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?…