Cooking Dirty – Life, Love and Death in the Kitchen

Cooking Dirty
Life, Love and Death in the Kitchen
By Jason Sheehan
Atlantic Books – £16.99

Love, life and death in some kind of kitchen this book most certainly is – just add ‘addiction’ to the list, and you have Jason Sheehans’ gloriously fast paced memoir, ultimately summed up. Reason being, Cooking Dirty – Life, Love and Death in the Kitchen really is something of an addictive read. In fact, these 351 pages wreak havoc with ones’ sleeping pattern(s); as once committed, it’s a hard book to put down. And believe me, I’ve tried.

To be sure, it’s an addictive read on a variety of levels, primarily that of being addicted to Sheehan’s addiction itself. The lure, the buzz and the frenzied adrenalin rush of working amid some of the ghastliest kitchens the length and breadth of the United States, is, if you’ve ever worked in one, another entity altogether. Another place. Another world. Another void of its own idiosyncratic design. A compartmentalized domain unto its own compartmentalized mayhem; which, you’re either attracted to or you’re not. Simples.

Like firemen, fishermen and an array of other occupations where commitment is key, it’s of vital importance to both like and truly believe in what you’re doing. And Sheehan – for all the pitfalls and the hideously long hours that restaurant cooking entails – has clearly felt compelled to devote a considerable chunk of his life to just that; as he sardonically reveals and shares in the book’s third chapter ‘Almost Famous’: ‘’If I close my eyes now, I can actually see that little whelp of a fifteen-year-old me standing there on the back step beside Ange, about to utter six of the stupidest words he’d ever said. In my head, it’s a black-and-white photo, the tall and ropy flour-dusted master in his white T-shirt and glasses towering, exhausted and despairingly, beside the pubescent apprentice with his stained tank top and over large apron hanging down to his ankles […]. I can see me thinking, chewing carefully over my words, not sure exactly how to say what I’m about to say, until gently, stupidly and not without a little chiding humour in my voice, I simply spit it out: ‘’Ange, it’s Friday. Tomorrow’s the weekend.’’

And Ange, he takes a long drag off his cigarette, then he sighs – the kind of sigh only a man who’s been working every single night for three hundred years can utter.

‘’Yeah,’’ he says. ‘’And the peoples got to eat on weekends too.’’

The peoples got to eat. That pretty much summed up how my life was going to go for the next fifteen years.’’

Such writing and reminiscing sets numerous scenes perfectly, as well as adroitly, throughout Cooking Dirty; making for a read that’s as much a resonant memoir as a revelation. So yeah, kooky and shambolic, dirty and unsociable – although occasionally rewarding – the wonderful world of restaurant cooking isn’t exactly Nigella Lawson amid a potpourri of compliments. But don’t take my word for it – get lost in this book and find out for yourself.

David Marx

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