Sunday, February 6, 2011

Review: Cooking Dirty: Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen, by Jason Sheehan (2010)

The problem with hiring mercenaries is this: As management, what you're looking for are guys who can do a tough, ugly job under bad conditions and survive long enough to make a difference. You hope for things like personal leadership, capability under fire, independence, guts. But when you get right down to it, what you're hiring are killers. People who like to kill other people. Staffing a kitchen is not a lot different.

Synopsis: Jason Sheehan was a lifer kitchen dude -- dishwasher, prep cook, expediter, chef -- until he went so crazy that even kitchens wouldn't have him. Then he became a restaurant reviewer.

I love back of the house stories. I really, really love them. Fiction, non-fiction, romance, all of them. That quote up there is true: people working in kitchens are mercenaries of a sort. They're very serious and they're usually very damaged and unhinged. What they aren't are experts at giving life advice. So.

What we have here is 225 pages of fantastic food service memoir and 75 pages where Sheehan attempts to give life advice. This is both good and bad. The food service memoir portion is fantastic: the rise and fall of so many kitchens in so many restaurants, the story of burning out after working too many 16-hour shifts night after night after night and all the substance abuse both those things entail.

As the fry cook narrator says in Lish McBride's Hold Me Closer, Necromancer, "I tried to take some pride where I could. If I was going to be a dropout loser, then I was going to be the best dropout loser." It's a sentiment Sheehan lived wholeheartedly and relives through his storytelling.

There's the Chinese restaurant-cum-gambling parlor in upstate New York; La Cite, the French start-up that ultimately falls to nepotism and linguistic ignorance; a succession of New Mexico diners where Sheehan learns the true meaning of Xmas and hits rock bottom. And all of them are glorious.

As is Sheehan's telling of the roundabout way in which he met, lost, re-met, dated, was threatened by and inspired to keep his wife, Laura. That alone--the story of a fuck-up drug addicted loser who pulls it together enough to woo a woman as equally damaged and driven as he is.

Try falling asleep next to an angry woman who, just a couple hours prior, threatened to stab you with a barbecue fork. That's like taking a nap in the polar-bear cage. While nine times out of ten you might be okay--the bears might just totally ignore you--that tenth time you're going to wake up, open your eyes, and see her there, hovering over you, nose close to your nose, and she's going to say something like, "Do you have any idea how easy it would've been for me to kill you just now?"

Now, here's the part that doesn't work: especially in the earlier parts of the book Sheehan has a tendency to wax philosophical and imparts the World According to Sheehan, and Learn Thou, From My Experiences and it never quite comes together. I'm fairly sure that what the world doesn't need is another random dude telling everyone how to live their lives based on his extensive record of losing jobs and moving back in with his parents.

Wait, wait -- I'm not saying that someone with those experiences doesn't have valuable insight to impart, I'm just saying that Sheehan didn't impart valuable insight so much as those sections sounded forced and uncomfortable. They're sections that lack a tenth of the passion Sheehan brings to the sections where he's talking about working the line or falling in love. They're out of place, as if Sheehan wrote this great memoir and then got back a little note from the editor, "Btw: advice it up a little! Just like Anthony Bourdain!"

But Sheehan's not like Bourdain, a fact he readily admits.

And here's the thing: the kitchen memoir world's big enough for both of them. Gasp, shock, horror, I know, but here me out. I love back-of-the-kitchen memoirs and this one's one of the best.

No comments:

Post a Comment