on June 28, 2009
If ever you've worked in a restaurant, you know Jason Sheehan. You probably didn't work with him, but you worked with any of the tens of thousands of chefs, cooks, and other assorted prep staff cut from a similar cloth: efficiently crass, utterly obnoxious and thoroughly proficient in the kitchen. One day they were your best friend, the next you were the butt of their jokes. You hated them, but somehow manage to think fondly of them all these years later.
I relived lost memories of a few short years working in the front of the restaurant as I devoured "Cooking Dirty." I'd always wanted to be one of the kitchen guys, with that nonchalant cool that comes from too many hours of chain smoking, heavy drinking, excessive heat, sleep deprivation, and rampant womanizing. This book was pure rebellious adventure, allowing me the chance to sneak back into the Clorox-tinged scents and bright lights of the restaurant, engage in a bit of chicanery, and then return home none the messier for it. It was culinary voyeurism. I got to be on the inside, if only for a brief time.
The stories are both engaging and entertaining. Sheehan's life goes through a tumult of highs and lows, and he seems better for it all. I'm disappointed at the expected yet misplaced references to Bourdain. I'm a fan of Anthony, but Jason Sheehan's work is at once more pure and grittier. This is a chef's chef, a man's man, and a storyteller of the highest grade. I look forward to future volumes, and hope that the life of celebrity chef doesn't dull Sheehan's obvious wit or his passion for the kitchen!
on July 6, 2009
By Bill Marsano. Before Jason Sheehan became a food writer for an alternative Denver paper called Westword, before he won a James beard award for his writing, before he finally managed to semi-settle down with Laura the Love of His Life, he was not what you would call a chef but what you would call a cook. Maybe even a MERE cook, the kind of guy you'll find in an inferno kitchen in Tampa, cooking for Early Birds. Let this be clear: Sheehan's rowdy, cheerfully profane story is not about becoming the sort of clean-apron, tall-toque star of a Food Network series but about starting at the blue-collar bottom and mostly staying there. So if you're a chef-worshiper, a doctrinaire foodie, a devotee of Food Arts magazine, maybe this book isn't for you.
He throws you right into the madness; It's Tampa, all right, and the Crab Shack's kitchen has a barely competent FNG ["F'ing New Guy"], is a man short because of a poorly timed murder) and soon is another man short when moronic foolery renders the owner unconscious. "As was only to be expected," Sheehan writes, "that was when the real dinner hit finally came tumbling in." The palce is packed and the staff goes crazy in a weirdly competent way: "Sturgis and I sang along with the radio, bouncing on our toes, burning energy while we had it and twirling tongs on our fingers like gunslingers before dropping them onto the steamer's bar handles. We shouted callbacks to Floyd with the strange, exaggerated politeness and house slang of the line: 'Firing tables fifty-five, thirty, sixty-eight, thank you. Going on eight filet. Four well, three middy, one rare. Working fourteen all day, hold six. Five strip up and down. Temps rare, rare, middy waiting on po fries, two well going baker, thank you. Wheel, new fires, please. We've got space.' We yelled at Roberto, at Floyd, at the radio and each other. We yelled at the runners . . . and when we weren't yelling, we were muttering, cursing, talking to the meat, the fire; begging and yelling and cajoling more heat out of the grills, bricking the steaks with iron weights, throwing them in the microwave to speed them along to temp, constantly poking and prodding and plating them to the rail, waiting for po--for starch--and veg and wrap . . . . Then the FNG passed out from the heat."
All is chaos. Little is understood and the rest barely seen; all you have is the hope that, like the FNG, you'll regain consciousness, catch on and catch up during this long wild ride. And in time you will as you follow Sheehan from one job (and confrontation and firing or walkout) to the next in several states with various pals; tune in as Laura gets (mysteriously) kicked out of Mexico; get the lowdown on hotel cooking (good for pay and benefits, but it crushes creativity) and stand amazed when Sheehan is hired as a corporate chef by Wegman's ("I would . . get looks like I was there to rob the place.").
All in all, this book is like a bacon sandwich: A delicious greasy pleasure. Dig in!--Bill Marsano is a James Beard Award-winning writer; he specializes in wine, spirits and travel. He served time as a waiter in his youth but was never invited into the kitchen to "play with knives and fire."
on June 28, 2009
My main, selfish worry about this book is that Jason Sheehan will now be able to break out of the drudgery of writing restaurant reviews for Denver-area diners. And, as worries go, that might not be a particularly far-fetched one, because Sheehan's debut as a solo, hardcover act is one that surely calls for encores.
In just a couple of decades, shelves have filled with bios and, more commonly, auto-bios of people who cook, people who style themselves as chefs, people who really ARE chefs, and people who are dedicated and even obsessed amateurs. The plot lines are pretty thin, especially when the writers or subjects haven't turned over many miles on their odometers. When you see Sheehan's boyish-looking photo on the dust jacket, you might think, "Well, here we go again, so why should I?"
Here's why. If this were a novel, it would excel at characterization, establishing a sense of (a number of) place(s), and quirky pacing that repeatedly raises the ante of "What next?" Sheehan delivers page after page of vivid, tough, sad, too-true-to-life episodes in the life of a young man who discovers that he can't not want to cook.
There's a deceptively casual tone because the verbal contortionism of "I'm a chef! And -- ooooh! -- I can WRITE, too" is completely absent. "Cooking Dirty" is full of self-awareness and yet it expresses little self-absorption: the opposite of how some tales in the same genre have been told.
I think Sheehan's is a story worth telling and he tells it well. Irony, cynicism and the requisite lashings of profanity are here, but never in quantity or tone sufficient to crush the story's essential hopefulness and joy of vocation. Five stars, for sure. Or in Michelin-speak, three.
on July 6, 2009
Food writer Jason Sheehan comes to us from the trenches. He served in active duty in 30 some restaurant kitchens. Not fancy places, most of them. Fish houses. Waffle joints. East Coast. Down south. Out west. He suffered the wounds from knives and burning ranges. He bled and he has earned the right to talk about it.
His insane journey through the hellfire of all those kitchens has sanctified the profanity of his message. He survived and he deserves a medal for doing so and living to tell the tale. He outlasted the violence, the drugs, the booze, and the anger. A scalding adventure, written with humor and gutty realism. Bravo!
on November 4, 2009
I just happened to see this book in a bookstore and picked it up. It's been a long time since I've bought a book purely based on browsing, and I was delighted that it turned out to be so excellent.
It has a lot of the braggadocio of Kitchen Confidential, and it would seem imitative, except the writing is so skilled. Hilarious turns of phrase, but also a lot of subtle and sincere insights. And the in-the-middle-of-the-Saturday-rush kitchen scenes are written with incredibly tight pacing--I felt exhausted just reading them. But they also made me want to get back in the heat too (I've worked in a few kitchens myself).
In response to another reviewer, I _love_ that these cooks (and Sheehan himself) are not famous chefs. It's really important for the gen pop to know what's going on in the kitchens of average restaurants--it's not glamorous at all, just some of the hardest blue-collar work available, with ridiculously low pay. And it's really an honorable profession, at every level.
As a bonus (for me), I love that Sheehan had an Albuquerque chapter of his life, as that's where I'm from. Too bad I wasn't living there when he was writing for the Alibi!
on January 8, 2010
I should probably preface this by admitting that I've spent a lot of years in the restaurant business - the the kitchen, behind the bar, as a (lousy, I admit it that, too) server, a floor manager, and in the office - so I know, pretty much, anyway, whereof I speak.
Those clean, friendly and happy folks we love to watch on the Food Network? Fiction. Those people are all Cinderella at the ball, and the Food Network assiduously avoids mentioning those years spent doing the grunt work for the Ugly Stepsisters. Sheehan, on the other hand, is the real deal. His behind-the-scenes look at restaurant kitchens is funny, painful, profane and honest. Everything about his experiences - from being screamed at in four languages simultaneously to the bone-deep pride these "psychopaths" take in their work - is all straight life.
That said, I found the second half of the book to be a little disappointing. I honestly wasn't that interested in his love life - if you've read or seen (or, God help us, lived) one chemical-fueled, immature, self-absorbed romance, you probably know the script for this one, and there aren't many surprises. I read it through, mostly due to momentum.
Because the first half was glorious. I'd heard a couple pages read on NPR's book review, and they rarely lead me astray. Got the book from the library and couldn't put it down. I toted the damned thing around the house with me, grabbing a page here and a paragraph there, because it was just so good. Despite the somewhat lame second half, this is a five star book, and should be required reading for anyone even thinking of going to culinary at the Art Institute.
on September 16, 2009
Who knew the life of a (at times) struggling, blue-collar chef could be so gritty, and so -- well, exciting? From the rollicking danger of working in the hottest kitchen imaginable (temperature-wise) in Tampa, Florida, to the behind-the-scenes antics happening after hours at a Chinese restaurant in upstate New York (I won't give a way the dirty, hilarious secret of *WHAT* actually went on there after hours - you'll have to read for yourself), this memoir is all at once laugh-out-loud funny (and it takes a LOT to get me to that point), sad, raw and touching.
And the excitement and chaos of the described anecdotes aside, Mr. Sheehan happens to be a really excellent writer; it is pure pleasure to read this book for that reason alone. Yes, there's profanity, but it's not superfluous. It is, quite literally, fully relevant to the stories being relayed.
I consider this memoir of a burgeoning chef to be somewhat a book in disguise. It's not really for foodies, not limited to enjoyment by those who have worked in kitchens or served as chefs -- although I'm sure that those who have worked in the restaurant industry would find that it resonates with them. But I never really did any of the above, and didn't enjoy the book any less as a result. It is ultimately the story of a young man coming to terms with his true passion and finding his calling and destiny through meaningful work. We should all be so lucky.
on July 11, 2009
I read the book in 24 hours. Once I got used to the cooks vernacular (language that would make a sailor blush), I felt as though I was with the author looking over his shoulder in every new kitchen, new city - I couldn't wait to see where we were going next. It's a roller coaster ride where the truth is stranger than fiction. A must read if 4 letter words don't phase you.
on August 2, 2010
I was a bit concerned when I first starting reading the book that this was going to be a lame attempt to one-up Anthony Bourdain, because the prose was so crass and boisterous in the beginning. However, when Sheehan got into more of his personal life in the middle of the narrative, things picked up and a new course was charted that didn't so much aim to "expose" the back of the house goings-on as it did to show the effects that a cook's career can have on their out-of-the-restaurant life. Kudos to Mr. Sheehan for coping with all the pain and anguish and coming out the other side a more or less normal guy.
on August 12, 2010
This book is very much a 'wannabe' version of the classic Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. Now, to be fair, Mr Sheehan acknowledges the influence that Bourdain has had on him but his attempt to capture the 'tell-all' grittiness of 'Kitchen Confidential' falls short of the mark.
The problem, I would say, is that Mr Sheehan is simply too young and lacking in life experience in general, and cooking experience in particular, to be able to match Bourdain's work. His life is, one might say, still too much of a 'work in progress' as yet, and thus it is a bit premature of him to be capitalizing on his autobiography. If I might use a military metaphor, Anthony Bourdain is a highly seasoned veteran with a long history 'in the trenches'. Mr Sheehan, in contrast, is like a young soldier who completed basic training but was invalided out of the service before actually seeing combat. Bourdain, one feels, has wrestled his demons and survived to be able to reflect on his past with a maturity born of experience while Sheehan seems yet to have found himself.
Having said all that, I found the book entertaining. Sheehan writes well and I expect that with some seasoning, he will be worth reading in the future.