In Which We Discuss Smoking Breaks, Selling Books, and the Chef as Unattainable Ideal
Here’s part 2 of our interview with Sous Chef author Michael Gibney. If you’ve not yet read part 1, you might want to click over and check it out before reading this installment. The book publishes today, and can be ordered here:
On Smoking Breaks
TOQUELAND: There’s a real rhythm to the book: Obviously service is depicted in a very intense way. But there are also moments of solitude that create a Yin-Yang effect, like the smoking breaks, time in the office, that description of the kitchen that opens the book. Those become intense in their own way. And then there are intimate, one-on-one exchanges with the chef or the other sous chef. The rhythm of the day is very interesting because you’re constantly moving between a kind of solitude to one-on-one to group activity. Was that something that was deliberate for you or did the day just take you there?
GIBNEY: Some readers are really pissed off that the chef smokes, or that the narrator smokes. Readers in the online communities. “I stopped reading this because I don’t think chefs should smoke.” Well, it is a reality. Many of them do. But the reason it’s included in the book is to get some of your own space and time, five minutes of freedom of thought that’s similar to going out to the bar after work. If you’re really stressed or you’re feeling down or you’re feeling really hung over or you’re sick or lonely or whatever it is, that bright light and all the ambient sound and all the people and the clanking of the pots and the heat and the fire is only going to exacerbate whatever negative feelings you’re having, so you do need to step away and clear your head from time to time.
It was important to me to include all of those because they do exist. Sometimes some people go into the walk‑in box and just hang out for a minute and have the cold air blasting on their face. Some people don’t need that; some people like the intensity. But the point is that little moments of that sort are, in real life and also in the book, deliberate escapes from that atmosphere.
TOQUELAND: Some of my favorite verbs in the book are the way guys flick their cigarette butts. That was such a true thing for me because the least wimpy disposers of cigarette butts I know are cooks. “He rockets it into the middle of the street.”
GIBNEY: Yeah. “He fires his butt into the gutter.” In the beginning I include this anecdote about meeting Marco Pierre White and it’s true that when I saw him I was, like, “Hold on. I know this guy.” It had to do with the way that he carried himself. And in the bar scene, the narrator sees the three other guys coming up the road and there’s a connection. I don’t know if it’s macho; I don’t know what precisely it is, but there is some sort of confident and finessed way that cooks carry themselves, and that’s included in everything.
The Chef as Personal Goal
TOQUELAND: The chef character in the book is presented as this almost perfect professional. Maybe more than almost any real chef is. He’s an unattainable ideal.
GIBNEY: Some people would disagree with that. Thomas Keller, for example. There’s no cursing allowed at Per Se, and people aren’t going on smoke breaks. I mean, they still do have different versions of it, but in his mind this is probably a shabby kitchen that we’re talking about in the book. So there are certainly higher ideals. This particular chef, the first thing he says is something vulgar and immature. So in other people’s eyes it might seem like there are chinks in his armor but his finesse is ubiquitous: he’s the best butcher, the best baker, he does this perfectly, he does that perfectly. And that is the idea: Whether or not it’s actually true of that person, wherever you’re working — unless you’re not satisfied with where you’re working — you have respect for the chef, that’s the sort of pedestal that you put him or her on.
The physical inspiration for this particular chef is a guy who was my first sous chef gig, a guy that I worked with seven or eight years ago. And he did look that way and I looked up to him so much. I learned loads from him about how to think, how to invent things, the sort of confidence to have. And now, I probably have learned many more skills, and I wouldn’t look at him the same way that I did at that age, but at that age, that person was that way for me. That’s true for just about every chef that I’ve had in my life. I just look at that person as what I want to achieve.
I think that’s the attitude you need to have in order to put up with the work that you have to do. You have to idolize the people who are better and more experienced and higher up the food chain than you are. And the chef is as high as it gets.
Adventures in the Publishing Trade
TOQUELAND: What was the process of finding an agent and then selling the book like?
GIBNEY: The agent part: I think when it happens, it’s easy. When it’s not happening, it’s difficult. I sent out some query letters and got “no” responses.
TOQUELAND: So you just did the standard, old‑fashioned cold query letters?
TOQUELAND: This had a synopsis of the work?
GIBNEY: For the most part, in the beginning, I just would send a letter saying, “Hey, I’ve got this book that you’ve got to read. This is briefly what it’s about.”
TOQUELAND: So just a paragraph about it?
GIBNEY: Yeah. I got responses that made it glaringly obvious that the person didn’t even read the letter or think at all about what the book is.
TOQUELAND: Some kind of form letter? “It’s not the right project for us at this time” kind of thing?
GIBNEY: Right. And that feels bad but it doesn’t feel that bad. It’d be a lot worse if someone gets back to you and then you meet and you talk and they read it and they’re like, “Actually, your shit sucks.”
TOQUELAND: And they’ve rejected you?
GIBNEY: So I dealt with that. But it does feel hopeless at that point, like, “How many people do I have to beg? What do I have to do to get some attention here?” It’s a really demoralizing thing I think in this field. It’s like in cooking when you’re trying to get a stage somewhere, trying to work at a really great restaurant, people are, like, “Who the hell are you? Your resume is garbage. Get out of my kitchen.” It’s, like, “No, I’m actually good. Just let me try.” Same sort of rat race.
It gets frustrating, but I was fortunate: Columbia’s got this mixer where they invite a whole bunch of agents, and anybody who’s gone through the program and has a finished book is allowed to come. And they’re funny and oddly sad at the same time because there’s so much desperation in the room.
TOQUELAND: What’s the ratio?
GIBNEY: Usually way more students or former students. People who graduated 20 years ago are still there again with their manuscript. It’s about 75 agents and, like, 215, 220 students. It’s just a cocktail party.
TOQUELAND: So everyone’s trying to make enough of an impression to get a business card and an invitation and be in touch?
GIBNEY: Yeah. And the agents come with something like 150 business cards, just pass them around. So when I went to it, I said to myself, “All right, I’m not going to go in, be one of these people that literally gets in line to talk to somebody.” I didn’t want to do that. It’s awkward. It’s uncomfortable. So I promised myself I would have a couple glasses of wine. If I meet someone, I meet someone.
And I met some people and the water was kind of tepid at that time. So I was walking through on my way to get another glass of wine, someone pulled me aside and introduced me to [AGENT]. [Editor’s note: To spare her a barrage of correspondence, we’re omitting the agent’s name here; suffice it to say she is with ICM.] And the whole time I was, like, I’m not going to try and sell this person something. I’m just going to talk. I’m going to say, listen, I have a book, and kind of downplay the book and just act like a human being, which I did. And we ended up talking for fifteen or twenty minutes and people started to line up. We were actually having a human conversation.
TOQUELAND: Did they have name tags that say their agency on them?
TOQUELAND: So this is a real meat market?
GIBNEY: Yeah. And I was trying to do everything I could to divert attention from that fact during our conversation. We were just talking. We were talking about food. We shared mutual interests. She said, “Why don’t you send me a copy of your book?” So I got that business card but at the end of the day it was still just a business card just like everybody else was getting business cards. I still had no idea what to expect. Then I e‑mailed her my manuscript and didn’t hear back from her at all.
[Two weeks later, the agent agreed to represent the book.]
TOQUELAND: How long did it take her to sell it?
GIBNEY: She gave me two weeks. We met properly in her office, talked about some revisions, left off the last 40 pages of the book; it was this elaborate afterword that was all in first person. It was my story and how I feel about cooking and how I’m on the fence in a certain way. She’s said, “This is just unnecessary.”
And then she sent it out to, like, 15 people and by the next week, we had meetings arranged with, seven or eight people. So that started on Monday. I think we either went a full week or a week and a half and then we got our first offer on my 30th birthday. That felt really good. And then we got another. We had another meeting or two. We got another couple of offers and then all of a sudden it was an auction. And it was incredibly surreal. I’m sitting in my house picturing people running down the hall, papers flying everywhere. It was just a really exciting moment for me to imagine myself being at the center of it. And we sold it. The process of her sending it out to a deal being made took two weeks, maybe three weeks. And the process of me meeting her, me signing, the whole thing, probably a month and a half.
TOQUELAND: Had you published anything before this?
TOQUELAND: So you had no short fiction to point to?
GIBNEY: Nothing. No resume. I had no business even applying to writing school in the first place.
TOQUELAND: Was there any pressure at any point from yourself or from anyone else to have any more salacious or scandalous material in the book?
GIBNEY: I wanted it to not be that way.
TOQUELAND: But was there ever any pressure for that? When you were going through the submissions phase, were any publishers saying, “We’d really like you to show us a little more of the dark side?” It seems like there’s always that pressure because people perceive that as commercial.
GIBNEY: My agent shielded me pretty well from too many of the criticisms. She really kind of only showed me the people who were really excited about it. But I did early on get people saying, “We need more human interest.” Or, “Are there any controversies between these cooks?” That would then make it really fiction, you know? I’d really be just inventing shit for the sensationalism of it.
And that’s also not the point. The point is that they are machine‑like when they’re at work. I’m showing a picture of them at work, not a picture of their entire past. There’s a little glimpse of who they are just so you can envision their faces and their attitudes, but it’s not about who’s doing whatever to whoever else in the dry storage area.
Life After Sous Chef
TOQUELAND: When you think about moving forward, do you see yourself continuing to cook and write?
GIBNEY: The short answer is I have no idea what the hell I’m doing with my life and I’m terrified by the prospect that that may always be the case for the rest of it, but I think the more accurate answer is that I can’t picture myself ever straying too far from either of them.
This restaurant in Times Square that I’m working on [UQ] is going to consume a lot of time but it’s going to be exciting stuff, stimulating stuff. I’ve got another book in mind which isn’t so much a follow‑up to this but things that maybe I left out. My agent and I have talked about how everybody asks questions like, “What’s with the tattoos?” It’s similar to what your website does, which is, “What’s with this?” or “What’s with people in this community?” Let’s look at these people. What’s the motivation?
At some point in history, someone decided, “All right. I’m going to take this stuff and make it for you, and give it to other people.” So, that’s the origin. What was that moment like and how did we get to where we are now? What’s in the mind of a chef? David Chang obviously just did the show that was called The Mind of a Chef, but my version of that. What’s the hand you’re dealt by being involved in this industry? What choices do you make? Sacrifices? All this sort of stuff. I just need to find the proper container for it.