Sous Chef – Michael Gibney

Date read: 11th June 2014

Publisher: Ballantine Books
Release Date: 25th March 2014
Length: 240 pages
Format: E-book
Source: Received from publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review, thank you!

Goodreads description

The back must slave to feed the belly. . . . In this urgent and unique book, chef Michael Gibney uses twenty-four hours to animate the intricate camaraderie and culinary choreography in an upscale New York restaurant kitchen. Here readers will find all the details, in rapid-fire succession, of what it takes to deliver an exceptional plate of food—the journey to excellence by way of exhaustion.

Told in second-person narrative, Sous Chef is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This exhilarating account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.

In a kitchen where the highest standards are upheld and one misstep can result in disaster, Sous Chef conjures a greater appreciation for the thought, care, and focus that go into creating memorable and delicious fare. With grit, wit, and remarkable prose, Michael Gibney renders a beautiful and raw account of this demanding and sometimes overlooked profession, offering a nuanced perspective on the craft and art of food and service.

My review

I love books that are written by people about their profession, especially the medical profession.  I’ve read an awful lot of books about the lives of doctors, a couple about nurses, a few about paramedics, two about vets…  I’ve never held a desire to do any kind of medical work other than what I do (working in a pharmacy), but something calls me to memoirs written by those in the thick of things.  (And if anyone wants to know about the secret life of pharmacy, read Pills, Thrills and Methadone Spills by Mr Dispenser.  It made me snort with laughter on more than one occasion whilst in a public place).

An author who’s made her name writing books set in professions is Imogen Edwards-Jones, who’s written (with various figures known only as ‘Anonymous’) about seven or eight books about hotel, airport, beach resort employees etc.  I really like her books – the writing isn’t the best in the world but the pace is incredible and I usually finish them in less than a day.  I was really looking forward to her latest, Restaurant Babylon, but when I got it from the library I was unexpectedly disappointed… I don’t know if she’s getting bored with the format she’s created or whether I wasn’t in the right frame of mind when reading it, but it was a 6 out of 10 at best for me, whereas the three I’d read by her previously were solid 8 or 9 out of 10.

When I saw Sous Chef on Netgalley, I hoped it would be what Restaurant Babylon was not, and for the most part it was.

I didn’t realise when I started reading Sous Chef that it was written in the second person… which I would have known had I read the Goodreads description properly.  Oops.  I’ve never really got to grips with second person narrative as I find it places an unnecessary distance between the writer and the subject, but this form of story-telling really, really worked with Sous Chef.  I’m not sure if it was because a lot of the book took place in the tumult of the kitchen, or the anti-social hours of both early morning and late night, but it almost added a dreaminess to the writing, as though Gibney himself was distanced from it and recounting it hypnotically.  It drew me in and took away almost all of my prejudices towards second person narrative.

The book takes place over 24 hours and follows Gibney through a day in the life of the restaurant in which he works, from walking in early on a Friday morning to stumbling in, late, dishevelled and hungover for the start of the Saturday brunch shift the next morning.  He makes clear in the prologue that the events of the day have been compacted from actual events that may have taken place over a longer period of time than depicted, which is a pretty standard practice with this sort of memoir so far as I can see.

The intensity of the work is almost humbling, and the frenetic pace during the evening service means I sped through the pages describing this – whenever anything went wrong, I started to worry as to how the service would get back on track (Raffy leaving service halfway through after throwing up in a bin comes to mind), but the amazing teamwork in any restaurant worth its salt means all make it through pretty much unscathed… and ready to do it all again the next day.

I will admit to skimming over the more technical details of what kitchen knife is used for what and the layout of the kitchen, only stopping to get a broad sense of what was in relation to where.  As people who know me will agree, my only interest in food is how quickly I can prepare it, and by no stretch of the imagination am I a gourmand.

I came away from this book with a real feeling of respect towards everyone who works in the restaurant business and can give so much of themselves day after day while retaining a sense of humour!  Although Gibney has a girlfriend, Vera, he only sees her for about ten minutes (she works as a server in a restaurant not far away from his), she’s asleep by the time he leaves the kitchen, and unless I’ve missed anything he doesn’t mention family or friends outside of the restaurant at all.  It’s a completely alien way of life to me, but one I feel I understand a lot more after reading this book, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to find out more about the life of chefs and be entertained along the way.

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