I have just finished reading a book called Four Kitchens. In it, chef/author Lauren Shockey describes her experiences over the course of one year in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv and Paris, cooking in restaurants. Having completed a course at the French Culinary Institute in her home-town of New York she decides to apply for various kitchen positions around the works as a ‘stagiaire’, or (generally unpaid) apprentice.
The first ‘stage’ is at wd–50, the much-lauded molecular gastronomy restaurant of chef Wylie Dufresne where – despite my inability throughout the book to warm to her – she earns my approval by concluding that the type of experimental cuisine it goes in for is ‘a lot like a party trick: exciting the first time you see it, but far less mesmerising once the original novelty has worn off’. (I recently read someone describe molecular gastronomy as soulless – which hits the nail on the head.)
Next Lauren heads to Vietnam because she had fallen in love with its food in New York
and wants to learn how to make it; here she is taken on at a top French restaurant where she finds the experience much more laid- back and enjoyable. Then – given her Jewish ancestry – she ends up in Tel Aviv ‘because I figured it might nourish me, professionally and spiritually’. And finally she lands a place at the two-Michelin-starred establishment Senderens, where she is, along with the other 30-odd staff, required to wear a toque, where much of her time is spent cleaning and preparing vast quantities of crabs, and where she is subjected to mild sexual harassment in the male- dominated kitchen.
Lauren works incredibly hard – for no pay at all – but learns a great deal about cooking, and food, and restaurant life. What she mostly learns is that restaurant cooking is not for her. ‘Perhaps the greatest kitchen lesson I absorbed’, she says, ‘was that… at the end of the day I loved home cooking. If you’re working in a restaurant you never get to do it… I came to realise that although restaurant chefs might be in the business of hospitality, they don’t often get to see people enjoying the food they’ve prepared. They don’t get to linger over a pot of simmering stew, glass of wine in hand… Home cooking brings spontaneity and whimsy and the freedom to cook according to your own desires… I discovered what I loved: cooking for my friends and family and sharing the bounty of the table together.’
Cooking professionally can leach out the joy of the very act – as well as your love and passion for it. Shows like Master Chef may continue, nauseatingly, to be referred to as ‘phenomena’ and have apparently provided big boosts to enrolments at culinary institutes, but the reality is that there is vey little glamour in the industry – glamour and pleasure. It is monotonous and repetitive and stressful and exhausting; at a certain point the food you prepare ceases to be something edible but the mere material for your construction. There is rarely time to enjoy the sensuality of cooking – touch and smell and taste – when it’s all being swallowed up in the sweat and the steam and the tension and the noise of a frenzied workplace.
Of course there are, for many, enormous satisfactions to be had, not least the rush of adrenalin, the sense you are a player on a stage. But as Lauren Shockey and others have discovered, it is hard hard hard. I’m not sure why, but when I finished reading her book I thought about those cooks or producers who label their products ‘Made with love’ – I even read an article recently about a café where everything is ‘made with love’. I’m sorry, but this strikes me as disingenuous – as soon as you go commercial, it’s just about hard work, and a hell of a lot of monotonous repetition.
Four Kitchens – My Life Behind the Burner in NewYork, Hanoi, TelAviv, andParis –Lauren Shockey. Hachette.