I’ve been reading a lot of history lately so I decided to take a break and indulge one of my other interests: cooking.
Part of the reason Sous Chef: 24 Hours On The Line caught my eye (besides being bright red and having a knife on the cover) was that it is different from your average book on the world of fine dining. Many books in this genera are written by famous or soon to be famous executive chefs or their admirers. They usually have two themes. Professional coming of age stories: How Chef John Doe went from selling deep fried sparrows (which is a real thing by the way) on a street corner in Phnom Penh to heading a five star restaurant in Paris. Or a cooking philosophy: How Chef John Doe came to understand the cosmic importance of root vegetables in the context of a world food tradition that he brings to the public as the head of a five star restaurant in Paris. Sous Chef, on the other hand, is exactly what the title says. It takes the reader through the experience of being a sous chef for 24 hours.
First of all what is a Sous Chef? In simplest terms they are the assistants of the executive chefs. Not quite running the show but not on the bottom either. Gibney does a better job of capturing their importance and the ethos that drives them.
What would any great leader e without his second in command? In a chef’s case, this is his sous chef. The sous chef… is the lieutenant, the executor of Chef’s wishes. He is at Chef’s side seventy hours a week or more for good or for bad, a perpetual Mark Antony to Chef’s Julius Caesar
From this position Gibney takes the reader through all the different components of the kitchen and the people who work in it. There are curing and ripening rooms, fish roasting stations, meat roasting station, walk in boxes, The Pass and many more. Then there’s the Brigade de cuisine from the executive chef down to the Chef Plongeur (dishwasher). It can get confusing but don’t worry there’s a floor plan to the kitchen and a flow-chart of the hierarchy. After all that you are off on your tour of the life of a sous chef.
One interesting feature of this book is that it is done largely in second person. This can be a little confusing and even a little off putting (especially if you had an English teacher who flogged the use on personal articles out of you) but once past that it becomes an integral component of the story. One of the things that makes this book work is that it captures the intense frenetic environment of the kitchen at the height of dinner service. It does this by making you the sous chef. If the sous chef messes up carving a side of lamb it is you the chef throws a plate at. If the meat entremetier wants a day off and can’t have it, you are the one he screams at. The whole time Gibney is there whispering in your ear what you need to do next.
Check out this interview with Michael Gibney from right after the book came out.