Cooking Dirty, Jason Sheehan

FSG, 2009, 355 pages, C$32.50 hc, ISBN 978-0-374-28921-8

Anyone looking for another hit of that crazy professional kitchen attitude can stop re-reading their Anthony Bourdain: Jason Sheehan is here to tell his story as a cook in America’s kitchens, and he has both the life experience and the writing skills to produce a memorable book.  Unlike Bourdain, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and eventually demonstrated enough supervisory skills to assume leadership positions in his kitchens, Sheehan’s biography remains that of a professional kitchen cook, occasionally climbing up then sliding down as Sheehan goes through the rough life of an American line cook.

Because working in a kitchen is similar no matter where you go: It’s about working in an environment that tolerates no weaknesses, about beating the dinnertime rush, about lasting as long as you can and then stepping away.  It’s a tough life, and Sheehan’s description of his years in the kitchen is unflinching.  The book’s subtitle is “A story of life, sex, love and death in the kitchen” and only the death part is over-promising.  (On the other hand, we get plenty of gruesome injuries, including what happens to hands when they reach into a vat of boiling oil.  Nightmares guaranteed.)  Sheehan is a spokesperson for an entire class of working cooks who find the rhythm of professional kitchen to be compatible with their scattered lives.  They may live paycheck-to-paycheck on a string of cheap drugs, easy partners and low-rent apartments, but their cooking skills are good enough to carry them no matter where they go.  Over and over again (until Cooking Dirty’s last third), Sheehan is able to walk out of kitchens when thing aren’t working out, set out for another restaurant or even another state, and pick up working when he wants.  This is expected: No matter where he is, the kitchen atmosphere remains the same, with colleagues that largely share his own ambitions.  And that may be the crucial difference between Shehan’s book and Bourdain: When Bourdain talks about his kitchen crew, it’s with the knowledge of someone who fit there for a while, but had the potential to grow into increasingly senior positions.  Sheehan’s identification to the lifestyle is much stronger: if it wasn’t for an accident of relationships, economic recession and luck with an editor looking for another Bourdain, Sheehan may very well still be in the kitchen.

He is also just as good as anyone in describing the hectic rush of dinnertime in a crowded restaurant.  His description of a kitchen battered to the breaking point is unforgettable: the craziest passage (in chapter “Will Work Nights”) involves a new guy, sabotaged frozen fish on a busy Friday night, and a natural gas build-up that results in an explosion in the kitchen.  They kept cooking; the new guy never came back.

All the while, we get another reminder about the nature, temperament and personalities of people working in kitchen to serve food to, well, you.  There is little new in learning this (as readers of other restaurant memoirs will find out) but the difference is the vividness with which Sheehan can tell his story.  His career as a cook is peppered with odd and amazing stories, from being the bartender at a swingers’ night to working in an industrial kitchen, to serving catered food in a convention hotel.  Incidentally, Science Fiction and Fantasy fans will even recognize in Sheehan one of their own, as he peppers his narrative with geek-chic references –and even gets beaten up for reading Michael Moorcock.

When Sheenan’s self-destructive streak finally catches up with him in late 2001 in Albuquerque and he finds out that he can’t get a job in the kitchen, there’s only one escape: writing.  One stroke of luck follows another, and so Sheehan finds himself in Denver reviewing restaurants and winning the James Beard Award for food journalism.  And that’s how, improbably, a food mercenary ends up telling his story: not just as a Bourdain clone, but as a writer with an authentic voice and a terrific sense of narration.  While Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential remains the top example of the form, Cooking Dirty is a look in the trenches that some cooks never escape, partly by lack of opportunity, drive or talent, but also sometimes by choice, however misguided they may sound to others.  As a look in kitchen culture, it completes Bourdain’s book and makes for a heck of a read.  The Amazon recommendation engine has seldom served me better than when it coughed up that title.

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