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!