Monday, May 18, 2009
Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Story of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes On in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen - 288 pgs
Spiced, a memoir, tells the story of Dalia Jurgensen, a young woman who decides to quit her job in publishing to become a chef. Although she doesn't have much experience in a restaurant kitchen, she quickly gets an entry level job in New York's famedNobu restaurant plating desserts for the pastry chef. As Dalia learns the ropes, she steadily climbs the restaurant ladder and eventually moves from an assistant to a chef. The story commences the moment she steps through that door and records all the secret little details of a restaurant kitchen that everyone hungers to know. From the clandestine relationships between the staff, the eyebrow raising lowdown of "family meal," and the outright chaos that a kitchen becomes during a dinner rush, the author shares her life and work against the backdrop of the famous restaurants that she has worked in. Often funny and eye-opening, the book showcases the classified side of life behind the restaurant doors.
I love memoirs, and if there is some kind of food involved with them, all the better. From the minute I picked the book up, I was entranced by all the behind-the-scenes adventures in the kitchen. She had a very conspiratorial way of writing that made me feel a bit like her secrets were meant for my eyes alone, and I'll admit that I spent some time rereading certain passages, just to savor them. I loved all the food details: from the information on the proper tempering of chocolate, to her brainstorming of new and exotic desserts, to her stint working as a food designer for Martha Stewart, I found it all totally absorbing.
Although I have read quite a few food memoirs, I felt that this one was a bit different in that this was a memoir about the dessert side of a restaurant, something I haven't seen before. Another thing that was different about this book was the fact that it was written by an experienced female chef. Most food memoirs I have read have been authored by male chefs, and though some of them have been really magnificent books, I really liked the female perspective in Spiced. The author spent a lot of time talking about the camaraderie (or lack thereof) that exists in many kitchens. She detailed the reasons waiters and chefs don't usually get along, the late night debauchery that takes place after the last diner has left and the lights have gone out, and just what it is that it takes for a manager to work with so many conflicting personalities.
Although it wasn't specifically food related, I enjoyed the tales of Dalia's forays into the lives of the other kitchen workers. Her fling with a waitress, the abhorrence that she felt for one of her assistants, and the silent war that was waged between Dalia and a particularly foul-tempered chef were all things that really enlivened the story and made this a really engrossing read. She also speaks about the sexism that runs rampant in most kitchens, and how hard it is to be taken seriously as a chef when you are a woman. I found it frustrating that women still have to be subjected to such idiocies from the men that surround them in the workplace, but Dalia takes it in stride, never letting the men of the kitchen get the better of her. Instead, she chooses to work smarter, faster and harder. Though she does come to earn a grudging respect from the men who surround her, I felt that in all honesty, she shouldn't have to work so hard for the respect that the men in the kitchen get by default.
I felt that the author really put a lot of herself into this book, and as a result, I really got to know a lot about her as a person and a chef. She comes across as a very confident and inventive woman who seems to know just what each situation requires from her, and works hard to make a lasting impression, especially in the area of dessert creation. The story in this book was riveting without being sensational, and although there were plenty of juicy details, it wasn't stiff nor overburdened with minutia. There were some aspects of the book that pertained more to the personal side of the author's life than specifically to the kitchen, and though some may take issue with this, I thought that these moments out of the kitchen did a lot to humanize Dalia and highlight the fact that she is a real person with a real life, not just a pastry chef.
I had a really good time with this book, and I appreciated both the lightness and the candor of the author's story. If you are a fan of the food memoir, you will love this book. I also heartily recommend it to anyone who is more broadly interested in the memoir category. This book adeptly proves that Dalia Jurgensen has made her name in more than just the kitchen. A perfect beach read, but be sure to bring a snack!