One of the best moments in Michael Gibney’s debut work, “Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line,” is when the nicotine-addicted, confident/arrogant narrator burns his nuts. Fifteen minutes before dinner service at the unidentified West Village “Modern American eatery”, he sneaks out for a few puffs and is busted by the executive chef (who rightly believes chefs shouldn’t ruin their palates with the habit) only moments before the acrid smell of burning filberts poisons the kitchen.
“All right, so you’ve left the samples out, you’ve gotten caught smoking a cigarette, and now you’ve destroyed thirty dollars’ worth of nuts and broken a hundred-fifty-dollar pan. Bad start”.
It’s a nice move on Gibney’s part, coming as it does one third of the way into the book and signaling the beginning of the second act. Up until then, the nameless sous chef’s knowledge and competence in his craft veers perilously close to swagger and you begin to wonder how you can go another 140 pages without slapping that cig out of his mouth. Now, the ambitious young sous chef must prove himself during the next eight, grueling hours, not only to his Chef, but to the reader. OK, OK, I won’t keep you in suspense. Yes, he manages to slip out for another smoke.
Gibney, who began working in restaurants at age 16, assumed the sous chef role at 22 and took a break to get an MFA in nonfiction at Columbia and write this book, joins a number of chefs-turned-author (and one author-turned-chef) whose works take the readers into the kitchens of high end restaurants where the heat, the smells, the dysfunctional personalities, the drugs, the disasters and the occasional dash of culinary genius must all be magically combined in order to send out a single plate to the floor. It’s shocking anything palatable is ever produced from this chaos, let alone awarded stars for excellence. Our fascination with this world of alchemy and egos is endless . . . which, of course, accounts for the existence of the Food Network.
Tony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” should be credited with starting this modern sub-genre of cook lit, though to my mind it reached its zenith when the New Yorker’s Bill Buford tied on an apron in “Heat” and worked the line at one of Batali’s joints. Gibney’s “Sous Chef” falls somewhere in between the two. The insider perspective and the undeniable passion for fine cooking are reminiscent of Bourdain (the profligate cocaine use is here replaced by nicotine which made me wonder if cigarettes became a romanticized, illicit 21st century drug when I wasn’t looking), but the attempt to put the sous chef in the sometimes uncomfortable clogs of the line cook is definitely more in the Buford camp.
However, the means by which Gibney tries to transport us there are questionable. He employs second person narrative to achieve that ‘you-are-there’ feeling. Personally, I’ve never felt second person worked in narratives over a couple thousand words. There’s a reason for that. It’s annoying.
Both “Kitchen Confidential” and “Heat” are first person memoirs. In the former, Bourdain draws the curtain back on the window to his world, but isn’t interested in the reader joining in. Buford manages the more difficult feat of fashioning a book which is both experiential and a paradigm of great reporting. There’s no question that Gibney is both a gifted observer and supremely knowledgeable about his craft and the inner workings of a professional kitchen. However, the use of a second person narrative eventually works against his goal of putting us on the line. 99.8% of us aren’t professional chefs so the “you” of Gibney’s narrative feels misdirected. “Heat” was successful because, like his readers, the narrative was affable, hapless, and clueless.
Gibney joins a number of chefs-turned-author whose works take the readers into the kitchens of high end restaurants.
Gibney succeeds when he desists trying to make the reader identify with a twentysomething restaurant hipster whose hot, waitress girlfriend conveniently goes to bed early whenever he wants to go out and get drunk with his colleagues. In the passages where he leads the reader through details of food preparation and the intricacies of service and the byzantine relationships between kitchen and wait staff, the book is both fascinating and fun. “Sous Chef” is a satisfying read where Gibney leaves the reader alone and sticks to what he knows.