wasn’t like him to be short on words.
“It’s your Aunt Letta.” Another pause. “She’s dead.”
“I’m down here at her restaurant. That’s where it happened.”
“What? A heart attack or something?”
There were loud voices in the background. Eric spoke briefly to someone elseI couldn’t make out the wordsand then came back on the line. “She was stabbed, Sally. It looks like a murder.”
“Oh my God.” I jumped up out of my chair and just missed knocking over a mug of yesterday’s coffee.
“That’s why I’m here. One of the cops on the scene is a friend of mine, and when he realized who the victim was, he gave me a call.”
“Oh my God,” I said again, sliding back into my chair and slumping over the desk. “Does my dad know?”
“Not yet. You’re the first person I’ve told.”
“I better get down there with you.”
“I dunno, Sal; it’s pretty...grisly. And they’re not going to let you in anyway. It’s a crime scene. They even kicked me out of the building, and I’m a DA.”
“I don’t care. I’m coming.” I shut off the phone and took a few deep breaths, trying to slow my rapid heartbeat. Then I ran out into the hall and grabbed the first person I saw Emilio, one of the line cooksby the arm. “Where’s my dad?” I shouted.
“He ran out for some polenta. They shorted our delivery yesterday, and we don’t have enough for tonight. What’s the big deal?”
“Tell ya later.” Retrieving my purse from the office, I hurried outside to my beat-up, green Accord, slammed the door, and backed up, nearly colliding with a Stagnaro Bros. seafood delivery truck in the process. The driver hurled some choice words in my direction and then continued on.
Okay, girl, calm down. I waited a moment, made sure no one was in my rearview mirror, and then finished backing out into the roadmore cautiously this time.
As I made my way down the length of the wharf, I tried to wrap my mind around what Eric had told me: Aunt Letta’s life, which had always seemed so exotic and glamorous to me, was over. Finished. Gunning the accelerator, I cruised through the roundabout and headed downtown. No, it simply didn’t make any sense.
In order to make a left off of Pacific Avenue, I had to wait while a gaggle of pedestrians streamed through the crosswalk. This street, which bisects the Eastside and Westside of Santa Cruz from the ocean almost to the hills, is lined with shops, movie theaters, and restaurants and is a magnet for all aspects of our community: university students, moms with strollers, aging hippies, suit-clad professionals, and grizzled men with backpacks and bedrolls.
I finally managed to dart across the road between a pair of adolescent skate punks and an elderly gentleman walking an even more elderly looking chocolate lab and then cut over to Cedar Street, turned left, and drove past my aunt’s restaurant, Gauguin. A half-dozen squad cars occupied all the spots in front of the place, but I was able to find parking around the corner on a street lined with brightly painted Victorian homes and trees just beginning to leaf out.
Buttoning up my blazer to ward off the brisk April wind, I walked down the sidewalk with a growing sense of dread. It was easy enough to act all brave and cavalier with Eric on the phone, but was I really up for this?
I mean, even though my dad’s sister had left town when I was only a kid, we’d actually ended up fairly close. Violetta, who’d always been known simply as Letta, had returned to Santa Cruz to open Gauguin right when I was starting law school and had been my strongest ally when my dad was so furious about my leaving Solari’sjust as she had done, turning her back on the family business, years earlier.
Once back in her hometown, Letta did her best to keep an emotional distance from the rest of the family, rarely even making it to my grandmother’s house for Sunday dinnerthe only one of us who didn’t religiously attend Nonna’s weekly ritual. But the two of us had forged a special bond: that of outcast sister and daughter. And even after I’d caved and quit practicing law to return to the family restaurant, she’d still supported me.
But now she was gone.
As I rounded the corner, I looked up to see a swarm of gawkers in front of the restaurant being restrained behind yellow crime tape, and suppressed a shudder. Even if she hadn’t been my aunt, the prospect of seeing the actual scene where anyone had been stabbed to death would have been exceedingly unsettling.
Well, I wasn’t going to turn back now. Pushing my way through the crowd, I tried to get the attention of the policewoman standing guard at Gauguin’s intricately carved front door. It was made of koa (Letta had made sure everyone knew this), and as I waited for the cop to shoo off two young men trying to peer through the restaurant window, I studied its Polynesian designs. The swirls and geometric shapes had always reminded me of exotic tattoos, but carved into reddish-brown wood rather than inked into flesh.
I was about to explain who I was to the policewoman when Eric came striding up from behind. “She’s with me,” he said and, gripping me by the arm, steered me under the crime tape and around the walkway to the side of the restaurant. As always when I was with Eric, I found myself immediately tending to slouch, ever conscious of the several inches in height I had over him, even in flats.
We stopped near the side door. Letta's '57 Thunderbird was parked next to the building, its creamy yellow paint job glaring in the midday sun. Eric unbuttoned his suit jacket and leaned his wiry frame against the stucco wall. Once again, my brain focused on the minutiaehow his pale-blond hair and starched, white shirt took on hues of the bright-orange wall and the pale-violet trim around the windows. "Mango" and "orchid," Letta had called the colors. Was this some kind of defense my mind was constructing, obsessing over the details to avoid having to concentrate on the big picture?