Readers and writers: Find humor in a restaurant memoir and courage in a novel of betrayal

posted in: Adventure | 0

A waiter’s valentine to food and his friends at a now-closed Minneapolis restaurant and fiction about a woman who stands up to corporate betrayal give us two good reading options today.


“The Last Supper Club: A Waiter’s Requiem”: by Matthew Batt (University of Minnesota Press,.$22.95)

I enjoyed teaching very much, but at the end of nearly every day, most of my students regard my classes as — and this is a direct quote from one of my student evaluations — a course that “I thought was going to suck but didn’t.”

Restaurants, on the other hand — if they’re good ones — well, we don’t just nourish. We delight. — from “The Last Supper Club”

Matthew Batt thought he was going to write a book during his sabbatical from teaching at the University of St. Thomas (he never mentions the name of the college). But he soon found he didn’t have enough money to make it through months outside the classroom, so he turned to what he loved and had a lot of experience with — being a waiter. While growing up in New Berlin, Wis., as well as spending time in Massachusetts, Ohio, Utah and Texas while pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees, his bills were paid by working in the hospitality industry. It was lucrative, too. He writes that by waiting tables four days a week in Minnesota he was making as much as he did as a tenured associate professor.

Matthew Batt (Mike Ekern / University of St. Thomas)

In his humorous and interesting memoir, Batt tells of participating in the lively, exasperating, exhausting and wonderful experience of working at The Brewer’s Table, a fine-dining restaurant above Surly’s beer hall in Minneapolis. (Although the book doesn’t give any dates, the restaurant opened in 2015 and closed in August 2017.)

Foodies will love Batt’s descriptions of the menu and even those who don’t know anything about enhancing flavors will be interested in how Chef Jorge Guzman (who terrified Batt) paired beer with food. And what food! Surly’s didn’t fool around in training their wait staff, all of whom took weeks of pre-opening training and were expected to know the origin of and ingredients in every one of the 20 dishes on the menu. That included the fatty hog jowls.

Jorge Guzman (Ben Garvin / Pioneer Press)

“Most of us are still attempting to cram our heads with the difference between the six different kinds of olives we’re presenting to each table upon arrival or struggling to recall what the hell egg gribiche or huitlacoche is and which dish they are parts of,” Batt writes. “The rest of the menu’s impenetrability washes over me with a wave of despair. There’s the duck tongue with the tamarine something or other. The fried green tomato with the shockingly simple Frank’s Red Hot Sauce (but in what and how, who knows?). The opaque panzenella with boquerones, pincholines, and espellette powder…”

In spite of 40-something Batt’s fears he’s going to be fired at any minute, he is accepted by his mostly younger co-workers who become his on-the-job family. Together they survive ingredient quizzes from the manager, the “soft opening” and first night of business. He makes friends with food runners and hostesses (“the person who controls the phone controls the room”). Some stress is added because he is also working at an unidentified establishment he calls “the lakeside place,” a new restaurant on Lake Como that is also opening. It is not going well.

Besides The Brewer’s Table story, Batt tells of his years eating in other diners and restaurants beginning in Wisconsin where he and his mother had a fabulous meal at a rural place that was once favored by gangsters.

By the time The Brewer’s Table opens for business, the reader wants to cheer for the staff as they smile while enforcing the chef’s iron-clad rules that make newbie guests mad, including no kids menu, no beer by the pitcher, no food from the casual downstairs brewery. And then there are the clients, including the man who comes alone with a book, always looking to see which women servers are on duty — but in a non-threatening way. One woman said it was her birthday and insists on having french fries, also not on the menu. Her companion sneaks downstairs and returns with a serving of fries, a move Batt is afraid will bring on every bit of Chef’s rage.

In the end, The Brewer’s Table closed and Batt is now back in the classroom. But he has left us an engrossing and tender memoir about life behind the scenes of an elegant dining room where every piece of cutlery and glassware has to be polished. He also has a claim to fame — none of his experienced colleagues had ever heard of someone staying at a restaurant from start to finish.

Batt, who is a friend of Minnesota author Peter Geye, wrote a previous memoir, “Sugarhouse: Turning the Neighborhood Crack House Into Our Home Sweet Home,” about renovating the first home he and his wife, Jenae, bought in Salt Lake City. He used the skills he leaned there to do the same to their century-old fixer-upper in the Como neighborhood.

Batt will discuss his book with Minnesota author Lon Otto at 7  p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24, at Magers & Quinn, 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Mpls., and 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7, at Next Chapter Booksellers, 38 S. Snelling Ave., St. Paul, in conversation with Minnesota writer Brad Zellar.

“A Cowardly Woman No More”: by Ellen Cooney (Coffee House Press, $16.95)

…if I reached a peak too soon in expressing the furious inner maelstrom I intended to work up, and my words turned dull, I’d sit still awhile, on a break, and think about the guy getting the new position instead of me, completely outranking me, if I’d planned to stay on. In his new position of boss-ness, he’d be overlording me, and so I’d let that sink in and churn around, and then return to my protest, exponentially and vigorously, because what happened to me in my company was wrong, wrong, wrong. — from “A Cowardly Woman No More”

Ellen Cooney is the author of the novel “A Cowardly Woman No More.” (Courtesy of Coffee House Press)

Who should read this book? Every woman who has silently screamed after an encounter with an entitled male boss. Every woman who has given years to a job only to be passed over for a promotion. Every woman who has had to train a less-qualified youngster (usually a man), so he can be her boss.

Although there is much in the media these days about women progressing in the business world, Ellen Cooney reminds us in her sharp-tongued and humorous novel that many women are not winners. This is the story of one of them, Trisha Donahue, a 44-year-old computer specialist who’s been a mainstay of her company for 20 years but has always felt after an encounter with a manager that “I could feel myself shrinking inside, convinced for that moment I was incompetent, I was a phony, I did not deserve the job I had, I did not belong there.” So Trisha puts up with every stupid, inconvenient company policy, never complaining about the stress of working and caring for her husband and children.

And then it all goes wrong when Trisha is up for a promotion everyone knows she is entitled to that comes with a large office. She is already contemplating the joys of getting out of her little pod space where she’s constantly interrupted. But she doesn’t get the job. It goes to a less qualified young man.

What happens next is the heart of the novel, which unfolds in one day. Trisha is surprised at being honored at the company’s annual banquet, as though that makes up for not getting the promotion. But instead of smiling in the glaring spotlight she stands up, turns her back on her colleagues and walks out the back door.

The banquet, a cherished company event, is held at the old and slightly dowdy Rose & Emerald restaurant where Trisha spent many hours hanging out as a child. Not knowing where to go or what to do after her walk-out, especially since she had kicked off her shoes under the table, she roams her beloved restaurant meeting all kinds of characters who help her but don’t say much else. There’s something mysterious about these encounters and the dark back rooms. It’s especially spooky when she finds herself in the attic where there are new desks and computer equipment. Nobody will tell her what the office is for, except that it has to do with training.

By the time the day turns to early evening, and Trisha has missed the last bus back to the office, she has become a woman ready to stand up for herself at a new and better job.

Cooney’s writing is a delight and every woman who has gone against her best judgment “to fit in” will love her book.

The author, who lives on the Phippsburg Peninsula in mid-coast Maine, has written 10 previous novels and her stories have been in national publications.

Related Articles

Books |

Literary pick for week of Oct. 22

Books |

Literary calendar for week of Oct. 22

Books |

St. Paul writer launches new novel and talks about her process

Books |

Author Michael Connelly proud that ‘Bosch’ has become longest running streaming character

Books |

Readers and writers: After 34 years, Patty Wetterling tells the story in her own words

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.