My friend and director of the local public library passed this advance copy of Sous Chef by Michael Gibney to me at the book club I lead as part of FLPL's community events program. The book club, called Beer and a Book, meets at local Rivertown Coffee Co. once a month to sip a cold craft beer and discuss the most recent food memoir we've read. This month we read Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me With Apples, which everyone loved so much we decided to read her next memoir, Garlic and Sapphires, for April.
I loved Sous Chef. I worked in restaurants for 10 years, starting just after high school with a hostess position. It wasn't particularly challenging, but it was just enough to make me feel the allure of the restaurant world, the late nights - illicit nights - the fast pace, the gluttonous pleasure of surrounding oneself with exquisite cuisine, good wine and the guest's indulgence. Most of my experience happened in high end NY restaurants, so service was, at times, extremely precise. Except for a one month stint as a prep cook in college (they fired me and sent me back to FOH), my BOH experience was limited to quick glimpses of the busy kitchen during service. I always had respect for the guys behind the line and a reverence for what they went through. I had a pretty good idea of what it was like for them, but Michael Gibney's memoir has shed a light so clear, I feel drawn to write letters to every cook and chef whose Saturday night I might have made extra hellish with my seemingly small mistakes.
Sous Chef covers a mere 24 hours of a second-in-command chef of an upscale, very busy Manhattan restaurant. Rarely is a narrative written in second person successful, but this one works, drawing you thoroughly into the crazy, hot, stressful, difficult job that requires a special kind of person to perform. It reminds me of Jay McInerney's 1984 novel, Bright Lights, Big City, which stretches out over an entire week of, well, you, as a young man, lost and grieving, indulging in parties, illegal substance and alcohol while submerging into New York's subculture night life. Gibney's characters partake in similar debauchery after hours, and one might argue that cooking through a Friday night service for 300 covers, the dance, as Gibney calls it (so tenuous one tiny glitch threatens ruin), is debaucherous for sadistic cooks - and I'm convinced one must be a sadist to pursue such a career.
The prose in Sous Chef moves quickly, mirroring life in the kitchen, and the dialogue between the chefs is appropriately creatively explicit. It's not for the easily offended, nor is the grueling job these men and women perform. This book demands well-earned respect for Back of House staff, and every waiter, waitress and patron should read it.