In the past six months or so, I have been getting much of my food inspiration (cooking, tasting, dining out) from reading chef biographies. Welcome to Part II of my reviews of the books, and the inspiration or things I learned from each of the biographies. If you missed Part 1, you can read here.
Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
by Michael Gibney
I actually read this biography about 1 to 2 years ago. I wasn’t looking for chef biographies at the time. I just happened to be at my local library, and this book caught my eye on one of their displays.
First, a little background on the author. Michael Gibney was sixteen years old when he took his first job in a restaurant washing pots in an Irish pub. Thirty minutes into his job, a manager told Gibney that he needed him to clean up a customer’s vomit in the foyer of the restaurant. It was then Gibney decided he had to become a cook. By the age of 22, Gibney had his first sous chef position in a restaurant. (Source: Sous Chef book) Now on to the book…
This book was a fast, fun read (especially for a foodie).
Gibney takes the reader through a typical day (24 hours) in the life of a sous chef in a fast-paced New York City restaurant. The book is written in the second-person narrative. I found the narrative to be a little weird at first, but I get why Gibney wrote it this way. It was actually very creative. By doing this, Gibney puts you into the role of the sous chef in the restaurant’s kitchen, and wants to make the experience more intimate. By doing this, you’re supposed to feel the adrenaline rush, pressure, but also the pleasure that comes with working in a restaurant kitchen.
“You’re second in command just below the chef.”
The words sous chef come from the French meaning “under chef”.
Kitchen Chain of Command
I never saw a “restaurant kitchen diagram” like this one before. I found it to be a good reference for the book and still today for a typical restaurant kitchen staff and the hierarchy of it.
The book gives a great glimpse into the workings of a restaurant kitchen and the interaction between all the staff and the roles each of them have.
Gibney begins the book with the sous chef showing up to work first thing in the morning – the kitchen is clean and more importantly, quiet. In between his cigarette breaks, the day goes on and becomes more frenzied and stressful for the sous chef. Throughout the book, Gibney gives a vivid and detailed description of the preparation of certain dishes needed for the day’s menu like filleting the monkfish and cleaning the foie gras.
The day finally ends with the “clean down” of the kitchen, and discussion of the prep lists needed for the next day’s menu. After changing clothes, some of the cooks head out for a night of heavy drinking at favorite NYC bars in the area. And then the blare of the alarm clock the next morning comes much too quickly…
Some Noteworthy Takeaways for Me From This Book
“A cook/chef’s knife kit represents everything they are as a cook and a chef. Not only does it contain all the tools they need to perform the job, but its contents demonstrate their level of dedication to their career… The knives themselves tell how much the job of cooking means to them. A dull knife damages food. Chefs are there to enhance the food. Extremely sharp knives are essential for this purpose.”
“A good cook almost never misses a shift. He takes ownership of his work; he takes pride in it. He understands how important he is to the team and he will avoid disappointing his coworkers at all costs.”
Gibney includes several pages of “Selected Kitchen Terminology” at the end of the book. He provides many cooking/chef terms and the definition of each of them. Some of them are pretty well-known like à la carte, bistro, cuisine, and risotto. Many of them, though, less so such as:
boudin blanc – a pork-based “pudding-style” sausage which typically contains liver, heart, milk, and sometimes eggs and other ingredients
entremetier – a vegetable cook
pommes fondant – a dish of potatoes cooked in stock (usually animal based) and butter
temper – to slowly introduce (food) to heat or warmth without actually cooking: “to avoid scrambling the custard, you must first temper the eggs by slowly drizzling in the hot milk, whisking constantly”
(Source: Sous Chef)
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
by Anthony Bourdain
Once I got past Bourdain’s potty mouth and his descriptions of the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll” that occur in a restaurant kitchen, I actually liked this book and came away from it with some useful tips about dining in restaurants.
Bourdain states in his book that his cooking life has been a long love affair. His love of food began at the young age of ten when his family traveled to France, and Bourdain experienced many new foods for the first time. For many years now, Bourdain believes good food/ good eating is all about taking risks and is an adventure. I would have to agree there is much truth to that.
Bourdain shares “the good, the bad and the ugly” about the restaurant business in his book. I found some of the information to be useful for me – the diner in a restaurant…
Most Noteworthy Takeaways for Me From This Book (all suggestions/statements from Kitchen Confidential)
Bourdain writes, “I never order fish (in a restaurant) on Mondays unless I’m eating at Le Bernardin – a four-star restaurant where I know they are buying their fish directly from the source. I know how old most seafood is on Monday – about four to five days old!”
“At a fine restaurant, the chef places a large order for his fish on Thursday for a Friday morning delivery. The next fish delivery is not coming till Monday. The chef is hoping to sell most of the fish on Friday and Saturday night. He then is hoping to unload his leftover fish on Sunday in a seafood salad for brunch, or as a ‘special’ on Sunday or Monday night.” Diners beware the word, “Special”…
If you saw the movie, The Big Short, Anthony Bourdain had a cameo in it describing the above concept, and comparing it to a collateral debt obligation.
“Never order a hollandaise sauce at a brunch. Bacteria love hollandaise. Hollandaise is a veritable petri-dish of biohazards.” “Also cooks hate brunch. A wise chef employs his best line cooks on Friday and Saturday nights, and will be reluctant to schedule them again for Sunday brunch especially since they went out after work and got hammered.”
“I won’t eat in a restaurant with filthy bathrooms. They let you see the bathrooms. If they can’t be bothered to keep their bathrooms clean, just imagine how their refrigeration and work spaces look like. Bathrooms are relatively easy to keep clean. Kitchens are not.”
“Shrimp? All right, if it looks fresh, smells fresh, and the restaurant is busy, guaranteeing turnover of product on a regular basis. But I’ll pass on the shrimp toast. If I walk into an empty dining room, and the owner staring out the window, I’m not ordering the shrimp. The same principle applies to anything on a menu actually, especially something esoteric and adventurous like bouillabaisse. The key is rotation. If the restaurant is busy, and you see bouillabaisse flying out the kitchen doors every few minutes, then it’s probably a good bet.”
“Look at your waiter’s face. He knows. It’s another reason to be polite to your waiter: he could save your life with a raised eyebrow or sigh.”
Yes, some of this is common sense, but it sure makes me think a little more each time I’m walking into a new or unknown restaurant.
On February 19, 2016, we lost beloved author, Nelle Harper Lee. To Kill a Mockingbird was, and still remains one of my favorite books.
Harper Lee, Rest in Peace…