Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: "Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line" by Michael Gibney

From the moment I realized I loved to cook (and realized I was good at it), I had a dream of becoming a chef someday, of perhaps having my own little restaurant, where I could decide a menu based on what looked good at the market, and cook for people who loved food. Sure, television shows like Top Chef and Hell's Kitchen made being a chef look a little less appealing, but those shows are enhanced for their dramatic value, right?

Michael Gibney's terrific book, Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, has made me realize that the reality is more like the latter than the former. Gibney has cooked in some of the nation's finest restaurants, and clearly knows his stuff. If someone with his skills and experience can still have nights from hell, what chance do some of us mere mortals have?

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line follows Gibney on a day working at a New York City restaurant. He's one of two sous chefs working with a talented chef, who gives both Gibney and his compatriot a great deal of responsibility and latitude in the kitchen, but expects a great deal, too. You see just how much work it is to produce the food you get to enjoy in a restaurant, how many people are involved, how many crises may occur in the preparation, plating, and serving of the food. You get to understand why your food sometimes comes out under- or over-cooked, or perhaps missing a crucial component listed on the menu. These responsibilities, coupled with the breakneck pace of a day in the fishbowl-like atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen, when many sous chefs and others have been out late drinking the night before, can be overwhelming.

"The sous chef (from the French meaning "under chef") is the lieutenant, the executor of Chef's wishes. He is at Chef's side seventy hours a week or more, for good or bad, a perpetual Mark Antony to Chef's Julius Caesar."

This book makes you feel like you are there on the line with Gibney. You get to experience his highs and his lows, work through the challenges thrown at him, and weather the emotional issues he battles. Gibney writes in a conversational style peppered with bravado and lots of culinary terms (luckily there's a comprehensive glossary at the back of the book)—there's even a good deal of Spanish dialogue thrown in as he chronicles his conversations with dishwashers, salad chefs, and other kitchen staff.

If you're a foodie, fancy yourself a chef without a restaurant, or have ever thought about a culinary career, this is a book for you. It doesn't glamorize the sous chef's role; it presents a fairly realistic picture of a day in a fairly busy, fine dining restaurant, without stooping to clichés or creating stereotypical characters. I really enjoyed this a great deal, although it did reinforce that I was wise not to pursue a career as a chef after I went to culinary school. (I like having some balance in my life. Call me crazy.)

"Without a kitchen there is no restaurant; without a strong line there is no kitchen." I know the next time I go out to eat at a restaurant, I'll think a little bit harder about the blood, sweat, and tears (hopefully not too much of the first two) that went into the preparation of the food, and how much I have the sous chef to thank. And I thank Michael Gibney and his great book for that reinforced awareness.

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