Posted on August 4, 2014 - by

Christmas in July @LucyBurdette


LUCY BURDETTE: What do you think of the Christmas in July trend? To be honest, I’ve always considered it a hokey idea. Shouldn’t a normal person get on with enjoying summer and not try to trump up interest in a holiday that’s still six months away?

But, for two reasons, Christmas really has arrived in July this year. Last week I had the gift  of rereading DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS, the fifth Key West food critic mystery coming December 2. And the gift of copy edits. Wanna hear good news or bad first? Bad, of course…

For those of you who don’t know, copy edits are–I should put this politely, because it’s a public blog and who knows who might be reading–necessary but maddening. These are not the editing notes from my editor, who is smart and laser-eyed and chock full of good ideas for making a story better. This stage consists of nit-picking.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m happy when they find things like misspellings, and missed capitalization, and incorrect geography–mistakes that I would much rather hear about before the book is published. For example, someone noticed that I’d written AZURIASTAN as the name of a country whose flag is flown on the grounds of the Truman Little White House in Key West. There is no such country! The flag in question is from AZERBAIJAN. Where did I even find that made up name? Whew, embarrassment averted. Better still, I managed to turn that error into a blooper made by Hayley’s ex–pure fun.

And I learn things during the copyediting stage, too, like “brunet” is the correct spelling for a man with brown hair, “brunette” for a woman. And Bloody Mary has  both words capitalized.

But there are also hundreds of changes in things like dashes, and commas, and hyphens. Which sometimes seem utterly random. And the enemy of individual writing style.

And also queries such as: AU: Repetition OK? (Of course it’s not okay, unless I intended it, as in some kind of artistic writing rhythm, which doesn’t happen all that often.)

Even the recipes at the back of the book are not immune from the copy editor’s eagle eye… AU: Shouldn’t it read fold rather than stir since it’s easy to over-beat whipped cream?

My job is to remember that though it may feel like I’m being tormented, the copyeditor’s job is to make the book better.

And that brings me to the second gift–that of rereading DEATH WITH ALL THE TRIMMINGS after resting from it for several months.

This stage is so much more pleasant than the one Hallie described on Tuesday–that awkward beginning, when you have no words on the page and can’t imagine where you’ll find them.

So Bloody Marys all around–Merry Christmas dear Readers!


My cell phone bleated from the deck outside, where I’d left it to avoid procrastinating via text messages, Facebook updates, or simply lounging in the glorious December sunshine with our resident cats, watching the world go by. The biggest interview of my career as a food critic was scheduled for this afternoon and I wanted—no, needed—to be ready.

Miss Gloria, my senior citizen houseboat mate, hollered from her rocking chair overlooking the water. “It’s your mother. Shall I answer?”

“Mind telling her I’ll call back in an hour?”

Miss Gloria would relish the opportunity to chat with her anyway, and maybe her intercession would slash my time on the phone with Mom in half when I returned the call. I am crazy about my mother, honest. But it had still been a shock when she announced she’d rented a place in Key West for the winter season. Wouldn’t it be so much fun to spend Christmas in paradise together? And New Year’s . . . and Martin Luther King Day . . . and Valentine’s Day? You get the picture. Mom had followed Diana Nyad’s attempts to swim from Cuba to Key West with rapt attention. When Diana overcame sharks, jellyfish, rough water, and advancing age to complete her 110-mile swim on her fifth try, at age sixty-four, Mom took it personally.

“Diana says we should never give up,” she announced on the phone a couple of months ago. “Why not ‘be bold, be fiercely bold and go out and chase your dreams’?”

My mother had been a little down since the summer because her fledgling catering company had not taken off the way she’d hoped. Although she’s an amazing and inventive cook, the business part of owning a business eluded her. For her first five catering events, cooking with only the highest-quality ingredients, she’d lost money rather than making it. A lot of money. Even her newish boyfriend, Sam, who was supportive beyond any reasonable expectation and categorically opposed to meddling, had suggested she take a few steps back and reconsider her plan.

“Why not? You should go for your dream, too,” I remember saying. “That’s exactly what you told me when I lost my bearings: Keep putting yourself out in the universe, and eventually the wind will fill your sails.” I stopped myself from trotting out more metaphysical tropes. I hadn’t wanted to hear too much advice when I was feeling down; Mom probably didn’t want mine, either. “What do you have in mind?”

“I’m thinking of coming to Key West for the winter!”

Whoa. If that was her dream, who was I to stop her? But my big solo adventure on this island was about to turn into How I Met Your Mother.

(Blog post first published on Jungle Red Writers)

Posted on February 20, 2014 - by

Press on Murder with Ganache

 Thrilled to death with the reviews that have been coming in for MURDER WITH GANACHE:

Polar Vortex be damned!  Reading Murder with Ganache by Lucy Burdette is like reaching into a pre-heated oven for a dish that is seasoned with all the correct ingredients – mystery, romance, family conflict and food.  Readers just know that each morsel is going to taste scrumptious and they will soon be back at the buffet longing for another helping. BOLO books

Lucy Burdette gives depth to this book by dissecting the modern family in all its divorce, remarry, reshape, share kids, make nice, stay enraged, give up, try again glory and gloom. Hayley’s caring yet determined nature often provides the healing salve that lowers the anxiety level and heals torn relationships. The author’s background as a clinical psychologist clearly enriches her handling of this material.

The constant charms in the Key West Food Critic Mystery books are, as one might expect, the attention to Key West and the attention to food — as nourishment, me delight, art, business and social lubricant.

Phil Jason, Florida Weekly,

So, in conclusion, a book escape to add to your weekend rotation, among other titles, that is as good as it looks and twice as sweet.  The story line will make you care what happens to our cast of characters and their furry friends help lighten the mood along the way.  A perfect read for teen readers and beyond; it’s clean, it’s fun, it’s as the name implies, cozy….so cozy on up to it and enjoy a reading experience chock full of fun and spirit that can’t be ignored.  Insatiable Readers

It really helped that the characters were strong.  I had no trouble keeping any of the cast and their relationships straight as I progressed through the book.  They all felt real, and I truly cared about the outcome.

The plot was also strong.  I was enjoying things even before Rory disappeared, and once that happened, I had a hard time putting the book down.  The twists were great, and the fact that I liked the characters truly made it even harder to put down. Carstairs considers

In this compelling mystery Burdette successfully balances the serious topics of homeless youth and divided families with bad tourist cuisine, excellent cooking, and a mother’s quest to find true love for her daughter. Hayley may lose her mind, her job, and possibly her life, but she will always have her family’s love. Not to mention an appreciation of excellent food. Kings River Life

But Hayley Snow is beyond easy to root for. In Murder with Ganache, Burdette once again shows that she’s as skillful at spinning a yarn as her protagonist is at baking pastries. And unmasking killers.  Florida Book Review

I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-paced, fun mystery, the tropical setting, and the completely calorie-free guilty pleasure of reading about some amazing food (recipes are included in the back of the book) and, of course, the cats. If you can’t afford to go away for spring break, this book is the second-best thing.  Ingrid at the Conscious Cat

Lucy Burdette skillfully brings all those elements together in a strong mystery that manages to showcase Key West and food while bemoaning the tragic loss of a young girl. Lesa’s Book Critiques

This page-turner kept me up half the night – I had to finish reading this book. Lucy Burdette does not disappoint. This has to be my favorite book in the series. The author has also provided some very yummy recipes. So, if you like your mystery with a little Key West Style, then you should be reading Murder with Ganache.

Posted on January 2, 2014 - by

Happy New Year!

Happy new year to all my friends and friendly readers. I hope the year finds you healthy, warm, and close to friends and family. And with a teetering pile of books to be read nearby!






Our year ended with a bang in Key West at the dachshund parade. I’ll spare you all the details, but Tonka and John were very good sports about impersonating lunch meat–and I had a blast. I think our visiting family did too (though they are sure I’m certifiable…)








Now it’s back to getting ready for the launch of Murder with Ganache–coming February 4 to a bookstore near you–and forging ahead on the fifth book. Please feel free to pre-order Ganache from wherever you like to buy your books. (Strong early sales help keep the series alive…)

Barnes and Noble,


your local indie

–or call the Key West Island Bookstore at 305-294-2904 and I’ll stop over to sign them for you. And happy 2014!  xoxo Lucy

Posted on December 29, 2013 - by

Book Group Discussion Questions: MURDER WITH GANACHE

I can hardly wait for MURDER WITH GANACHE to hit bookshelves. And I am thrilled to talk to book groups, whether it’s in person or online. If your group might like a book discussion with me, Lucy, on board, please send an email to LucyBurdette at gmail dot com. Meanwhile, here are a few questions that might get your group’s discussion off to a good start!

1. Hayley’s mother says that “life develops around the kitchen table” and that “kids need to understand how food connects the people in their lives.” Hayley’s stepmom insists that life develops at work–who cares whether a mother uses a cake mix or serves macaroni from a box? Where would you stand in this argument?

2. Hayley’s parents have a disagreement about social justice on the way to the marina. How do you feel about the homeless people as presented in the book? Have you had any personal experience with homeless folks?

3. When Hayley’s brother Rory gets into trouble, the family struggles with how much to tell the police. They wonder whose side the cops are on. How do you think you might react in a similar situation? Would you trust the police to have your interests at heart?

4. Hayley says “Food meant comfort and love and even peace in my family.” If you had to sum it up, what would you say food meant to your family?

5. Hayley tells Rory “I’ve discovered that family has less to do with biology than it does with who cares enough to make the effort.” Does this statement ring true for you? Talk about a person who isn’t a blood relation in your life who feels like family.

6. When spirits are low, Hayley and her mom make comfort food for the extended family–spanakopita and Greek salad and strawberry whipped cream pie. What menu would you design to cheer up a troubled family member or friend?

Posted on December 23, 2013 - by

Merry Christmas from Key West

While Hayley, and Evinrude, and Miss Gloria and all the gang are finishing up their Christmas preparations, they asked me to wish all of you the merriest of holidays! We’re all getting adjusted to Christmas in paradise–though we miss the snow and the snappy cold air and our friends most of all, there’s something pretty magical about lights on a palm tree. 



Here’s a Christmas tree made of lobster pots on the old harbor.







A lighted house seen in Old Town.








One of our favorite holiday events, the lighted boat parade.







The house that took second place in the lights Key West contest–you can’t see it here, but there’s a fishing Santa, and a string of fish each overtaking the next in line…







And Hayley’s specialty this year–sugar cookies in the shape of palm trees, sunglasses, and roosters!


We send our love to everyone, wherever you may be spending the holidays. We are grateful for each reader and fan of the Key West mysteries! We can’t wait for the adventures to come in 2014; don’t forget, MURDER WITH GANACHE will be out on February 4. (Of course, you can preorder it now.)

Posted on November 26, 2013 - by

Murder with Ganache–a new kid coming to town!

If I haven’t told you already, you’ll hear it now: MURDER WITH GANACHE will be released on February 4. I love this new installment in Hayley’s Key West adventures. Her extended family is barreling down on the island like a category 3 hurricane for her friend Connie’s wedding. By extended I mean Janet, her mom, Janet’s new boyfriend, her father, his wife, and more stressful than all of that, her 15 year old stepbrother. There’s a murder, of course, and amazing food, and all the glories of springtime in Key West. And Hemingway cats…and chocolate…

I never know when I start out what the theme of the new book might turn out to be. This time it’s something near to my heart, and Hayley says it best when she’s talking to her brother: This may sound dumb, but I’ve discovered that family has less to do with biology than it does with who cares enough to make the effort.

Here’s my post over at Jungle Red Writers with more about MWG, and a little bit about the fifth book, and an excerpt. (sorry the contest is over!)

Oh, but speaking of contests, there are two running through the middle of December! First there’s a giveaway on Goodreads for 3 galleys of MURDER WITH GANACHE. And the other’s on Facebook--it’s called a FEAST OF READING–first prize is a gift basket from Salt and Pepper Books, including foodie mysteries from Julie Hyzy, Krista Davis, and Daryl Wood Gerber.

To make sure you receive your copy of the new book on release day, you can pre-order it now:

From RJ Julia, my hometown CT bookseller

From Barnes and Noble

From Amazon

That’s all for now–have a wonderful holiday season! love from Lucy

Posted on July 2, 2013 - by

Press on Topped Chef

So the book tour is history, the press is in; in fact, the draft of book four is in too! More on that soon…Meanwhile, here’s everything you always wanted to know about TOPPED CHEF! Thanks for all your support–please help me spread the word that Key West mysteries make great summer reading!


“Burdette fills “Topped Chef” with a fine plot, a delightful heroine, a wealth of food — and all the charm and craziness of Key West. You’ll wish you could read it while sipping a mojito on the porch of a conch cottage in mainland America’s southernmost community.” Jay Strafford, Richmond Times Dispatch


“What’s most fun with this loony crew is Ms. Burdette’s perfect-pitch parody of food talk as made familiar on “Chopped” and other popular food programs where judges and competitors try to top each in their descriptions of preparations, styles, successes and failures.

Sweet and savory, “Topped Chef” captures Key West’s sensory enchantment, and Ms. Burdette’s bubbly protagonist is once again the main ingredient in a sure-fire recipe.” Phil Jason, Florida Weekly


“As she has done in the previous books in the series, Burdette cleverly disguises the identity of the killer. Even an avid and jaded reader/reviewer of mysteries such as myself was stumped until the final reveal. Hayley’s sense of humor…returns with a hearty guffaw in Topped Chef.

Topped Chef is three courses of cozy—romance, humor, and mystery—that will leave you satisfied, yet looking forward to another serving.” Ed Irvin, Florida Book Review


The third entry into this series, Topped Chef not only remains fresh, but may be the best book in the series so far. The characters remain as fresh as the breeze off the ocean, as does the plot. Jennifer Winberry, The Mystery Reader


“A clinical psychologist and blogger for the Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen, the author shares her love of food while crafting sympathetic characters and a mystery filled with multiple motivations for the murder. The descriptions of the coastal cuisine, snappish and temperamental cheftestants, and drag queens, all combine to make this a very well-written and tasty mystery, sure to please fans of food, reality shows, and mysteries.” Cindy Chow at KINGS RIVER LIFE


Burdette is such a strong writer and creates really lively characters and puts them in spectacular situations. The plots are tight and the twists are plenty. Escape with Dollycas


“Topped Chef is a  fabulous addition to this charming series!” YABookNerd


“I really enjoy the Key West Food Critic series. Adore Hayley (how can you not ADORE Hayley?) She’s a great character- someone who looks like she could be your BFF. Plus, her tendency to have her tarot cards read when facing an issue- that’s just great. I would love to have my tarot cards read with Hayley! Good plot, some romantic entanglements, and a mystery that was fun- with enough red-herrings to not guess the villain.” Traveling with T


And here Topped Chef is featured (along with the now famous Lime Cupcakes) in an article on foodie fiction.


Here’s Lucy’s INTERVIEW at Mysteristas


And I’ll leave you with a few recipes from Mystery Lovers Kitchen, while I go off to ponder plot points for Book Five (as yet untitled.)

I’ve gotten rave reviews on the lime cupcakes with lime cream cheese frosting–they will also make an appearance in MURDER WITH GANACHE. AND to continue the lime theme through dinner, here’s Vickie’s Key Lime chicken--quick and easy!

Posted on May 9, 2013 - by


















A book launch is soooo much fun and this week was no exception! Here’s the famous celebratory cake that we served at RJ Julia last night–I so appreciate all the friends who turned out. And I’m very pleased with the press so far. Here’s a snippet from Phil Jason at the Florida Weekly:

“What’s most fun with this loony crew is Ms. Burdette’s perfect-pitch parody of food talk as made familiar on “Chopped” and other popular food programs where judges and competitors try to top each in their descriptions of preparations, styles, successes and failures.
Sweet and savory, “Topped Chef” captures Key West’s sensory enchantment, and Ms. Burdette’s bubbly protagonist is once again the main ingredient in a sure-fire recipe.”

Please let your mystery and foodie friends know that TOPPED CHEF can be ordered wherever books are sold.

And one last thing, if you haven’t been over to Mystery Lovers Kitchen in a while, the lime cupcakes and killer shrimp and grits recipes are there!

Posted on April 20, 2013 - by

TOPPED CHEF tour coming soon

I received my author copies of TOPPED CHEF last week which means the book’s launch is barreling down at us! I’ll be making quite a few tour stops, both online and in person and would love to visit with you at one or more.

Today, by the way, I’m talking about reality in fiction at TYPE M FOR MURDER.






Visit me on the Cozy Mystery tour at these stops:
May 1, 2013 – Socrates Book Review
May 2, 2013 – Book Lady’s Book Notes
May 3, 2013 – Traveling with T
May 4, 2013 – YA Book Nerd
May 5, 2013 – Cozy Up with Kathy
May 6, 2013 – Read Your Writes
May 7, 2013 – Mochas, Mysteries & More
May 8, 2013 - Girl Lost in a Book
May 9, 2013 – Vixen is Reading
May 10, 2013 – Melina the ReaderShelley Reads & Reviews & Dru’s Book Musings

And on May 2 and May 9, recipes from TOPPED CHEF will be featured on Mystery Lovers Kitchen.

And we’ll be throwing a big book launch party on May 7 at Jungle Red Writers.

As for real places, you can find me here:


May 3-4 MALICE DOMESTIC, Bethesda MD


North Carolina Mini-Tour…

The Unusual Suspects — Hallie Ephron, Lucy Burdette, and Jennifer McMahon tour Raleigh-Durham with Molly Weston
5/15, 2:00 East Regional Library, Knightdale, NC
5/15, 7:00 North Regional Library, Raleigh
5/16, 11:30, Carolina Club, UNC-Chapel Hill (luncheon)
5/16, 7:30, Southeast Regional Library, Garner
5/17 , 10:30 Cameron Village Library, Raleigh
5/17, 2:00 West Regional Library, Cary
5/18, 2:00 McIntyre’s, Fearrington Village, Pittsboro
5/19, 2:00 Halle Cultural Arts Center, Apex
5/20, 2:00 Eva Perry Library, Apex
5/20, 7:00 Page-Walker Cultural Arts Center, Cary

May 29 WILBRAHAM, MA Library panel for Sisters in Crime with Steve Ulfelder and Edith Maxwell

More to come after that–stay tuned!

Posted on February 24, 2013 - by

TOPPED CHEF: A Sneak Peek into Chapter One

Chapter One
“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”
“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”
“I say, ‘I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ ” said Piglet.
Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.
— A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Evinrude woke me from a sound sleep, first with his rumbling purr and then with a gentle but persistent tapping of paw to cheek. I blinked my eyes open—the bedside clock read six fifteen. I hissed softly at his gray-striped face. “I love you dearly, but you’re a monster,” I told him as I rolled out of bed. “Spoiled rotten cat flesh.”
Tail hoisted high, he trotted out of the room ahead of me, meowing loudly. Miss Gloria’s lithe black cat, Sparky, intercepted him before he reached the food bowls lined up in the corner of the tiny galley of our houseboat. He sprang onto Evinrude’s back and wrestled him to the floor. While they boxed and nipped at each other, I poured a ration of kibbles into each bowl, refreshed their water, and then staggered onto the deck to check out the morning.
The plum-colored night sky was shifting to pink to make room for the day, which looked as though it might turn out “glorious and whimsical,” as the Key West Citizen had promised. A quartet of wind chimes tinkled lightly from the boats down the finger. Had there been a stiff wind or the first spitting drops of a cold rain, I’d have gone directly back to bed. But on a morning like this, there was no excuse to avoid the dreaded exercise I’d prescribed for myself.
Twice in the past ten days, I’d lured myself out of bed to go jogging before work, with the promise of a thick, sweet café con leche from the Cuban Coffee Queen as a reward on the way home. In addition to adding heft to my resume, my position as food critic for Key Zest had added a bit to my waistline over the past months; I was anxious to reverse the trend. And besides that, the Key West Food and Wine Festival loomed this week—it promised a series of tasting sessions that could ruin the most stalwart dieter. Which I was definitely not.
And most pressing of all, my first real date with detective Nate Bransford had been rescheduled for this evening. (You can’t count a threesome including your mother as a romantic encounter.) So it wasn’t hard to convince myself that today should be the third session—not that jogging two miles would magically transform my figure from jiggles to muscles, but I had to start somewhere. And maybe it would help work out the predate jitters, too.
I hurried back inside, replaced my pajamas with baggy running shorts, red sneakers, and a T-shirt that read “Dinner is ready when the smoke alarm goes off.” I’d bought the shirt for Christmas for my stepmother—who, while a brilliant chemist, was famous in our family for cremating roasts and burning even soup from a can—but lost my nerve before sending it. Why jostle a relationship that had recently settled into a pleasant détente?
I tucked my phone into my pocket and dashed off a note to my roommate, Miss Gloria, who lets me live onboard her houseboat in exchange for errands like grocery shopping (which I adore anyway), and sending occasional reports on her mental and physical condition to her son in Michigan. I stand between her and a slot in an old-age home—and I take my responsibility seriously. The Queen’s Guard of Tarpon Pier.
I wrote: Jogging—ugh! Call me if you want a coffee.
Then I hopped off our deck, tottered along the dock, and started grinding up the Palm Avenue hill over the Garrison Bight, which is Key West speak for harbor, toward the Old Town section of Key West. There aren’t many changes in elevation in this town, so I was just as happy to get this challenge over with early on. I puffed past the U.S. Naval Air Station’s multistory building—Fly Navy—and then by the pale pink and green cement block apartments for enlisted folks and their families. I finally chugged around the curve onto Eaton Street, my lungs burning and my thighs cramping into complaining masses. I picked up my pace, pushing harder because I smelled bacon: The Coles Peace Bakery called to me like a Siren to Ulysses. Stopping for an unscheduled bacon and cheese toast on crispy Cuban bread would devastate my fledging resolutions.
As I hooked right on Grinnell, heading toward the boardwalk that wound along the historic seaport area, I tried to distract myself by thinking about my tasks for the day. There’d be e-mail to answer, as the biweekly issue of Key Zest, our fledgling Key West style magazine, hit inboxes today. And I was in charge of responding to the usual flurry of complaints and compliments. For the first time in my short career, I’d had to swallow hard and write a negative review. This was bound to come sooner or later. Key West is a foodie paradise, but like Anywhere, USA, there are lousy meals to be had, too. As a careful follower of the major newspaper restaurant critics, I’d read plenty of stories about critics suffering through horrendous dinners. Or worse yet, bouts of food poisoning. I’d actually memorized one of the New York Times critic Sam Sifton’s sharper quotes:
“And lobes of dismal-flavored sea urchin served over thick lardo and heavy toast were just dreadful: the eighth band after Nirvana to write loud-soft-loud music and call it new.”
But hearing about rotten reviews and writing them were two different animals. I wasn’t convinced that I would ever develop a killer instinct—famous critics seemed to enjoy ripping apart a horrible dinner. Me? I could only imagine the chef sweating in the kitchen, slaving over the stove, plating the meal, praying that his special whatever hit the mark. It broke my heart to think about dissing some poor chump’s food.
My second meal at Just Off Duval a couple nights earlier had started off well. True to its name, the restaurant was located a half block from Duval Street, far enough from the bustle of the town’s main party artery to mask the grit and noise. My friend Eric and I had ordered glasses of wine and settled into the pleasant outdoor patio edged with feathery palm plants to enjoy our dinners. The night was cool enough for a sweater, and the scent of roasting meat had my stomach doing anticipatory back-flips. A half loaf of stale Italian bread and a pool of olive oil that tasted almost rancid were the first signs the experience would be a downer. I jotted a few notes into my smartphone, agreeing with Eric: Any restaurant should be allowed a tiny misstep.
But then my chef’s special salad was delivered: a small pile of lettuce dog-paddling in thick blue cheese dressing that screamed “emulsifier” and wore powerful overtones of the plastic bottle it must have been squeezed from. On top of that were chunks of pale pink mealy tomatoes. Though the mashed potatoes that accompanied the main courses were creamy and rich, my thirty-eight-dollar fish smelled fishy and Eric’s forty-two-dollar steak was stringy. We didn’t have the nerve to order dessert. I hadn’t actually gotten ill, but my stomach had roiled for half the night in spite of the half roll of antacids I’d eaten. According to a text the next morning from Eric, who generally had an iron constitution, his gut still didn’t feel quite right as he and his partner drove to Miami for some much-needed R and R.
I had tried to wriggle out of writing it up. But there wasn’t time to substitute something else. And my boss, Wally, had specifically told me this restaurant should be included in the next issue of our magazine. But the words of former New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl kept churning through my mind: The more expensive the restaurant, the more damage a lousy review can do. And mine was definitely lousy. It started like this:
All kitchens have an off night. Unfortunately, my three visits at Just Off Duval coincided with three bad nights. JOD, a newish restaurant on a cul-de-sac a half block off Upper Duval Street, has been the site of four failed restaurants over the past six years. Whether this is due to bad cooking juju or simply uneven and overreaching preparation, I fear that Just Off Duval will be joining their ranks….
I shook the words out of my mind and staggered past the Yankee Freedom ship, which ferries tourists to the Dry Tortugas for snorkeling expeditions most mornings. Then I paused on the boardwalk along the harbor to catch my breath. Several large sailboats left over from the races the previous week still clanked in their slips, alongside catamarans loaded with kayaks and sport fishing powerboats. The pink streaks in the sky had expanded like silken threads of cotton candy, bringing enough light so I could make out the details of the early-morning activity. Nearby, a thin man in faded jeans with long hair and a bushy beard that reached to the middle of his chest sprayed the deck of one of the Sebago party boats with a high-pressure hose. The hair around his lips was stained yellow, as if he’d smoked a lifetime’s worth of cigarettes, and faded to white at the tip of his beard.
As I leaned against a wooden railing to stretch my calves, a bare-chested, red-haired man skidded around the corner, wearing a long black coat and a small American flag draped from his belt like a loincloth. He leaped onto the boat, pulled a knife out of his waistband, and, taking a fighter’s crouch, brandished it at the man with the hose.
Even under the pirate’s tricornered hat, I recognized him—Turtle, a chronically homeless man whose behavior fluctuated with the status of his mental illness. A couple of months ago, I would have backed away as fast as I could. But now I understood more. Since it was the end of the month, he’d probably run out of meds. And if the cops came, he’d end up in jail. Where he’d only get worse.
The bearded man spun around, growled, and pointed the hose at Turtle, who had begun to execute tai chi–like movements, waving the knife in shaky figure eights. My adrenaline surged as I pictured a throat slit right in front of my eyes.
“Listen, man,” the worker yelled, “get the hell out of here. You’re on private property.”
“They can’t take what I ain’t got,” said Turtle, crouching lower and moving forward.
This was going to get ugly unless someone intervened. “Turtle,” I called. “Put the knife down. Please?”
“Avast, ye stinking pirates!” Turtle yelled, swinging around to wave the knife at me. Heart pounding, I stumbled back a few steps.
“I’m calling the cops right now.” The white-bearded man sprayed Turtle’s legs, now wet to the knees, as he yanked a phone from the back pocket of his jeans.
“Turtle,” I said, “I’m going for coffee and a Cuban cheese toast. Can I get you one?”
His pale blue eyes darted from me to the white-haired man and back; the knife twitched in his fingers. Then he shrugged, shoved the weapon into his belt beside the flag. and hopped off the boat. I took a shaky breath and led him around the block to the Cuban Coffee Queen, wondering how to keep him focused in this world, not deep in his own crazy loop.
“I love this weather, don’t you?” I asked, glancing over my shoulder. He danced along several feet behind me, fending off imagined dangers with his cape and his knife. What would it feel like to be inside his head? Awful, I guessed.
As we approached the little white shack painted like an oversized Key West postcard that housed the Cuban Coffee Queen, he hunkered down and pulled out the knife again. A couple with a baby stroller were ordering breakfast at the walk-up window. The woman stiffened and whispered something to her husband. He moved around to stand in between his family and us.
“Turtle,” I said softly, “better put that away or you’ll scare the other folks. Would you rather have a Cuban bagel or a cheese toast?” I reached out to touch his arm but stopped when I saw his startled face.
“Cheese toast, matey!” he growled, sidling away from me and sliding the knife back into his belt again.
“Why don’t you wait here?” I suggested, pointing to a painted wooden bench about ten feet from the coffee stand.
He sat, tugging his cape around his body and closing his eyes. He rocked back and forth and his fingers tapped out a rhythm on his knees to a tune I couldn’t hear. I stepped up to the food stand’s window next to a large stuffed rooster.
“Two large café con leches and a cheese toast please,” I told the woman with dark hair and eyes who appeared at the window. I glanced over at Turtle. “Better make one decaf.” She took my money and I stuffed two bucks into the tip jar while the milk steamed and shots of espresso drained into paper cups. Smelled like my kind of heaven. She buttered a slab of Cuban bread, slapped on a layer of cheese, and popped the sandwich into the grill press.
As soon as my order was ready, a police car pulled up and stopped next to the coffee stand. Officer Torrence—a cop who knew my business a little better than I’d prefer for a man I wasn’t dating—peered out of the cruiser on the passenger side. His gaze darted from the sodden homeless man to the breakfast in my hands. He rolled down the window and smoothed his mustache.

“Everything okay here?”
“Just dandy,” I said, forcing a smile. Turtle had tensed, looking ready to spring. My hands trembling, I walked over to deliver his coffee and sandwich. He took off, Torrence watching him as he booked it around the souvenir shop and back to the harbor.
“Where’s your scooter?” Officer Torrence asked.
“I jogged here this morning.”
“You want a ride?” he asked, gesturing to the backseat of the cruiser. “You look a little pale.”
“No thanks,” I said with a weak grin and waved them on. I was terrible at keeping secrets—the worst. He’d want to know everything about Turtle and I’d find myself spilling the details of the altercation at the harbor and how he’d scared the little family at the Cuban Coffee Queen and likely Turtle would still end up in jail.
Besides, everyone on Tarpon Pier would notice me emerging from a black and white—I’d never hear the end of it. As I took my coffee and walked out to Caroline Street, a text message buzzed onto my phone.
FYI, Hayley, the owner of Just Off Duval called me at home. Freaking Out. Get to the office ASAP and we’ll make a plan.
I almost dropped the phone. My worst nightmare: facing the owner or chef whose restaurant I’d panned. It hadn’t taken long to happen.
I flagged down a pink taxicab to carry me home.