Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Michael Gibney
Published by Canongate Books, April 2014.
Cooking programmes, even documentaries, tend to focus on only a few aspects of how a restaurant kitchen really works (or fails to work, in some shows!). I certainly could not tell you in detail what the duties of a sous chef would be, and over the years I have watched a variety of such programmes. When I started to read this particular book, I was prepared to be entertained and enlightened, and that certainly happened. After all, Gibney worked his way up from being a lowly dishwasher at the age of 16 and knows the restaurant industry through many years of first-hand experience.
The book opens with a detailed kitchen floor-plan and details of the restaurant kitchen Chain of Command, to set the scene for what follows. Chefs squirrel away their favourite supplies and samples from praying eyes and the eager mouths and fingers of their fellow-workers. The fact that baby powder and nappy rash ointment are also squirrelled away for emergencies, along with pain relief and burn ointment for the ever present hazard of burns was an unexpected but honest look at the downside of working in the food industry.
From clothing and shoes to the joys of perfectly balanced knife sets, to the difficulties of keeping food in the best possible condition, Gibney tells it like it really is. There are stresses and strains of working at top speed, with immense precision and under intense pressure to produce the very best food in the fastest possible time, all the while relying on your team of cooks and support staff to enable you to do what you love - cooking food for people who appreciate it as much as you do. The idiosyncratic quirks and tricks of the many individuals he describes made me smile, but what I did not expect was the absolute, poetic beauty and passion of so many of the descriptive passages. This is a man who loves, respects and enjoys experiencing everything about working with food. I never expected to be riveted by a description of filleting fish, but I was!
An absolute joy to read.