IN THE good old days, when a man went through his midlife crisis, he bought a big noisy motorcycle or found a 24-year-old yoga instructor who really understood him. Nowadays, it seems, he learns to cook. And then he writes a book about it.
Bob Spitz's "The Saucier's Apprentice" is just the latest example of this trend. Bill Buford's wonderful "Heat," which was recently published in paperback, became a national bestseller last year, telling his tale of dropping a high-falutin' job as fiction editor of the New Yorker magazine to become a galley slave at Mario Batali's Babbo and then following his ever-increasing passion to Italy.
Spitz's conversion wasn't as extreme as Buford's and perhaps for that reason neither is the resulting book as accomplished. But it is a lot of fun and told in mostly high spirits. Think of it as a really good culinary beach book -- a combination of confessional, cookbook and travelogue.
In fact, I raced through it in a day and found it very enjoyable, which is quite a credit to Spitz the writer considering how irritating I found Spitz the main character.
It's a curious book, starting with the title. A funny pun, for sure, but not at all original. In fact, it's borrowed from a very good, quite well known book by Raymond Sokolov. Granted, that version of "Saucier's Apprentice" was published in the '70s, but it is still very much in print. Choosing to take somebody else's title, and one so widely known, is a strange beginning.
Though ostensibly similar -- two middle-aged, successful, male writers discover cooking -- the differences between "Saucier" and "Heat" are interesting. In the first place, while Buford never really deals with his motivations for the quest (it appears like some kind of fever that strikes without warning), Spitz explores his reasons in quite a lot of depth, which, as it turns out, is a mixed blessing.
Midlife crisis time
"THE Saucier's Apprentice" begins with the author deep in the dumps. He's just turned 50. His long-awaited project, a book on the Beatles, has just been published (and, though he doesn't make much of it, to very good reviews). His marriage has just ended. And his girlfriend seems like a real piece of work (of course, with all his whining, who wouldn't be cranky back?).
In short, he's betwixt and between and the only thing that gives him pleasure, he decides, is cooking lavish dinner parties for his friends.
But he desperately wants to do it better. At the end of a long day of cooking, he confesses, he can't help but feel that the oohs and ahs of his guests just aren't of the magnitude they should be.
And so he decides that a summer taking cooking classes in Europe would be just the ticket out of his ennui.
At this point, you either throw the book aside in disgust or, peculiarly fascinated, you soldier on. Either way, you just know that things are apt to go awry.
In the first place, as anybody who gives dinner parties knows, when you spend a whole day slaving over elaborate dishes, there really is no amount of praise that will repay your effort.
That's why most of us, if we truly like cooking for other people (rather than just having our food be admired by them), eventually move away from preciously plated replicas of restaurant cuisine and start serving big platters of stuff that just tastes good.
There's a reason they call it home cooking and though it's different from restaurant food, it's not inferior to it.
Furthermore, while Buford animated "Heat" with a passionate quest for craft, Spitz seems more of a dabbler in search of recipes.
One of the fascinating things about "Heat" was that Buford spent months on the line, mastering the grittiest, most fundamental techniques of cooking, and then moved on to other adventures, including a couple of months spent working at a butcher shop. You really got the sense that this was a guy who burned to learn about food.
No such slaving for his art for Spitz. He seems to have picked up the phone and made reservations at some of those fancy vacation cooking schools that pop up anywhere there are people looking to spend serious money eating in beautiful places. With only a couple of exceptions, his journey seems to have been limited to Provence, Tuscany and Paris.
Furthermore, perhaps it's just my suspicious nature, but I wondered whether the whole thing wasn't some elaborate ploy to get an expense-paid summer vacation on the Continent (not that that wouldn't cure your midlife crisis!).
As a student, Spitz is of a type familiar to most anyone who has ever taught a cooking class. A combination of needy and disdainful, he's the guy who sits in the front of the class waving his hand with question after question but ends up disappointed because the rest of the students just aren't as serious as he is.
Spitz isn't shy about letting them know that, either, which leads to some merry high jinks for the reader who might wind up wondering who is more irritating -- the main character, or those who irritate him. The answer in most cases is "both."
This arrogance plays out in more subtle ways as well. In addition to attending fancy cooking classes, Spitz wangles his way into some pretty great restaurant kitchens for one-day "stages" (those short, unpaid, kitchen stints that seem to wind up on so many chef résumés). Apparently, he's convinced that if he can throw a dinner party, he can cook on a Michelin-star level. And he gets very uppity when he feels he's not being taken seriously enough.
Remarkably, he's often humored in this as a chef takes him under his wing, pours him a lot of wine and then teaches him a recipe. (One can only wonder about the long list of publicists thanked in the acknowledgments.)
Still, your sympathies may well be with the Frenchman who meets him at the door with a cleaver and the comment, "The day-care center is somewhere on the other side of town."