Maybe you have dreams of culinary greatness. Maybe you’ve been to New York City and wondered what really happens back there, behind the swinging double doors. Or maybe you just like a good story. SOUS CHEF: 24 HOURS ON THE LINE, by debut author Michael Gibney, tells the story of twenty-four hours in the life of an unnamed kitchen general — you — as you start your shift in an unnamed, upscale Lower Manhattan restaurant. This is the real stuff, the gore, the grit, and the glory of life as a chef in Manhattan. Michael Gibney started working in restaurants at the age of sixteen and worked most recently as Executive Sous-Chef at the famed Tavern on the Green in Central Park, along with prior stints at 10 Downing, the Governor in Brooklyn, and he has the grease-scars marking his arms to prove it. I don’t often read non-fiction but felt compelled to read SOUS CHEF because of its unconventional narrative style: the story is told in the second-person, calling to mind that other Manhattan masterwork BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY, in which You are the main character, You are the one rushing to prep for dinner, lashing orders at your team, while wincing under the unwavering guidance of Chef, your boss, your mentor. If you are someone interested in the restaurant business, or know it personally, you’ll see this text as a mirror to your passion, your work, as its authenticity and voyeur reality put You right there at the helm.
While reading it, I often imagined a casual couple, ordering dinner, and opening the pin of a grenade as soon as the wait leaves their table, tossing the order back into the kitchen, where it bounces around until the order’s up and out on the plate, often at the very last possible minute. It’s that dramatic, that intense, that powerful. Knowledge of the industry, for me, wouldn’t have mattered without superior writing, and every page pulls you forward, churning with narrative momentum. Secondary characters like the insouciant Stefan, Your rival sous chef, or Vera, your love, becoming too distant, are all well-crafted, full realized so that You know what’s at stake to live this life, working sixteen hour days, again, and again. The sentences are clear, clean. The content instructional without resorting to pedantry. We learn when cooking fish that “a steel pin will, on average, undergo a ten-degree temperature decline in the time it takes to transfer it by hand from the interior of a cooked product to your lower lip. Ergo, when the cake tester is warm on your lip, the monkfish is thoroughly cooked.” That sort of detail stuck with me for days as I fumbled around my own pathetic kitchen at home, marveling at the mastery others possessed, taking more satisfaction in the pleasure of a proper meal cooked in a restaurant.
The book’s emotional climax transcends the kitchen and explores the psychological motivation for cooking, for caring, using the French verb soigné (cared for, treated, looked after) to articulate the motivation of the cook, the care for the customer, as context for the difficulty and self-abuse found in the kitchen. It was compelling, complex, and opened vistas into the minds and obsessions and those who care for their restaurants and kitchen teams and everyone who comes for dinner. Highly recommended.