Generation Chef by Karen Stabiner

Synopsis:

29496568The 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.

Review:

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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18142414  Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Synopsis:

18934820It begins with a simple ritual: Every Saturday afternoon, a boy who loves to cook walks to his grandmother’s house and helps her prepare a roast chicken for dinner. The grandmother is Swedish, a retired domestic. The boy is Ethiopian and adopted, and he will grow up to become the world-renowned chef Marcus Samuelsson. This book is his love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four. But Samuelsson’s career of chasing flavors had only just begun—in the intervening years, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden, living in America, can feel at home.

Review:

Before reading this book I had never heard of Samuelsson, as his rise and career in front of the camera came after I moved halfway across the world. I’m glad that I now know who he is but I feel oddly disconnected from him as a cook… not what I was expecting from a food memoir.

Continue reading “Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson”

Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Synopsis:

18142414The 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.

Review:

An engrossing look at what life is like for a sous chef at a three star restaurant and a must read for any foodie. Throw out any preconceptions you have of a second person narrative, as it works great here. The pacing is tight and I took an extra long bath just to read through service – “I’m in the weeds! The fluke is ruined! How will I get out of this one?!” I may have also watched a random ep of Hell’s Kitchen to help me get in the mood, bwahaha.

And oh, the food porn. Watch Chef plate a dish:

Finally there is the monkfish – a stupendous picture. It starts with a gob of carrot puree, dragged across the plate with the bottom side of a small offset spatula. The result is a cadmium orange swatch that looks more like oil paint than food. After that come the lentils, which he arranges in patches like shiny black moss on a forest floor. Then, with a pair of forceps, the endive goes down, its sharp cowlick of leaves saluting the sky. And then, finally, comes the fish. He cuts the shaft into four identical coins and shingles them down the center of the plate. As he does this, you notice that inside the roulade the foie gras has gone molten, which means you’ve cooked it perfectly.

~drool~

I liked that Gibney explains a lot but not everything; there’s a glossary of cooking terms in the back for that. Some reviewers don’t like the untranslated Spanish, but this is a kitchen in New York City. Of course there’s Spanish. The context tells you what’s going on anyway, and sometimes you get an ad hoc translation in the next paragraph. My view is probably skewed because I live in my second language and am used to sussing things out but really, suck it up.

An entertaining read that I can see myself picking up again when I want to head back to the kitchen.