Wrapping up Food Month, Kicking off Sports Month

I have to say I learned a lot from Food Month. Out of the five books I read, three were amazing, one was pretty good, and one was kind of not my thing. I finished Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter, but am not sure I’m going to formally review it because I didn’t like it that much. Here’s a basic synopsis for those of you who might consider reading it: Teenage girl from a troubled home takes a job in a restaurant to put food on her table, and it turns into a career. After years of working in soulless catering jobs, girl opens her own restaurant in New York City to critical acclaim. Girl makes the mistake of marrying a ice-cold Italian doctor so he doesn’t get deported, and discovers it is only a marriage of convenience. Even though they don’t love each other and don’t really get along, this doesn’t prevent them from having a couple of kids. The best times are when they go to Italy every year for 3 weeks, where Girl falls in love with the country, the food, and her mother-in-law.

Anyway! I would probably give the book a B- or C+ for a review, depending on my level of generosity at the moment.

So we’ve got some great reads coming up for Sports Month! I’m already halfway through Friday Night Lights, which is a very interesting portrait of a small town in Texas and their obsession with high school football. It makes me glad there is so much to do around my town that we don’t have to pin all of our hopes and dreams on and vicariously live through a team of teenage kids.

Other reads upcoming this month:

The Majors, John Feinstein

Ball Four, Jim Bouton

The Horse God Built, Lawrence Scanlan

Among the Thugs, Bill Buford

It’ll be great! Stick around!

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Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly….Anthony Bourdain

Chef Anthony Bourdain

Considering a career in the food industry? Or wondering what really goes on in restaurant kitchens? Read this book first.

Chef Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is a no-holds-barred, juicy tell-all book about what goes on back behind restaurant kitchen doors. In between revealing moments and helpful tidbits such as “never order fish or the house special on Monday nights”, Bourdain tells the story of his checkered career as a chef with humor and honesty. For those of us who think you’d go straight from culinary school into a cushy three-star restaurant job, think again. Although Bourdain graduated from the famed Culinary Institute of America (CIA), his path was anything but smooth. And for those who might think working in a high-profile kitchen would be glamorous and exciting, Bourdain shows us that kitchen life is really anything but that.

One of the shocking aspects of Bourdain’s book is his acknowledged addiction to drugs and alcohol during the early phases of his career. Bourdain openly admits to showing up to work high on heroin, methamphetamines, and cocaine. Food Month here at Prologue has been very eye opening, in that it doesn’t seem Bourdain’s lifestyle was unique. Chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and Mario Batali also tell tales of drug and alcohol use in the early stages of their careers. My surprise here is twofold: 1) How can these people show up and successfully get through a work shift when they’re high on all kinds of crap, and 2) what is it about cooking that would cause people to turn to that lifestyle? Admittedly, cooks don’t work 8 hour days like the rest of us. Bourdain tells about showing up for prep work at 7:30am, and sometimes heading home at midnight. Although not supportive of drug use, I can somewhat understand how an amphetamine or an “upper” would be helpful to get through long days.

Also surprising were Bourdain’s revelations about professional kitchen staff. Thinking most two- or three-star restaurants would employ only storied and experienced cooking school graduates, I discovered this was emphatically not the case. Bourdain reveals that most kitchens are staffed with underpaid cooks from foreign countries like Ecuador, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic, whom he maintains can cook any culinary school graduate under the table any day of the week. Bourdain also talks about the male dominated dynamic of most kitchens, where the cooks trade insults, dick jokes, and regularly harass each other. It doesn’t sound like a very inviting place for women to work!  Bourdain definitely agreed with me, and remarks that women in the industry have to be tough as nails and be able to hold their own in the testosterone-charged atmosphere. I bet they don’t teach those skills in cooking school!

Other parts of the book I enjoyed equally. Bourdain’s trip to Tokyo and his week-long immersion in and enjoyment of their culture was fascinating. I wondered as I read about this trip if that was what inspired his show No Reservations, where he goes to visit other countries and tries their food. Bourdain is definitely not afraid of food!  As a child, Bourdain admitted to being a picky eater until he sampled his first raw oyster in France and was served vichyssoise aboard the Queen Mary. From that point forward, any and all food was fair game. I think that’s an important quality in a chef, to know what most things taste like.

Bourdain’s book was hugely entertaining, and although I had read the book about 2/3 of the way through last summer and didn’t finish it, I’m glad I restarted it and finished it this time. Goes to show what giving books a second chance can do! I’ll tag this one for the Books I Started But Didn’t Finish Challenge.

Grade: A

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America….Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman, author of "The Making of a Chef"

The Culinary Institute of America (CIA) is one of the most famous cooking schools in the US. Founded in 1946, the school boasts famous chefs Cat Cora (from Food Network’s Iron Chef America), Anthony Bourdain (from Travel Channel’s No Reservations) and Andrew Zimmern (of Bizarre Foods fame) among its alumni.

In 1997, writer Michael Ruhlman enrolled at the Hyde Park, NY campus of CIA to take classes alongside real chef candidates. What he learned there during his two year stint and his impressions of the life of a culinary student make up his excellent book, The Making of a Chef. With no previous culinary training, Ruhlman began with the basics (where he learned basic knife skills and how to make stocks and sauces). Like his fellow students, Ruhlman would be expected to prepare and present different dishes and techniques to the chef at the end of each class, who would taste their offerings and grade them. I gained new respect for the chef instructors, who during the course of one morning might have to taste 32 brown sauces before 9:30am and be able to critique them all. I think I would have been burnt out on brown sauce after maybe three tastings!

Ruhlman includes many of the talks the chefs had with their students, as they offered them advice and helpful criticism, and also described many of the students taking the classes along with him. The dedication students put into their training was awe-inspiring, as Ruhlman talks about showing up for baking classes at 3:30am, and sometimes not leaving school until midnight. Ruhlman finds out the dedication required of future chefs when he attempts to call one of his instructors the day of a test when bad weather hits. Although Ruhlman is not a full student, the instructor delicately explains that chefs find a way to show up, no matter what. Ruhlman gets in the car and makes it to the test.

Student chefs cooking at the CIA in the kitchens.

I was also surprised to read about how much book work was required during cooking school. One of the required texts was Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking, which if you’ve never picked it up, is AMAZING. It’s not a cookbook.  Basically, it describes all the different cooking techniques and what physically and chemically happens to food while you cook it. Why do carmelized onions get sweet? Why does bread have all those air pockets in it? What happens when you brown meat? It’s all in there. Students were referred by their instructors to McGee’s book many times during Ruhlman’s book; instructors wanted them to know not only how to cook but what was happening to the food and why they were doing it. There were also some required non-cooking classes prospective chefs need to take, such as sanitation, culinary math and gastronomy. I sure could have used culinary math during my stint at Le Cordon Bleu last weekend!

The final part of Ruhlman’s book described the final weeks in the life of CIA students, where they work at several of the school’s public restaurants. Students not only cook all the food served at these restaurants, but they also act as waiters, so that they get a good idea of life in the front and back of the restaurant. My husband Chris and I went to Le Cordon Bleu’s student-run restaurant, Technique, for dinner tonight to experience that first-hand. It was incredible. For 15$ a person, you get a four course dinner, which includes soup, salad, an entree and a dessert. Wine was also offered. The food is all cooked by culinary students who are about to graduate, so the food and presentations were outstanding. I had a mozzarella caprese salad, creamy potato bacon soup, filet mignon, with hand cut fries, and a strawberry/raspberry crumble. It was delicious!

As I mentioned in my last post about cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu, this book was beyond awesome. Clearly his experience at the CIA inspired Michael Ruhlman, as he has written two followup books, The Soul of a Chef and The Reach of a Chef, and has also collaborated on cookbooks with Iron Chef America’s Michael Symon and the Napa Valley’s The French Laundry chef Thomas Keller. Read this one if you get a chance.

Grade: A+++

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, One Tiny Apartment Kitchen….Julie Powell

Julie Powell, author of "Julie and Julia"

In September of 2002, Julie Powell was as lost as lost could be. On the cusp of turning thirty, childless, and spending her days in a thankless job at a bloated government agency in New York City, Powell was desperately searching for something to give her life meaning. She found it between the covers of Julia Child’s masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. A self-taught cook with no professional training, Powell challenged herself to cook every one of the 524 recipes in the book within the space of a year, and created a blog where she shared her epic journey with others. The success of her blog led to national recognition in print and on TV, and eventually the really cute movie Julie and Julia, where Julie’s cooking challenges are contrasted against Julia Child’s discovery of food and cooking in France. Her book Julie and Julia is a memoir of the year she spent cooking and her unlikely rise to fame.

Surprisingly, I found this book very enjoyable, despite the fact that many of the reviews I read on Amazon were negative. Reviewers complained loud and long about Powell, labeling her as narcissistic, whiny, and angry. Let’s be honest…they’re all correct. She’s not particularly likeable personally, and it sounds like her husband spent several nights during that year hiding from her :). She’s like that crazy, neurotic friend we’ve all had at some point in our lives, (or have BEEN at some point in our lives)….very entertaining but slightly unstable. For me, this book was a guilty pleasure, just like reality television; it sucked me in not because Julie Powell was a great person or role model in any way, but because I couldn’t wait to see what happened next. I actually found her cooking freakouts slightly enjoyable and humorous, since I’ve had many myself. Haven’t we all had something go horribly wrong in the kitchen? I grudgingly had to admire Powell’s bravery for attempting some of those recipes and making them edible, and maybe more so her family and friends for eating them along with her. Aspics and bone marrow sauce sound disgusting!

This book was a nice change for me, since I read so much heavy nonfiction. It was a light, quick read and was hilarious in parts (the aspic section alone is worth the price of the book). It’s not really a book about serious cooking, so if you’re looking for that you’ll be disappointed. The book made me feel that any of us could take on a big challenge like Julie Powell did and learn something about ourselves in the process. I haven’t read great reviews of her next book, Cleaving, but I will probably pick it up at some point, just to see how the drama continues.

Grade: A-

Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany)….Bill Buford

Mario Batali's New York City restaurant, Babbo, where Buford spent nearly two years working in the kitchen.

What a great, great way to kick off Food Month!

In 2002, writer Bill Buford decided he wanted to see if he had what it took to cook professionally. Rather than going to cooking school, Buford talked his friend Mario Batali (of the orange clogs) into letting him work in the kitchen of his 3-star New York City Italian restaurant, Babbo, and Batali agreed. Thus would begin a journey that would take Buford from the kitchens of New York to the countryside of Italy, in search of the elusive secrets of good cooking.

Buford writes of the stress of working in a high-pressure kitchen, first as a prep cook, then at the grill, and then a brief stint at the pasta station, each with its own challenges and lessons. What Buford thought he knew about cooking was thrown out the window as he learned on-the-job knife skills, how to plate professionally, and how a kitchen works. He expertly chronicles the rise to fame of Batali, from unknown California chef to Food Network superstar. On Batali’s advice, Buford spends months abroad in Italy, learning first-hand from cooks who have been making pasta and butchering cattle for generations, using recipes and techniques passed down to them from family members. Throughout his journey, Buford learns a new appreciation for food and cooking as he hones his craft from the experts.

Bill Buford, author of "Heat"

I loved this book, start to finish. It was very illuminating to read about what really goes on back behind the kitchen doors at a restaurant. I had no idea it would be so complicated to run a kitchen, how many people are involved (and how crazy some of them are!) and the long hours they work to make success happen. What appears to happen so naturally to us as diners takes a lot of coordination, talent, and personal sacrifice 🙂 His descriptions of the food throughout the book were so detailed. I could see almost every dish and wanted to eat many of them myself, or at least try to cook them. Sometimes I was laughing out loud. Buford’s description of Batali creating an over-the-top multi-course tasting menu for visiting chefs (jokingly remarking that they are going to serve him so much food that “we’re going to kill him”) was hilarious, as was the story of Batali slaving away for renowned British chef Marco Pierre White in a small British pub, shoving a shellfish reduction through a tea strainer to reduce it. I also loved the parts when Buford was in Italy, seeing how pasta is made by hand, or how cows are butchered, and the people he meets there, not to mention how differently people eat in other countries than we do here in the US.

 In the end, Heat wasn’t so much about food as it was about the people who cook it and why/how they do what they do. It was fascinating. Even though I’m a picky eater and probably wouldn’t have eaten stuff like sweetbreads and sausage made with the pig’s intestines for casing, everything sounded delicious. Buford’s love for all things food definitely showed through in this book, and I wish there was more. 

Grade: A+

The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School…..Kathleen Flinn

Kathleen Flinn

It began with an obituary. Kathleen Flinn was getting her start as a fledgling journalist in the obituary section when she came across an obituary stating only the deceased’s name, that of her husband, and her birth and death dates. Looking at that brief obituary, Flinn realized that it was time to pursue her dream of going to Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school made famous by Julia Child, so that when the time came, her obituary would be able to proclaim to the world that she had done something special with her life.

The stage was set when Flinn suddenly lost her job as an executive with Microsoft. Knowing very little French, and encouraged (and later accompanied) by her new boyfriend, Flinn drained her savings account and flew to Paris to pursue her dream of learning to cook professionally. What she experienced while going through Le Cordon Bleu’s three stages of cuisine to get her diploma is the basis of her wonderful memoir, The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry. During the six months she spent in Paris, she would learn more about cooking, life, and herself than she bargained for.

The diploma program for Le Cordon Bleu is broken into three sections which must all be completed sequentially in order to get the diploma: Basic Cuisine, Intermediate Cuisine, and Superior Cuisine. Each section revolved around 30 core recipes, each of which would teach different cooking techniques and in some cases, would expose them to different cuisines from around the world. Each day, the students would first watch the chefs prepare the food and take notes, and would then be expected to prepare the food themselves in the student kitchens. They would then be graded by the chefs on taste, techniques, and presentation. And God forbid you serve hot food on a cold plate!

You wouldn’t think that a book about cooking could be suspenseful. You would be wrong. Flinn made you feel the stress of trying to please the very exacting chefs that supervised the courses and graded their food and technique. You acutely felt Flinn’s disappointment when food didn’t work out as it should, and felt her embarrassment and anger when the chefs yelled at her or her classmates. It’s not quite Kitchen Nightmares, but it’s close! You wondered if Flinn would be able to stay the course and graduate, even after she takes a break to get married and has several medical emergencies. And even more important, you realize how creative, physically demanding, and perfectionistic professional cooking really is. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat out at a nice restaurant in the same way again.

Flinn brings to vibrant life the camaraderie of working in the kitchen and her love of food, making good friends in all three parts of the diploma program, but most importantly, reminds us all not to let our dreams sit on a shelf, even if they seem crazy or unattainable. She made me want to hop on the first flight out to Paris, and even though I’m a picky eater and would never go near a vegetable of my own free will, made me want to learn to cook. After reading this book, I checked out Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol I, and may have to try something in there, just to say that I did.  A great read.

Here’s a great video of Kathleen in action.

Grade: A

Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal…Eric Schlosser

Here's how it all started.

If you’ve ever wondered about the path your hamburger takes from the ranch to your tray at McDonald’s, get ready to super-size your gag reflex. What you don’t know about fast food could actually kill you…or, at least, really gross you out.

Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation is a fascinating, frequently nauseating, and sometimes horrifying read about the hidden side of fast food. Fast food chains originally arose and prospered thanks to the automobile and the interstate highway system. As more Americans took to the road, they needed food they could get quickly and could eat behind the wheel. Restaurants that began as small mom-and-pop stores in Southern California serving quick, easy to eat food without ever having to leave your car soon blossomed into multi-billion dollar corporations with thousands of locations world-wide. Their restaurants are household names, even to the very youngest Americans, since fast food restaurants actively target children in their marketing schematics in their quest to create customers for life. Thanks to this, Ronald McDonald is one of the most recognized fictional characters in the world, second only to Santa Claus. (If that isn’t a sign of the Apocalyse, I don’t know what is!)

Schlosser lifts the curtain on the inner workings of the fast food dynasty. He reports that the smiling face that greets you at the counter when you walk in or cooks your food is usually an underpaid, uninsured, and overworked employee, who is sometimes not even trained to operate equipment they work on. In fact, he reports that many fast food brands like McDonalds and Taco Bell have tried to get rid of skilled jobs altogether by automating kitchen equipment. So much for creating jobs in this economy! Even though teenagers are still in school and are mandated by law only to work a certain number of hours during the school week, Schlosser reports that some fast food franchises have ‘looked past’ that and allowed teenagers to work more hours than they should…just as long as they don’t work overtime. Franchise managers are given incentives to keep overtime hours down, and some have gone as far as falsifying time cards to keep overtime hours underbudget, or overscheduling employees to send those who are close to going into overtime home. Sounds like a great place to work, right?

Having never read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I had no idea of the horror stories that exist about America’s slaughterhouses and meat packing facilities. I was disgustingly enlightened by Schlosser’s book. According to him, not only are most of the cattle that are slaughtered for hamburger meat fed other dead cattle, chickens, or sometimes dead dogs and cats for food instead of grass, but are sometimes crawling with disease or rolling in their own poo by the time they get butchered. The meat is sometimes processed by tools and machinery (and people) that aren’t sanitized consistently. Amazingly, the cattle probably have it better than the folks who chop them up. Schlosser reports that the people who do the slaughtering and meat-packing work at great risk with very few safety precautions, are barely compensated financially for debilitating injuries (and are sometimes not even allowed to report them), and are hardly allowed time off even after something as horrifying as an amputation, since the executives get bonuses for low accident rates and sick time.  To add insult to injury, meat packing jobs are some of the lowest-paying in the country and, like fast food service, come with no benefits and are usually taken by the more vulnerable and desperate segments of the population–teenagers, immigrants or unskilled workers.

I hate clowns.

Until I read this book, I don’t think I realized how much blind faith I had in the food service industry. I always assumed they were doing their best to provide safe, if not nutritious, food for me and my family. This book cast a lot of doubt on those assumptions. According to Schlosser, the restaurant industry has a long way to go before food can really be called ‘safe’. In 2001, thousands of European cattle were tested and found to be infected with what would be called ‘mad cow’ disease. If mad cow meat was eaten by humans, the results could be deadly…as of the writing of Schlosser’s book, 100 people have died from the human variant of mad cow disease (variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or vCJD). When you consider that one cow could be fed the infected meat of another cow and become infected itself, and then its meat ground up with other non-infected cows for hamburger, going into millions of hamburger patties, it’s easy to see how scary and uncontrolled food-borne diseases can be. The incubation period for vCJD is unknown at this time, so any of us could have eaten a contaminated burger and it could be decades before symptoms begin to show. Schlosser’s findings that government agencies like the USDA and OSHA are generally more supportive of big business rather than food safety is alarming. Mad cow disease seems to have spurred big companies like McDonald’s to take better steps towards testing hamburger meat before it is served, which is great, but hopefully it’s not too too little, too late.

In closing, it will probably be a while before “I’m lovin’ it” again at McDonald’s. Yuck.

Grade: B+