Ashes to Ashes, Crust to Crust by Mindy Quigley: Featured Excerpt
By Crime HQMay 25, 2023
“Son, come and taste this,” I called, holding up a fork and summoning Sonya Perlman-Dokter, my best friend, sous chef, and the namesake “Son” of my pizza restaurant, Delilah & Son. She stood at the counter near me, prepping for the dinner service.
Sonya pivoted toward me with her eight-inch gyuto chef’s knife leveled at my chest. As always, she wore a full face of flawless retro-style makeup, with matte red
lips, heavy powder, and a fluttering expanse of false eyelashes. A blunt-cut midnight black bob framed her gray eyes, which held a glint almost as steely as the razor sharp edge of her knife.
“If that’s another bratwurst sample, I can’t be held responsible for my actions,” she said, putting a menacing arch in her perfectly plucked eyebrow.
Sonya threatened to kill me at least once a week, which showed great restraint considering how often my uncompromising culinary standards put the bonds of our friendship to the test. “Just one more?” I waggled the fork in front of her nose. “This bite could be worth ten thousand dollars.”
With our first summer season drawing to a close, I’d hatched a plan to see the business through the leaner winter months, and finding the perfect bratwurst was a crucial first step. Our Geneva Bay, Wisconsin, location is a paradise in the high season, the Midwest’s answer to the Hamptons. A massive, glittering blue lake is ringed by mega-mansions built for mega-wealthy families whose names are synonymous with turn-of-the century industrial success—Wrigley, Sears, Schwinn, Vick. In the winter, though, the wealthy Chicagoans and other assorted tourists flee back to the city or to vacation spots in warmer climes. The seasonal pattern meant that businesses like mine had to count on stockpiling at least three-quarters of our annual revenue during the fleeting summer months.
Luckily, I’d hit on the ideal opportunity for a lastminute revenue boost—Geneva Bay’s Taste of Wisconsin Cook-Off, the marquee event of the town’s yearly Labor Day weekend festivities. All of Geneva Bay’s top restauranteurs would be vying to take home the grand prize for the dish that best showed off our region’s local flavors. The winning restaurant would receive a three-page write-up in On the Water, the Chamber of Commerce’s popular magazine, top billing on the Visitors Bureau website, and a ten-thousand-dollar cash prize.
“I don’t care if it’s ten thousand dollars or ten million.” Sonya gestured toward her knife and toward me. “The killing of Delilah O’Leary would be self-defense and not
a jury in the land would convict me.”
I gently disarmed her, placing the knife on the worktop. “This one’s different. I asked them to grind in more back fat and use less cardamom.”
Sujeet and Big Dave, the restaurant’s meat suppliers, had spent the last few weeks creating variations on a custom sausage mixture for my planned entry in the contest: a new deep-dish recipe with locally sourced pork bratwurst, pickled onions, a beer-infused cheese sauce, and a soft pretzel crust. I’d hit on the basic idea early on, but I still hadn’t found exactly the right balance of flavors. I knew every element had to be perfect, or the concept could risk coming off as, for lack of a better word, cheesy. Sonya huffed, crossed her arms, and reluctantly opened her mouth to allow me to feed her. I watched as she slowly chewed the morsel.
“Well?” I prompted.
“It tastes very much like samples twelve through fourteen,” she replied.
“Do you think it needs a finer grind?”
She took my hands in hers and peered into my face. “I can allow you to abuse our friendship, but remember I’m also your employee. There has to be some kind of workplace safety regulation against forcing me to eat this much bratwurst.”
“No doubt. Please submit your formal complaint to the HR department,” I teased,
gesturing to the large ceramic bin of food scraps we kept for garden compost.
She gave me a good-natured punch in the arm and turned back to her work. I popped another piece of bratwurst into my mouth, and shook my head as I chewed. Definitely needed a finer grind. And maybe this last version had overdone the salt by a smidgeon.
Sonya, with her uncanny ability to read my mind, called out, “Dee, it’s fine. The last five iterations have all been excellent.”
I walked back toward my prep area, while Sonya opened a large can of whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes. She grooved her hips as she turned the crank on the opener, humming along with the B-52s song on our “Chop and Bop” playlist.
“You know,” she said, “I’ve been thinking of getting back on the dating scene.”
“Really?” I replied, almost choking on the meat I was chewing.
Much as I wanted Sonya to find her soulmate, her romantic track record was akin to the Detroit Lions’—that is to say, one long, ugly losing streak. Always one to lead with her heart instead of her head, Sonya’s most recent relationship had been among her all-time greatest disasters. She’d somehow gotten herself tangled up in an affair with her previous boss’s wife. That ended with said boss humiliating her in front of the entire staff by firing her on the spot and dumping a full pan of jellied veal demi-glace over her head during service. Even all these months later, she was still recovering from the loss of that job and the damage to her reputation.
“Yeah, life’s short, right?” Sonya said. “No sense in crying over spilled milk.”
Or spilled demi-glace, I thought. Out loud, I said, “That’s great, Son. I hope you find someone who really makes you happy.”
I took another bite of bratwurst, then another, stuffing my mouth, lest I utter aloud my silent prayer—Please let her find someone nice this time. Someone employed. Someone single. Someone who doesn’t empty their joint bank account and skip town in the middle of the night with Sonya’s car and half her record collection.
Sonya must’ve caught me staring because she apparently mistook my concern for her as fixation on the quality of the bratwurst. She called out, “It’s time to stop testing, Dee. How many pigs have lost their lives in service of your nitpicking? More importantly, my body can’t take it anymore. My blood is now fifty percent gristle.”
I sighed and swallowed. She had a point. I could feel myself going down the rabbit hole of perfectionist obsession, and it was messing with my palate as well as my head. Usually I could just look at ingredients and see a dish, the way a sculptor can look at a block of marble and see a finished statue. But this recipe had been a struggle from the start. Maybe the bratwurst wasn’t the problem. Maybe the problem was me.
My mind summoned a vivid memory of one of my culinary school instructors warning me and my classmates about the dangers of compulsive self-criticism, a common occupational hazard among chefs. “Being a chef,” she’d said, “isn’t a job so much as a personality type.” Demanding, detail-oriented, hard-charging. We’d all been late in plating our veal blanquettes, having wasted our allotted time futzing with the sauces and seasonings. Fixing her firm gaze on us, she cautioned us not to become our own worst critics, not to let ourselves be controlled by “that tiny voice that sits inside your head, quietly judging your every action against some unreachable standard.”
Ha! Good one, lady. There was nothing quiet or tiny about my inner perfectionist voice. My perfectionism came with a built-in megaphone and a surround-sound speaker system.
I’d hoped that when I opened my dream restaurant, Delilah & Son, a lakeside spot specializing in handcrafted cocktails and unique deep-dish pizzas, I’d be able to hush my ever-screaming inner voice. For the first time in my career, I’d have complete control over every aspect of the food—choosing every supplier, inspecting every ingredient, tasting every dish before deeming it a worthy addition to the menu. Surely, with total authority, I’d finally be content. But in the three months since Delilah & Son opened its doors, I’d found that the opposite was true, and that perfection remained tantalizingly, maddeningly, just beyond my reach. Of course, it didn’t help matters that the restaurant’s stuttering launch had been ever so slightly overshadowed by a murder and subsequent police investigation.
“You should get your love train back on the track, too,” Sonya said. “Maybe it would help you focus a little less on meat.” She turned her head toward me with a seductive tilt. “Or focus a little more . . . on meat.”
I threw a kitchen towel at her, and she caught it with a laugh.
The restaurant’s financial problems had definitely been worsened by my ill-timed breakup with my former fiancé and business partner, Sam Van Meter, aka the guy who’d been bankrolling the whole shebang. I’d been confident that the restaurant could stand on its own following our split, so I’d refused Sam’s offer of financial assistance. To tell the truth, that decision might’ve been driven by pride as much as confidence. Whatever my motivation for going it alone in the financial wilderness, southern Wisconsin’s rainiest summer on record put the restaurant’s spacious lakeside dining patio out of commission for much of the tourist season, which put a literal damper on the restaurant’s profit forecast.
While I knew my problems remained blessedly smaller than the life-or-death stakes that greeted the restaurant’s opening, I still couldn’t get over the feeling that my dream scenario of complete control and contentment was continually tiptoeing along the edge of an abyss.
A high-pitched voice interrupted my ruminations, calling out, “Knock, knock.” Harold Heyer, president of the Geneva Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau, scuttled into the kitchen cradling a stack of papers. My first reaction when he pushed through the door was to bum-rush him out of my kitchen.
Civilians were not allowed to casually stroll in. However, Harold was in the process of assigning locations for the upcoming festival. Each participating business’s tent would be placed in a more or less prominent spot in the town’s large waterfront park, and those placements could be crucial to getting good foot traffic and the revenue and exposure that came with it. In an economy as tourist dominated as Geneva Bay’s, Harold’s position carried outsized influence and power. The Visitors Bureau, in addition to housing the local Chamber of Commerce and publishing On the Water magazine, was in charge of organizing big public events—all of which gave Harold the ability to provide a huge marketing boost to businesses he featured.
Although his job gave him the potential to play favorites or even wield Mafia don–level dominance over Geneva Bay’s small business community, Harold was more Muppet than Mussolini, radiating a level of positivity that fell somewhere between a Disney princess and a high school cheerleader on amphetamines.
Harold sported Bermuda shorts and a lime green plaid sweater vest, despite the August heat, and the sheen of sweat on his steeply domed bald head glistened under the kitchen’s bright lights. Harold’s uncanny resemblance to Humpty Dumpty—with his rail-thin appendages, short stature, egg-shaped body, and bald sphere of a head—was something of a running joke between me and Sonya, a small act of mischief that allowed me to tolerate his high-octane personality.
“Harold, what can I do for you?” I asked, coaxing my mouth into a smile.
“I just wanted to pay a call on my two favorite deepdish divas to pass along some good news,” Harold said.
“Oh?” I said.
“Yes indeedy. But first, tell me how is your delightful aunt doing these days? Such a gem of a woman.”
My no-nonsense octogenarian great-aunt, Elizabeth “Biz” O’Leary was known to most locals from her decades as an accounting and personal finance teacher at the high school. Over the course of her long career, she’d taught everyone from Harold Heyer to the mayor to the chief of police, a man who apparently still had anxiety dreams about being late for her class. Auntie Biz could be . . . vocal. And . . . decisive. And any number of other euphemisms for being a stubborn old battle-ax. But a “delightful gem of a woman”? Harold’s rose-colored glasses needed a good cleaning.
“She’s the same as ever. Kicking ass and taking names. Have you decided on our placement for the festival?” I asked, encouraging him to cut to the chase.
“Still ironing out a few teensy details.” He stopped to examine a stack of glossy-skinned eggplants. “My, these are lovely. Of all your wonderful creations, your Eggplant Nduja pizza is my absolute favorite. A scrumptious blend of umami and spice.”
He patted each eggplant in turn, pinching the top one to test the firmness. I’d have to rewash them now. I dug my nails into my palms, trying to stem the steady trickle of irritation rising in my body. Smile, Delilah. Be pleasant.
“Oh,” Sonya said, eyes twinkling with mischief, “you like the egg-plant pizza?”
Harold nodded. “It really is exceptional.”
“Did you hear that, Dee? Harold thinks our egg-plant pizza is egg-ceptional.”
I envied Sonya’s gift for parrying life’s annoyances with humor. I shut my eyes and counted to ten. When I opened them, though, Harold was still there—an unauthorized civilian, in my kitchen, fondling my eggplants, shoveling out inflated compliments, and making pointless small talk in the midst of dinner prep.
Over many years working in restaurants and hotels, I’d developed a certain level of immunity to pranks, comeons, bullying, hijinks, diva tantrums, ego trips, and foul language the likes of which a seasoned trucker would be ashamed to utter. Harold’s over-the-top flattery and ham handed schmoozing shouldn’t have even registered on my Richter scale of kitchen-related annoyances. However, nothing triggered my temper quite like an intrusion into my inner sanctum. Especially by a guy so seemingly clueless about how much power he held over my future. And that went double for someone who was basically a walking smiley-face emoji.
“Everything you make here is exceptional. Just as exceptional as those who prepare it,” Harold said, pausing as he passed Sonya. “Sonya Perlman-Dokter, have I mentioned that you’re looking radiant as ever? How are you this fine Tuesday?”
She flashed a tolerant smile. “In egg-zellent health. And how egg-zactly are you?” The occasional sly Humpty Dumpty joke clearly helped her maintain cordial relations with Harold—maybe I should try it.
“I’m about ten shades of wonderful, thanks for asking,” Harold replied. He spun on his heel and approached my work area. “And Delilah O’Leary, the pizza prodigy of Geneva Bay, is all well with you? Can you believe all the rain we’ve had?”
“Yes. Rain. Lots,” I said. “Now, you said you had some news for us?” “Whatever you’re cooking in here smells divine. Are those bratwurst pizzas? Two of my absolute favorite foods combined.” He took a long pull of air through his bulbous nose. Given that he stood all of five-foot-four, he had to rise up on his toes to peer inside the pizza oven. “What’s on the menu for today?”
My patience with him hung by a microscopic thread. Harold was such a human cannonball of peppiness that sometimes having a corrupt Mafioso in his place sounded preferable. As he reached for the oven handle, I instinctively took a step toward him with balled fists. No one touches my oven.
Sonya, well accustomed to putting out my internal fires, rocketed over and placed herself between me and my intended victim.
“We’re so grateful you stopped by, Harold,” she said. “Did you want to talk to us about something? Let’s get to it. We really have to get back to dinner prep. Like, now.”
“Yes,” I agreed, drawing in a calming breath. Must not pummel the guy who controls your destiny. “You said that you had good news? Is it about the celebrity judge for the cook-off?”
Last time I’d seen him, Harold had hinted that he was in talks with a big-name chef who would bring major publicity and star power to the competition.
“You must be as clever as you are charming, because that’s just what I came to talk to you about,” he said. Behind Harold’s back, Sonya picked up an egg and danced it on the edge of the worktop.
My boiling blood cooled ever so slightly as I struggled to suppress a grin. Harold, oblivious to our childishness, plopped the stack of flyers he’d been carrying down on my workspace and pointed to the top one. “You won’t believe what we have in store this year.”
I barely registered the bright banner headline announcing “Geneva Bay’s 25th Annual Taste of Wisconsin Cook-Off” or the list of names of the competing restaurants. Instead, my attention snagged on a full-color photo of this year’s celebrity chef judge. The person who would decide the winner of the contest. Harold was right to say I wouldn’t believe it. My heart thudded and blood rushed to my ears.
“We’ve managed to secure Graham Ulrich, head chef of Quotidien,” Harold gushed, giving voice to the news my brain was struggling to accept. “He has his own Food Network show now, as I’m sure you know, so this is going to be a huge draw. Huuuuuge,” he sang, smiling broadly. “Definitely the most memorable in Geneva Bay history.”
I heard the sound of an egg cracking on the floor, and looked over to find Sonya, mouth agape, staring straight ahead with horrified eyes.
She mouthed the name Graham Ulrich, but no sound came from her lips.
“Oh, dear, you’ve dropped your egg,” Harold said, rushing over to help clean up the mess. Sonya didn’t shift positions or so much as blink. “I can understand why you’re a bit overwhelmed,” he soothed, patting Sonya’s hand, which seemed to be frozen in midair. “Graham Ulrich is by far the biggest celebrity judge we’ve ever hosted. But don’t let it intimidate you. You and Delilah are top-notch chefs and you’ll do just fine in the contest.” He turned to me. “Frankly, I was amazed he agreed to come. We’ve been trying to get him for years, but he always said no. Then suddenly out of the blue, he called me and said he wanted to take part if the offer was still open. Quite a boon for our humble festival.”
While Harold blathered on, Sonya’s eyes were locked on mine. Graham Ulrich. Her former boss. The one who’d practically run her out of town on a rail after discovering her fling with his wife. I was sure Sonya was thinking the same thing I was—our hope of winning the cook-off was shattered. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men wouldn’t be able to put that together again.
Copyright © 2023 by Mindy Quigley. All rights reserved.
About Ashes to Ashes, Crust to Crust by Mindy Quigley:
Newly single pizzeria owner Delilah O’Leary is determined to keep her restaurant afloat in the picturesque resort town of Geneva Bay, Wisconsin. To boost her bottom line, she sets her sights on winning the hefty cash prize in the town’s annual “Taste of Wisconsin” culinary contest. In her corner, she’s got her strong-willed, “big-boned” cat Butterball, her wisecracking BFF, her cantankerous great-aunt, and a nearly-flawless recipe for Pretzel Crust Deep-Dish Bratwurst Pizza. But while Delilah and her team have been focused on pumping out perfect pizza pies, her ex-fiancé has cozied up to a new squeeze, juice bar owner Jordan Watts—Delilah’s contest rival.
When one of Jordan’s juice bar customers is poisoned by a tainted smoothie, Delilah lands deep in the sauce. Accusations fly, suspects abound, and a menacing stranger turns up with a beef over some missing dough. Between kale-juicing hipsters and grudge-bearing celebrity chefs, Delilah must act quickly before another one bites the crust.