Library Review: Sous Chef : 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney

If you ever had grand ideas about working in a kitchen or becoming a chef you should probably abandon them. Though many books have exposed the arduous process of becoming a chef, rarely have we seen the sheer weight of the obligations, routine and pressure to perform laid so bare before us.

Such is the accomplishment of Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, the first book by Michael Gibney. Gibney is the former executive chef at Tavern on the Green. He’s worked for a who’s who of prestigeous restaurants including: Per Se, Le Bernardin, Bouley, Ducasse, wd~50, and Momofuku.

That accumulated wealth of top level culinary experience lends itself to the exacting tone and beat of his walk through a day in the life of a sous chef. Events others might simply omit or gloss over are meticulously retold, and at times you almost assume that he had videotaped his time in the kitchen with his near perfect recall. This book will probably leave you  to conclude – as I did – the following: the job of being a chef is impossible. It can’t be done and to harbor any dreams or delusions about becoming a rockstar chef is a fool’s errand. And yet, people do it.

It is that exacting detail that is the true brilliance of this book. The intricate, painstaking, sensual anecdotes that Gibney gives us to place us firmly in the “you” role of the sous chef. The book is written in 2nd person, forcing the reader to inhabit the character of a sous chef working the line on a 300 hundred cover (300 guest) night at a 90 seat Manhattan restaurant.

The book begins with a map displaying the layout of the restaurant kitchen. Though Gibney later explains that each restaurant kitchen is unique in terms of size, shape, and overall design; that many factors and stations are universal. From studying the map we learn about “the pass” – the area all food travels through between cooking and plating for service, the various food stations and prep areas, as well as walk ins, loading docks, offices and locker rooms.

The crucial factor is that we learn more than just that these places exist. We learn both their importance and their physical location, how one relates to the other to create the unique eco-system that allows a kitchen staff to thrive. Gibney isn’t satisfied to simply give us an annotated map. The book begins with “you”, the sous chef, arriving at an empty restaurant and walking his way through the entire kitchen, preparing for the day: checking the inventory, cleanliness, and state of his world; while pondering the physical and mental strain that is to come. This kind of exposition might seem…odd…boring even, but Gibney’s lively prose and description makes the journey through a deserted restaurant absolutely sing.

This heavy exposition and setup works to prepare us for later events, like when Raffy the poissonnier (fish cook), becomes ill and brings the entire kitchen into the weeds. We understand the impact not just because a man is hurling into a trash basket while trying to work the line, but because Gibney took time to make us understand the impact his problems are going to have on the rest of the stations. The stakes are raised and tension palpable as “you” jump onto the line to replace Raffy. At this point, we’re no longer along for the ride oohing and ahhing with each new flourish or near-disaster. By now, Gibney has trained us to understand the madness.

Sous Chef is not the tawdry kitchen memoir of a famous chef looking to pull back the curtain on sex affairs in the walk-in, or how the fringes of society come to inhabit the country’s best kitchens. Nope, this is about answering the essential but often glossed over question of how does a restaurant actually work? The answer is more fantastic and outrageous than any kitchen sex tale could hope to be.

And yet, despite how much it reveals about the arduous life of a kitchen worker, the book isn’t a judgmental cautionary tale meant to weed out the delusional. It doesn’t particularly try to glamorize the life of a chef or try to make the tasks and obstacles more grand than they appear to be, which is all well and good because they appear pretty difficult on their own. This is simply a declaration of the life of a chef, laid bare before us like a fresh fluke, ripe for de-boning and portioning.

There have been plenty of other chef memoirs, and certainly countless other books that seek to peel back the curtain on the culinary industry. Yet, to my knowledge, none does so with such exacting precision, free from the trappings, fluff, and distractions of celebrity than Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line. Gibney might warn us that the road ahead is fraught with hardship and littered by failure, he welcomes us to come along; because it is a trip worth taking and we “are good at it.” In response we can do nothing, but stand firm at attention with a ready “Oui, Chef!” at our lips.

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney, is published by Random House, and  is available on Amazon, or wherever books are sold.