Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line
Published March 25, 2014
210 pages (hardcover)
On Friday night, Bryan and I had some friends visit from out of town. These friends appreciate good food and wanted to go somewhere fun, so we took them to Gunshow. Gunshow is Chef Kevin Gillespie’s (you may have seen him beat Art Smith on this episode of Top Chef Duels) restaurant in Atlanta. But it’s not a typical dining experience. Here’s how it is described on the website:
Inspired by Brazilian churrascaria-style dining and Chinese dim sum, Gillespie combined the two for a decidedly fun and delicious result. Dishes are presented on rolling carts and trays to diners at their tables where they can then choose what to order.
A team of chefs works in a very open kitchen mere feet from the closest dining table. Each chef prepares his or her own dishes and, once prepared, brings them out of the kitchen. The chef approaches a group of diners, shows off a beautifully prepared dish, and explains its components and preparation. If the diners think it looks and sounds good, they keep the dish; if not, the chef moves on to the next group of diners and tries to entice them.
Gunshow, with its open kitchen and personal interaction with the chefs, helps debunk some of the mystery of how restaurant food goes from raw ingredients to the complex and delicious dishes that arrive on your table. But it’s pretty easy to see that the Gunshow chefs’ experience is not the norm. They are not working together to ensure the perfect timing of a certain table’s order or cooking meat to specific temperatures or dealing with substitutions or special requests. They work individually on their own dishes at their own pace. You get the feeling that what they’re doing might be a little easier and calmer than what a typical restaurant chef does on a normal night.
Shows like Top Chef (especially during the infamous “Restaurant Week” episodes) provide a little insight into the stress that accompanies a more typical restaurant service. Orders come in rapid-fire, and all of the cooks and chefs are relying on each other to do their specific and individual parts to make sure dishes (and tickets) come together cohesively. There is communication (some calm and healthy, some frustrated, clipped, and angry). There are unexpected mishaps and misfires and mistakes that have to be remedied quickly. There is a fair amount of chaos. But Top Chef is a competition. And it’s television. So, you know you’re not getting the full story.
If you want the full story, you can spend grueling years earning your stripes in a professional kitchen . . . or you can just read Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line.
If you’re a regular reader of my posts, then you may have noticed that I didn’t tease this book in my “Want to read along with me?” section. That’s because, upon picking this up from the library last week and skimming the first couple pages, I temporarily abandoned the book I was reading and immediately devoured this one. This is uncharacteristic behavior on my part, but, especially in light of the fact that we had a very busy weekend planned, this book was appealing for several reasons:
- It’s short. The entire book is only 210 pages, the font is pretty big, and the last twenty-five or so pages is a glossary of “Selected Kitchen Terminology” (everything from “dupe pad” to “transglutanimase”). I knew I’d breeze through this in a couple hours.
- The subject matter is engaging. The book is categorized as non-fiction, intended “to provide a genuine impression of the industry.” As the subtitle suggests, this is a day-in-the-life of a sous chef, complete with conversations and mundane prep tasks and a busy night of stressful service. In the preface, author Michael Gibney says that he “compiled material from several different restaurants and several different periods in time,” but he admits to modifying names of people and places. So, the book is based on fact, but it reads like fiction (and, I get the feeling, may be more fictionalized than most non-fiction books)–fiction set in a restaurant that is entirely about food and food service. Once I read loving descriptions of a Sujihiki knife and an explanation of proper whole-fish storage (“dorsal fins to the sky as if they were swimming”) in the first few pages, I was hooked.
- The book is written in second person. When is the last time you read a book written entirely in second person? I’m not sure I have ever read one. The intent is to put YOU (yes, you!) directly in the shoes of a sous chef. When people speak, they speak directly to you. You complete the prep and delegate responsibility and make sure things are running smoothly and jump on the line when one of your guys throws up mid-service. You are the one Chef yells at when you mess up and compliments when you do well. It’s a fun device, and it’s surprisingly well executed.
- There’s not a lot of downtime in a busy kitchen, and the book reflects that. It’s written in a way that accurately captures the vibe of the kitchen. There are brief moments of peace and nearly meditative monotony in prep tasks followed immediately by the frantic, chaotic, and anxiety-producing hours of cooking and plating required during service. You feel the rush of adrenaline, and the book flies.
This is a fun and fast-paced book about the restaurant industry. There is a lot of serious food-prep talk (several pages about cleaning and portioning monkfish fillets, for example), some bits of kitchen magic revealed (the use of meat glue, “an enzyme that, when applied to two different cuts of meat, activates a covalent bond between the proteins, joining them together”), and a few very interesting explanations of technique. This was one of my favorites:
Pork, like most land animals, seizes up as you cook it, so you can gauge its doneness by sight and touch. It should resist a poke of your finger in a certain familiar way. The monkfish, however, is a bit trickier. Since it’s been heavily processed, it is very difficult to compute the effect that the heat has had on the inside by sight and touch alone. And since there is uncured foie gras on the inside, you need to be certain it’s cooked all the way through.
The way you do this is with a cake tester, a thin metal pin about the length of a pencil. You insert the cake tester into the center of the fish and hold it there for ten seconds. When you remove it, you place it directly against the underside of your lower lip. If it is warm, the food is done. This technique has been around for hundreds of years, and it has a provincial flair to it, but it happens to be complexly scientific, as well. The temperature at which most bacteria die, and at which protein begins to denature in such a way that it becomes cooked, is approximately 130°F. The temperature at which human skin begins to detect contact with heat is roughly 120°F. Empirical evidence suggests that a steel pin will, on average, undergo a ten-degree temperature decline in the time it takes to transfer it by hand from the interior of a cooked product to our lower lip. Ergo, when the cake tester is warm on your lip, the monkfish is thoroughly cooked.
But this is a full twenty-four hour period in the life of a sous chef. Most of the hours are spent in the kitchen but, unfortunately, not all. I didn’t care about the post-work trip to the bar or the wannabe-philosophical conversation about cooking with the co-worker. Yes, the post-work, late-night scenes served to show the incestuous nature of a restaurant staff (both front-of-the-house and kitchen staff), the heavy drinking common in the industry, and the less-than-ideal state (hungover, sleep deprived) in which many people are working as a result of the previous night’s festivities . . . but I didn’t find them nearly as entertaining, informative, or interesting as the parts of the book actually spent in the kitchen.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for April 2014
- Publishers Weekly starred review
- Kirkus Reviews starred review
Who should read it: Bryan, Mike (i.e., people who love food and cooking, are fans of Top Chef, and would appreciate the fast pace and straight-forward style of this book).
Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:
- The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen (the #1 Indie Next List pick for July 2014; a LibraryReads selection for July 2014)
- All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood by Jennifer Senior (an Amazon Best Book of the Month for February 2014 and New York Times best seller)