On My Shelf: Spiced

I have been wanting to start this series for some time now. I’ve had the name – On My Shelf – picked out and ready. The idea was to start writing reviews and reflections on all of the cookbooks and food-related books that I read. Lord knows I read enough of them! But it took joining The Kitchen Reader to whip me into shape and actually start posting. The Kitchen Reader is an online book club made up of over 30 bloggers. Each month one member selects a food-related book to read and, rather than discussing it, everyone posts their reviews and responses at the end of the month. This is my first month and I am so excited to take part!

This month’s selection was Spiced: A Pastry Chef’s True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen and was chosen by Libbi of Domestic Wandering. I have to admit that at first I wasn’t particularly excited to read the memoirs of a pastry chef as my interests tend towards the savory. But as soon as I opened the book, Jergenson had me and before I knew it I was finished! Literally, I read it on my iPad and had no sense of where I was in the book and didn’t realize how quickly I had torn through it.Kitchen memoirs typically follow a certain pattern, and in many ways Spiced is no different. More often than not the author has always loved food but pursued a more traditional path in favor of a literal arts degree at a four-year college, followed by a stint at some standard, unfulfilling office job. They decide to give it all up and attend culinary school, then hit the real world of restaurant kitchens where things get interesting and they realize that their real culinary education is only just beginning. Indeed, Jugensen writes on page 82, “The more hours I put in actually working as a cook, the more I realized how little practical knowledge I’d gained in cooking school.”

Commence horror stories of the hierarchies and egos in kitchens, long hours, painful burns and loss of any semblance of a personal life. Finally, the books close with the author proud that they have survived and proven themselves, but deciding that ultimately they will pursue other projects, namely writing about food. Fair enough. (I should also mention that despite being painfully aware of the surface similarities between these books it’s one of my favorite genres and each author brings a new voice and perspective.)

In line with her peers, Jurgensen quit a job in publishing to attend culinary school and work at Nobu as a pastry chef. Also similarly, she talks about how she has always loved to cook and how she stood by her mother’s side in the kitchen watching her prepare traditional Danish goodies. There are quite a few things that sets Jurgensen apart, however, and that is what I appreciate most about this book. For one she works as both a cook and a pastry chef, and so understands and appreciates both sides of the kitchen. In addition to working nearly every position in the kitchen at established restaurants and brand new ones, Jurgensen also expands her repertoire with stints in catering and even working as a recipe developer for Martha Stewart’s television show. I enjoyed reading about these different food-related paths and the pros and cons that come with each.

The book did make me feel the need to stand up for the front-of-the-house staff, as there are more than a few sections in which Jurgensen explains why the kitchen staff has such disdain for waiters and coat checks. Having worked as a hostess and coat check at a very busy Manhattan restaurant some of the descriptions made my skin crawl. ““Most cooks,” she explains, “believe that while they’re working hard pursuing dream careers in the kitchen, waiters are simply biding their time working in restaurants to fund their own dream careers elsewhere.” I’m sorry, but what’s wrong with that? Since when is it a crime to try to make a living so you can pursue your dream? Career waiters are a rare, somewhat old school breed and while plenty of kids (especially these days) say “I want to be a chef when I grow up” you’ll find significantly fewer aspiring waiters.

Personal nitpicking aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Jurgensen’s account of life behind the stove. Restaurant kitchens are notorious boys’ clubs, and Jurgenson’s perspective as a woman is a valuable one. While she was able to remain stoic in the face of vulgarities, inappropriate comments, and an abundance of porn, when it came time for Jurgensen to start thinking about a family it was another story. Women can do everything a man can do when it comes to being a professional chef, but the truth of the matter is it’s much harder for a woman to have kids and be in the kitchen than a man.

“With all the experience and knowledge I’ve gained, I know better than anyone that if kitchens can sometimes be unfriendly places for women, they can be downright dangerous for a pregnant woman,” laments Jurgensen at the end of her book. “An extended maternity leave might seem like a logical answer, except that in businesses with fewer than fifty employees (i.e., lots of small restaurants) maternity leave is a lucky extravagance rather than a legal mandate…And what about returning to work? Most pastry chef salaries hardly allow for full-time caregivers, especially when full time for us is in excess of forty hours a week. And as much as the determined, resolute woman inside of me believes it can be done, even I have a difficult time imagining myself slipping away to the filthy restroom for half-hour breaks every day to pump breast milk.”

If you enjoy reading kitchen memoirs, then you will most definitely enjoy Spiced. It’s a fast-paced, engaging read that provides real insight into the world of professional cooking. I’ve always known that I don’t have what it takes to survive in that environment, and Jurgenson certainly reiterates that for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate reading about it!


35 Comments

  1. Sounds like a fun read…and I look forward to more of your “On My Shelf” posts :)

  2. There are always common themes, how people find their passion, how they learned etc..etc.. I am glad you found the shining parts. I always heard that it is such a men’s world at the back of the restaurants.

    • Yes, it’s true. I still love reading all the different perspectives on this theme! It’s one of my favorite genres :-D And this book really is a great read. It is definitely a man’s world in there! Even just working front of house I can say that for sure. Really, the professional restaurant kitchen is its own world.

  3. Wonderful review! So true the comment about the waiters, someone can be a wonderful waiter but there’s always more to aspire, manager, restaurant owner or something completely different. Unfortunately, waitering is almost on the bottom of the ladder and very few people have no dreams to become more. I enjoyed very much reading your review :)

    • Thank you Ruth! What you say is exactly true. I have encountered a small handful of career waiters at top-tier restaurants, and they are indeed consummate professionals. But they are a rare breed indeed. I see nothing wrong with aspiring to more!

  4. I really liked reading your review Katherine! It’s definitely a different world – I’m starting to realize it myself as I’ve just started a career in a fast-paced fine dining restaurant!

    • Thank you Peggy! It certainly is. I am so looking forward to reading about your experiences in culinary school and at the restaurant! Do I see a book in your future?! ;-)

  5. Nice review – I like this addition to your blog!

  6. Great book club! Much more foodie friendly than mine :) Sounds like a pretty interesting read too (despite the unnecessary picking on the front of the house! I was a server too in college!)

    • Haha, it’s definitely foodie friendly! I definitely recommend the book. And there really wasn’t all that much picking on FOH, I was just sensitive to it!

  7. I can’t wait to follow your “On the Shelf” column. I too have thought about starting a blog series where I share personal opinions on my favorite food and cooking books (too many to count). Alas, it just never seems to get going. Perhaps yours will be the kick in the pants I need.

    Side note: great review on Spiced. While I have not read this particular book, I have read enough to agree with your stance on predictable pattern of food memoirs. While I adore them, the back covers really do all sound the same.

    • I hope you start a series like that! I’d love to read your thoughts on your favorite food and cooking books. And thank you! I’m so glad you enjoyed the review! I still love the genre even though they follow that predictable pattern!

  8. I really like the new addition to your blog. Unlike most food bloggers, I don’t own too many cookbooks or any food-related topic books, and it will be a great source for me to check which books are worth for me to purchase. I need to reach out more non-Japanese dishes and learn about other food, so this is great for me. Thanks for the new idea. ;-) I enjoyed reading your review on Spiced.

    • Thank you Nami! I am so happy that you enjoyed the review and are excited for the series. That means a lot to me and is great motivation to keep going!

  9. Welcome to the Kitchen Reader!

  10. What a great read. The whole idea of reviewing books is way overdue, especially by writers, like yourself, Katherine. Even dough I cannot relate to “Life in the Steaming, Unwelcome Kitchen, dominated by selfish male teams, it makes an interesting read by looking at it from outside.

    Thanks

    Jayne Georgette

    • Thank you Jayne! Yes, it’s something I’ve been meaning to do for some time. I can only peripherally relate as well, but I think that’s part of what makes it an interesting read! Have a great weekend :-)

  11. Welcome to The Kitchen Reader! Wonderful review of the book. I also really enjoyed it but did hope that Dahlia would provide a stronger female perspective to contrast other male restaurant memoirs. It reiterated for me as well that while I love to cook for my clients as their personal chef, I do not have a desire to work in a restaurant environment.

    • Thank you Fran! I am so excited to be a part of this great group! Yes, I completely agree with you on both points. I have always known that I don’t have what it takes to work in a restaurant kitchen, and books like this certainly hammer that home, although I still enjoy reading about that lifestyle!

  12. Nice job with this review Katherine! I just finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s book so don’t think I am up for another chef memoir right now, but this one does look interesting, so I’ll put it on my reading list for some time in the future.

    • Thank you Winnie! Ohh I’ve had Hamilton’s book on my list to read, it’s supposed to be great! Unfortunately the book club covered it already so I’ll have to squeeze it in elsewhere.

  13. Great idea re book reviews. I’ve been thinking along these lines, too, although in my case I might raid my bookshelf and review older classics. (Nobody reads James Beard anymore, for example, but one of his books is one that most cooks really should read.)

    Anyway, I love “inside the business” books, and this one sounds interesting. Agree the outlook on waiters is really narrow. It’s the cooks who tend to cycle through kitchens pretty quickly. Maybe not the chef (though they restaurant hop a lot, too), but the line cooks. Not that waiters don’t come and go – they do – but really good waiters at really good restaurants can earn real $$$$. (Although I’m taking a small percentage of waiters here.) But I believe the book correctly captures how the kitchen in fact does often view the front of the house – there’s an us vs. them mentality going on. Isn’t justified, as you say, but it’s there.

    • I love the idea of doing a series focusing on the classics. There are such great ones, James Beard included, that deserve more modern attention.

      You’re very right about cooks cycling through kitchens quickly. There’s a lot of high turnover in all facets of the restaurant world until you get to higher levels. Yes, it’s definitely an us vs. them mentality. Jurgonson also points out that at the end of the night most of this is forgotten when they all go out to party together, so clearly none of them takes it too personally!

  14. I enjoyed this review. My first experience as an intern in a hotel kitchen was shocking. Everybody was polite with me, but at the end of the day, it was a male kingdom and they had their own rules. Along the years I´ve been in other kitchens as a consultant and it´s like the author says in this book. Take it or leave it. However, it is a great learning experience and if you are willing to take it, you could learn so much about this world. Great job.

  15. Thanks for your thoughtful review and for visiting the others and leaving comments. I was also not expecting to like this book too much so it was nice to be pleasantly surprised! Your insights about wait staff are well-taken. I imagine that not only are wait staff underappreciated, they are not likely to write a memoir about their work, so probably will never get the recognition they should!

    • It was my pleasure Sarah! I really enjoyed being part of the Kitchen Reader this month and am looking forward to more! You’re right about waitstaff. I’ve heard of some waiter “tell-alls” but I think they are mostly about terrible customers.

  16. I really enjoyed your review, and share your FOH sensitivities. As a current server, I felt more than a little indignant!

    So glad the Kitchen Reader has introduced me to your blog. See you again soon!

    • Thank you Stephanie! I definitely felt I needed to stand up for the FOH! Represent :-) Glad to be in Kitchen Reader with you as well!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Spiced: October Round-Up | The Kitchen Reader - [...] Katherine at Katherine Martinelli [...]

Leave a Reply