Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Cooking is an exercise in kinetic awareness, economy of movement, master of the senses. You can smell when a sauce is scorched; you can hear when a fish is read to come off the plancha. You must trust these senses to help you through the night. Your whole body must remain active. No matter what recipes you know, no matter how much experience you have, each piece of fish in each pan presents a unique set of circumstances to which you must react, based on the sensory information at hand in the moment. You must take what you have before you and make something lovely out of it. And while it might be the same thing every day, it’s something new every second. (p. 118 Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, Hardcover First Edition)

Michael Gibney, a Sous Chef in an undisclosed restaurant, presumably in the West Village of New York City has put out a superb and captivating debut novel. The book is described as a day in the life of a chef and true to its word encompasses 24 hours of life in the business. The focus is on the Sous Chef written in second-person narrative form.

Invigorated by additional time in my schedule I picked up this book from the library because of its title, not because I had heard about it previously. Books that I am familiar with are usually written about or are from the point of the chef, not the second in command.

With my interest piqued I turned it’s pages and quickly made my way through 24 hours on what could have been any Friday of a Michelin starred restaurant, and yet 24 hours of grinding and grueling work that are likely only topped by that of a doctor or solider. It was intriguing to read about hours of the day that a chef spends their time on beyond what most people thing about, the cooking. An evident lesson from this novel is that preparation and order are they keys to success in the kitchen and the day truly starts hours before the first dish is ordered. As an added bonus, the camaraderie and pecking order in the kitchen are not only clearly explained but diagrammed for the reader to clearly understand.

From the early hours of the morning to the wee hours of the next morning the book takes you through a roller-coaster of excitement, learning and understanding of what it’s like to be a Sous Chef and a member of a high-end kitchen. As I read, the career perspective that the book provides include what it takes to get to Sous Chef and ultimately what it might take to become Chef. The story told is about aspiration, love for the profession and reflections on why people become part of a kitchen, who it attracts and what it takes to survive.

As a glimpse into kitchen life, the book provided a backdrop for what I am not looking for. 18 plus hour days of back-breaking work away from loved ones in the pursuit of making others happy is a story often told in many professions but one that appears to be expected in the kitchen. That aside, the writing is excellent, the passion authentic and should I ever figure out what restaurant this is mostly based off of, I’m sure the food will be amazing.

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