Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Debut Author Leslie Karst on Inspiration for a Culinary Mystery: Foodies vs. Old-Schoolers

LUCY BURDETTE: Up today, a woman after my own heart--food, food, food! Plus she's got a debut novel that I loved and I hope you will too. Welcome Leslie!

LESLIE KARST: I think about food a lot. In part, because I seem to be incessantly hungry—the result, no doubt, of having to greatly curb my caloric intake now that I’ve reached what the French so delicately call une certaine age. But also because I’m pretty much obsessed with food, even when not hungry. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve begun discussing and planning a future meal before I’ve even finished the one still on the table. (Doesn’t everyone do this?)

Okay, so what’s for dinner tomorrow night?

Because, truly, let’s face it: Eating is the most important—and, I would argue, the most satisfying—human activity there is. So I contemplate, and write about, the subject quite a bit. This is why Sally Solari, the protagonist of my debut mystery, Dying for a Taste, is involved with two restaurants and, like her creator, has food on her mind pretty much all the time.

the Santa Cruz Municipal Wharf, location of Solari’s restaurant in the book

As with Sally, I too was also once an attorney who’d spend my days staring out the window fantasizing about food and cooking when I should have been busy churning out those billable hours.

Is it lunch time yet?

But unlike my sleuth, I never changed careers to work in a restaurant. There were two reasons for this. First, unlike the Solaris, my family didn’t own restaurants, so there was no pressure on me to return to the family fold. But I wouldn’t have wanted to make that switch in any case. I’d spent a couple years waiting tables in my youth, and also worked the hot-lines of several restaurants during my stint as a culinary arts student. And from that limited experience, I learned just how exhausting and stressful a career in the food business can be.

line-cooks at Boulevard, in San Francisco (they’re only smiling because it’s the end of the shift)

Yet I did long for a change from the law, and writing was something I knew I enjoyed. Sure, drafting legal memos, motions, and appeals all day long could be mind-numbingly dull and tedious. But writing fiction—especially a story about food—now, that would be fun.

I’d been a fan of mysteries since age sixteen, the day my mom handed me an Agatha Christie she’d just finished. (The book was Nemesis; I remember because I had to ask her the meaning of the word.) After that day, I started gobbling up others of the “Golden Age,” such as Dorothy L. Sayers and Josephine Tey, later moving on to more modern authors like Sue Grafton and Sarah Caudwell. So why not, I thought, combine my love of the culinary arts with crime fiction and write a food-themed mystery?

Sure, I can do that!

Around this same time, I was serving as treasurer for the Santa Cruz chapter of Slow Food, an organization dedicated to linking the pleasures of the table with sustainable and humane food practices. (And my oh my, do they host fun and delicious events!) Santa Cruz—once home to Italian fishermen, ranchers, and retirees—had been undergoing profound changes ever since a campus of the University of California had opened there in the late 1960s, and by the turn of the new century the town was teeming with hipsters and hippies and urban professionals. Along with these newcomers, the food movement had descended full-force upon the surprised old-timers.

not your old-school spaghetti joint

As I witnessed (and participated in) the advent of this “foodie” revolution and its effects on our sleepy beach town, it hit me that the juxtaposition of these two cultures would make for a terrific backdrop to a mystery story: What would happen if a local Santa Cruz gal suddenly found herself caught between the world of her family’s traditional, old-fashioned Italian restaurant, and that of the newly-arrived, politically-correct food activists?

This was the inspiration for Dying for a Taste.
Buon appetito!

linguine with clam sauce (recipe included in my book!)

Readers: I’d love to hear if the “food revolution” has descended upon your town and, if so, how folks have reacted. Have the old-timers embraced the movement? Do the foodies appreciate the traditional, old-school cuisines of the region? Are there conflicts between the two groups?

(Leave a comment with your email to be entered in the drawing for a copy of Dying for a Taste!)
BIO: Leslie Karst is the author of the culinary mystery, Dying for a Taste, the first of the Sally Solari Mystery series (Crooked Lane Books). A former research and appellate attorney, Leslie now spends her days cooking, gardening, reading, cycling, singing alto in the local community chorus, and of course writing. She and her wife, Robin, and their Jack Russell mix, Ziggy, split their time between Santa Cruz, California and Hilo, Hawai‘i. Visit her at Leslie Karst Author for more.

SYNOPSIS: After losing her mother to cancer, Sally Solari quits her job as an attorney to help her dad run his old-style Italian eatery in Santa Cruz, California, but soon finds that managing the front of the house is far from her dream job of running her own kitchen.

Then her Aunt Letta is found stabbed to death at Gauguin, Letta’s swank Polynesian-French restaurant, and Sally is the only one who can keep the place afloat. When the Gauguin sous chef is accused of the crime, however, Sally must delve into the unfamiliar world of organic food, sustainable farming, and animal rights activists—not to mention a few family secrets—to help clear his name and catch the true culprit before her timer runs out.


  1. We live in a rural area at the shore so there’s always lots of delicious seafood on most local restaurant menus, but I can’t honestly say that, despite the wonderful variety available in restaurants around town, that there’s any sort of a “food revolution.”

    Congratulations, Leslie, on your book . . . it sounds delicious and I’m looking forward to meeting Sally . . . .


  2. Welcome, Leslie! As a resident of Park Slope, Brooklyn we are in the land of kale chips, gluten-free everything, and vegan everything. (Almost) everything locally farmed, locally sourced. The local food co-op had a huge blowout regarding carrying both Israeli and Palestinian hummus....

  3. Yay, Leslie! I also read and loved this book, and have a special place in my heart for Santa Cruz. Leslie and I roomed together at LCC in Monterey a few years ago before she had a contract, and I couldn't be happier for her.

    My Local Foods mysteries address some of the same issues - the new locavores and the newcomer organic farmer vs. the old-time New England conventional farmers. Skinny heirloom haricot verts versus your basic pole bean. And so on.

    Can't wait for book two in the series!

  4. Welcome, Leslie - I love to read about food, makes for great back stories and intriguing ways to kill people. I am in awe of anyone in the restaurant business -- just turning out a single meal for 6 people is hard work.

  5. I live in a somewhat small town, so no foodie revolution here, unfortunately. I love trying new foods and restaurants, my husband and I do that when on vacation or out of town. I can't wait to read this book!

  6. Susan, that's too priceless--Israeli vs Palestinian hummus! Leslie, you may have to use that...

    Hallie, I'm with you on how hard professional cooking must be. I spent one night cooking in a restaurant when the chefs walked out--never again!

  7. Thank you for the interview and this chance! The book sounds wonderful. Congratulations!

  8. I do think there's a food revolution going on. Even my husband, who has never met a piece of salted pork of any variety he didn't like, ponders labels at the grocery store, shaking his head, asking me how they can put that stuff in our food. (Apparently, nitrate isn't on his list of "stuff.) Local, non-GMO, and organic, but also expensive. Here in the Virgin Islands, people will stand in line for organic cauliflower and pay $8.99 for it.

    As another lawyer who turned to writing, I also am obsessed with food. I found cooking to be a great creative relief after a day spent ingesting human tragedy in a courtroom. But cooking in a restaurant sounds as stressful as lawyering and judging from the number of family owned restaurant cases I mediated, a recipe for conflict

    I can't wait to read your book, Leslie. There's nothing like a mystery involving food to double your pleasure.

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  10. Hummus wars! Amazing!

    My sister Nancy is a chef, and owns a catering company. SHe used to own a restaurant--and she has STORIES! I cannot imagine how she did it. HOw do you predict what patrons would order? How do you purchase ingredients when you don't know how many guests there will be? Ahhh. Plus she said everyone in the kitchen is covered with burns. So scary.

    Can we talk about KALE? There is Kale everything in Boston. DId kale get a PR person or something? And lots of beets,too. Beet stuff everywhere.

    Hi, Leslie! And congratulations. (What does a line cook do?)

  11. No foodie revolution here. I love to try new authors. Congrats on the new book.

  12. No foodie revolution here. I love to try new authors. Congrats on the new book.

  13. Congratulations on your new book. I am always looking for new favorite authors.

  14. In Pittsburgh - on my, yes. I think Zagat rated us a top food city or something recently. Lots of new, trendy takes on the traditional Polish/Italian/ethnic staples that have been in the city forever (like pierogies). You can get Middle Eastern, Mexican, Chinese, Thai, fusion - you name it. The Steel City is becoming a mecca for food lovers.

    Me, I love to cook food and think about it. I detest "making dinner" and always seem to fall back on the same five things just because it's easy. I'm not sure if I'd rather have a personal chef or a personal food planner. Probably the latter.

  15. Congratulations on your first book! I like culinary mysteries - I'm sure I gain weight reading them. :-)

  16. Can't wait to read this book..Love food and love cozies...No food revolution in my town...we only have one store.

  17. I don't know about a revolution, but you can get just about any culture's food where I live, almost to the point of losing the traditional foods of the area. That said, there is a growing emphasis on eating local. Congrats and thanks for the chance to win. Dmskrug3(at)hotmail(dot)com

  18. Just getting up, here on the West Coast, so a little late chiming in. Hummus wars, LOL. But I could see that happening here in politically-correct Santa Cruz, as well.

    Hank--A line cook works the hot line, i.e., frying chops or steaks and then deglazing the sauté pans to make pan sauces, and making other "à la minute" dishes.

    I never loved being a lawyer, but working a restaurant would have been even more stressful. I much prefer throwing small but fabulous dinner parties!

  19. Welcome to the lawyer-turned-writer sorority, Leslie! As you can see from the comments, there are a lot of us here. Portland, Maine is very much at the forefront of the slow food movement: record-breaking numbers of young farmers and organic farms, tons of super-trendy restaurants, and lots of very earnest discussions at dinner parties about farmers' markets and CSA shares. (I actually lease an acre of my land to the organic farmers next door! That's about as locavore as you can get!)

    When I think about it, though, the traditional old-time food of Maine has always been local: seafood and potatoes. Even the beans for our famous bean suppahs were once grown locally - and I have no doubt that somewhere in the state is a community that hosts an organic, all-local bean bake.

    Oh, and Hank, I think Kale is just the most recent Super Food that will Save Us All. Remember when you were supposed to eat oatmeal every day? Sprinkle wheat germ on everything? It used to be eggs were going to kill us; now we pay $$$ for a carton of free-range. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  20. No foodie stories here.
    Just a great appreciation for a well crafted tale. And if it includes food? So much the better!

  21. There's an article in the Boston Globe today about a restaurant in East BOston that doesn't take reservations for parties less than 6. If you go without a reservation, the wait can be--FIVE HOURS. FIVE HOURS. What could be that good?

  22. No food revolutions in my town, either. Way too many fast food places. We do have several lovely restaurants in older buildings that have wonderful atmosphere and tasty dishes. For me, an important part of the eating experience is the ambience. And, I want a choice of healthier foods, like vegetables and salads, too. I also like a place where I can order quiche as well as a hamburger.

    We do have an excellent Farmers' Market here, which helps remind me just how superior fresh foods are. One of the items that has me spoiled is the fresh blueberries from a local grower. This year I'm finally going to start freezing some to have during the winter months.

    Leslie, I love that you got into reading mysteries by your mother giving you an Agatha Christie. Your new series sounds yummy, and I'm looking forward to learning more about Santa Cruz.

  23. Sounds interesting. Looking forward to this series.

  24. I live in a very rural area--no food revolution here. About all that's served is hamburgers, steaks, and fried fish. In fact, it's hard to even get fat free dressing for your salad. I'm looking forward to reading a new author. Thanks for the contest.

  25. What a creative conflict to build into your plot. It whets my appetite for the book. Congratulations, Leslie!

  26. In Vancouver we have some amazing restaurants. In fact, the Chinese food is better here than in China (true I've been there). Constant food revolution here.

  27. I grew up in Houston. Back in the 50s it was beef, Tex-Mex, seafood, fried chicken.
    We moved away when I was in high school. My husband and I returned in 2006 to a very international city where you can find anything and everything to eat. Houston is a food-lovers town. You will find all the trends and old standbys here. I like the premise of your book, Leslie, with the food wars between the oldtimers and the PC food nazis!

  28. Mary--I'd love to know what your go-two five things are!

    I actually like kale, but I like it best when it's fried in oil and becomes like a potato chip. Does that count?

  29. It's pretty boring:

    grilled chicken
    pasta (with or without meat)
    pork tenderloin
    ham steaks

    I guess that's six things. There are some variations, but we always come back to those. Every time we try to expand, my teenagers rebel. Argh.

    And aren't they finding out that kale isn't so great for you after all? Something about digesting it. Kale chips are yummy though. Bite-size pieces of kale, spritzed with olive oil, kosher salt, parmesan, bake at 250 degrees until crispy enough for you. Even the kids eat that.

  30. Yum, I'm hungry!No food revolution in either of the areas I live. My part of Maine is very much poutine and ployes, and here in South/Central Florida it's all about the barbecue and sweet tea. Of course, you can't go wrong in either place. It's all good food.

  31. Hi Leslie! Sorry to be late to the party. I've been looking forward to your book since I met you at LLC.

    We live in a totally foodie town. CSAs, farmers market, milk punch brunches and pork belly-:)

  32. Hi Leslie! Sorry to be late to the party. I've been looking forward to your book since I met you at LLC.

    We live in a totally foodie town. CSAs, farmers market, milk punch brunches and pork belly-:)

  33. Congratulations, Leslie! Sounds like a great book and I enjoyed your post very much!

  34. No food revelation where we live, but there definitely is/has been one in Chicago (at least downtown Chicago). The closest our town has is a weekly Farmer's Market throughout the summer.