Anthony Schmitz, former CP food critic, talks about his new book, Valentine's Cafe
Anthony Schmitz has held a variety of jobs during his career, including serving as City Pages' editor and its restaurant critic.
Since that time, he's turned out several novels, including Darkest Desire: The Wolf's Own Tale (Ecco), Lost Souls (Random House/Available Press), and two new e-published books, Thereafter and Valentine's Cafe.
In Valentine's Cafe, Schmitz narrates the tale of Victor Valentine, the God of Love, who is sent by the higher powers to open the world's most romantic restaurant in St. Paul. Valentine's carnal carnival inevitably stirs up trouble with the state's stoic governor, Luther Lutherson, as well as amorous feelings for his fiery Russian chef, Elevana Natasha Demidova.
The Hot Dish touched base with Schmitz to hear more about Valentine's Cafe and an urban agriculture project he's working on in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood:
1. You were once City Pages' editor, as well as its restaurant critic. What were some of your favorite local restaurants then and now? What have been the most interesting/significant changes in the Twin Cities dining scene over the years? My favorite restaurant now is right down the street at Victoria and University in St. Paul. It's Que Nha, a very nicely run Vietnamese restaurant--a clean, bright, well-appointed space, some unusual dishes, a lot of fresh vegetables, and friendly, comical waitresses. We're regulars, so my wife is in that exalted position of being able to say, "I'll have the usual."
I was reviewing restaurants in the early '80s, before the explosion in the number of restaurants with local, fresh food. The big thing then was the latest Asian restaurant, one of which seemed to open every six minutes and all of which had about the same menu. Café Brenda, then on Selby near the Cathedral in St. Paul, was probably the closest thing around to a modern restaurant.
2. What was the inspiration behind the story of Valentine's Cafe? The germ was an Outkast number, "Happy Valentine's Day," that my daughter played for me, thinking it would appeal to my sense of the ridiculous and fantastical. She was right. The premise is that Valentine is walking the Earth, making things beautiful. I merged that with my experiences from living in Frogtown and, for a number of years, running the neighborhood newspaper. So the novel is about what happens when the God of Love gets set down in the more or less real world of Frogtown. A world of trouble--romantic, political, religious--quickly lands on his head.
3. How did your experience as a restaurant critic inform the story? Well, the restaurant in the novel might be very loosely based on a restaurant like the old Aquavit-- a great place if you had $400 in your pocket and didn't mind saying goodbye to it. So the food is exotic--foams, creams, items you can't really begin to identify, all of it with a back story that beggars belief. Wine from grapes crushed by the bare feet of Bolivian campesinos, watercress harvested at midnight and rushed by motorcycle to the kitchen door, that type of thing. But this is only the foundation, since Valentine adds his own potions to accomplish his true goal, which is to spread the love. The restaurant is soon recognized as an insanely carnal place, where the food is a pretext and the libidinous aspects of love are the main items on the menu. You need to reserve a table months in advance. The novel isn't quite a business plan because it couldn't possibly exist, but as a restaurant critic you wish that it did. 4. Valentine's Cafe is, by definition, the most romantic restaurant ever. Why do you think food and love are so inexorably connected? You feel taken care of when someone is feeding you. It's elemental, beyond your first memories. It's about that happy, drugged feeling of satiety, about security and well-being --a lot of the same things we want from love.
5. Naturally, the protagonist proceeds to fall for his chef. Why are restaurants such notoriously incestuous workplaces? Workplaces are in general, don't you think? You share the same concerns with your workmates, you spend hours together, often enough the work is sufficiently tedious that your mind wanders to other, more interesting topics. Then add in the specifics of a restaurant kitchen, where the basic senses are so routinely engaged. What does this taste like? How does it look? Here, taste this. Try that. Let's just finish off that bottle of wine. You can see how the trouble starts.
6. Valentine's Cafe is an imaginary place, but you're currently working on trying to make a different food-related project a reality. Tell us more about the Frogtown Farm and Park. About two years ago the Wilder Foundation abandoned it's old Frogtown headquarters for a new building at Lexington and University. The site they left behind is 13 acres of open land now that all the old buildings have been removed. There's a sward of mature trees, a field for play, and also about four or five acres of open land on the hilltop. A group of Frogtowners, me and my wife, Patricia Ohmans, included, want to turn the space into a combination park and urban farm. Last week, my wife was awarded a Bush Fellowship to work on it and other food/flower gardening initiatives in Frogtown.
There are plenty of arguments to support our plan. St. Paul Parks and Rec has already identified the same exact area as a place where a new park should be situated. That's because Frogtown has markedly less greenspace per child than any other part of St. Paul. A substantial body of research links access to greenspace to healthy emotional development in kids.
We are describing Frogtown Farm and Park as the park of the future. A lot of the health care debate over the decades to come will be about controlling chronic disease -- diabetes, heart disease and other maladies often caused by poor diet, limited exercise and stress. Our park will be a beautiful space in a part of town that desperately needs one. But it will also be a place where people can learn more about how to grow their own healthy, nutritious food. It will offer an open field for creative play. And there is a lovely grove of mature trees where residents can get in touch with nature, relax, unwind, and gain a bit more control of their lives.
It's a probably never-to-be-seen-again opportunity to grab a lovely parcel of land in the heart of the city. It's a chance to do the right thing by Frogtown kids, who should be entitled to their own jot of beautiful, green space. For the city it's a chance to make good on their park plans. And for Wilder it's an opportunity to participate in a community-driven movement to make Frogtown into a more hospitable neighborhood for the many immigrants and struggling people who live here. Valentine's Cafe is e-published by Smashwords. Read a free sample of the book or download the entire copy ($3.99) here.
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