24 hours in the life of a sous-chef.
this is a really fun book for foodies, although in a way, it might be akin to carnivores reading Eating Animals. for people who want to retain the mystery and ignore the warts of what happens behind-the-scenes at restaurants, this might take away the glamorous candlelit magic of the dining experience. not that this is in any way an exposé—everything in this book reinforces restaurants’ strict adherence to the health code and the pure love that goes into food preparation, but just like the necessarily-suppressed guilt of the carnivore (of which i am one) when looking at a cute pig scampering around, you will understand reading this that people have worked hard and suffered so you could eat some food.
the hook of this book is that it is written in second person. but this is a gimmick that works particularly well for its subject matter—it brings a sweaty immediacy to the situation. you are making this food! you are in the weeds! you are managing your staff! you are ruining some filberts! you are not having enough time for your girlfriend!
and i really enjoyed thinking of this book as a long apology letter to the author’s girlfriend. a “babe, i’m sorry i had to blow you off, but you see what i am going through here??” even though she seemed pretty understanding and cool about everything, being in the industry herself. and i felt very lucky, in the second person contrivance, to have such a special lady in my life.
i enjoyed the food-porn, especially the cheese-porn:
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 semihard 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.
the moments of food science:
You roll the pork to reveal a golden brown sear. You spin the monk and it’s the same. It’s pure science: when the surface of a piece of food reaches approximately 300°F, certain sugars in the food begin to react with certain amino acids in the food and they rearrange to produce a series of nitrogenous polymers and melanoidins, which are responsible for a variety of luscious flavors and aromas. It’s called the Maillard reaction. When it happens before your eyes, though, it blows your hair back.
and the other various things i learned:
Whole fishes must be sitting upright in the ice—dorsal fins to the sky as if they were swimming—in order to preserve their anatomical constitution. Laying a whole fish on its side predisposes it to bruising, bone breaks, bloodline punctures, uneven air circulation, and a host of other unwanted conditions that compromise the integrity of the fish.
how to test if foie gras-wrapped monkfish is done (not that i will ever need to in my tiny home kitchen, but it is fantastic)
The way you do this is with a cake tester, a thin metal pin about the length of a pencil. You insert the cake tester into the center of the fish and hold it there for ten seconds. When you remove it, you place it directly against the underside of your lower lip. If it is warm, the food is done. This technique has been around for hundreds of years, and it has a provincial flair to it, but it happens to be complexly scientific as well. The temperature at which most bacteria die, and at which protein begins to denature in such a way that it becomes cooked, is approximately 130°F. The temperature at which human skin begins to detect contact with heat is roughly 120°F. Empirical evidence suggests that a steel pin will, on average, undergo a ten-degree temperature decline in the time it takes to transfer it by hand from the interior of a cooked product to your lower lip. Ergo, when the cake tester is warm on your lip, the monkfish is thoroughly cooked.
what meat glue is:
Meat glue—known as transglutaminase in more sophisticated kitchens, or Activa in the purveyors’ catalogs—is an enzyme that, when applied to two different cuts of meat, activates a covalent bond between the proteins, joining them together, in theory forever*. The most notable feature of this transaction is its thermo-irreversibility—the fact that the bond formed is capable of withstanding the application of heat**—which means that your meat-glued product will not break apart when you cook it, which makes the technique perfect for the monkfish roulade.
but mostly i just enjoyed the frenetic pacing of it—the exhaustion of a job that doesn’t pay terribly well (nor, i have learned, does it provide health insurance), but attracts strong personalities who genuinely love their work and become, in the close quarters of the kitchen, a passionate, multi-lingual family attuned to each other in the dance of the kitchen and each contributing parts that make the delicious whole.
We are here to cook for people. Alimentation: the provision of nourishment—this is what we do. And we continue doing it long into the night, not because we favor adversity, but because we know that in doing so we get the chance to create with our hands something that sustains people and brings them joy. And because we know that in all the details, all the minutiae, all the intricate flourishes, difficult and tedious as they are, can be seen the sincerity of what we do. And even though our days are hard and congested and misaligned, we know that through persistent focus and discipline and effort and care, we have the continual opportunity to do something genuine.
thank you for making me food, restaurant staffs of the world. it was fun briefly being one of you.
* hear that, sting?