Our Newest Chef-Scribe on Dual Disciplines, When to Break Out the Second Person, and Maintaining Relationships
“The kitchen is best in the morning. All the stainless glimmers. Steel pots and pans sit neatly in their places, split evenly between stations. Smallwares are filed away in bains-marie and bus tubs, stacked on Metro racks in families — pepper mills with pepper mills, ring molds with ring molds, and so forth. Columns of buffed white china run the length of the pass on shelves beneath the shiny tabletop. The floors are mopped and dry, the black carpet runners are swept and washed and realigned at right angles. Most of the equipment is turned off, most significantly the intake hoods. Without the clamor of the hoods, quietude swathes the place.” *
So begins Sous Chef, the debut book from Michael Gibney. Subtitled “24 Hours on the Line,” this memoir turns a day in the life of a New York City toque into the stuff of high drama and introspection, and not incidentally packs an awful lot of detail about the kitchen life into its 240 pages. It also successfully walks the second-person highwire, using that unusual format to great effect.
In my humble opinion, the book catapults Gibney instantly into the very small club of chefs who are as adept at the keyboard as they are on the line. (Unsurprisingly, he has devoted time to both pursuits, cooking at such restaurants as Tavern on the Green and Governor, and graduating Columbia University’s MFA writing program.) It’s an exceptional, commanding piece of work and I can’t recommend it highly enough, especially to readers who enjoy what’s on offer here at Toqueland. Its official publication date is tomorrow, Tuesday, March 25, but you can hop online right now and order it up, and I suggest you do just that.
I should mention that I’m not saying any of this to hook up a buddy. When I began reading the book, I hadn’t yet met Michael. We did, however, have a chance encounter at an after-hours Christmas party in December, when I was mid-read. And, after our interview for this site, I jumped at the invitation to dialogue with him publicly at The Strand on April 14.
In the meantime, here’s part 1 of our recent interview, with part 2 to follow later this week:
TOQUELAND: Which came first for you as an ambition: Writing or cooking?
GIBNEY: I don’t think either of them really came first for me; they’re both things that I happened into. I’ve always been interested in creative things. I went to school for painting. I was originally involved in theater, set design. I’ve just been allured by all the different sort of creative disciplines. And I’ve enjoyed reading my whole life. When I was 16 I had to get a job and I got a job at a restaurant and started doing that, and I took to it. I enjoyed it. But I still had other things in mind. I suppose they’ve always existed simultaneously for me.
They’re both things that I appreciate for similar reasons, and things that suit me well, particularly the cooking because I think the lifestyle and the work ethic and the attitude and the respect that go into cooking are marvelous. And then writing because it’s a chance for you to collect your thoughts about things, share them with people more readily.
TOQUELAND: A lot of people who end up cooking professionally didn’t really take well to school. I’m always a little surprised when a chef is a great writer because at some level — this is an over‑generalization — there seems to be an incompatibility between the two lifestyles and disciplines. When you were growing up, what kind of student were you?
GIBNEY: I think I was a good student. I got good grades. I was in the National Honor Society.
But I understand what you’re saying because there are in the cooking community loads of people who couldn’t spell but they were really good at creating this one thing and that was where their intelligence resided. Strangely, in cooking there are also kids who have only a high school degree, some who don’t even have a high school degree, who are still incredibly intelligent in a particular way; not just intelligent in a cooking way, but intelligent in a way that you would expect that they had gotten a rock star degree somewhere.
People go this route because they don’t necessarily excel in other areas. They get bored or don’t have interest in other areas of study, but I think in order to be a great chef, you have to have this thirst for knowledge and this ability to learn a lot of stuff.
TOQUELAND: Not just food.
GIBNEY: Yeah, not just food. Or, even if it is just food, within that category there are so many subcategories like science and history and physical kinesthetic ability and technique. So you need to have a level of learning to be a good chef.
Writing Sous Chef
TOQUELAND: Tell me how this book came to be. Did you write the book on spec (i.e., without a publishing contract)?
GIBNEY: I finished the book then got an agent, having written the book.
TOQUELAND: How long did that take and what your schedule was like?
GIBNEY: I was in writing school and I was struggling to try and be a writer, struggling to find the right material. I was trying to do it separate from cooking and separate from painting and the other things that I’d pursued in the past. Professors weren’t extremely confident in me. Classmates had a lot of criticism for what I was turning in. I was struggling.
TOQUELAND: This was an early version of what ended up being Sous Chef?
GIBNEY: No, this was other material. It was memoir stuff, travel stuff. It just wasn’t very good. I caved one day and said, “All right. You know what? I’m going to start writing something about cooking because I know that, and see what people think of this.” It was almost a last ditch effort.
And I said, “If I’m going to start writing about cooking, what should I start with? Why don’t I start with the beginning of the day?” And that first submission for workshop ended up being the first chapter of the book, or something close to it.
TOQUELAND: When did you decide the book would take place over 24 hours?
GIBNEY: Right away. When I decided to begin at the beginning of a day, I thought pretty quickly, “Why don’t I just carry on with this until the day is complete?” The cool thing about the material is that I’m so familiar with it. I know what comes next in a day so I didn’t have to really think about what direction it was heading, so I was able to focus on the actual writing and making sentences as nice as I possibly could make them. And then asking early readers and classmates and professors what they need to know more about. Because I can talk to you for another 20 pages about fish.
TOQUELAND: Technically? Procedurally?
GIBNEY: Yeah, exactly. Procedurally, what more do you want or what less do you want? Is there too much information?
TOQUELAND: Did you feel like you needed that feedback because you were so close to it yourself? For example, there’s a glossary in the back of the book. Was that something you had to work on calibrating? Because it’s a pretty sophisticated food readership today.
GIBNEY: It is. Well, to that point, there were two ways that I thought about how much to include. When I was asking people what to include, it was more about how much are people actually interested in. How much do you continue to be interested in this?
TOQUELAND: But you don’t spoon-feed the reader.
GIBNEY: I don’t want to say that I don’t care about the reader, but in a busy kitchen you’re expected to either know what you’re doing or fake it until you make it and just keep up. And people will stop and instruct you one way or another but if you can’t keep up, if it’s not for you, then it’s not for you. I wanted to capture that sensation as well. I’m just going to sort of rattle things off to you, and if you have to look a word up or you have to look something up, then figure that out on your own time.
On Utilizing the Second Person
TOQUELAND: It’s in the second person, so that is what it’s like when you go into a kitchen. You sink or swim.
GIBNEY: That’s exactly what it is.
TOQUELAND: So it kind of keeps with the whole approach of you, the reader, being the sous chef.
GIBNEY: Yeah. Can you do this? Are you ready? I wouldn’t necessarily say that I totally planned that out but that was the thought that was in my head: I’m going to do this book the way that a good chef would. It’ll take you through the day. And I’ll be supportive to you and, we’re in this together and I’ll give you little clues that you’re going to be okay, but I’m also not going to make it super easy for you because it’s not easy. That’s the point.
TOQUELAND: Was it always in the second person from that first time you started writing it?
GIBNEY: Yeah. It’s sort of nakedly my story and from my experiences, but I didn’t want it to be a situation where I was saying, “Oh, this is really hard for me.” Or, “Look at what a badass I am for doing this or working this hard.” It’s more about the people who do this every day, so I couldn’t write it in the first person.
TOQUELAND: Had you written in the second person before?
TOQUELAND: Are there books that you like that are in the second person?
TOQUELAND: From that first workshop to the completion of your first draft, the document that you used to get an agent, what was the time span?
GIBNEY: Almost exactly two years.
TOQUELAND: How often did you work on it during that time?
GIBNEY: Certainly not every day. Well, maybe thinking about it every day, taking notes. I was doing that almost every day.
And then my process of actually sitting down and writing is usually I wake up, mess around for a few hours, procrastinate a little bit and then I’ll say, “Okay, let’s do this.” And I’ll turn on the 36‑hour jazz play list that I have for writing and just start, and usually go until about 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. Fifteen or twenty hours just sit there and maybe end up with five pages or something that I like. I certainly couldn’t do that every day. Some people like Phillip Lopate who I know fairly well, often says, ” I make sure that I work for three hours every day.” That’s totally not my style. I can’t do that. I like to always be thinking about it, and then to sit down and do the actual work is a full day commitment. It’s a short book so I wasn’t very productive for two years. If you look at someone … like, John O’Hara wrote Appointment in Samarra in three months or something like that.
TOQUELAND: You just used the word “memoir.” I was surprised that it’s categorized as a memoir. It’s in the second person, and in your preface you say it’s an amalgamation of certain characters. It’s not a straight memoir. Do you think of it really as a memoir?
GIBNEY: I don’t know. In the school that I went to, within that community of non‑fiction people, there are some really serious purists who would say that this is not even remotely non‑fiction. For those people I have several arguments. I think the extent to which you’re misleading the reader into believing something that’s untrue or deliberately betraying the trust of a reader, there’s none of that in this, so I feel like that qualifies it as a memoir. It is from my experience. But at the same time it’s written I suppose with more of a fiction attitude.
TOQUELAND: It’s paced like a novel.
GIBNEY: I don’t know what a novelist thinks of, but I imagined the world and I wasn’t just documenting the facts of a single day. I was imagining how to take the story ‑‑ this collection of thoughts — and transform them into a single day. But I still think it’s a non‑fiction book. I believe there’s something having to do with the trust of the reader that qualifies it as non‑fiction.
TOQUELAND: The end of the preface almost reads like a public service announcement, for young people who are wondering what it’s like in a professional kitchen. Was that a big goal for you, to show people considering the kitchen life what it’s like?
GIBNEY: Oh, absolutely. The second person itself, part of it was to be like a letter to someone who wishes to be a sous chef, or someone who currently is, or somebody who wonders what that’s like.
And the goal throughout the entire process was to always make sure that I make it as authentic and genuine and sincere a depiction of this life as I possibly can, which is why, for me, giving it over to some of my cook friends and passing it around to chefs and waiting for their feedback is most important because I want to make sure that I hadn’t violated that or strayed from that agenda.
TOQUELAND: You did that as part of your process?
GIBNEY: Some people read it before I even finished it. Some people read it before I got an agent. Some people read it when it was in galleys.
On Maintaining Relationships Outside of the Kitchen
TOQUELAND: Did any big changes come out of that review?
GIBNEY: There’s a great guy named Morgan Schofield. I’m working with him now. He’s a great chef and also he went to Brown, studied old-world archaeology, and is now a cook. He and I are kindred spirits in certain ways. So I gave it to him early on before it was even done and he had some feedback that I really took to heart.
TOQUELAND: Was his feedback more of a technical nature or did he actually have dramatic ideas for you?
GIBNEY: It was a little bit of both. He was one of the people who said, “Either develop the girlfriend more or take her completely out.” [Editor’s note: A girlfriend character exists at the margins of Sous Chef; the protagonist has her constantly on his mind but has trouble connecting with her.] I looked at the way she was treated a little bit more carefully. There’s a collection of people that believe that she’s totally extraneous. But that’s the whole point: that she’s there and she’s also not there. She’s not part of the story, but there’s this pathetic attachment to the idea of her and the fact that she’s not unreachable and only seeable for fifteen minutes.
TOQUELAND: That’s a place where the cooking life and the writing life intersect — when you’re deep into writing or when the protagonist in the book is into this day, it’s very hard to be available to other people, both physically (be on the same schedule), but also mentally. I read this great line once, I forget who it was, but he said, “If you want to be a writer, you have to get comfortable with the idea that you’re going to be at Thanksgiving dinner and really you just want to be at your desk.”
GIBNEY: And as a cook you’re comfortable with the fact that you’re probably going to be cooking Thanksgiving dinner for a bunch of strangers and not seeing your loved ones.
TOQUELAND: And that there are certain people for whom that lifestyle, as a partner, is going to be completely dissatisfying. A lot of those relationships are doomed.
GIBNEY: I know. All of mine included.
TOQUELAND: Just because of the fundamental nature of the life.
GIBNEY: It’s just tough, but in order to do something well, really, really well, you need to give yourself over to it. And that creates resentment in people. I’ve lost a lot of friends from college because every time they call me, I literally just don’t answer. I’ve gotten a whole bunch of messages and if I were at work, I would look at all those and just sort of delete them or forget that they existed. That’s because you’re in the zone.
It’s difficult to maintain relationships, but at the same time it’s not impossible, and something that I hope to continue to explore because there are certainly loads of people who are happily married or in happy relationships in the restaurant industry. But it’s tricky because one thing that’s happened to me, in certain relationships if I’m with somebody and I’m working all the time, really all I want to do when I get out of work is hang out with that person because I haven’t seen that person for 15 hours. And that seems needy. Counter‑intuitively you appear somehow to be needy, even though you’re never there, you’re the needy one, because you work that much to get out and be, like, “I’m coming over to your house right now.” “No, let’s just meet up tomorrow.” “No, but I really want to come over to your house right now.” It’s just difficult to interact with somebody who has a different lifestyle.
TOQUELAND: We follow the protagonist after work in this book, to a bar. Everybody talks about how hard chefs drink and party after work. But what I’ve always believed is that ‑‑ yes, it’s true that does happen — but it’s because you have to cram your entire need for socializing, human contact, R and R, everything into this little bit of time you have between when your shift’s over and when you go to sleep. In another recent interview, somebody described a service in really intense detail and they said, “What are you going to do after that, go home and read a book?”
GIBNEY: You’re not just gonna go home and go to sleep either because your brain is keyed up.
TOQUELAND: So whatever it is that you’re craving at that point, whether it’s that person or going out with other people, it’s elevated. Naturally.
GIBNEY: And it really is the only time. People are always asking, “Why are you going to bed at 4:30 in the morning?” “How do you wake up so late?” But you’re not going to accomplish anything before work. How many people work a 9-to-5, wake up at five in the morning and get a whole bunch of shit done before they go out to the 9-to-5, you know?
In cooking, I think it’s pretty similar. Rarely do you actually accomplish much before you start your shift, whenever that is, whether it’s 11:00 or 1:00 or 3:00, whatever it is. So just like everybody else, you get some things done afterwards but the only thing that’s open usually at midnight or 1:00 in the morning is a bar so that’s where you do your down time. And it is this moment where, unlike the hour or two you have before work, and unlike sleeping, and unlike being at work, you can shed responsibility for a second and not think about, “Oh, well, this is what I have going on tonight.” Because you wake up thinking about your prep list.
[Note: In part 2 of our interview with Michael Gibney, coming later this week, we discuss the process of selling a book and what’s next for the chef-author, in the kitchen and on the page.]
* Opening passage from Sous Chef © 2014 by Michael A. Gibney, Jr.