When Hell’s Kitchen first aired in 2005 I remember my mom complaining about Gordon Ramsay’s combative tone and frequent swearing. All I could respond with was, yeah, that sounds about right. I was about 5 years out of Culinary School and no longer working in hospitality at all, but what I saw on the episodes I’d seen reminded me a lot of Gil, the executive chef when I started at the Plantation, who had a favorite phrase of resigned disappointment (F— me sideways with a brick) and a hatred of being called Sir (which, in the South, takes a lot of effort to break that habit).
A professional kitchen is not just a bigger, busier version of dinnertime at home, it’s a well-oiled machine that relies on a handful of people juggling a lot of roles in too little space with too little time. It’s carefully orchestrated chaos. And Michael Gibney does an excellent job of describing 24 hours of that chaos, and the life and reasons behind it, in Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line.
Using second-person narrative (a la a Choose Your Own Adventure book), Gibney begins your day in his shoes, arriving at the NYC restaurant. Reading about the stillness of the kitchen in the morning reminded me of days I’d get to work around 10 am–the kitchen would be finished with breakfast service, the Chef would normally be in his office, if already there at all, and I’d have the space to myself to start my prep list for the day. Other days–big events or holidays–I’d walk in and there’d already be steam and bustle and you just had to jump right into it.
As Gibney gears up for service–in this case not an occupation but the time when the restaurant is actively serving guests–the tension of all those years ago came back to me. Honestly, I hated service. I was a pastry specialists for many reasons, but one of them is that I don’t like the constant frenetic pace of being on the line. The author does an amazing job of putting you there in the middle of the action, getting you into his head as he goes from working the pass (checking and grouping items for the Executive Chef to plate and send to the front of the house) to working the fist station because his cook goes down sick in the middle of a 300-cover night.
But it’s not a best or worst case scenario of a night in a restaurant kitchen–any of the instances recounted in Gibney’s 24 hours (which includes prep and service as well as getting off work in the wee hours, going to a bar with coworkers, and then getting up the next morning to work Brunch, hungover) could and do happen in countless restaurants on any given day. I’d witnessed scenarios like these and many more (and much worse) in my brief kitchen career (the fact that Gibney includes the pastry chef and baker as almost a footnote, with said professionals coming in only twice a week, is a good hint atÂ why I made the choice of a desk job to be able to pay my bills all those years ago).
If you’ve ever wondered what a day in the life of a chef is like, this is one of the better records I’ve come across. There’s no grandstanding, there’s also no sugar-coating. The cadence of the kitchen pulls you through each page of this relatively quick read. There’s even a little philosophizing that goes on–the benefit of a Friday night/Saturday morning reflection, not to mention the perogative of the reporting writer–that really sums up what working in food is all about (or needs to be, in my opinion, in order to survive it).
…every guest is a VIP. They all deserve to be looked after, cared for. We are here to cook for people.Â Alimentation:Â the provision of nourishment–this is what we do. And we continue doing it long into the night, not because we favor adversity, but because we know that in doing so we get the chance to create with our hands something that sustains people and brings them joy. …
The self isn’t even part of the equation. Cooking is altruism. It’s not about you. It never will be. It’s only about what you do for others. And that’s what hits me where I live. There is honor in it.
ReadingÂ Sous ChefÂ was a trip down memory lane, but not one that made me miss kitchen work in the least. It’s a hard life to choose “Ten years in this industry is like two dozen in another,” he writes, and looking at many of the chefs I knew I can see the ravages of that accelerated time. Yet there’s also the part that never leaves us: “No matter how much time you spend away from the kitchen…cooking will always keep calling you back.” I still love to cook for others, to see the enjoyment on their faces, but I’m very clear that I consider myself aÂ former chef, no longer a practicing hospitality professional, but chef still at heart.
Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the LineÂ was published by Random House Publishing Group-Ballantine on March 25. I was provided a digital copy for purpose of review.