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If You Can't Take the Heat

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Hardcover
$19.99 US
5.75"W x 8.87"H x 1.05"D   (14.6 x 22.5 x 2.7 cm) | 15 oz (418 g) | 12 per carton
On sale Jun 04, 2024 | 320 Pages | 978-0-593-52344-5
Age 12 and up | Grade 7 & Up
Reading Level: Lexile HL710L
Sales rights: World
From James Beard Award–winning author Michael Ruhlman, a coming-of-age story about finding a new life and love in the kitchen…and trying not to get burned along the way.

When high school football star Theo Claverback breaks his leg just weeks after a devastating break-up, he’s forced to call an audible on his summer plans and put his college ones on hold. He soon finds himself in the most unlikely of places for a jock on crutches: the kitchen of an upscale French restaurant, where he’ll work as a prep cook while his heart and leg heal.

But it’s in the kitchen where Theo finds new purpose and a new romance. As he becomes a trusted employee to Chef and is welcomed into his inner circle, Theo begins to discover the true costs of running a restaurant—and what happens when you get into hot water with the wrong people.

Set in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1980, If You Can't Take the Heat is a gritty look inside the belly of an upscale kitchen where love and danger boil behind closed doors.
PROLOGUE

New Year’s Eve. Time to end this horrible, miraculous year and start a new one.

Chef didn’t do a special menu for the last service of the year. But despite the fact that this was the French restaurant in town, he did send to every table a bowl of Hoppin’ John and collard greens with hog jowl in their pot liquor, which he said was for good luck. Chef had asked me to make enough for staff meal, which was my main job at Restaurant Margaux.

“Ordering, two steaks mid-rare, one salmon, one lamb, two lardons!” Chef called to the line, and the three cooks shouted back the order they were responsible for.

“Order fire two pâtés!” he called. “Picking up two halibuts, salmon, steak rare!”

New Year’s Eve was not like any other night. It was busier, for one, and guests had higher expectations than usual, which made things tense in the kitchen. This was a money-​maker night. Paul, Reggie, and Amanda were turning and burning on the line; a lot of hot pans all under control. The festive mood of the dining room flowed into the kitchen whenever a server pushed through the swinging door, calling out “Order in!” handing the ticket to Chef. Most important, the silent partner, Jimmy Holliday, with his pinky ring and jewelry and slicked back hair, was laughing it up at table four with his wife, oblivious of the theft and what it had cost me.

I plated the Hoppin’ John and collards in small dishes for deuces and small soup tureens for larger tables, which went out with chunks of corn bread and soft, salted butter as soon as the table was seated.

And there were only two desserts: a chocolate tart with a raspberry coulis and the usual crème brûlée. Both got a stenciled “1981!” in decorative sugar. A new year. When the last dessert went out, about fifteen minutes before midnight, I found sous chef Paul and told him, “I’m going out for a smoke.” He gave me a thumbs‑up.

“But, hey,” he called before I reached the door. “Come midnight, cooks do a champagne toast with Chef. They’re humping in the dining room and refilling glasses for the countdown, but our work is done. So back in fifteen, okay?”

I didn’t even take off my apron, which was smeared with blood from breaking down Amanda’s strip steaks. I was allowed to practice on them as those were left over and would go to the cooks to take home, since this was the last service before the restaurant shut down for two weeks.

I sat on the back steps of the house below the shingled awning, which kept me from getting wet from snow. Starting Christmas Eve, we’d gotten a ton of snow, and tonight would add a couple more inches. It was cold but not frigid and the air felt good. You build up a reserve of heat in the kitchen, so I didn’t need a coat. I shook out a cigarette and lit it.

Dad told me shortly after my leg shattered that some ancient cultures believed the gods had to take something away from you in order to give you more of something else. For a while, I thought he might be right. Now that Julia’s gone, I don’t know anymore.

I blew a plume of smoke into the snowy air, lit up by the backdoor light, and thought how crazy it was—​just six months since it happened. Felt like a lifetime. In a way it was. Another life.

I was a jock. I’d been given a body that was perfect for sports, especially football. Coach said I had a “gift,” and that’s how I’d come to think of it—​and a lucky thing, too, because I wasn’t exactly a gifted student. I was a three-​sport athlete, including basketball and baseball, but I endured winter, spring, and summer waiting for football. I hung out with the other jocks at school. I still had my best pals from elementary school, Johnny Williams and Roger Schmitt, who were cool in their own, unjocklike way, but I spent so much time on the fields, the court, and in the weight room that I hardly saw them during the school year. That changed, too.

Sous chef Paul stuck his head out the back door. The apron over his shoulder meant he was done for the night. He said, “Dude, it’s champagne time.”

“Be right in,” I said.

Julia. I loved her. I hated her. I was furious. Crushed. Most of all, I missed her. She was still everywhere in this restaurant. She would haunt it, and me, forever.

This left me with the only thing I knew for certain: Sometimes you jump up, and when you land, your world has changed.

I took a last drag on my cigarette and flicked it as far as I could, watching the ember arc into fresh snow.

1

Cleveland, 1980

Roger and Johnny kidnapped me on the last Saturday of June.

Roger’s car idled innocently in my driveway at 5:20, just as I arrived home from my job at Heinen’s, where I bagged groceries and loaded them into cars—​my first genuine job. I was still the only one without a driver’s license. But that would change in two days, when I turned sixteen.

“Theo! Mickey D’s!” Roger shouted like a ringside announcer, extending the Deeeeee’s in a false baritone. They loved McDonald’s. I did not, but Roger and Johnny would keep my mind off Heather for a while. I could join them, not eat, and be back in time for the dinner I was looking forward to making: a rib steak on the grill and a baked potato, heaped with butter, along with The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on television. If I were going to be miserable and alone, I would at least eat well.

“I need to be back by seven,” I said. “Let me go change.”

Roger pumped his fist and said, “Yes.”

I said hi to Mom and Dad, who were already dressing to go out, told them what I was doing, and closed the door to my room.

I changed from my khakis and blue Oxford with the Heinen’s logo on it into a bright red shirt to cheer myself up, try anyway, some well-worn white painter’s pants, and old Top-Siders, the right sole held to the shoe with duct tape.

“Well, look at Mr. Artsy Fartsy,” Johnny said as I climbed into the back seat of Roger’s Buick Skylark. Johnny, who never veered from starched white button-​downs, faded jeans, and Jack Purcell sneakers, embraced preppiness as if it were a kind of Platonic ideal. The look fit with his short blond hair, always neatly parted on the right above his light blue eyes.

“You’d have Brooks Brothers dress the entire country if you could,” I said.

“Not a bad idea.”

Roger laughed as he backed out of the driveway. “How would you tell anyone apart?”

“By innate personality,” Johnny said. “The idea that you need to express yourself through your clothing is ridiculous.”

“Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing by dressing preppy?” Roger asked. “Clothes can’t help but reflect our personality.”

“Exactly. Which is why your school dress code is a good thing—​it puts everybody on the same plane to shine or not based on who they are, not by what they wear.”

This was always the big reason students at US, University School, lobbied the school to relax its dress code, which it never did. We still had to wear a coat and tie to morning assembly and to lunch. Otherwise, no jeans, T-shirts, or sneakers, which meant the standard attire was corduroys and Oxford-cloth shirts, and either L.L.Bean Bluchers, Top​-Siders, or Wallabees.

Roger had been the first person to befriend me when I arrived at US in seventh grade. He had dark curly hair and a lightning white smile, which he used like a tool. I hadn’t wanted to leave all my friends who went to public school to go to a stuck-up private school, an all​-boys school no less. I think the only reason they let me in was because my dad had graduated from the school a million years ago. I certainly wasn’t very good at the school part. Luckily, it was harder to get kicked out once you were in. I grew a full six inches in eighth grade and became one of the best athletes in my class. US cared about its sports teams, so I was pretty sure they wouldn’t kick me out for crummy grades now that I was going to be a junior starting varsity in three sports.

Johnny was also my best friend, had been so since first grade at Fernway Elementary. I’d introduced him to Roger and now they were almost better friends than I was with either of them.

“You’re the conformist,” I said to Johnny.

“Who’s going to go further?” Johnny said.

Johnny was always up to no good, but he never got caught on account of looking so clean-cut and innocent. He once broke into the local A&​P through an air duct and stole five beef tenderloins and a case of beer, then he had a bunch of us over for a barbecue when his parents were out of town.

Roger was our Dale Carnegie and wanted to be president of the school by the time he was a senior.

Roger drove to the drive-through line at McDonald’s. Odd.

“Aren’t we going in?” I asked.

“Nope. What do you want?”

“Nothing, thanks. I’m making dinner at home.”

Johnny turned in the passenger seat to face me. “If you were going to have something, what would it be?”

“You know I’m not a fan of Mickey D’s.”

“Stop being a snob.”

“I’m not a snob. I like Chick​-fil-A.” Chick-fil-A at Beachwood Place mall did something to that chicken that I couldn’t suss out no matter how much I ate. Best chicken sandwich anywhere.

“Humor me. If I held a gun to your head, what would you order?”

“I suppose a Big Mac. I’m curious about the ‘special sauce.’ ”

Roger ordered quarter pounders for himself and Johnny, then added, “Oh, and two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

“And one Big Mac,” said an annoyed voice through the staticky speaker.

“And three Cokes and three large fries.”

“Roger, I don’t want a Big Mac.”

He ignored me. Something was up. We always ate inside unless we were going somewhere. Roger paid for all of us with his father’s credit card and handed the drinks and white bag of food to Johnny.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said, when he took a left onto Chagrin Boulevard. “Where are we going?”

“You, my friend, are not spending another Saturday night moping at home,” Johnny said, and turned to fan three tickets so I could see. “Lawn seats to Jefferson Starship.”

“Oh, man, no,” I said. “Please, no.” I was not exactly Mr. Spontaneous. I liked a plan: grilled steak and The Love Boat.

Blossom Music Center, the big outdoor amphitheater where most of the summer rock concerts were held, was a forty-​five-​minute drive from where I lived, Shaker Heights, Ohio, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Cleveland. Downtown Cleveland, in the so-called Rust Belt, could be grim, especially in February, but it was ringed by old, leafy suburbs with smooth curving streets. Beyond these, driving past farmland and into a national park, was Blossom, and the crowds were so big that you parked in fields where it took forever to find your car and get out of the parking lot after the show. So what I was really worried about now was that I wouldn’t be home till one in the morning.

“My parents are going to freak if they get home and I’m not there. Why didn’t you let me leave a note at least?”

“If we’d have told you where we were going, would you be sitting where you are now?”

“Of course not.”

“Exactly.”

“But what about my parents? At least let me find a pay phone. Shit, do either of you have a dime?” Then I realized they’d probably left already, and I never asked them where they went, so I had no way to reach them. “Seriously, guys. I’ve never done this before. They’ll probably call the police when they get home and I’m not there.”

Johnny, casual as could be, said, “You really don’t give us any credit, do you?” He began to dig through the food as Roger took the I-271 on-ramp. “I called your father and told him what we were doing.”

“And he said okay?”

“Okay? He was delighted, delighted, that we were getting you out of the house. It’s been three frigging weeks, Theo.” He handed me my Big Mac, fries, and Coke and said, “Eat up.”
"Food writer Ruhlman employs exacting verisimilitude to bring the heat of the kitchen and sensory details of the dishes to life in this vivacious debut."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This human story is the book’s real strength, as is the care given to detailing the operations inside a restaurant kitchen, lending power and authenticity."—Booklist

"A refreshingly different take on the romance genre, written from the male perspective, and a great purchase for all libraries."—School Library Journal

"Ruhlman’s writing is at its best when Theo is in the kitchen. The hustle and passion that flow during service drop readers squarely in the middle of the action...The well-realized foodie elements are the highlight."—Kirkus Reviews
MICHAEL RUHLMAN is the author of twelve nonfiction books, including The Soul of a Chef, and has coauthored many cookbooks, such as The French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller. View titles by Michael Ruhlman
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About

From James Beard Award–winning author Michael Ruhlman, a coming-of-age story about finding a new life and love in the kitchen…and trying not to get burned along the way.

When high school football star Theo Claverback breaks his leg just weeks after a devastating break-up, he’s forced to call an audible on his summer plans and put his college ones on hold. He soon finds himself in the most unlikely of places for a jock on crutches: the kitchen of an upscale French restaurant, where he’ll work as a prep cook while his heart and leg heal.

But it’s in the kitchen where Theo finds new purpose and a new romance. As he becomes a trusted employee to Chef and is welcomed into his inner circle, Theo begins to discover the true costs of running a restaurant—and what happens when you get into hot water with the wrong people.

Set in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1980, If You Can't Take the Heat is a gritty look inside the belly of an upscale kitchen where love and danger boil behind closed doors.

Excerpt

PROLOGUE

New Year’s Eve. Time to end this horrible, miraculous year and start a new one.

Chef didn’t do a special menu for the last service of the year. But despite the fact that this was the French restaurant in town, he did send to every table a bowl of Hoppin’ John and collard greens with hog jowl in their pot liquor, which he said was for good luck. Chef had asked me to make enough for staff meal, which was my main job at Restaurant Margaux.

“Ordering, two steaks mid-rare, one salmon, one lamb, two lardons!” Chef called to the line, and the three cooks shouted back the order they were responsible for.

“Order fire two pâtés!” he called. “Picking up two halibuts, salmon, steak rare!”

New Year’s Eve was not like any other night. It was busier, for one, and guests had higher expectations than usual, which made things tense in the kitchen. This was a money-​maker night. Paul, Reggie, and Amanda were turning and burning on the line; a lot of hot pans all under control. The festive mood of the dining room flowed into the kitchen whenever a server pushed through the swinging door, calling out “Order in!” handing the ticket to Chef. Most important, the silent partner, Jimmy Holliday, with his pinky ring and jewelry and slicked back hair, was laughing it up at table four with his wife, oblivious of the theft and what it had cost me.

I plated the Hoppin’ John and collards in small dishes for deuces and small soup tureens for larger tables, which went out with chunks of corn bread and soft, salted butter as soon as the table was seated.

And there were only two desserts: a chocolate tart with a raspberry coulis and the usual crème brûlée. Both got a stenciled “1981!” in decorative sugar. A new year. When the last dessert went out, about fifteen minutes before midnight, I found sous chef Paul and told him, “I’m going out for a smoke.” He gave me a thumbs‑up.

“But, hey,” he called before I reached the door. “Come midnight, cooks do a champagne toast with Chef. They’re humping in the dining room and refilling glasses for the countdown, but our work is done. So back in fifteen, okay?”

I didn’t even take off my apron, which was smeared with blood from breaking down Amanda’s strip steaks. I was allowed to practice on them as those were left over and would go to the cooks to take home, since this was the last service before the restaurant shut down for two weeks.

I sat on the back steps of the house below the shingled awning, which kept me from getting wet from snow. Starting Christmas Eve, we’d gotten a ton of snow, and tonight would add a couple more inches. It was cold but not frigid and the air felt good. You build up a reserve of heat in the kitchen, so I didn’t need a coat. I shook out a cigarette and lit it.

Dad told me shortly after my leg shattered that some ancient cultures believed the gods had to take something away from you in order to give you more of something else. For a while, I thought he might be right. Now that Julia’s gone, I don’t know anymore.

I blew a plume of smoke into the snowy air, lit up by the backdoor light, and thought how crazy it was—​just six months since it happened. Felt like a lifetime. In a way it was. Another life.

I was a jock. I’d been given a body that was perfect for sports, especially football. Coach said I had a “gift,” and that’s how I’d come to think of it—​and a lucky thing, too, because I wasn’t exactly a gifted student. I was a three-​sport athlete, including basketball and baseball, but I endured winter, spring, and summer waiting for football. I hung out with the other jocks at school. I still had my best pals from elementary school, Johnny Williams and Roger Schmitt, who were cool in their own, unjocklike way, but I spent so much time on the fields, the court, and in the weight room that I hardly saw them during the school year. That changed, too.

Sous chef Paul stuck his head out the back door. The apron over his shoulder meant he was done for the night. He said, “Dude, it’s champagne time.”

“Be right in,” I said.

Julia. I loved her. I hated her. I was furious. Crushed. Most of all, I missed her. She was still everywhere in this restaurant. She would haunt it, and me, forever.

This left me with the only thing I knew for certain: Sometimes you jump up, and when you land, your world has changed.

I took a last drag on my cigarette and flicked it as far as I could, watching the ember arc into fresh snow.

1

Cleveland, 1980

Roger and Johnny kidnapped me on the last Saturday of June.

Roger’s car idled innocently in my driveway at 5:20, just as I arrived home from my job at Heinen’s, where I bagged groceries and loaded them into cars—​my first genuine job. I was still the only one without a driver’s license. But that would change in two days, when I turned sixteen.

“Theo! Mickey D’s!” Roger shouted like a ringside announcer, extending the Deeeeee’s in a false baritone. They loved McDonald’s. I did not, but Roger and Johnny would keep my mind off Heather for a while. I could join them, not eat, and be back in time for the dinner I was looking forward to making: a rib steak on the grill and a baked potato, heaped with butter, along with The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on television. If I were going to be miserable and alone, I would at least eat well.

“I need to be back by seven,” I said. “Let me go change.”

Roger pumped his fist and said, “Yes.”

I said hi to Mom and Dad, who were already dressing to go out, told them what I was doing, and closed the door to my room.

I changed from my khakis and blue Oxford with the Heinen’s logo on it into a bright red shirt to cheer myself up, try anyway, some well-worn white painter’s pants, and old Top-Siders, the right sole held to the shoe with duct tape.

“Well, look at Mr. Artsy Fartsy,” Johnny said as I climbed into the back seat of Roger’s Buick Skylark. Johnny, who never veered from starched white button-​downs, faded jeans, and Jack Purcell sneakers, embraced preppiness as if it were a kind of Platonic ideal. The look fit with his short blond hair, always neatly parted on the right above his light blue eyes.

“You’d have Brooks Brothers dress the entire country if you could,” I said.

“Not a bad idea.”

Roger laughed as he backed out of the driveway. “How would you tell anyone apart?”

“By innate personality,” Johnny said. “The idea that you need to express yourself through your clothing is ridiculous.”

“Isn’t that exactly what you’re doing by dressing preppy?” Roger asked. “Clothes can’t help but reflect our personality.”

“Exactly. Which is why your school dress code is a good thing—​it puts everybody on the same plane to shine or not based on who they are, not by what they wear.”

This was always the big reason students at US, University School, lobbied the school to relax its dress code, which it never did. We still had to wear a coat and tie to morning assembly and to lunch. Otherwise, no jeans, T-shirts, or sneakers, which meant the standard attire was corduroys and Oxford-cloth shirts, and either L.L.Bean Bluchers, Top​-Siders, or Wallabees.

Roger had been the first person to befriend me when I arrived at US in seventh grade. He had dark curly hair and a lightning white smile, which he used like a tool. I hadn’t wanted to leave all my friends who went to public school to go to a stuck-up private school, an all​-boys school no less. I think the only reason they let me in was because my dad had graduated from the school a million years ago. I certainly wasn’t very good at the school part. Luckily, it was harder to get kicked out once you were in. I grew a full six inches in eighth grade and became one of the best athletes in my class. US cared about its sports teams, so I was pretty sure they wouldn’t kick me out for crummy grades now that I was going to be a junior starting varsity in three sports.

Johnny was also my best friend, had been so since first grade at Fernway Elementary. I’d introduced him to Roger and now they were almost better friends than I was with either of them.

“You’re the conformist,” I said to Johnny.

“Who’s going to go further?” Johnny said.

Johnny was always up to no good, but he never got caught on account of looking so clean-cut and innocent. He once broke into the local A&​P through an air duct and stole five beef tenderloins and a case of beer, then he had a bunch of us over for a barbecue when his parents were out of town.

Roger was our Dale Carnegie and wanted to be president of the school by the time he was a senior.

Roger drove to the drive-through line at McDonald’s. Odd.

“Aren’t we going in?” I asked.

“Nope. What do you want?”

“Nothing, thanks. I’m making dinner at home.”

Johnny turned in the passenger seat to face me. “If you were going to have something, what would it be?”

“You know I’m not a fan of Mickey D’s.”

“Stop being a snob.”

“I’m not a snob. I like Chick​-fil-A.” Chick-fil-A at Beachwood Place mall did something to that chicken that I couldn’t suss out no matter how much I ate. Best chicken sandwich anywhere.

“Humor me. If I held a gun to your head, what would you order?”

“I suppose a Big Mac. I’m curious about the ‘special sauce.’ ”

Roger ordered quarter pounders for himself and Johnny, then added, “Oh, and two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

“And one Big Mac,” said an annoyed voice through the staticky speaker.

“And three Cokes and three large fries.”

“Roger, I don’t want a Big Mac.”

He ignored me. Something was up. We always ate inside unless we were going somewhere. Roger paid for all of us with his father’s credit card and handed the drinks and white bag of food to Johnny.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” I said, when he took a left onto Chagrin Boulevard. “Where are we going?”

“You, my friend, are not spending another Saturday night moping at home,” Johnny said, and turned to fan three tickets so I could see. “Lawn seats to Jefferson Starship.”

“Oh, man, no,” I said. “Please, no.” I was not exactly Mr. Spontaneous. I liked a plan: grilled steak and The Love Boat.

Blossom Music Center, the big outdoor amphitheater where most of the summer rock concerts were held, was a forty-​five-​minute drive from where I lived, Shaker Heights, Ohio, a twenty-minute drive from downtown Cleveland. Downtown Cleveland, in the so-called Rust Belt, could be grim, especially in February, but it was ringed by old, leafy suburbs with smooth curving streets. Beyond these, driving past farmland and into a national park, was Blossom, and the crowds were so big that you parked in fields where it took forever to find your car and get out of the parking lot after the show. So what I was really worried about now was that I wouldn’t be home till one in the morning.

“My parents are going to freak if they get home and I’m not there. Why didn’t you let me leave a note at least?”

“If we’d have told you where we were going, would you be sitting where you are now?”

“Of course not.”

“Exactly.”

“But what about my parents? At least let me find a pay phone. Shit, do either of you have a dime?” Then I realized they’d probably left already, and I never asked them where they went, so I had no way to reach them. “Seriously, guys. I’ve never done this before. They’ll probably call the police when they get home and I’m not there.”

Johnny, casual as could be, said, “You really don’t give us any credit, do you?” He began to dig through the food as Roger took the I-271 on-ramp. “I called your father and told him what we were doing.”

“And he said okay?”

“Okay? He was delighted, delighted, that we were getting you out of the house. It’s been three frigging weeks, Theo.” He handed me my Big Mac, fries, and Coke and said, “Eat up.”

Praise

"Food writer Ruhlman employs exacting verisimilitude to bring the heat of the kitchen and sensory details of the dishes to life in this vivacious debut."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"This human story is the book’s real strength, as is the care given to detailing the operations inside a restaurant kitchen, lending power and authenticity."—Booklist

"A refreshingly different take on the romance genre, written from the male perspective, and a great purchase for all libraries."—School Library Journal

"Ruhlman’s writing is at its best when Theo is in the kitchen. The hustle and passion that flow during service drop readers squarely in the middle of the action...The well-realized foodie elements are the highlight."—Kirkus Reviews

Author

MICHAEL RUHLMAN is the author of twelve nonfiction books, including The Soul of a Chef, and has coauthored many cookbooks, such as The French Laundry Cookbook with Thomas Keller. View titles by Michael Ruhlman

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ICYMI: Cover Reveals! September 2023

Welcome to this month’s installment of the PRH international Sales website! ICYMI: Cover Reveals is a round-up of all the exciting cover reveals announced in the last month. In this month’s post, the anticipated sequel to Kika Hatzopoulou’s Threads That Bind, Amber Chen’s silkpunk fantasy Of Jade and Dragons, Jonathan van Ness’s Gorgeously Me! and much, much more!

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