Sous Chef by Michael Gibney, Review

I received a free, uncorrected proof copy of Sous Chef to review through Net Galley.  At no time was a positive review of the book expected as a condition for receiving this copy.

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, the just released book by Michael Gibney, chronicles 24 hours in the life of a chef with the titular position.  If you have dreams of being a great chef one day you might want to read this book first.  It may not kill the dream, but it will surely give you reason to reconsider.

While Gibney does serve up a fair bit of the chef as rock star material that seems to be the mainstay of culinary biography and autobiography, he goes beyond that to provide a real clear-eyed look at life on the line. Instead of co-worker gossip, Gibney offers composite pictures of the people he has worked with. This allows for a seamless narrative line focused on the work that a sous chef has to do, and there is plenty of it.

The book starts off with a look at the kitchen as Gibney arrives not quite mid-morning.  The kitchen seems almost like a refuge, until he makes mention of the prep lists.  While he lingers on the peacefulness for a moment or two more you soon find yourself drawn into the urgency of his world.  Once the work begins Gibney will work virtually non-stop until late at night

What stands out in reading this book is the way in which Gibney brings you into the kitchen. One can almost feel the feat rising from the burners, and the steam as it escapes the pots.  Beyond that he does a great job in capturing the pace and the chaos of the kitchen.

It is this chaos that Gibney as sous chef is, along with another sous chef, primarily tasked with controlling.  As he takes you through the various jobs at the various stations, you see what separates him from the prep cooks and line cooks.  As he deals with the chef, you also come to understand why he is sous chef.

This is not to make light of Gibney’s skill in the kitchen, nor to make light of the prep cooks and line cooks.  Having quality talent at each station in the kitchen makes the whole operation run smoothly and guarantees that consistent, quality food will be going out to the dining room. However, you also realize how much knowledge is needed to fulfill the duties of the sous chef.

With the chef, you realize there is the need for the mastery of all of those task, as well as the ability to envision new ideas.  To economically, both in terms of the finances and energy expended, create food that is appealing to both eye and palate.  As well, the chef has to have a greater measure of the people working under him than the sous chef does.

To capture the sense in how this all works, Gibney gives a great amount of detail without a lot of explanation.. As a result I found myself almost out of breath reading the book. This breathlessness for me helped provide a sense of the non-stop tempo of the kitchen.  I think this also works because, unless your work in the restaurant, you realize how little you know and how much skill you lack.  I certainly came away from this book with a much greater appreciation for life in the kitchen, and in particular for the role of the sous chef.

There is a glossary at the back of the book.  You can use this to slow the pace of the reading down by occasionally referring to it.  Although, I would suggest reading the glossary first, and then letting the rhythm of the kitchen carry you through the book.

This book is designed as a how-to book for aspiring chefs.  However, if you pay close enough attention as you go along you will find some helpful tips that you can apply at home.

In some of the other reviews I’ve done about food books, I’ve suggested they might be equally enjoyed in large quantities or small bites.  Not so with Sous Chef.  This is a book to be devoured at one sitting if possible. Reading it in one sitting is like eating a large hamburger with all the fixings.  The kind where you’re swallowing each bite a fast as you can because you know the next bite will be every bit as good.


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