In 2012 I was a server in a Manhattan restaurant that won a constellation of stars. Five from Forbes, four from the Times, three from Michelin and a top-five ranking on the prestigious S. Pellegrino list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. We wore bespoke wool vests with matching pants, memorized service standards from ancient texts of etiquette, and delivered rehearsed tableside performances as if from script. Management had given us a floor plan to study, mapping our movements and walking directions to avoid collisions. Clumsiness was a punishable sin. Any small mistake—be it a confusion of mise en place or an accident in napkin protocol—guaranteed reprimand I was demoted from server, to assistant server, to busser. After a month I began searching for new work.
During my first week I trailed a nice server named Janice. We queued at the pass in the kitchen before running food to tables. Nerves had me chattering away at Janice, asking her questions about which direction the carrots should face in front of the customer and what to do if a guest was being vague about their desired meat temperature. On the other side of the pass, chefs executed complex dishes, applying final decorative touches with tweezers. Heading the pass was the sous chef. With a buzzed head and forearms like Easter hams, he plated dishes with precise intensity. He was as decorated as the restaurant, having won a list of hard-to-pronounce awards. I continued to torture Janice with my questions, unaware of the sous chef.
“Who the FUCK is talking?” a voice barked from the pass.
I confessed and explained I was asking questions.
“What’s your name?” He demanded.
“Kea…” I trailed off.
“Well, Kea, I don’t know what kitchens you’re used to being in, but in this one we don’t fucking talk, we don’t say a goddamn word,” he spat. A vein pulsed in the center of his forehead. I looked around the kitchen and noticed that spatulas weren’t flipping, spoons weren’t stirring, whisks were still: all eyes had been redirected to the chef and the new girl, her face burning like a heat lamp. Who was this asshole, I thought to myself.
Over the next two years I would go on to work in other restaurants in Brooklyn without the pressure that stars and accolades tend to compile. Despite the different menus and atmospheres of these new restaurants, I could always rely on one thing to be consistent: the menagerie of personalities staffing the kitchens in the back. I looked for patterns and started to develop theories. Who were these assholes, I thought to myself.
Two new books, Sous Chef by Michael Gibney and Chop Chop by Simon Wroe, invite readers into these worlds of flesh, bone and cutlery. Both Gibney and Wroe have worked professionally in top-tier kitchens. Where Wroe’s novel tells the story of a writer doing kitchen grunt work, Gibney’s memoir delves into the mind of a chef during one intense day at a fine-dining restaurant in Manhattan. The books complement each other: Chop Chop shows the entire landscape and Sous Chef zooms in on the gritty details of the terrain.
Given the nickname “Monocle” by his fellow chefs for his worthless degree in literature, the narrator of Chop Chop is a kitchen outsider, washing lettuce leaves and dicing onions because The Swan is the only restaurant willing to hire him. Monocle navigates the initial hazing and name-calling, but makes up his mind early on that “chefing was an awful job done by ingrates and arseholes, shit-out-of-luck people unqualified to do anything else.” Much in the way the battlefield unites soldiers, Monocle bonds with his mates at The Swan and soon the young writer, who has a difficult relationship with his parents, finds a family in the kitchen staff. The chefs unite against common enemies: a barbarous boss, a sadistic Mafioso and Monocle’s own prodigal father. The book is darkly comical and full of surprising moments of fierce emotion. Wroe is an uninhibited writer who doesn’t shy away from the grotesque or the rainbow of vocabulary used in the heat of a dinner service. On handling a pig head, he writes, “When you hold one and feel the hair and fat and clammy skin of it you wonder how different a person’s head would feel dead in your hands. Sometimes when you pick one up from the peach paper your fingers get stuck in its nostrils, like a bowling ball.”
The narrator of Sous Chef is Monocle’s opposite: the ultimate kitchen insider. Gibney’s memoir of his time at an elite kitchen exhibits a mastery of food knowledge that aims to educate as well as entertain, and the narrative use of second person gives the book a deeply intimate feel. Sous Chef is an exceptionally written guidebook that takes you through a day in the kitchen, from morning prep to post-service nightcaps. Gibney savors language and this, combined with his use of the second-person perspective, makes much of the book feel like your own thoughts. His voice dominates the reader’s interiority: “The knives you have brought out from your kit are your specialty fish knives: the Yo-Deba, the Petty, and the Sujihiki.” So they are, you think to yourself. “Like any diligent chef, you’ll take them to a stone before even thinking of cutting fish.” Of course I will. “But you sharpen your knives daily, so all they need is a few passes on eight-thousand grit to buff the edge to a shiny finish. The process is sensuous.” Indeed it is!
Wroe and Gibney riddle their kitchens with contradictions. Lawless chefs follow strict rules. Deboning a fish feels as high-stakes as precision surgery, yet your coworker has just called you “dick breath.” Abrasive but loyal, the chefs in both books provide answers to my once-nagging question about why they are assholes: because navigating a world of wild inconsistencies turns people into egotistical curmudgeons. Chefs are misbehavers who behave, artists with ugly attitudes. On cooking in a kitchen six days a week, Gibney writes, “And while it might be the same thing every day; it’s something new every second.”
In restaurants we have a term for Front of the House service that is coincidentally called the Swan. On a pond a swan glides, its neck gracefully bent, its feathers in place, but below the surface its feet kick feverishly in intense motion. As servers you are never to look rushed or panicked, but you must always operate with a sense of urgency, like a swan on water. This sense of decorum doesn’t apply to the kitchen staff, whom customers are not likely to see. The kitchen staff are masters of their own universe, governed by tacit understandings.
A writer is a swan, too. It takes a lot of work to make a book feel effortless. Gibney and Wroe do so by using two minds: the writer’s and the chef’s. Their stories give us glimpses over the pass like the ones I used to take as a server, marveling at the native world of a kitchen, where outsiders aren’t always welcome. Chefs are clever that way: they love without seeming loving. As Wroe writes, “That’s what all cooking is: a smart apology for a savage act.”