My thoughts: I spent many years working in restaurants, as a server and a bartender. I worked at chain restaurants and midscale local restaurants. Mr. Nomadreader and I met when we were both servers at Murphy's, a fabulous Atlanta neighborhood wine bar. Part of me still misses the restaurant life. I learned so much about food, wine, beer, and booze working in restaurants. I learned about cooking. I met fabulous people, both customers and my fellow workers. So while I'm always intrigued by books about the restaurant business, I've read enough clunkers to know I'm not the desired audience for books that shine a light on the business.
Sous Chef does shine a light on the restaurant business, particularly the kitchens, but it does so well. (Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential also does a good job, but I read it before I started this blog.) Gibney takes a very different approach than Bourdain, who wrote more of a memoir. Sous Chef is narrative nonfiction written in the second person, and this technique lets readers have a truly immersive experience. Gibney is both writing about himself and not writing about himself.
Although this book is culled from his years of experiences in very impressive restaurants, it's not a straight memoir. This book doesn't represent any actual 24-hour period. Instead, Gibney uses the clock as a storytelling device to give the reader insight into what life in a top restaurant, as a sous chef, is like, from Friday morning prep into Saturday morning brunch service. The cast of characters aren't necessarily based on individuals who worked with Gibney at a single restaurant, although their characteristics are familiar restaurant staples. The result of these narrative devices is a book that will be familiar to those of us who have worked in restaurants. It's also welcoming to those who don't. Gibney doesn't talk down to the reader. The narrative also flows beautifully (and quickly) through twenty-four hours. It doesn't get bogged down with the irrelevant details. Its emphasis is on the essence of the experience, and it succeeds.
Favorite passage: "Even though this decision defies all logic--you have to be back to work in five hours--it's an easy one to make. To wake up and go to work, come home and go to sleep, iterum et iterum, gets tedious quickly. In the interest of sanity, you need some downtime, some time alone to relax and unpack the day. When you never see the sun, you at least deserve some time with the moon."
The verdict: Gibney captures the essence and emotion of the restaurant industry beautifully. While many have written about their experience in restaurants, few are actual writers (Gibney has an MFA in nonfiction.) By not taking an actual twenty-four hours, or trying too hard to tell his personal story, Gibney has managed an ode to the restaurant industry. Its characters will be familiar to any who have worked in restaurants, even those not nearly as fancy as the ones on Gibney's resume.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 241 pages
Publication date: March 25, 2014
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