Bibliobites in September: Behind the Swinging Doors

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After taking the summer off, we reconvened on a sunny September day to discuss Michael Gibney’s action-packed, adrenaline-fueled memoir describing 24 hours in the kitchen of an upscale Manhattan restaurant.   Gibney’s account is both affectionate and unsparing, and he creates a vivid sense of place, that feeling that “you are there.”  As always, there were plenty of opinions among our readers.

Most of us admired Gibney’s writing style and his ability to draw you into the action with his descriptions.  Even those who weren’t crazy about the book appreciated his skills as a writer; one reader was so immersed she felt as though she was one of the tattooed, hung-over, exhausted cooks.  Gibney expertly depicted the rough and tumble nature of the restaurant kitchen and its cast of idiosyncratic characters.  We thought he did a terrific job of building tension as the day wore on and dinner service approached; we could feel the stress of being on the edge of disaster, and the frustration when something went wrong.

Some readers didn’t enjoy the descriptions of the food at the restaurant depicted– the food was a little too esoteric to be appealing.  The unusual ingredients and complex preparations distanced the home cook from the kitchen experience.  Some thought that the bare bones menu descriptions often used in high-end restaurants were frustrating as you were left wondering how the dishes were being prepared, while others maintained that this surprise was part of the fun.  Everyone appreciated the glossary of cooking terms in the back of the book– a fascinating mix of slang and classic French cooking phrases!

Some might have thought that the kitchen environment depicted was an exaggeration, but a member who worked as a waitress for 25 years confirmed that it wasn’t.  The restaurant where she worked had two chefs who were always fighting, and no one wanted to try to break it up because a chef with a temper and a sharp knife is a dangerous combination!

A few readers wished that the book had included a few recipes to try; but alas, the chef-memoir genre doesn’t always include this.  If you like to read about chefs and their personal and culinary journeys, try one of the following:

Blood, Bones, and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz (this one does have recipes!)

Lunch in Paris and its sequel Picnic in Provence by Elizabeth Bard (also with recipes)

Heat by Bill Buford

Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz

My Life in France by Julia Child

There are many, many others; if you have a favorite title in this genre please let us know and we’ll add it to the list.