Monday, March 16, 2015

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney (2014)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney (2014). As a fan of cooking, eating, and the bad boy cheffery of Anthony Bourdain, this one seemed like it would be right up my alley. And it was. Kind of.

Gibney uses the extremely effective structural conceit of 24 hours in the life of a chef, told in the second person, to organize his behind-the-scenes fine dining kind-of-memoir. In it we become (thanks to that second person perspective) the second-in-command at a fancy (but not too fancy) restaurant in the West Village. We are rising up through the ranks of chefdom and are now one of two sous chefs under the visionary creator/co-owner of our place of work. We wake up, go to work, and start checking off the millions of little things we have to do to get that high quality food on the plates.

While much of that work involves gathering, inventorying, and preparing a slew of ingredients, the really hard part is managing all the personalities and egos that are crammed into the tight kitchen. We do it though, and our camaraderie, skill, and attitude carry the day and result in another successful service. Then we go out and get shitfaced, don't sleep enough, and start all over again the next day.

Parts of this book are fascinating -- learning about how the different roles in the kitchen fit together, the organization and creativity it takes to produce interesting and consistent plates of expensive food, and the interactions between the staff really kept the book moving. Gibney is not as strong when he tries to describe some of the less tangible qualities of being a chef or his (our) lovey feelings for the girlfriend we hardly ever see since we are working so much. When he tries to be poetic, the tone gets a little goofy and the narrative runs briefly off the rails.

Personally, while I have the same shared fascination for professional chefs that seems to grab the rest of the Food Network-loving public, I have a bad attitude about expensive restaurants and food that is fancy for the sake of being fancy. This may be because I'm kind of cheap or because I don't have a lot of experience eating really fancy food, but there is something a little obscene in spending over $50 a plate for some food. This is not true, however, in the world of the fancy New York chef, and that puts a little bit of a disconnect between me and the writer. I also have very little patience for the "we work hard and we play hard" attitude as an excuse for being irresponsible and occasionally a real asshole. Of course, that macho attitude is a huge part of professional chefdom, at least in the popular media, so Gibney is not being false or untrue when he gives us this lifestyle. That still doesn't mean that I need to like it.

Overall I enjoyed this book, but with some reservations. I think the structure was great and I learned a lot, even if the writing style got in my way every once in awhile. If you are a fan of the hot dog professional chef lifestyle, then don't miss this one. If you just like cooking and eating normal food without a lot of French words and machismo, then this might not be the book for you.

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