Book Review: Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

souschefSo you’re undoubtedly a good cook. Maybe even a good chef, but that means something different where you live than where I live and work(ed). Here in France, a Chef is a Chef, the top person in the kitchen. Everyone else is a cook. They may be a Sous-Chef, a Chef de Partie, a Chef Patissier. But they’re not a chef. And when the Chef’s on his day off and the Seconde – not usually called a Sous-Chef – isn’t called Chef. He’s called Christian or Jean-Pierre or whatever his name is. Only Chef gets to be called chef. You, you’re not Chef unless you’re THE Chef.
And there you also have the second problem. You’ve written this whole book in the second-person voice, and to you that sounds very strange. You do this and then you do that? No, no I don’t. You may have done, but I didn’t. I really don’t get this way of writing, it grates and grates like a large-hole Microplane against my mind’s eye every time I see it used. So, that’s why I give Sous Chef 4 stars instead of 5. I seriously thought about just 3, but there’s lots of good stuff to make up.
Because Michael Gibney has lots of interesting things to write, and just as gratingly as using You instead of I, he spends a lot of time NOT being self-effacing, which is what English people do. Even when he makes a mistake we understand he’s not really at fault and that, in fact, he’s really a hero. Ahem.
But both these things are American, and we forgive that young nation a lot of faults because they can bring so much to the party, not least energy. And Michael Gibney appears to have lots of that. Then again he’s young. I’ve never worked in big restaurants like he has in a big city, so I assume it’s different. But I don’t know of any chefs who work all day and then party all night before starting over again. Although like Gibney I’ve read Bourdain so I know it goes on. I just can’t do it.
Another difference with what I’m used to is the sheer number of staff working in American kitchens. Like when I watch Gordon Ramsay hollering at Americans in Kitchen Nightmares, I simply can’t get over how many staff it takes to cook something there. How do they manage to pay 10 people to cook 50 meals at silly low prices? It couldn’t be done here in France, that’s for sure. Here, I’ve worked in restaurants that did 80 – 100 covers per service with three, perhaps four staff. The most I’ve seen was in a restaurant that did banqueting too and we had 7 staff for 150-250 covers, no more than 80 of them a la carte. But in that 7 there was an apprentice and two part-time dishwashers. I’ve done all the prep AND the service for a 150-person banquet on my own. Gibney works in a restaurant where they have three people just to do the plating-up! I’ve turned out 80 covers of a similar gastronomic quality with JUST those three members of staff.
And talking of grating, I get that American restaurants are largely staffed by Spanish-speaking staff from central and south America. I understand that this means that a lot of Spanish is therefore spoken in those restaurant kitchens. What I don’t understand is why on Earth he’d imagine that all his readers are so conversant with Spanish that there’s no need to translate the regular half-pages filled with it for the benefit of those that aren’t conversant.
And also explain the French terms you use – and mis-use – as you go along. Sure, there’s a glossary but, especially when you’re reading on a Kindle, you’re not going to keep flipping back and forth. Also: Pretentious? Toi?
But as I say he writes lots of interesting things and I see a lot of familiar actions and occupations in what he writes. If you’re interested in seeing what goes on inside the kitchen, this is an interesting read and will tell you lots.


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