Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Book Review: Cooking Dirty

Jason Sheehan or wannabe Anthony Bourdain? Award-winning culinary writer Jason Sheehan has finally released a memoir of his past experiences working in a very low-end restaurant after years of toil. Within the pages of Cooking Dirty, Sheehan describes the hardships of working in stressful, fast-paced environments.  Starting in restaurants as a dishwasher at age 15 and eventually becoming executive chef, followed by restaurant critic and food writer, Sheenan is quite the accomplished man.   That also applies to working 16 hour days, doing a never ending stream of drugs that pass before him, smoking upwards of three packs a day and being constantly drunk.


Sheehan describes this life as what happens in run-of-the-mill restaurants. From past experience, I can tell you that although some of this happens, not everyone partakes. It makes me think that Sheehan is even more desperately trying to recreate Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in his own words, or the TV contracts and million or so dollars every year.  

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbellly was one of the first tastefully written kitchen memoirs to describe what kitchens are really like. Bourdain went to Vassar College for journalism, has written additional novels and knows how to craft a hook to keep the reader engaged. Boudain describes what happened before the glamour the Food Network portrays, but Sheehan has taken it a bit overboard -- exaggerating, to some extent -- the drinking and cigarette smoking ex-cons working in today's restaurants.

Not only does he exaggerate, but he insists on repeating it over and over again in the book.  It becomes very boring after the first few chapters, at least to a professional. Sheehan makes it seem that all one can get from life as a chef is getting one's ass kicked night after night (true), drinking extraordinary amounts of alcohol, doing an assortment of pill cocktails, an occasional line of coke, smoking whatever comes your way, and being the FNG (f---ing new guy).

No real stories about food in this book exist independently of the aforementioned items. Besides, Sheehan constantly mentions that his love for food and the kitchen is what brings him back. It could be more like the perfect place for Sheehan's addiction for alcohol and drugs is the kitchen at work, and he gets paid for it.

Also, in today's kitchens, what happens in the past tends to stay in the past. Kitchens today are still busy and stressful, and getting slammed daily is a part of kitchen life. Drugs aren't exactly acceptable, food being discussion material, and drinks are only for after work (although many nights a week). Cooking is about the thrill of food, not the extracurricular activities associated with kitchen life. Cooking, though still genuinely blue collar, has also gained a little more professionalism in recent years. Instead of wannabe punk rock burnouts, people who are serious about food and cooking make up most of today's and tomorrow's future cooks.

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