I don’t write about it much on this blog, but I love food. I love cooking, I love reading cookbooks, and I love the occasional meal at a really nice restaurant. I’m also a big fan of Bravo’s reality show Top Chef, which gives an interesting (though, of course, somewhat skewed) view of what life is like for a professional chef.
Suffering from Top Chef withdrawal, I recently read two memoirs about the restaurant industry. Sound interesting? Reviews after the cut!
Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, by Phoebe Damrosch
Phoebe Damrosch is a former service captain at Thomas Keller’s New York restaurant Per Se, one of the most acclaimed restaurants currently open in the United States. Damrosch was on hand for the restaurant’s opening, and saw firsthand the strategy that went into developing and marketing this ultra-high-end food mecca. Damrosch’s view of the inner life at Per Se, and her anecdotes about memorable customers, are insanely entertaining. I particularly enjoyed Damrosch’s account of the visits from the New York Times food critic Frank Bruni.
The problem with the book is that the Per Se stories are intertwined with the tale of Damrosch’s romance with Andre, a sommelier at Per Se. The subtitle of the book should probably have been “Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter Who Makes Terrible Choices About Her Love Life.” Now, let me be the first to admit that I can totally see the appeal of a down-to-earth sommelier who gives his left-handed love interest a left-handed corkscrew. But Andre the charming sommelier also has some issues with monogamy. It’s a bit painful to watch Damrosch trying to rationalize and justify her boyfriend’s behavior — he can’t help the effect he has on women, she was too jealous and insecure, it’s really her fault for catching him. Perhaps Damrosch feels she can’t complain because her own relationship with Andre began while he was still dating his longtime girlfriend, another Per Se employee. On that front, I admire Damrosch for being honest about how their relationship started, but her dismissive treatment of Andre’s ex felt uncomfortably mean-spirited.
I enjoyed the parts of the book that were actually set in the restaurant, but the parts about Damrosch’s romance with Andre were frustrating to read because Damrosch’s rose-colored view of their relationship seemed so clueless. Worth a read if you find it at the local library, but I advise skimming the Andre parts of the book.
This account of how a former publishing marketer quit her job and followed her passion for cooking into a job as a pastry chef is fascinating, absorbing, and at times even exhausting by proxy. Jurgensen has held a number of interesting jobs in restaurants, worked briefly in catering, and was also a freelancer for Martha Stewart’s television show. Her crisp, efficient prose brings the rhythms of a cook’s workday and career path to life.
Jurgensen is never self-pitying, and it’s obvious that she finds her work incredibly fulfilling, but it’s also clear that this isn’t an easy career. Strange hours, frequent burns and cuts, poor pay, and the fickleness of the restaurant industry all combine to make sure only the truly passionate survive. My heart broke along with hers when she described the demise of a restaurant she’d helped to open, one that went from the hottest table in town to yesterday’s news. If you’re looking for a true insider’s view of what goes on in a restaurant kitchen, this is the book for you.
I was also stunned by Jurgensen’s description of the teenage-boy culture of some of the kitchens where she’s worked — it makes XBox Live chats look tame in comparison. The world of restaurant cooking is so male-dominated that the petite Jurgensen can’t even order chef’s coats that fit her because they’re all made for men. Anyone who claims that there’s no sexism in cooking should read this book. (This is an issue that comes up occasionally on Top Chef, and the male chefs seem to be pretty clueless about it.)
My one complaint is that at the end of the book, I felt that I knew a lot more about what it’s like to work in the restaurant world, but surprisingly little about Jurgensen herself. Jurgensen is matter-of-fact about the after-hours partying at restaurants, her romantic relationships with waiters and fellow chefs, her occasional cases of burnout, and the varying degrees of sexism pervading the kitchens where she’s worked, but she generally avoids discussing the personal or emotional toll any of this might have taken. She holds the reader at arm’s length, and while I respect her choice to maintain a certain distance (she is, after all, still working in the restaurant industry, and probably doesn’t want to be seen as a whiner), I found myself wishing I’d gotten to know her better.
Next on my list: Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain, whose stints as a guest judge on Top Chef are sorely missed.