Soul Kitchen by Poppy Z. Brite
When I read Poppy Z. Brite's excellent Liquor back in November, I had one small criticism, which was that chefs, restaurant owners, and long-time lovers Rickey and G-Man had no romantic spark between them. I finished my review saying that I hoped I'd pick up later books in the series to find that Rickey and G-Man's liquor-themed restaurant had succeeded, and that the two had run off to Cabo for a week or two to rediscover their love.
In Soul Kitchen, the third book in the series, I got my wish, and a whole lot more. Brite continues to write engaging, fun prose about kitchen culture and everyday life in a pre-Katrina New Orleans, and her descriptions of restaurant menus - the brilliant, the gimmicky, the touristy, and the downright disasterous - are written with a true passion and instinct for the subject. However, in addition to the light-hearted food writing, Brite turns her attention to more serious issues and delivers a thoughtful meditation on race relations, class, and homophobia in New Orleans.
In the book's prologue, Milford Goodman, a brilliant black chef, is convicted for the murder of his boss, a white woman. Ten years later, DNA evidence exonerates Goodman; however, he still can't get a kitchen job anywhere in New Orleans until Rickey and G-Man hire him at Liquor. Goodman adapts immediately, and things are going well at the restaurant until pastry chef Tanker (the inventor of Liquor's mousse-filled chocolate death mask) has a falling out with the volatile Rickey and jumps ship for adventures in molecular gastronomy at a weird, trendy restaurant.
Shortly thereafter, things fall apart in a big way. Rickey signs on for a consulting job at a casino restaurant with two of the city's dirtier movers and shakers. The bright side is that they're willing to hire Goodman as the chef de cuisine. The down side is much darker and uglier than anything Rickey could have anticipated. Throughout the book, the relationship between Rickey and G-Man faces some serious tests, but in this book, I believed in them as a couple. And because their love rang true in this book, the stakes in their fights and problems were much higher.
Brite finished writing this book the night before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, and this book is a love letter to a "simpler" time in a city that couldn't be simple if its life depended on it.