‘Topped Chef’: reality TV can be murder

chefThe combination of Key West and the world of restaurants and restaurant reviewing has proven to be irresistible in the Hayley Snow mystery series by Lucy Burdette (aka Connecticut’s own Roberta Isleib).

The third book, “Topped Chef” (Obsidian), was published on Tuesday and it’s even more engaging than the first two entires, “Death in Four Courses” and “An Appetite for Murder.” Burdette is hitting her stride both in terms of building an appealing cast of regular characters and giving readers a you-are-there feeling when it comes to the Florida resort town.

Hayley Snow is a New Jersey transplant who works as the food critic for Key Zest magazine.

Hayley is new to the trade so the books have shown us how an earnest and talented young person becomes a restaurant reviewer — coping with ethical challenges and the ever-tightening budgets of magazines and newspapers. The writer wants to visit each restaurant at least three times to give a new establishment a fair shake — like her idol Ruth Reichl — but the cheap publisher believes once is enough. 

chef1The new mystery follows the journalist’s adventures when her boss high-pressures Hayley into being a judge on a new reality show — “Topped Chef” — designed to find a colorful and talented Key West chef to host his or her own series.

Burdette writes amusingly about the behind-the-scenes antics of TV cooking shows, with the producers being a lot more interested in conflict than a serious treatment of cooking. Because of her position as a critic, Hayley has two enemies involved in the show — a restaurateur she has just panned, and a chef she suspected of murder in an earlier story.

The book pokes goof-natured fun at foodies and chefs, particularly that continuing trend of molecular gastronomy with all of its foams and odd textures. 

“Topped Chef” is a breezy escapist read, but it has more substance than many of the so-called cozy mysteries — we learn a lot about food and Florida along the way and Burdette is never casual about murder. It’s a perfect late spring beach book.

Joe Meyers