Monday, October 10, 2011

Four Kitchens: My Life Behind The Burner In New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris by Lauren Shockey

Four Kitchens: My Life Behind The Burner In New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris by Lauren Shockey
352 pages
Published July 2011 by Grand Central Publishing
Source: the publisher

When she graduated from college with a perfectly serviceable four-year degree, Lauren Shockey discovered with a start that she really had no passion for working a nine-to-five job in a corporate environment. Instead, she told her parents, she wanted to go to culinary school. Not surprisingly, her parents encouraged her to get a job. But sitting in a office day after day only convinced Shockey that she needed to pursue her passion so off to culinary school she went. Upon leaving culinary school, Shockey knew that her education wasn't complete; she needed a job in a real kitchen so pursued a job as a stagiaire (STAH-zjee-air). A stage is "an apprenticeship offering hands on experience and familiarity with new techniques and cuisines." Shockey did her first stage in a small restaurant in France but quickly realized that it was not going to give her what she needed so she determined that she would spend the next year working in four different kitchens, in four different countries.

First stop, wd-50 in New York, owned by Wylie Dufresne who some of you may know from his guest judging appearances on Top Chef on Bravo. Dufresne is one of the masters of molecular gastronomy, a type of cooking which puts a lot of emphasis on technique, science and innovation. Day one, Shockey learned that she had not learned anything she needed to know about working in a restaurant while she was in culinary school and it was an uphill climb to earn respect from the nearly all-male staff. Next stop, La Verticale in Hanoi, Vietnam. Here the emphasis was entirely on flavor. Then is was on to Carmella Bistro in Tel Aviv, Israel. Shockey learned about foods that had been developed over centuries by pulling together foods from all of the cultures that have touched the region.Finally, Shockey found herself working Senderens in Paris, a Michelin 3-star restaurant, firmly rooted in the traditional foods of France.

If you were to look at the Barnes and Noble page for this book, you'd find lots of reviews highly recommending  it, including Kirkus Reviews where I have frequently read reviews bashing books I've loved.  Once again, Kirkus and I disagree. Shockey's journey made for a terrific idea for a book, and I appreciated that she included not just her experiences in each kitchen, but her experiences in each city/country as well. But in both the professional and personal aspects, I felt that she often went into much too much detail and was frequently repetitive. I lost track of the number of times, for example, that she talked about prepping crab in Paris and I believe I might be able to prep some of the food at wd-50 since I have detailed instruction on how certain foodstuffs must be cut. Considering that Shockey was going to be visiting four different kitchens, I was disappointed that she spent over 90 pages devoted to New York and wd-50. By the time that section was finally done, I was almost ready to abandon the book. I get it, I get it - working in a restaurant kitchen in New York is hard work and long hours for little if any pay, the climate can often be hostile, and at wd-50 there is a ridiculous amount of time and effort spent on things that may never be apparent to anyone not on the staff.

To be fair, I don't entirely blame Shockey. I think a much more vigorous editing would have helped tremendously. I didn't need to know the names of everyone she met along the way or the details of many of her evenings overseas but I very much enjoyed her explorations of cultures other than her own. I certainly had no idea how dull much of the work in a professional kitchen can be, nor that it remains a male-centric environment, nor that much of the staff works for nothing. I found it interesting to learn about the different mind-sets of the employees in the different countries as well, the different kinds of ingredients that other countries use in their cooking and the amount of work that goes into every dish on most menus. I was happy to see that, in the end, Shockey found that the most passionate chefs are those who are cooking in their own homes for people that they care about.

If you're willing to make special trips to grocery stores you don't usually frequent (or maybe you do), there are a lot of very interesting recipes in the book. Shockey has modified a lot of the recipes she worked with in the restaurants to fit the kind of cooking most of us do and the type of equipment most of us have. Most of them, I will warn you, are the kinds of recipes you'll save for the weekends or special occasions when cooking a meal is a day long event.

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