18 June 2014

Served by Michael Gibney

This book wasn't what I was expecting at all, and a pleasant surprise.

I snagged a copy of this new memoir/ culinary nonfiction book on Netgalley a few months ago when it came out. SOUS CHEF: 24 HOURS ON THE LINE is about the craft of modern restaurants, from the perspective of a day in the life of the sous chef (the chef's right-hand person). "You," the sous chef (for in fact this book is all written in the 2nd person), are responsible for a million nitty-gritty details in providing dinnertime service at a well-regarded (and unnamed) Manhattan restaurant, serving customers you will never see but who are responsible for the restaurant's success or failure. Parse the chef's instructions on your own or ask for clarification? Send an ailing cook home or let him stay put? All of these decisions await you, and hours before the place is even open.

Being somewhat less of a foodie than most of my peers, I expected , but there's a case to be made to shelve this book under organizational behavior. Given his responsibilities, the sous chef has limited power and unlimited peril in his grasp. (Well, peril may be a strong word, but I spent some paragraphs nervously waiting for someone to cut or scald himself, as invariably seems to happen in my kitchen.) His responsibilities outstrip his power and there's never a time when he's not 'on call.' It's both hands-on and higher-level. Don't look to SOUS CHEF to dish the kind of secrets that KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL became famous for, but those were overblown anyway; the biggest secret of SOUS CHEF is how maddeningly complex these operations are, and how skilled the people down to the lowest prep cook need to be to pull it all off. It's choreography, not just chemistry.

I did struggle a little with some long passages of dialogue late in the book that broke with the reality of Gibney's portrayal, and which seemed equally plausible and implausible that they could have taken place as described. They were a little novelistic. Then again, the concept of immediacy that surrounds its narrative is crafted in such a way as to make us believe what could not be possible (that Gibney literally transcribed an actual day in the kitchen and everything that happened in it). It's sleight-of-hand, just like the process of serving an entire table's entrees at once -- way more complicated in its works than its face.

SOUS CHEF is a fresh and unique take on the culinary industry whose limited scope pays off well. Gibney is still a working chef and currently works at a restaurant called Urbo (of which I could find very little information, but here is a map) so if you're in New York, check it out.

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