- Lauren Shockey
- Grand Central
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Douglas Williams
- August 10, 2011
A memoir examining the trials and tribulations of a new chef at home and abroad.
Reviewed by Douglas DeKoven Williams
Without question, today’s popular-media-consuming public is obsessed with celebrity chefs. But how they achieve their success remains a mystery, one that has created a great appetite for kitchen memoirs. Looking for an inside view of the culinary world? Lauren Shockey attempts to quadruple your pleasure with Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris.
Ms. Shockey describes her international work as a stagiaire (unpaid kitchen drone) in four exceedingly different locales. Her breezy prose is interspersed with recipes using techniques gleaned from each kitchen. The author worked, for free (successively), at wd-50 in New York with the molecular gastronomy master Wylie Dufresne; in Hanoi at La Verticale cooking Vietnamese food with the affable Frenchman Didier Corlou; at Carmela Bistro with Daniel Zach in Tel Aviv; and, finally, at Senderens in Paris with culinary great Alain Senderens. In addition to a travelogue, the memoir is also a coming-of-age story as the author attempts to find her personal and, particularly, her professional niche.
The book begins with the author’s somewhat disappointed, upper-middle-class parents trying to dissuade their impassioned daughter from choosing a culinary career. After Ms. Shockey received her degree from the French Culinary Institute, she realized that her true education lay ahead. She credits culinary school with teaching her proper salting technique, how to cook with aplomb over incendiary heat, and how to down beers like a longshoreman. It is, therefore, disappointing that her initial stage (free cooking period) in Toulouse, France, appears to be at a restaurant with no customers. Undaunted, Ms. Shockey embarks on her voyage of culinary discovery.
Lauren Shockey presents herself as the uninitiated in the professional culinary jungle. Her description of wd-50 in Manhattan is by far the most compelling. Molecular gastronomy, an essentially cryptic subject, is made accessible. The characters she works with become vibrantly alive, for example, the harsh, at times insecure, garde manger (salad guy) who constantly castigates her, and the curly-haired prep kitchen supervisor whom his superiors are loath to promote because he is too competent. The intensity of working in a top kitchen is palpable. Mistakes are not tolerated, and slow work can earn you the unshakeable moniker “Four Hour Parsley.” She thrives in this high-pressure environment, and quickly climbs, a short way, on a culinary ladder of responsibility. Part of this section also deals with a potential burgeoning romance between the author and a fellow culinary school alumnus. The romantic angle and the guy in question are presented without anything to distinguish them. Without depth, it is hard to feel invested.
In Vietnam, Shockey’s experience as a stranger in a strange land is well depicted. In truth, the kitchen portion of this stop is less engaging than her immersion in the sprawling eating culture of Vietnam. The flavors she samples are the most memorable part of her trip to Southeast Asia, and the dinner at the dog meat restaurant is a striking vignette. Apparently, it is luckiest to eat dog meat in the second half of the lunar cycle. There is more romance and more time spent with friends outside of work, none particularly memorable. The dialogue is one dimensional, and does not add anything thematically.
As Ms. Shockey moves through each stage, her enthusiasm for life in a professional kitchen wanes. The pages become dominated by time spent with friends and family rather than her professional life. The restaurant in Tel Aviv seems indistinct compared with her two previous stops. She does examine her feelings about her Jewish ethnicity, however, making her personal time here inversely more distinctive than in New York or Hanoi.
In Paris, she shows us all the pomp and circumstance of a two star Michelin restaurant, and conversely the dreary and repetitive life of a kitchen volunteer in such a vaunted establishment. Clearly the author’s mind drifts away from the endless piles of crabs she is asked to clean in the dark with a black light. She veers toward more peripheral matters, which is a shame because the book is at its best when she is in the kitchen. Some of her conclusions, such as gaining clarity of vision from fasting or rediscovering what one loves best about cooking in a homey culinary class for tourists are ordinary and well-traveled ground.
This culinary tour ends with her still searching for her profession. However, the recipes concluding each chapter reveal great restaurant secrets, and her originals demonstrate Ms. Shockey’s capability for culinary inspiration. One small caveat: she often goes overboard in explaining kitchen jargon, but occasionally drops an industry reference that would puzzle the uninitiated. Although her time outside the kitchen could be better developed, the book at its best is a cracking read about the trials of a burgeoning chef.
Douglas DeKoven Williams graduated from Wesleyan University with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature, and from The Institute for Culinary Education with an associate degree in Culinary Arts. He is currently cooking on the Gold Coast of Long Island at one of the nation’s oldest yacht clubs.