When You Can’t Go to a Restaurant, You Have to Settle for Reading about One (or Two)

My daughter was diagnosed as milk- and soy-protein intolerant when she was about three months old. She was exclusively breastfed, which meant I had to cut all dairy and soy from my diet cold turkey. This meant, of course, giving up my very favorite food: ice cream (yes, I am a child). Despite the massive amounts of dairy I consumed (cheese, yogurt, and ice cream every day), it was surprisingly easy to give it all up.

On the flip side, there was one thing that was very, VERY hard: bidding adieu to eating out. When we first found out, we still tried to go to restaurants. But, even when we called ahead to warn them of our allergies, I always ended up inadvertently consuming something (there are tell-tale diaper signs, the details of which I will spare you). We realized that the only way to ensure she wasn’t getting anything bad was to cook all of our meals at home. Let me tell you: when you have an infant, cooking every single meal at home is not ideal.

We’re still powering through. Our repertoire of dairy-free meals has grown exponentially, and we have become slow-cooker champions. There are still days when my husband and I look at each other and say, “UGH. I wish we could just go out to eat tonight. I do NOT feel like cooking,” but, for the most part, it hasn’t been too bad. And, when I need a little restaurant fix, I just watch Chef’s Table on Netflix or read a restaurant book like these two. It’s not the same, but it will have to do for now.

* * * * *

imgresSweetbitter
Stephanie Danler
Published May 24, 2016
368 pages (hardcover)

What it’s about: A small-town 22-year-old does what many small-town 22-year-olds dream of doing: she moves to NYC to escape her old life and discover a new one. She manages to land a job as a backwaiter at a popular, high-end restaurant in the city. She doesn’t know anything about the restaurant business, so it’s a crash course in the intricacies of the industry (What the hell is uni? How do you open a bottle of wine so the label always faces the customer?) and the lifestyle (coke, heavy drinking, hook ups, dive bars). And, just as she starts to feel like she’s getting her footing and belonging in this new, foreign land . . . she gets a stark reminder of her place in the restaurant hierarchy.

Why I read it: I waited tables during college and for a few months after I graduated. And I LOVED it. It was good, easy money (pockets-full of CA$H!!). There was no downtime, so shifts went by quickly. I could rely on my memory and my witty banter to garner great tips. And I was always meeting interesting people (both my customers and fellow restaurant staff). Not to mention, there was no shortage of free, delicious food (paired stealthily with beautiful glasses of wine).

From time to time, I get nostalgic for the restaurant world. And then my husband reminds me that I’m too old for that shit now. I wouldn’t be able to put up with the rude customers, the petty annoyances, and all the drama. But I’m not too old to revisit that world through a book. Huzzah!

This is a debut novel with some good hype. It was a LibraryReads list selection for May, and this excerpt appeared in May’s issue of Bon Appétit magazine.

Rating: 4/5

Because of the weird hours that restaurant workers keep (sleeping until the early afternoon, working until midnight or later, partying until dawn), restaurants become weird, insular worlds. People hang out together after work and on their off days (at one of my restaurants, parties would devolve into drug- and alcohol-fueled freestyle rap-battles; at another, we would greet the day after walking bleary-eyed from private karaoke rooms, where many bottles of booze had been consumed). The work is hard—long hours on your feet—but you don’t take it home with you. So you relieve the stress of a long night of work with a few too many drinks.

That world is eerily captured in this book. I had flashbacks of my time as a waitress: The doctor I waited on in Portland, who ordered the same thing every time, left 100% tip, and then finally got the nerve to ask me out after eating dinner once a week in my section for several months. That amazing hole-in-the-wall sushi place in SE Portland that the sushi chefs took me to on our day off. Drinking expensive bottles of wine—that we had become familiar with from the restaurant’s list—after work. That creepy, married manager who tried to kiss me in the walk-in.

The restaurant business is a topic that has been written about a lot. And I went into this book with some low expectations: mostly of sloppy, basic writing and a sub-par plot. But I was pleasantly surprised. The writing is full of effort—as in, it really feels like she’s trying. Under normal circumstances, that would be terrible. But, here, it works, because it’s perfectly appropriate for the narrator, who is floundering and trying to find her footing. Here’s an example:

“Are you dreaming about work often?” he asked. It felt like he spoke it into my neck.

“No.” I slammed a portafilter to empty it and I could feel him walk away.

But I was. The dreams were tidal, consumptive, chaotic. Service played over in my head, but no one had faces. And I heard voices, layered on top of one another, a cacophony. Phrases would rise then evanesce: Behind You, Pick Up, To Your Right, To Your Left, Picking Up, Candles, Can You, Now, Toothpicks, Pick Up, Bar Mops, Now, Excuse Me, Picking Up.

In my dreams these words were a code. I was blind and the directives were all I had to pick my way through the blackness. The syllables quaked and separated. I woke up talking: I couldn’t remember what I had been saying, only that I was driven to keep saying it.

She uses tastes as analogies to close chapters, which—again—should be annoying. But, at times, it is surprisingly well done. Like this one:

Umami: uni, or sea urchin, anchovies, Parmesan, dry-aged beef with a casing of mold. It’s glutamate. Nothing is a mystery anymore. They make MSG to mimic it. It’s the taste of ripeness that’s about to ferment. Initially, it serves as a warning. But after a familiarity develops, after you learn its name, that precipice of rot becomes the only flavor worth pursuing, the only line worth testing.

And there are great little nuances, like the fact that the narrator’s name isn’t revealed until page 216. Because, really, how often do people remember (or care about) their servers’ names?

For my taste, this book tries a little too hard and it’s a little too dark . . . but it’s still really good. It’s gritty and, sadly, very accurate. And if you ever waited tables at a nice restaurant, this will remind you why you’re no longer doing it. 

*****

0812992989.1.zoom32 Yolks: From My Mother’s Table to Working the Line
Eric Ripert with Veronica Chambers
Published May 17, 2016
256 pages (hardcover)

What it’s about: Eric Ripert is that French, green-eyed, silver-fox chef of NYC’s three Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Bernardin. He appears fairly frequently as a guest judge on Top Chef and has his own show, Avec Eric, on A & E. This is his first memoir, which details the events that led to his becoming one of the world’s most famous chefs. It begins with his life as a kid in France (and then Andorra), exploring his rather unpleasant upbringing and family dynamics. He then describes his stints in boarding school, culinary school, the military, and the kitchens of some of Paris’s top restaurants in the 1980s. It explains how he ended up as a chef here in the States.eatsbeat15f-2-web

Why I read it: My brother, husband, and I enjoyed one of my most memorable meals at Le Bernardin several years ago. The food was delectable, the wine pairings were insanely good, and the service was impeccable. I’ve been a fan of Ripert’s ever since (not to mention, I have a thing for silver foxes—just ask my husband). And, unlike many egomaniacal chefs, he actually seems like a genuinely good person. I thought I would learn some fun tidbits about Ripert and Le Bernardin reading this book. And, at only 250 pages, I wasn’t making a huge commitment.

Rating: 2/5

When a celebrity chef pens a memoir, I think it’s fair to make a couple of assumptions:

  1. The writing isn’t going to win any awards; and
  2. There will be some fun kitchen stories.

I found out early on that my first assumption was well-founded. I’m pretty sure a talented fourth-grader could write better than this:

I was quickly moved to entremets, which is preparing all of the vegetables and garnishes for the meat station. “Oh, God! I know nothing again!” I would cry when I went home. But then I’d work hard and figure it out. And as soon as I began to feel good about myself, they moved me again. Next it was garde manger, where I made all of the salads and cold appetizers—like truffle-studded duck terrine with toasted brioche or lobster terrines —as well as portioned the fish and passed it to the fish station.

There are times that the writing is so bad it’s cringe-worthy. Granted, Ripert is a native French-speaker, but he worked with a professional writer who did the heavy lifting, so he doesn’t get a pass. 

As far as fun kitchen stories are concerned, however, they are few and far between. The book is largely a series of stories of various atrocities and depressing events Ripert had to endure as a kid (and, unfortunately, because the writing is so juvenile and terrible, it’s hard to feel much empathy for him). There are a few interesting tidbits, including how he learned knife skills in culinary school (“At home, no one is measuring your matchstick fries. In even a one-star restaurant, an allumette has to be 1/4 inch by 1/4 inch by 2 1/2 inches, and any sous-chef worth his salt will be able to tell at a glance if you’ve screwed it up.”), his love of fish, which he discovered working in Joël Robuchon’s restaurant, Jamin (“Cooking meat brings the soul out of you; when you cook a steak or a stew, you don’t have to be so precise. But fish brings elegance out of you. You must be intensely focused, and you have to use all your knowledge to elevate the fish.”), and how he made the conscious decision not to be a stereotypical asshole head chef (“Philippe planted a seed in me that would take years to fully form: that maybe there was a way to lead without using anger and fear as the primary tools . . . . Maybe there was a way to control the heat so that, like Philippe, I could keep my cool.”) 

To make matters worse, this book ends where I wish it had begun. You learn a couple of interesting things about Ripert (like his obsession with a clairvoyant named Madame Amparo), but the things I would have loved to have learned more about (his conversion to Buddhism, the opening of Le Bernardin) are not included in this book. It seems like Ripert penned a multi-memoir deal with the publisher. Hopefully, the best is yet to come.

Want to read along with me? Reviews of these books are coming soon:

  • Everyone Brave Is Forgiven by Chris Cleave: This is the latest by the author of the fantastic Little Bee. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month, an Indie Next List pick, and a LibraryReads List selection for May 2016.
  • In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero: Ok, ok. I know what you’re thinking: Why do I keep reading memoirs if I hate them so much?! I read this one for two reasons: 1) I am obsessed with Jane the Virgin (on which Guerrero plays Jane’s best friend) and I loved the early seasons of Orange Is the New Black (Guerrero is one of the prisoners); and 2) her story is insane (In short: when she was fourteen, her Colombian parents were deported while she was at school. Rather than becoming a ward of the state, Guerrero fell through the cracks.)

  • The Girls by Emma Cline: This is one of the books of the summer. ALL the hype. It was an Amazon Best Book of the Month and the #1 Indie Next List pick for June and on a bunch of best-of summer reading lists (including Publishers Weekly’s list of Best Summer Books 2016).

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