I recently read a fun book. It’s called Sous Chef by Michael Gibney. I’m still not sure why this book spoke to me so much. It’s not a great literary work, but it captures the atmosphere of line cooking as it teaches about food and food-related vocabulary, and it’s entertaining as hell. I find books about cooking often take themselves too seriously, just as cooking often takes itself too seriously. As soon as Gibney begins to aggrandize the work or become carried away, he checks himself. One of the first passages that stood out for me was about fish cutting. He brings a sexiness to the act of knife sharpening: “The process is sensuous. They are obedient as you glide them across the smooth, wet surface of the stone.” But then he quickly comes back to reality with “you are ready to cut the fish.” The knife is sharp; the sentence is blunt, enough of this romanticism, back to work.
Gibney does an excellent job of capturing the personalities of his work place, and this is a major part of the book’s charm. I’m sure that basically every book written about line cooking since it became fashionable, beginning with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which I read at the tender age of 19 when I had just entered the trade, recounts in detail the surly, macho, vice-driven, profane character of the cooks. It’s a cliche, but there’s truth in cliche. “By day we are craftsmen of military efficiency, by night we are scoundrels who need no greater excuse than a busy night of service to justify going headlong into the clutches of vice.” Well. This is certainly true of every line cook I ever knew. I had tingle-down-the-spine nostalgia for my culinary past as I got to know the characters in Sous Chef. I remembered Robbie, the Wittgenstein quoting Rochesterian I cooked saute with at 411 West. I remembered Danny the rotund marine who tore up the pasta station at Aurora, Owen who worked the grill and averaged one “that’s what she said” joke per hour, and Steve Kennedy who could crush ten veals with wild mushroom pan sauce at a time and barely break a sweat. I remembered Alex, the chef de cuisine at Magnolia Grill who protected me from the wrath of the chef one night when I almost ran out of a bacon garnish. This list goes on. Universality is part of the beauty of kitchens. The folks in Gibney’s book are distinct to Gibney’s restaurant (which, by the way, he never names), but they are also archetypes.
There are some laugh-out-loud moments in this memoir, but it’s a little hard for me to tell whether experience in the trade is a prerequisite for their funniness. For example, I cracked up reading the end-of-night exchange between Warren and VinDog over how much lime juice to call for on the next morning’s prep list: “Yeah, but how long has that shit been in there?” Vinny to Warren re: lime juice. “I like my acids to be bright and delicious, dog, don’t you get it? I’m not about to use your shit. It’s mad old. It’s a fucking chemistry experiment by now.” This exchange took me back to the last hour of every day on the line at Magnolia Grill when, a beer or a glass of wine in hand, we discussed and debated each item on the prep list looking for the perfect amount of mise en place to get us through the next night’s service.
Of course at the end of his 16 hour work day you hope and and pray that Michael Gibney will go home and pass out, but he goes to the bar with his fellow cooks, and begins to double fist beer and whisky, something I did most nights of my culinary career, which brought me back to why I left that world, why I entered the wine world, why I’ll never go back to the kitchen though it remains dear to my heart.
Part of the resonance of this book sprang from the fact that I’ve become incredibly dissatisfied with the dining scene in New York. Sure there are plenty of places where you can eat a very good meal, but at what price, in what atmosphere, where does your money go, and what does it get you? And this doesn’t even touch the ultimate question: is there anything exciting about the wine list? Dining and drinking are political statements. I don’t relish giving my hard earned salary to restaurant groups though I have many peers who are happily employed by them; I’m on the constant look out for relatively independent establishments making relatively simple, classic food at a high level at a price that makes sense. This echoes my sentiments about wine. In both cases it’s not so easy to find. I don’t try hard enough … I’m almost afraid to eat out in Manhattan because I’m so often disappointed. (You’ll probably notice I specified Manhattan. There’s plenty of bad, expensive food in Brooklyn too, but the scene is different, with more independent eateries, less pricey rents, a better fit for me politically.) I have to stop before this becomes a full-fledged rant. Let’s just say that in this day and time, there’s a reason so many of our wine dinners take place at someone’s apartment rather than at a restaurant. Reading Sous Chef made me re-examine my beef with New York restaurants while reclaiming the connection I’ve always felt to cooks and their craft. Cooking is fucking hard, and cooking at a high level is certainly an art, but preparing and consuming food is elemental. There’s this tendency to forget that expensive dishes in fancy restaurants are still just … well … food; Michael Gibney doesn’t forget it even as he tells his 24 hour tale of glamor and woe on the line.
It’s as suave and sleek a sherry as I could imagine with an intense, briny, salty note of flor, gorgeous marzipan character, and a velvet soft yet delicate palate that speaks to sherry’s total lack of glycerine. La Cigarerra made four barrels of this wine, and the average age of the wine is 20 years. I don’t think I’ve ever tried as miraculous a sherry, including the various cuvées Extra Big Deal from Equipo Navazos. If you have the chance, drink this.
Susannah thinks the acronym should stand for “Big, Black Female” or some such thing, but it in fact stands for Blanc de Blancs Fût. The base wines for this Crémant come from 2007 and 2008; they are aged in barrel. The wine was bottled in July of 2009, and has been resting on lees since then. This is always a deliciously oxidative Crémant that shows apply earth and mineral, the limestone tang of the Jura, a poise and elegance that’s quite Champenoise and a rusticity that is 100% Jurassic. Sometimes there’s bottle variation; not every bottle I’ve tasted state side has been pristine, but this one was!
It’s a flor-forward (can I say that?), gutsy En Rama sherry that happens to be one of the few unfiltered sherries that ages well. Given that I’ve been thinking a lot recently about flor and flor character as it influences yellow wine, I was particularly curious to read in Peter Liem’s book that Barbadillo bottles these half bottle beauties seasonally with the notion of showing the character of the flor at bottling. This is their autumn bottling. Is it enough that I went back for a second bottle?
I nicked one from the office because I hadn’t had it yet and wanted to taste. This wine sees some aging sur lie. There’s a certain deep comfort to be found in good Muscadet even if it’s not seasonally appropriate, and even if you don’t have a plate of oysters in front of you. This wine is full-textured and stony, ripe with faint hints of white flower, lemon curd, herbs, and freshly sliced fennel bulb. It strikes a fine middle ground between complexity and refreshment, by this I mean it’s not what I’ll impolitely call “big dick” Muscadet such as Marc Ollivier’s “3” (probably the only wine Marc has ever made that I don’t like). (As a brief aside, the sure fire way of spotting a “big dick” Muscadet is by the weight of the bottle; if the bottle is heavy, you’re bound to find long lees aging, and textures more reminiscent of white Burgundy than of classic Muscadet.) At any rate, this wine balanced perfectly between lees aging and crispness, and continued to improve over two days open in my fridge.
After ogling this bottle at Astor, I received it as a gift from my friend EG in exchange for feeding his friendly orange cat. I arrived to feed the cat on a rainy Christmas Eve. I’d been intensely sick, weakened, and wallowing in a cloud of holiday-induced self-pity. On the table in EG’s apartment was this bottle, wrapped in Christmas lights, with a note attached. I was so touched. Pretty much every evening I’ve had a little glass of this before going to bed. It’s heavily spiced with clove and cinnamon; it’s tannic and acidic like Nebbiolo. Every sip is a joy; it’s warm like friendship during a cold, dark, lonely time of year when kindling the old holiday spirit seems almost epically impossible.