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Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen Hardcover – June 23, 2009

4.1 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Sheehan, a James Beard award–winning food writer at Westword, Denver's alternative weekly newspaper, knows the tradition he's working in: he walked up to the editor at one of his first writing gigs and introduced himself as your Anthony Bourdain motherfucker. Before that, he'd spent years bouncing around from one restaurant kitchen to the next—first in upstate New York, then in a disastrous move to Florida, and back to New York before heading out west to reunite with the woman he met during his failed one year of college. Sheehan's memoir is emphatically not about the glam end of cooking or celebrity chefs, but about a straight blue-collar gig, where the kitchens are staffed by the kind of guys who get off on the fact that the work is insanely grueling. As Sheehan puts it, I was being paid to play with knives and fire. The war stories are as profane and outrageous as you'd expect, and Sheehan finds just the right balance between bravado and humility. There's a subtle shift in emphasis once his personal life (and, eventually, writing career) gains traction, but the kitchens where the best stories take place are never far from sight. (July)
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“The best of [the new chef memoirs] by a mile . . .   by a former chef of no particular distinction named Jason Sheehan, now an extraordinarily good food writer . . . Cooking Dirty is his account of a career spent largely at what he calls 'the low end of the culinary world': late-night shifts at diners, bars and neighborhood joints. Some of it is pure drudgery—like prepping a ‘literal ton of corned-beef briskets’ at an Irish pub the week before St. Patrick’s Day—but when the orders start pouring in, the pace and chaos and heat in even a low-end kitchen somehow fuse into a kind of mass lunatic joy. ‘I am God of the box,’ he writes, ‘the brain-damaged Lord Commander of a kingdom of fifty feet by five and made entirely of stainless steel, industrial tile, knives, sweat and fire.’” --Time

If chefs are the new rock stars, Jason Sheehan is like a grunge guitarist of the old school. Sheehan cut his teeth in Buffalo and Tampa in the full-contact arena of line prep. The cooking venues were dingy; his hair long and stringy; and his path from the deep fryer to foodie journalist, as described in this hilarious memoir, featured more smoke breaks than your average AA meeting.” —John Freeman, NPR.org

 “‘Cooking Dirty,’ a broad, prickly, affecting memoir chronicling his recollections of his first 30-odd years . . . Young and ambitious and in full voice, Sheehan no doubt has many adventures ahead to gather for his next memoir (or three). I’d expect them.” —Tucker Shaw, Denver Post

"Kitchen Confidential meets gonzo journalism in this memoir of life as a cook.
'If you're looking for some four-star confessional, for the cooking secrets of master chefs or some effervescent, champagne-and-twinkle-lights twaddle about bright knives, foie gras and sweaty loe among the white jackets, go find another book,' Sheehan advises readers at the beginning. Far from the behind-the-scenes tell-alls of peons in the country's finest dining establishments, the author offers a gritty, sludge-filled account of his decade in a succession of restaurants. From humble beginnings scraping pizza crust off pans in the local pizzeria as a teenager, to a stint bartending at a Chinese joint that secretly doubled as a swinger's club, to his eventual rise to fame as a James Beard Award-winning food critic, Sheehan recounts the ungarnished truth of millions of restaurant workers--severed digits, delirious nights on the line and easy access to sex, drugs and gourmet food products. Crisp dialogue, vivid descriptions and the urgent pace of the text create the air of a soldier's tale of a long-ago war . . . [an] intriguing account of life behind the kitchen doors."
Kirkus Reviews

“It was bound to happen. After the publication of Kitchen Confidential and Anthony Bourdain’s meteoric rise from self-described journeyman chef/heroin addict to bestselling author and traveling TV host, it comes as no surprise that a new generation would be inspired to write about following Bourdain’s often-dissipated career path. Jason Sheehan is one of those guys. In Cooking Dirty, Sheehan chronicles his alcohol-soaked and drug-fueled journey from dishwasher in a Rochester, N.Y., pizza joint to jobs as line cook, bartender, ‘wheel man,’ and sous chef at a succession of diners, Waffle Houses, Chinese restaurants, grocery store delis, and other midlevel eateries to his current career as a restaurant critic for Denver alternative weekly Westword . . . [Sheehan] knows how to weave a good story while still being brutally honest about himself—‘a blue-collar, rust belt diner kid, a beans-and-weenies, steak-and-potatoes simpleton’ at the beginning of his cooking career. The two best laughs I had involved Sheehan’s description of surreptitious purchases of Gourmet magazine as a high school kid and his one failed attempt to ‘translate the language of baking into cook-ese’ (‘like trying to teach long division to a hamster’).”
—Virginia B. Wood, The Austin Chronicle


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First Edition edition (June 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374289212
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374289218
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.3 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,194,371 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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!
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Format: Hardcover
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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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.
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