Sous Chef: 24 Hours on The Line
Ballantine Books, 2014
What is it about chefs and writing? It does seem that a surprising number of individuals who are maestros with a knife are also very good with a keyboard. We can trace the current crop back to Anthony Bourdain, who two decades ago shook up the dining world with Kitchen Confidential. He has been followed by a small army of writers-of-the-line who want to tell their tales, from the stately (Mimi Sheraton) to the outrageous (Gabrielle Hamilton, whose Blood, Bones and Butter is a tour de force).
One could look earlier, though, to Julia Child and Waverly Root, R.J. Apple and A.J. Liebling (okay, the latter two were just gourmands). The truth is, we love to write about food, and we love to read food writing. There is an alchemy to turning the fruits of the earth into what we eat, and there is an alchemy to turning what is in our heads about what we eat into what we read about eating. On reflection, the overlap among chefs and writers makes sense.
Michael Gibney’s work earns his place in the lineup of worthy food writers. The premise of the book is a single twenty-four hour cycle in a nameless New York restaurant kitchen. From this framework he builds a personal, you-are-there tour of life under pressure and in the heat. He uses second-person point of view throught, creating a gritty immediacy for the reader. An example, drawn from a night on the hot side working the fish station:
Finish one fish, move to the next. Start with a hot pan, start with hot oil. If it’s not hot, wait. Don’t start early; it’ll stick. Check the oven instead. There’s something in there. It needs to be flipped. Out it comes. In goes the butter. Let it bubble. Crush the garlic. Arrossez. Flip. Arrossez again. Put a new pan down. Season the bass. Always from a height. The bass goes in. A monk looks done. Give it the cake tester. It’s barely warm. Another minute. To the pass with it. Three chars go down. Their skins soufflé. Press them to the heat. Hear the crackle. A pan is too hot. The oil smells scorched. Start again. Burner at full tilt. Now for the mussels. They jump in the oil. Aromas flourish. Here is a branzino. First of the night. Score its skin. Into the Griswold. Its eyeball pops. Flip it over. Into the oven. On with more gambas. On with more pans. On with more burners. Scrape down the plancha. Wipe down the piano. Towel your brow. Printers buzz. A new pick. Six more fish. Your legs are tired. Tickets blur. Chef needs more. “Next up …” Cooks groan.
Gibney’s staccato writing style (which is not representative of the whole book, just the “you are there” passages) creates a thrumming immediacy that resonates with the reader—at least it does for me, since I once did exactly this kind of work. When things are going well on the line there is a joy in the rhythm of the work—it is one of the best places I know to experience flow. Of course, every line cook dances on the edge of disaster, juggling so much that must be both excellently made and exquisitely timed. Like any juggler, if things go badly it’s a brutal experience.
Gibney’s work is real, authentic, visceral. The next time you dine out, you will look at what is on your plate with renewed appreciation, no matter how many books by cooks you have read before.