The heart of Generation Chef is the story of Jonah Miller, who at age twenty-four attempts to fulfill a lifelong dream by opening the Basque restaurant Huertas in New York City, still the high-stakes center of the restaurant business for an ambitious young chef. Miller, a rising star who has been named to the 30-Under-30 list of both Forbes and Zagat, quits his job as a sous chef, creates a business plan, lines up investors, leases a space, hires a staff, and gets ready to put his reputation and his future on the line.
Journalist and food writer Karen Stabiner takes us inside Huertas’s roller-coaster first year, but also provides insight into the challenging world a young chef faces today—the intense financial pressures, the overcrowded field of aspiring cooks, and the impact of reviews and social media, which can dictate who survives.
I dived in hoping for a business-leaning chef book written by a journalist, and I enjoyed watching Jonah’s dream about his restaurant and work to get it off the ground. There was a lot of talk about location and start-up costs, but I was sure the narrative would turn to food once things got rolling.
It did, but only tangentially. The importance of keeping food costs down is discussed, as well as the benefit of fixed-price menus, raising the average ticket, and making “cocktails” when you can only serve wine and beer. But cooking itself isn’t celebrated. I had a hard time picturing any of the dishes, and knew more about their price than how they tasted. Food descriptions rarely go over one sentence:
The pintxo list led off with the gilda, named for Rita Hayworth’s character in the 1946 film Gilda, a skewered white anchovy curved around a manzanilla green olive at one end and a guindilla pepper at the other.
…that’s it. I was disappointed.
Everything is looked at through a business and career-focused lens. We learn about several cooks on the line – not what kind of food they like to make or why they became a chef, but how much debt cooking school put them in. How they anticipate moving up the brigade ladder. Where they’d like to be in five years. Exactly how much they make, and how and why raises and promotions are doled out. People become a collection of numbers.
The writing style didn’t agree with me, either. The whole book feels like a long newspaper article complete with quotes, reactions, and lots of figures. There were sections that went: ‘Person A was thinking this. Person B was thinking that. Person A was really worried about what person B was thinking. So they had a meeting. After discussing X and Y, they decided on Z. But then Q happened, so they decided to go back to the drawing board.’ It was a lot of narrative work for nothing.
I would have loved it if Stabiner pulled the story together around more cohesive themes. Instead of following a strict timeline the scope could have been widened out between major events, talking about how Jonah’s leadership style evolved over time, say, or consolidating young Alberto’s story into bigger blocks. That way there could be deep look at how Jonah’s ethos compares to and evolved from his previous jobs, and Alberto’s rise could be more effectively linked to that of his boss. While these themes are touched on they’re split up to avoid muddying the timeline, losing any insight that may have been there.
Also, Stabiner’s daughter worked at Huertas during the reporting that led to this book. The daughter was working front of house while Stabiner was observing the back so she claims no conflict of interest. I’m very glad it’s mentioned in the acknowledgements but find it sketchy at best, and even if there was no conflict it does deprive us of any server or bartender stories that may have added to the narrative.
If you’re interested in the money behind restaurants and the investing/business side of the industry you’ll find Generation Chef informative. But if you’re a foodie like me and prefer cooking in restaurant books you will be let down.
Thanks to Penguin and NetGalley for providing a review copy.
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