YOU’LL see them sometimes, late at night when the restaurant is closing down, chefs gathered in a distant corner of the dining room, still dressed in their whites, clustered around a few haphazardly arranged tables. There will be bottles out and maybe ashtrays for cigars, too. They’ll be a little boozy, laughing so crazily that you just know there’s no way they’re talking about cooking.
Well, they are, but probably not in the way you imagined. Forget about the perfect moment of culinary inspiration or the soul-enriching quality of beautiful ingredients. These guys are talking about the real miracle of restaurants -- not the creation of a single great dish, but the challenge of repeating that act dozens of times a night in the face of the most absurd obstacles.
There was the night the maitre d’ finally flipped out and started beating up the customers. The day a monstrous meringue almost ate the kitchen. The time the Fish Guys battled the Meat Guys in the walk-in at Alain Chapel, and the big loser was the entire day’s mise en place (the French term for already prepped ingredients is repeated through the book like a mantra).
As in every other profession, chefs love their war stories. Finally someone -- actually two someones, Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman -- had the good sense to collect some of the best in their new book, “Don’t Try This at Home” (Bloomsbury, $25 ).
Given their day jobs, you’d expect the authors to come up with a big-name lineup (Friedman has ghosted books for Pino Luongo, Alfred Portale, Michael Lomonaco, Laurent Tourondel and Tom Valenti, among others; Witherspoon is literary agent for Anthony Bourdain, Tamasin Day-Lewis and Gabrielle Hamilton and Fergus Henderson). “Don’t Try This at Home” doesn’t disappoint, with an international collection including Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Tom Colicchio, Claudia Fleming, Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, Eric Ripert and Norman Van Aken.
If you liked “Kitchen Confidential” for its frank behind-the-scenes glimpses of kitchen life (rather than the profanity and the heroin), you’ll love this book. In fact, Bourdain is one of the contributors and, as expected, his piece is one of the best.
What’s surprising is how well written so many of the other chapters are -- a tribute either to Witherspoon and Friedman’s editing or to the American tradition of cooking as a postgraduate career. Hey, all those art history degrees finally paid off!
A kitchen full of rascals
OSTENSIBLY, the book is a collection of “culinary catastrophes from the world’s greatest chefs,” as the subtitle has it. And while the collection does include a few outright knee-slappers, in the end the effect is more serious. Because the punch line of nearly every story, no matter how wacky or beleaguered, is that dinner did get served that night.
As Marcus Samuelsson, chef at New York’s Aquavit restaurant, puts it: “You know that old expression, ‘It’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the game.’ ... For a chef, it’s only about whether or not you pull through. If you fail, nobody cares how hard you tried.”
Some of the things chefs have to do to “win” -- to get the food on the table -- are astonishing. They demonstrate that culinary creativity sometimes has as much to do with Sgt. Bilko as Fernand Point.
Sometimes those problems are solved by ingenuity. When Seattle’s Tom Douglas was left with a mountain of lobster after an opening-night blizzard resulted in an empty dining room, he turned the lobster meat into wontons -- a dish that has become one of his signatures.
Sometimes only sheer rascality will get a chef out of a sticky situation. A certain Beverly Hills matron will probably be surprised to learn that it wasn’t her Doberman pinschers that destroyed Michel Richard’s beautiful wedding cake.
And then sometimes there’s nothing to do but buckle down and work harder. No improvisations or shortcuts will rescue a chef who’s so deep in the weeds that he’s got 35 tickets on the rail at once and a skeleton staff.
Humiliation is a constant thread through the book. Gordon Ramsay, it seems, is not an aberration, aside from the fact that he gets paid to do his screaming on television. Frequently, from the safe harbor of hindsight, this abuse is remembered as an important step in character-building, like the tough drill sergeant in one of those World War II movies.
Then sometimes it goes too far. After months of putting up with an abusive British chef (who sounds an awful lot like Marco Pierre White), Mario Batali finally flipped in the middle of service and made one of the all-time grand exits, throwing fistfuls of salt in all the sauces on his way out.
Learning experiences, it seems, work both ways.