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.

Story of a Girl – Sara Zarr

Date read: 22nd August 2013
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 192 pages
Format: Paperback
Source: Library

Tommy leaned on the cash register and watched me. “You’re not even going to say hi to me, Dee Dee?”

His voice shot through me. It’s amazing, the things your body will do just when you don’t want them to: heart speeding up, fingers aching. I’d always liked his voice, low and laid-back, the kind of voice that made you listen, a voice that still caused me to teeter when I heard it saying my old nickname.

2013 is most definitely destined to go down in my personal history as ‘The Year Hannah Rediscovered The Library’.

It sounds stupid, really. Many of my happiest childhood memories revolve around my grandma taking me to the library, back in the days when you could only take out six books at a time. My library card had a light pink strip at the top, my grandma and grandad’s cards had a custard-yellow strip, and the library had an amazing smell (which is still has today, FYI, despite its recent renovations) of books and amazingness.

But then, when I was about 14, I forgot to take books back, and let my membership lapse, until I was in my mid-twenties, desperately saving to escape and travel the world, and yet unwilling to let the pleasures of new books disappear. So, I re-registered at the library and made full use of it until I left.

In the years between then and now I’ve borrowed a few books, but it wasn’t until my Amazon wish-list suddenly became out of control that a lightbulb went off above my head, and I suddenly decided that I should search the library database to see if I could reserve some of the books on my list to save me money.

The library service in my county is linked to four others, which covers most of the south-west of England = much potential.

Hence, my reading Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr.

I’ve read Sweethearts by the same author before, and was left heartbroken and yet slightly uplifted by the ambiguous ending. Her writing isn’t flowery or overly-descriptive – but yet Zarr leaves you with a very definite feeling of unsettling doom, of times of change, and of the lack of hope that Deanna feels, especially when her long-cherished plans fall apart and she can’t see any way out of the no-hope town – or, for that matter, situation – that she’s in.

The basic premise is that she was caught by her father fooling around with her brother’s friend in the back of a car. She was 13 and the guy – Tommy – was 17. Since then, she’s never been allowed to forget it, either by her father, whom she adored, or her fellow schoolmates. But over the course of the summer between her sophomore and junior year, she takes a job at a dead-end pizza restaurant, where Tommy happens to work.

I love how other themes invade the book slowly yet surely – whether Deanna loves her best friend Jason enough to displace her newer friend – and Jason’s girlfriend – Lee. Whether her brother Darren and sister-in-law Stacy can cope with being new parents in a far from ideal situation. Whether Deanna’s father can forgive her for what happened so long ago and pull himself out of his depression.

Nothing is wrapped up neatly at the end – it feels as though we’ve left all the characters right at the start of their new beginning, but there’s no promise of happily ever after. And that’s so refreshing to find, even though I was wishing and hoping for it – life doesn’t suddenly provide resolutions to everything difficult all at once, we have to work for it, and hope that things fit into place one by one.

I’m really looking forward to reading The Lucy Variations once I can get hold of a copy – here’s hoping the library gets one soon…

Rating: 8/10