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Reading Michael Gibney's Sous Chef--a debut that plays at the outer bounds of memoir--may be the closest most of us will ever come to living a day as the second in command in a Michelin-starred New York City restaurant.
Written in the second person, it's intense, dramatic, and immediately devourable, but Gibney also turns out phrases to savor: this is kitchen writing on par with Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter. While Gibney doesn't challenge Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential characterization of kitchen folk as "wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts, and psychopaths," he renders their efforts to beautifully prepare every plate they send out to satisfy the ravenous multitudes authentically noble, verging on heroic.
We talked with Gibney about why he wrote it, how he created the characters, why he considers it a memoir, and which books he finds essential--plus a bit about his new restaurant, opening in Manhattan this summer.
I’ve always been interested in writing, and I’d made attempts at other subjects. But when I found cooking as my subject, I realized that this was the story I had to tell, the one I knew best. For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been cooking, and it’s entrenched itself in my life. Even though people have been (at least over the past decade or so) really interested in what goes on in restaurants, it’s such a beautiful and intricate world, and it’s so dynamic that there’s much more to be added to the picture. I felt like this was the time to make my contribution.
My mission was to pay homage to the cooks, to the kitchen itself, to the calling. It’s not a story about me. It’s a story about all these people that do this every day. These people work hard in the service of others, an honorable undertaking. It’s a weird, idiosyncratic family of people, and there’s all the love and dysfunction of a family. We’re in it together. We’re here to help each other help the people in the dining room get the nourishment, the satisfaction, and the delight that they’re looking for as well. I want to let people know how beautiful that dynamic is.
On the “characters” that populate his story
The vast majority of the characters in this book are all actual, singular people I worked with, and many of the names are still the same. With each one, my task was to capture the best example of the fish cook and the meat cook and the entremetier, drawing from the people that I know. When it came to the chef, that was really difficult, because what “chef” means to me is an amalgamation of a lot of different people. So in order to stick the landing with the chef character, I borrowed the appearance of a particular guy and the résumé and backstory of another particular guy and the attitude of another guy--three people who are all very dear to me. The restaurant itself is primarily one place, with characteristics borrowed from others to make it as crisp a picture as possible.
On why he wrote a memoir in second person
I regard Sous Chef as a memoir, because this was my lived experience. It’s a sticky argument, but I’m not betraying the trust of the reader--this is just the reality of what it’s like. I wrote it in second person because the kitchen—not me—is the star of the show. I’m not trying to say, “Look at all my trials and tribulations. Look at what great food I made.” I’m saying, “Picture yourself in this role that I’ve lived. This is what a day will look like for you.”
On essential cookbooks and food writing
But you have to give credit to the godfather of these modern cookbooks: Thomas Keller, The French Laundry Cookbook. It changed the game for what we could expect from a cookbook in terms of the beauty of the food, treating the food with a tender touch in the pictures, and how in-depth the recipes are. But also the supplemental material, where Keller riffs on their philosophy at that restaurant and the reasons they did certain things. The French Laundry set a new tone for how we should be thinking about professional cooking in this country, and that was a really formative book in my life as a cook.
Then there's The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher. She’s the godmother of this kind of writing. She in her sort of Dorothy Parker way fuses light, beautiful language with really informative subject matter. She turned me on to nonfiction, especially food writing. Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras is another visual lodestar that changed my own plating game. And A Return to Cooking by Eric Ripert put me back in touch with how important it is to think not just that you’re a badass restaurant cook, but to remember what cooking is all about on a personal level, on a home level.
I really appreciate Daniel Boulud’s Letters to a Young Chef, and Marco Pierre White’s White Heat is another game-changer--he opens up and he’s like, “This is what I do. I’m not going to apologize for it, and I just try really hard.” There’s some naked vulnerability with that, accompanied by a power and audacity that I really appreciate.
The list really goes on. But I’d also have to include every Chez Panisse cookbook, where they explained, like, where they get the pig. Alice Waters started this whole awareness of where the pig is from, where the lettuce is from, what the earth is like that the carrots are plucked from.
We’d have to order in some lunch if you want to continue this conversation, but those are my essentials.
On his new restaurant, opening soon
It’s a fairly large space in Midtown, Manhattan, with a few different kitchens, not unlike a place called Eataly, Mario Batali’s place. The upstairs restaurant space will be my own, and I’m working with a team of two other people to open the entire space. It’s a large venue, and it’s been a long time coming. These things are slow moving, but we’re getting close, which feels great. We’re aiming and hoping for mid-summer.
Michael Gibney began working in restaurants at the age of sixteen and assumed his first sous chef position at twenty-two. He ascended to executive sous chef at Tavern on the Green, where he managed an eighty-person staff. Over the course of his career, he has had the opportunity to work alongside cooks and chefs from many of the nation’s best restaurants, including Alinea, Per Se, Eleven Madison Park, Daniel, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Bouley, Ducasse, Corton, wd~50, and Momofuku. In addition to his experience in the food service industry, Gibney also holds a BFA in painting from Pratt Institute and an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.