The Hungry Reader: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris

19 Jan

Given my love of all things culinary and gastronomic, friends and acquaintances frequently ask if will ever open a restaurant. The idea in theory is appealing; I love to cook for people, and I’d get to feed many different customers each night. I could have a menu full of my favourite dishes, and serve them in an atmosphere I preferred, somewhere unpretentious but which would still make diners feel special.

But while this daydream is pleasant, the reality of restaurant cooking is very far away from what I do at home. For one of the best perspectives on the difference between these two worlds, I strongly recommend reading Lauren Shockey’s Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. After graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Shockey did stages (the culinary version of unpaid internships) at four different restaurants around the world.

On her journey through the restaurant world, she describes the combination of frantic haste and monotonous tasks that are the lot of stagiares, and also contemplates the importance of techniques and ingredients. From staging at molecular gastronomy temple wd-50 in New York, where technique is everything, she goes to a restaurant in Hanoi where the impetus is on using the best of Vietnamese produce.

A restaurant kitchen also tends to be a high-testosterone environment, so she also examines women’s status in the kitchen. It seems to me that the ethos of the kitchen in regards to anything unpleasant is to suck it up and get on with things, but I’m not sure I could maintain as stiff an upper lip as she does when one of her French supervisors makes sexually suggestive comments.

Outside of the kitchen, I salivated over her stories of eating street food in Vietnam and cooking for the High Holy Days in Tel Aviv. She includes many recipes from her experiences, and while I don’t think I will be making any attempt at molecular gastronomy anytime soon, I liked the look of her Vietnamese and Israeli-influenced recipes. There’s a sweet potato soup with feta and za’atar that has my name on it!

Shockey concludes the book with her decision to leave restaurant cooking behind and savour the joys of making food at home. With her descriptions of the intensity, boredom, and warped social life of a restaurant chef, I don’t blame her one bit. After reading, I appreciated the toughness of restaurant life more than I had before, and I think I will relish cooking for my friends in my little flat kitchen that much more.

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2 Responses to “The Hungry Reader: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris

  1. Tom January 19, 2012 at 8:45 PM #

    Sounds good but what’s a za’atar?

  2. Alana January 20, 2012 at 9:05 AM #

    It’s a Middle Eastern spice mix – very tasty!

    I agree with your sentiments here Sarah, cooking is great fun but somehow running a busy restaurant would take the fun out of it. If I had to sell food for a living I’d probably want a bakery, or a cafe full of cakes and buns and ice cream! (mmmm). And tea. Lots of tea.

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