“Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line,” by Michael Gibney has the answers for anyone who has ever wondered what it’s like to work in the kitchen of a top Manhattan restaurant.
Gibney, who was executive sous chef at Tavern on the Green, knows what he is talking about. Using the second person voice, Gibney's memoir -- which began as a Columbia University School of the Arts MFA thesis -- spares no details in the grueling day of a major restaurant’s kitchen.
Timing is all in the professional kitchen, which must run with clockwork precision. As Gibney would have it, the life of a successful cook is one of artistic creativity and flair, devoted service to a demanding public, and demanding physical labor. With “Sous Chef,” Gibney intends to:
. . .provide a genuine impression of the industry, to throw its nuances into sharper relief, so that when you, the aspiring cook or the master chef, the regular diner or the enthusiastic voyeur, wish to reflect on the craft of cooking, you can do so from a slightly more mindful perspective.
On this day, much is made of the choices for the day’s specials. Diners beware:
. . .you need to decide how to endow your premeal note with some degree of panache. Servers are osmotic. The excitement you put into your presentation will drift into their presentations, which will in turn excite the diners and increase the likelihood that they will order one of the specials. Not only are specials a way to make money on in-house products that might otherwise . . .eventually become garbage but they are also a way to develop new menu ideas.
Where Gibney is at his best is in describing the rhythm of the kitchen. Not only does each individual cook need to develop a rhythm “that promotes maximum productivity,” but also all the various cooks need to work in sync, in a culinary choreography of split-second precision.
You begin to move like a machine, without even having to think about it. And the less you have to think about it, the more brain space you have to look into the future... anticipating your next move and the one after that, so when a task is done, you don’t waste time trying to figure out what follows. You move seamlessly between activities. . .
Today your rhythm has been brilliant; you’ve been a paragon of efficiency.
It’s a tough day and it’s a long day for Gibney. The restaurant's head chef has devised a fiendish specials menu. One of the line cooks is so hung-over he has to leave. The restaurant is not only filled to capacity, but an important critic is in the house. Somehow, Gibney gets the job done, finally joining his colleagues for early morning drinks – and booze-inspired reflection -- at a bar that’s a favorite with cooks. And at the end of this long day, as he sees it, cooking is an honorable profession.
“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. . .There is honor in it.”
Fans of Anthony Bourdain’s "Kitchen Confidential" or Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Bood, Bones & Butter” will lap up “Sous Chef,” savoring every bit of Gibney’s descriptive account of a day in the life of a restaurant, a kitchen, and a cook.
“Sous Chef” is available at amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.