Sous Chef


If you love the Food Network and fine writing, you are in for a great treat!  Michael Gibney, a sous chef (a restaurant’s second in command) since the age of 22 and an executive sous chef in many restaurants since then, has written a tour de force: a beautiful book about the behind the scenes work and relationships in a fine dining restaurant. Reviewers who know much more than I do about cooking have raved about its accomplished portrayal of one day in the life busy and talented chef.  I enjoyed that description immensely.  But I loved the writing even more.

As soon as I heard about this book, I put it “on hold” at the library and waited excitedly for the e-mail saying it was waiting for me.  That alone is a delicious experience: reading about new books, shopping for them by computer, ordering them , and then devouring them when I finally get to read them – sometimes months later if the book is popular.

As I waited for the book to be available, I wondered why I was am so interested in Food Network, and this book, since I am a very picky eater and don’t  like experimenting with food. I wouldn’t even try most of the dishes talked about on the food shows or in this book. I think it is because chefs are so passionate about what they do, so eager to share what they know, and so thrilled when the fruit of their work is enjoyed.  They love their work and want everyone else to love it, too.

But . . . back to the book.  It was even better than the reviews and radio interviews suggested because it is such fine writing.  This book makes the world of a professional kitchen roar to life.  Gibney talks about processes and organization and the way a kitchen is organized and how to cook certain foods and it’s almost as if you are watching in real time. The first page is a blue print of the stations of a kitchen and a flow chart of the kitchen chain of command and the last pages are an extensive and easily understood dictionary of kitchen terminology.  I was amazed at how many of those foreign words I knew from watching Iron Chef and Beating Bobby Flay and the myriad of shows hosted by chefs who are teaching us how to cook, but I am certainly more educated now.

Here’s a quote from a time during the day when the kitchen is in trouble, too many orders in too short a time. No time to think.  You have to kick it into gear.  (If you have watched Restaurant Impossible or Kitchen Nightmares, you know exactly what this looks like.) The whole kitchen staff has to go on auto pilot to get the food out:

“Finish one fish, move to the next.  Start with a hot pan; start with hot oil.  If it’s not hot, wait.  Don’t start early; it’ll stick. Check the oven instead.  There’s something in there. It needs to be flipped.  Out it comes.  In goes the butter Let it bubble. Crush the garlic.  Arrosez.  Flip.  Arrosez [baste][ again.  Put a new pan down.  Season the bass.  Always from a height.  The bass goes in.  A monk looks done.  Give it the cake tester.  It’s barely warm. Another minute.  To the pass with it.  Three chars go down.  Their skins souffle’.  Press them to the heat. Hear the crackle.  A pan is too hot.  The oil smells scorched.  Start again. Burner at full tilt. Now for the mussels.  They jump in the oil. Aromas flourish.  Here is a branzino.  First of the night.  Score its skin.  Into the Griswold [cast iron pan].  Its  eyeball pops. Flip it over.  Into the oven. . . . Your legs are tired.  Tickets blur.  Chef needs more. “Next  up . . .” Cooks moan.  Fat splutters. Timers chime. Food goes. . . .”

Don’t you just love the pace of the writing!  My adrenalin kicks  just writing about the words.  But Gibney is just as talented writing about why he cooks as how he cooks:

“You always want things to be soigne’ [elegantly done; perfect].  . . . Every guest is a VIP.  They all deserve to be looked after, cared for.  We are here to cook for people.  Alimentation: 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.  And because we know that in all the details, all the minutiae, all the intricate flourishes, difficult and tedious as they often are, can be seen the sincerity of what we do.,  And even though our days are hard and congested and misaligned, we know that through persistent focus and discipline and effort and care, we have the continual opportunity to do something genuine.”

And now I know why I love the book!  Because it is passionate!  And passion is something with which I am intimately acquainted.  I am passionate about helping people grow in their walk with Jesus.  Days in this life can be hard and require focus and discipline and effort and care as well, but we, too, have the opportunity to do something genuine. In fact, nurturing faith, whether our own or that of others, is the most  authentic act of all.  We  follow a Master who, like a master chef, models a life to which we aspire.  We are like sous chefs, learning from the best, not yet measuring up, yet still ready to forge ahead,  loving the joy in the midst of the turmoil.  We, too, love our “work,” and want everyone else to love it too.

In the end, Sous Chef is a book about passion.  And passion based on love, not hate, is something this world desperately needs.


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