Monday, October 31, 2011

Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen

The subtitle of Spiced reads, "A pastry chef's true stories of trials by fire, after-hours exploits, and what really goes on in the kitchen". With a recommendation by Anthony Bourdain on the cover ("Great insider stuff and a valuable addition to the annals of first-preson culinary history"), I have to admit I was not expecting great things from this book. First, because I dislike Bourdain and find him unnecessarily abrasive. Secondly, I quit sugar early in October, so pasty chef tales didn't seem like a good idea. But in the spirit of trying new things, and since Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen was the Kitchen Reader pick for October, I ordered a copy and gingerly picked it up. It turns out that I was engrossed in Spiced after the first chapter.

Reading Spiced reminded me of a good chick-lit book: a bit fluffy, some romance, and some drama, all in an easy-reading package. I found that I was drawn into Jurgensen's story of entering the restaurant world as a career-changer. She set aside a stable corporate job for a junior position at Nobu, taking plenty of abuse for being a short, blonde newbie. But Jergensen's dedication shone through and her hard work allowed her to steadily climb the restaurant hierarchy.

Jurgensen's writing may share some features of Bourdain's: they are both concerned with "exposing" kitchen life, and both don't hold back on the nasty language, smells, sex, or pranks. But the difference is in the attitude. Bourdain can be so irritating to me because he tends to sneer at those around him and is constantly cynical. On the other hand, I enjoyed Jurgensen's sense of awe for kitchen work and good food made by skilled chefs. Her care over her food was fascinating; for example, she took a lot of time and pleasure understanding, testing, and developing her recipes. One step in her career (which appealed to me, of course) was a stint as garde-manger, the person in charge of the cold salads, dips, and appetizers. She spent a lot time getting her dishes right, all by taste:
For weeks I hounded my more experienced coworkers, toting around... hummus (or baba ghanoush or herbed feta). Does this taste right? More tahini? More salt? More lemon juice?

Her pursuit of the perfect dip foreshadowed the time she invested later as a new pastry chef, creating and perfecting beautiful desserts. Or as a team member in Martha Stweart's test kitchen, adapting and inventing desserts for Stewart's TV shows. Though Jurgensen found restaurant life exhausting, her enthusiasm kept me reading.

All the restaurant and food business memoirs I have read has led me to the same conclusion: food service life is too hectic for me. It's certain that the long hours, low pay, and difficult conditions stand out in Spiced, as usual. But Jurgensen's love of food made this into a satisfying story that I raced through. Thanks to Libbi of Domestic Wandering for choosing it for the Kitchen Reader this month.

Have you ever liked a book you expected not to like?

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