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?…