Read an excerpt of the novel, which they penned under the pseudonym SE Boyd.
In The Lemon–a celebrated new novel written by Massachusetts natives and former Boston magazine writers Kevin Alexander and Joe Keohane, with editor Alessandra Lusardi—a beloved bartender/author/food-travel-TV-show host named John Doe dies under dubious circumstances. His demise triggers a stampede of people in the food, media, and entertainment worlds, all trying to either protect his legacy, or seize control of it to advance their own interests.
One such character is Boston-born celebrity chef Patrick Whelan. When we meet him, he’s well past his prime, living outside Vegas, and he just got word that John Doe is dead.
CHEF PATRICK WHELAN didn’t pick up the call. He needed a minute. He’d known Doe since the late ’90s, when he hired Doe as head bartender at Áise, the 35-seat restaurant Whelan opened in Boston’s South End neighborhood when he was 28.
Irish for “Asia,” Áise was a testing kitchen for Patrick’s experiments utilizing the flavors of his Irish-Catholic, suburban Boston upbringing in Weymouth, Massachusetts, and merging them with his real interest: Asian cuisine. His gyoza-style shepherd’s pie, with a wasabi mashed potato crust and a scallion-and-ginger-flecked ground pork filling, horrified his Irish mother but set the culinary world ablaze. Boston, which was long considered New York’s provincial culinary step-sibling, suddenly found itself celebrated by the national food media.
Although a few critics voiced concern that a young white chef seemed to be cherry-picking random Asian ingredients according to his whims, this was the ’90s and those voices were drowned out amid the hype tsunami, especially once Patrick won three consecutive James Beard Awards , first for Emerging Chef of the Year, and then twice in a row for Outstanding Chef.
Reservations for Asia became almost impossible to get less than six months in advance, although Patrick kept a small portion of the restaurant and bar area open for walk-ins. The blocks around the restaurant, historically Black and working class, gentrified quickly as wine and cocktail bars sprang up to try to entice the crowds waiting for Áise (an urban studies professor at Harvard even coined the term “the Whelan effect” to describe his specific contribution to changing the neighborhood), and Black families and businesses, for the most part, retreated southwest on Washington Street past Ramsay Park.
Patrick was young, personable, and handsome, with just enough of a Boston accent and working-class background to give his story the type of pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps American Dream flavor advertisers got hot and bothered about, and he was soon starring in national commercials for American Express, Hertz, and GMC. He had deals with Wüsthof to use their knives and a clothing manufacturer to wear their chef’s coats and LLBean to design a specific style of rubber-soled slipper to wear in the kitchen (once they found out via a Boston magazine interview that he peculiarly wore their slippers when he cooked).
He was profiled in GQ swear The New Yorker and was famously featured naked on the cover of Gourmet holding a sack of potatoes. He went from dating a bartender who worked at the Waterclub Marina Bay, to being romantically linked to Tiffani Amber Thiessen and Neve Campbell. He got a booking agent, a literary agent, a stylist, and a personal assistant. He signed a deal with Paragon Casino in Las Vegas to do a 350-seat version of Áise in their new resort with an unprecedented licensing deal that paid him $2 million up front, $100,000 a year for the use of his name, menu, and recipes , and a small percentage of net profits and sales. With his windfall, he purchased a 7,200-square-foot second home in Henderson that allegedly was once owned by Frank Sinatra, clad in yellow stucco that perfectly matched the color of the dress Ava Gardner was wearing when she left him in 1957.
But then, one fateful day, he took a meeting with network studio executives. Patrick had always planned to open an Irish bar back in Boston with his mother and call it The Pub, and in the midst of making small talk, he told these executives about his plans.
They said, “What if we filmed behind the scenes as you opened The Pub?”
And he said, “I couldn’t. This is a personal project with my mother.”
And they said, “Well, what if we covered all the costs of opening the restaurant, added another $500,000 for you, and a cash bonus for your mom?”
And he said, “The world should really meet her.”
This was early in the reality TV game, Patrick was naive, and the deal seemed great outside of the fact that they insisted he open The Pub in New York. And so, at the peak of his fame, Patrick left Boston to come to New York City to open what was essentially a standard Irish pub. It was an unmitigated disaster, but in the kind of car-accident manner where you can’t take your eyes off the screen. Patrick looked every part the egomaniacal, narcissistic celebrity chef, and his mother, who was never happy about opening in New York, seemed sad even for an Irishwoman.
The entire show made his favorability ratings plummet in a way America hadn’t seen since Gary Hart. But it did something else. It introduced the world to John Doe.
Only appearing in three episodes, Doe was a very small part of the show, but there was something about him that caught the eye of one of the young producers. There was a slow burn to him, a hard-edged worldliness. But he was also thoughtful and witty and well-liked—the guy the other staffers went to when they wanted to talk through problems. He spent much of his time reading or writing things down in a little notebook and talking books with a small clique of other literary-minded industry folks. This was strangely irritating to Patrick. One of the last nights The Pub was open, Patrick noticed Doe talking to a woman at the end of the bar. He listened in on their conversation about the best time of day to write, how to get an agent, and whether they should both shell out money for some writer’s conference in Vermont.
Unable to help himself, Patrick interrupted.
“Fuck you going to write a book about?”
“Bars,” Doe replied.
“Well,” Patrick said, getting up to leave. “That sounds like a stupid fucking idea.”
The show ran for just one season and The Pub stayed open for only six more months after that. The producer took Doe’s name and filed it away. When Patrick finally, mercifully shut The Pub down, Doe stayed in New York and wrote the book that would make him famous. Patrick returned to Boston. Everyone assumed he would lick his wounds back in the kitchen of Áise. But this did not happen.
With no real warning to staff or investors, Patrick closed the original Áise in Boston, packed his stuff, sold his place in Weymouth, and permanently made the move to his Vegas house (which an intrepid local reporter uncovered was not ever owned by Frank Sinatra but, in fact, built by actor Corey Feldman in 1991 with money made from voicing Donatello on the original live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film). And then something even more remarkable happened. Chef Patrick Whelan just . . . stopped cooking.
At first, this was explained away. He was doing a cookbook. And judging a cooking show. Plus, he had his Vegas restaurant! Surely he cooked there. And for years there was a rumor, started by Patrick’s team, that he was going to do a totally new concept “unseen in North America” and once again blow the roof off the cooking world. That bought him some time. So he did an Atkins version of his Asian cookbook. And one based around the South Beach diet. The keto diet. And paleo. Oath, somehow, the Master Cleanse.
He had lines of cookware and ready-to-eat frozen dinners and a four-leaf-clover health powder he got sued over when it was discovered it wasn’t actually made from four-leaf clovers but just spinach. He had a couple of cooking shows, one in which he, ironically, judged Irish pubs in America. But as the original Áise became a distant memory and the Paragon restaurant slipped from top-tier status to a place most routinely frequented by deal-seeking tourists with calf tattoos from California’s Inland Empire, Patrick began to fall out with the food world.
The man who had once known what it was like to be a perfect sphere of fame’s hot plasma, heated to incandescence by brownnosers and promotional ad campaigns, felt himself shift out of orbit, moving farther away in fame’s planetary hierarchy until he was basically Pluto, no longer even classified as something to pay attention to.
But with the death of John Doe, the door back to relevance and fame opened a crack. And Patrick Whelan was determined to do anything to wedge himself back in.
Excerpted from THE LEMON, by SE Boyd, published by Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by The Christmas, LLC.