Sous Chef (Review)

Labels: A Lighter Touch

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Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
Michael Gibney, 2014
210 pp.

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
September, 2014

It's enough to make you weep, reading (reading, merely reading!) about what it takes to serve 300 people in an upscale New York restaurant. Why would anyone subject himself to such abuse—the mental and physical strain—night after night?

Michael Gibney's wonderful behind-the-scenes account is a revelation: chefs and cooks aren't like you and me. Their stamina and mental acuity is not the stuff of ordinary mortals; it's superhero stuff—Supermen (and the occasional woman) in chef whites.

Gibney takes us inside his kitchen to witness the shouting, the heat, the hissing and whirring of ovens and fans. With 15 pans on the burners and a constant influx of new orders, each with multiple courses, it looks like complete chaos. "Looks like" is the operative phrase: in reality, a good kitchen is a finely tuned organization.

Like the military, a restaurant operates within a rigid hierarchy where everyone knows his place and role. Chefs are addressed by rank, "oui, Chef," because rank conveys authority...authority ensures discipline...and discipline is essential.

Still, there's a narrow margin for victory: on a busy night, the whole operation is only and always one slip-up from disaster. So why do they do it? Here's Gibney:

We are here to cook for people.... And...in doing so we get the chance to create with our hands something that sustains people and brings them joy.... And even though our days are hard...we have the continual opportunity to do something sincere.

Let's add to that a creative urge and passion for beauty. Watching the head chef plate the food, Gibney comments on his "artwork," the design he creates with a mere "flourish of the spoon." It's an artistry that Gibney hopes someday he'll be good enough to pull off himself.

Sous Chef is both entertaining and illuminating, making it impossible ever to think about dining in the same way. Anyone who works in a restaurant deserves our admiration and gratitude—it's hellish back there. Which makes it all the more miraculous that out the maw of hell can come a piece of heaven.

Oh, and don't send your plate back for a re-do. It really, really messes things up.

See our Reading Guide for Sous Chef.

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