Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

When I was little I was fascinated by film credits – that long, scrolling list of interesting-sounding jobs – gaffer, dolly grip, best boy, greensman, set dresser, charge scenic and so on. Then one day, I happened across a book at the library that picked-apart the movie business and explained what all of those people actually did. I don’t know whether it was a bland book or whether the tasks themselves are not that exciting, but every bit of glamour was sucked out of the movie-making business for me after reading that book (there seemed to be a lot of standing around, holding things).

Which brings me to Sous Chef by Michael Gibney. It’s a book about a day in the life of a sous chef. Although I can’t fault the writing, the book is almost a procedural text, explaining the roles of various people in the kitchen, equipment used, techniques and so on, complete with an extensive glossary. Although it’s a memoir, it’s written in the second-person – I understand why Gibney did this because it does bring the reader close but I found it a little irritating.

“Your fish blades have been replaced by a lone ten-inch Gyutou – ‘Excalibur’, an old favourite – and your cutting board is smaller now. A quartet of two-quart Cambros flanks the board, and whole carrots and cornichons breeze beneath your knife from left to right…”

Was I expecting some conflict, à la Gordon Ramsay? A bit more pizzazz? A bit more fire? Yes. There were a few flash points in the sous chef’s day but nothing that made me feel ‘exhilarated’ (as the blurb promised).

Was I expecting more food porn? Yes. There were moments, notably a bit at the beginning where sous chef takes delivery of some Argan oil, some pistachios and cheese (the description of the cheese is well and truly at the ‘porn’ end of the ‘food porn’ tag) –

“The Brinata – the queen piece, wrapped in white paper with a pink ribbon – summons you. You gently lay the cheese in the middle of the desk and begin to undress it, slowly peeling away the wrappings to reveal a semi-hard mound with delicate curves and moon-white skin. To use your fingers would be uncivilized. You trace the tip of a knife across the surface in search of the right place to enter. In one swift motion, you pierce the rind and thrust into its insides. You draw the blade out, plunge in again. You bring the triangle to your lips. It melts when it enters your mouth. Your palate goes prone; gooseflesh stipples your neck.”

Sous Chef isn’t a long book but in parts, it feels bloated. Perhaps it’s Gibney’s use of the second-person along with heavy-handed thesaurus work –

“A good chef always strives to imbue the dining experience with an element of surprise. Provocative verbiage is one of the easiest ways to do this. While some eaters might go in for lavish description on the menu, the sagacious chef recognizes the power of concealment. It’s a more tasteful approach, which excites a spark of curiosity in the adventurous diner when done right.”

Ha! Ha! See what he did there?

2/5 If you knew nothing about how a kitchen operates, perhaps this would be an interesting read.

After that description, you obviously need Brinata with Sous Chef.


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