To research her latest novel, “Bread and Butter,” Michelle Wildgen went back to her roots. She returned to the kitchen at Lombardino’s in Madison, shadowing the staff that she was a part of many years ago, before she moved to New York and launched a successful writing career.
It was at Lombardino’s that she met Daniel Momont, who started busing tables there at age 15. Momont would go on to help launch the hugely successful restaurant The Old Fashioned on the Capitol Square. Years later, Wildgen would tap Momont’s vast knowledge to create the fictional restaurants Winesap and Stray, the inanimate stars of her novel.
“She wanted to know the nuts and bolts of starting a restaurant,” Momont said. He offered her information on what it takes to get a liquor license, what permits are required, how terms work with different vendors, etc.
Once Wildgen had a rough draft, she asked Momont to read it for anything she might have missed.
“She got it absolutely right,” said Momont, who left Madison in 2012 for New Orleans, where he recently landed a job with the Pickwick Club, one of the oldest social organizations in the city.
Behind the scenes
Wildgen’s research went beyond her Lombardino’s connections to another seasoned chef, Madison’s Leah Caplan.
“I bugged Leah, who told me a lot about her experience,” Wildgen said. A few of the highlights of Caplan’s resume include executive chef at the University Club, executive chef and proprietor of the Washington Hotel and Culinary School in Door County, and most recently founder of her own business, Field to Fork Culinary Consulting.
“(Leah) said this wonderful line at one point: ‘With the restaurant business, it’s a daily struggle not to fire your entire staff.’ That’s in the book verbatim, because I thought it was such a great line,” Wildgen said.
Caplan said she was honest about the drama that goes on in a fine-dining establishment’s kitchen.
“I told her about the things that I found most challenging, which aren’t necessarily the things that one would expect — mainly staff issues, like hiring, training and retaining,” Caplan said.
Wildgen, who now lives in Madison, crafts all sorts of personalities to staff her fictional restaurants, like the temperamental pastry chef, the swaggering bartender who schemes to become the maitre d’, and the unflappable expediting chef. Drama inevitably ensues as her restaurant workers thrive on the ups and downs of each chaotic dinner service. The food industry tends to attract a certain personality.
“There’s nothing even about the restaurant business,” Caplan said. “It changes day to day.
“You come in and it’s a buildup, buildup, buildup to service, and service is super intense, and then it just stops.”
The emotion that feeds into the crescendo of service is like a shot of adrenaline, Caplan said, and that’s the reason many people stay in the business.
The thrill that comes from performing under pressure can also cause tempers to flare. But “when service stops, everything is forgotten. It’s just sort of a given that that’s how it is,” Caplan said.
Obviously, someone seeking banker’s hours need not apply. When Momont was working at The Old Fashioned, he remembers closing up at 3, 4, even 5 in the morning, passing morning shift workers on their way in as he was on his way out.
“You definitely need to have a passion,” he said. “You have to want to make people happy, to show them a good time. Otherwise, you’ll burn out.”
Or, as Wildgen’s character Britt says, “You have to love the craziness more than you hate the hours.”
In “Bread and Butter,” one of the brothers at the center of the family drama becomes known for creating a more adventurous menu than his older brothers. Harry’s signature dish of lamb’s neck generates plenty of buzz for his upstart restaurant.
Momont said that lamb’s neck could find its way on to plenty of menus, “especially now, when people are getting much more adventurous.” He recalls an interesting dish that was a big hit at a restaurant he worked at while living in New York: live sea scallops.
“You put them in your mouth and squeeze a little lime juice on them. They would start to pulsate, and then you’d eat them,” he said.
“There wasn’t really a point to it. It was kind of a gimmick,” he said, “but they sold like crazy.”
He credits a desire for spectacle as much as a need to satisfy hunger.
“When people go out, they want to be entertained,” Momont said. “Dining out can be like theater.”
It’s that behind-the-scenes drama that Wildgen channels in “Bread and Butter” as she mixes tempers, ambition and libidos into a savory read.