Foodies, those intrepid, inveterate eaters, have colonized many media: They have their own phone company commercials starring Alice Waters and Wolfgang Puck, celebrity chef cookbooks, a dozen specialty magazines, cable-TV shows and recipe videotapes. With Tom Murphy's "Appetites," they have invaded fiction.
"Appetites" is the story of the best restaurant in New York and the people who love it. Elise Villeromain has walked away from the elegant life she once led as the daughter of the famed Pierre Villeromain, chef-owner of Manhattan's Le Palais Royal restaurant, and gone into self-imposed exile in Vermont with her ski-bum hunk of a husband, Jared. Although Elise and Jared are down to their last $214.06, she keeps her honor and her distance from disapproving Papa and his second wife, Kate.
But Pierre dies suddenly and bequeaths Le Palais Royal to Elise and Kate as equal partners. They can sell the restaurant to pay off their inheritance taxes, or they can try to get Le Palais Royal back on its feet. To compensate for her guilt at being such a rebellious daughter, Elise commits herself to keeping the restaurant alive, only to learn that Kate, and a few other interested parties, disagree on how to do that.
The restaurant itself is a vibrant, if aloof central character. Murphy had the help of some Foodie high priests--most significantly, Le Cirque owner Siro Maccioni and his then-chef, Alain Sailhac, who allowed Murphy to hang around the kitchen. The best parts of the book are served with a heaping scoop of verisimilitude. When Claude, the young pastry chef, is saddled with re-creating the maestro's lobster souffle at the memorial luncheon, his panic--will it rise? will it fall? did I use enough cayenne, or too much?--will amuse any cook who has ever stared into an oven.
Beyond the bright vignettes, though, "Appetites" seems more a recipe for a novel than a finished work of fiction. The people simply aren't as fully drawn as the place. The greatest problem is Elise, who tends to be obstinate in business and submissive to the point of hero-worship in love. Faced with a catastrophe, she grudgingly accepts help from a fast-food baron who wants to go legit and be her partner, and she does manage to trade up in the romance department. But her relationships to other people aren't as compelling as everyone's relationship to the sensuous Le Palais.
And, while Claude is certainly a charmer, some of the minor characters are thin. If there is such a thing as a male version of the pouty bimbo, Jared is it. He's such a priapic cipher that even the author can't be bothered to waste adjectives on him. It's always "quicksilver Jared," over and over, as if Murphy were describing the FTD winged messenger. Yves, the alcoholic gay chef, skates dangerously close to cliche and insult, as a man who cannot control any of his appetites; his partner in caricature is Claude's wife, Marie-Claire, who is so shrewish that the reader savors her untimely, if convenient, end. Claude's integrity kept him from cheating with baking soda to make the souffles rise. If only Murphy had resisted the easy out of making the villains so villainous.
Still, there is something terrifically sweet about a book whose hero bakes puff pastry swans for a living and knows that the beans-and-\o7 foie-gras \f7 fad ended five years ago. Anyone who loves to dine out will be able to pick at this plate of a novel and find some delicious tidbits. You will, however, probably be hungry again in a couple of hours.