Book Review: Sous Chef by Michael Gibney

Book Review: Sous Chef by Michael GibneySous Chef by Michael Gibney
Published by Ballantine Books on March 25, 2014
Genres: Memoir, Non Fiction
Pages: 240
Format: eARC
Source: NetGalley
4 Stars
The back must slave to feed the belly. . . . In this urgent and unique book, chef Michael Gibney uses twenty-four hours to animate the intricate camaraderie and culinary choreography in an upscale New York restaurant kitchen. Here readers will find all the details, in rapid-fire succession, of what it takes to deliver an exceptional plate of food—the journey to excellence by way of exhaustion.

Told in second-person narrative, Sous Chef is an immersive, adrenaline-fueled run that offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective on the food service industry, allowing readers to briefly inhabit the hidden world behind the kitchen doors, in real time. This exhilarating account provides regular diners and food enthusiasts alike a detailed insider’s perspective, while offering fledgling professional cooks an honest picture of what the future holds, ultimately giving voice to the hard work and dedication around which chefs have built their careers.

In a kitchen where the highest standards are upheld and one misstep can result in disaster, Sous Chef conjures a greater appreciation for the thought, care, and focus that go into creating memorable and delicious fare. With grit, wit, and remarkable prose, Michael Gibney renders a beautiful and raw account of this demanding and sometimes overlooked profession, offering a nuanced perspective on the craft and art of food and service.

Book Review:

SOUS CHEF is a book I devoured. Twice. It’s as tasty as the dishes and food it describes.

An excellent look into the daily routine of a chef, it’s told in a creative style that puts the reader behind the knife. Second-person narrative (You pick up a dish, you make carrot puree) is really difficult to pull off, but I think Michael Gibney did a great job with it in this book. For me, that style made it much easier to learn about a kitchen, being a chef, various techniques, etc., rather than watching a character do it, or being in their head.

The only downside of the second-person narrative is that near the end, when talking about why “you’re” a chef, the book got a tad too philosophical for me, which is one reason why it wasn’t a 5 star read.

I learned a ton reading SOUS CHEF. I’ll admit, I love reality shows like Chopped, Top Chef, and Kitchen Nightmares, but I’m not always sure what’s going on when looking inside a professional kitchen. Now I have a much better idea. For example, I now know what “all day” means, the different positions on the line, and the general operating routine of a restaurant from open to close.

SOUS CHEF includes a helpful kitchen floor plan diagram and a comprehensive terminology section at the end. The only confusion I had with the book were the Spanish exchanges between “you” the sous chef and some of the kitchen staff. There’s not any translations for those, and I couldn’t always figure out what was being said.

SOUS CHEF has jumped to the top of my favorite culinary books, and I’m sure I’ll be rereading it in the future. It’s a book that’s super readable, has a style that will stick in your head, and is very easy to sink into and enjoy.

– leeanna

Review: New House 5: How a Dorm Becomes a Home by Andy Butler

new house 5Info:
Title: New House 5: How a Dorm Becomes a Home
Author: Andy Butler
Release Date: March 1, 2012
Publisher: Self-Published
Source: Received a copy from the author
Series? No
Genre: Memoir
Page Count: 311


Welcome to New House 5.

Yes, it’s the top floor of a brand new dormitory at a prestigious university. But it’s also something much more.

For fifty-six freshmen, it’s home. It’s a place where friends are made and doors are always open. It’s a place where hearts are broken and tears are shed. And for Andy Butler, it’s the best story about friendship he has ever known.

Andy is the resident assistant for New House 5, and it’s his responsibility to bring the floor together, to support everyone, through their triumphs and through their letdowns. Join Andy as he shows how New House 5 becomes a family, and then falls apart when hidden problems come to light. Watch as these students try to overcome their flaws and fears to create a bond so special that nothing can pull them apart.

Not even themselves. (summary from goodreads)

My Review:
Reading New House 5: How a Dorm Becomes a Home made me feel rather nostalgic for college and dorm life. I spent four years living in a dorm, yet I never experienced anything like the community Andy and his residents created. Part of that was my own reluctance to get involved — I was the typical loner, against “fake friendship”, just like some of the students in this book. But I also think that communities like this don’t come along every day in dorms, and that New House 5 was special.

Looking back at my college career, I can’t remember the names of any of my RAs. But I will remember Andy’s name. His tone was somewhat preachy at times, but I could tell he cared about each of his residents, and just wanted the best for them. The dialogue stood out to me too — there were a lot of “dudes” and “mans,” and that seemed a bit fake, but that could just be Andy’s natural way of speaking.

Sometimes it was hard to keep track of all the residents. Instead of trying to tell a story about each of the fifty-six residents on his floor, Andy focused on a few, which was a smart move. I still got mixed up because some of the names were very similar, and in that, I wish he would have chosen different names for the students. A list of students and a one sentence summary for each would be a nice addition to the book, like a dramatis personae.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Once I got into it, I wanted to keep reading, to find out what happened to each resident. I think New House 5 would be a great read for freshmen about to start college, who may be worried about dorm life. I know I was scared about living in a dorm, because I’d never lived with anyone other than my parents, and I didn’t have many friends in high school. I didn’t know if I’d get along with other people, or if I would fit in.

Some of the residents of New House 5 felt the same way. That’s another great thing — chances are anyone who reads this book will be able to identify with at least one of the students. There’s a good mix of personalities, from loud and obnoxious to quiet and considerate, and everything in between. In the end, all of the residents learned that there’s someone always there for them, even if they don’t think they have any friends.

New House 5 is a smooth, easy read. I felt as though I had known Andy and the other students for years, thanks to the conversational style. Andy was also unflinchingly honest about some of the mistakes he made as an RA, such as not telling someone higher up when one of his residents was a danger to herself. I liked that he didn’t gloss over his mistakes but admitted to them, which helped me feel even more like I knew him.

When New House 5 came to an end, both as a book and as a floor, I was sorry to leave everyone behind.


Socialize with the author:
Andy Butler

Book 152: The Politician

The PoliticianThe Politician: An Insider’s Account of John Edwards’s Pursuit of the Presidency and the Scandal That Brought Him Down, by Andrew Young

I read this mostly because I was interested in a birds-eye view of insider politics, and I sure got an eyeful.

It’s a little frightening to think about how close John Edwards got to the presidency, and to compare the projected image of him to the one written by Young. Quite scary, actually. Elizabeth Edwards is portrayed scarily as well, as both paranoid and controlling. The transcripts of her voicemails…wow.

Now I don’t believe everything I read in “The Politician,” but I’ve also read “Game Change,” and think that anyone who liked Young’s book should check out the other. Reading the two helped me keep a good perspective on what could be true, and what might not be.

While “The Politician” is a story of John Edwards, it is also the story of Andrew Young, Edwards’ inside man. I often wondered why Young put up with the increasing megalomania of John Edwards, the humiliating demands (he acted as butler, house cleaner, chauffeur, and worse), and verbal/emotional abuse heaped on him by both of the Edwards. He seemed like a pathetic guy for a lot of the book – especially when he agreed to accompany Rielle Hunter and claim her baby was his. I wondered even more how his wife put up with it. Young wrote he went along with everything because it was a job, health insurance, and because he felt for sure that when Edwards was elected, he’d be rewarded. That’s another scary thought, actually.

“The Politician” is a bit like a bad soap opera or train-wreck – I couldn’t believe some of the things I was reading, but I just couldn’t stop. Some parts were pretty illuminating, and thought-provoking, and some baffling. A book to read if you’re interested in the Edwards story, or even an insider’s account of politics.


Book 136: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of TeaThree Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

“Three Cups of Tea” is one of those books that, while you’re reading, every little thing that you think is wrong with your life is put into perspective. Mortenson is an American who builds schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the story of how he went from a mountaineer to the head of a non-profit organization is awe-inspiring.

After a failed attempt at climbing K2, the world’s second highest mountain, Mortenson stumbled into a tiny little village, Korphe. The people living in Korphe were poor, but were willing to open their village to a stranger in need. When Mortenson asked to see the school, he was shocked to see the children sitting outside, tracing their lessons into the dirt without a teacher. He promised to return to Korphe and build a school – he had no clue how he would do it, but he would.

Mortenson then returned to California and went into overdrive saving money, working, and writing letters to raise money. After months of frustration, he made some lucky connections and received a big donation that enabled him to return to Pakistan and start on the Korphe school. Mortenson bought building materials and traveled to the remote village, only to learn that he had to conquer yet another setback – a bridge had to be constructed to ferry the school materials. And so the quest to raise more money to fulfill his promise continued.

That is the start of Mortenson’s story, with the building of his very first school in one of Pakistan’s most remote regions. The book is written as if Mortenson was telling his story to another person, and sometimes the flow of events does suffer from that, along with some overly poetic passages. But the reader also gets a very complete picture of Mortenson’s life, what led to him trying to climb K2, and the changes that occurred after he built Korphe’s school. Because he didn’t stop with that one school, but realized his life’s work was to spread education to the children of Pakistan and Afghanistan, especially to girls.

Readers will also learn a lot about the dynamics of the regions, such as the different wars that have been fought, the tribal relations, the difficulty of living. “Three Cups of Tea” is both educational and engrossing.


Book 90: Getting It Through My Thick Skull

Getting It Through My Thick SkullGetting It Through My Thick Skull, by Mary Jo Buttafuoco

I was pretty young when the infamous “Long Island Lolita” case took over the media, and I didn’t remember any of the movies or coverage or interviews, so I went into this book with fresh eyes, and read an engaging, inspiring story.

Mary Jo’s incredibly honest about her life with Joey, from their early dysfunctional and yet happy marriage, when he first started exhibiting signs of being a sociopath. Only she didn’t know it at the time, and was concerned with keeping up appearances. She suffered through panic attacks, and a husband addicted to cocaine, while trying to raise two children. Every time she thought about leaving, when she couldn’t take Joey’s behavior anymore, he convinced her to stay.

Fast forward to being shot by Amy Fisher, and the horrifically difficult recovery. The physical problems were compounded by the media firestorm, and more of Joey’s bad behavior. Mary Jo, the real victim, ended up being pushed in the background while the antics of her husband and Amy took the forefront, giving Mary Jo no chance to tell her story. This haunted her for years.

Mary Jo spent the next decade plus trying to get some semblance of a normal life, eventually leaving her husband and learning how to heal from the scars that his behavior put on her soul. She tells her story honestly, describing her rehab for addiction to painkillers; the lonely, alcohol filled nights on her own; and slowly experimenting in the dating world again, learning to trust. She healed herself, and was rewarded with some incredible opportunities.

Mary Jo’s main point behind writing the book was to try to help other women and men trapped in marriages with sociopaths, and it’s an educational personal story.


Book 88: All Things at Once

All Things at OnceAll Things at Once, by Mika Brzezinski

The best part of this book is Mika’s honesty, especially her no-holds barred recounting of a terrible accident with her and her baby, caused due to Mika’s exhaustion of stretching herself too thin. But that’s really the only positive of this book – it’s very short, doesn’t contain much of substance, and just generally left me wondering what I had read.

The message Mika’s trying to promote is don’t wait to have children, and that you can have all things at once…but the message isn’t very effective. Admitting that she doesn’t see her children all that much (in fact, while covering the events of September 11, 2001, she didn’t see them for 20+ days), it appears as if the children are mostly taken care of by domestic help. Mika even writes about an experience where her nine-year-old daughter scheduled her own dentist appointment, rather than waiting for mommy to get around to it. Her year of being a stay-at-home mother failed miserably, as she couldn’t cook, do laundry, houseclean, and thought that helping them with homework was hard. She admits she preferred being the “fun” parent, doing water balloon parties or such to make up for missing important events in her kids lives. Mika says she isn’t cut out to be a full-time, stay-at-home mother, so I wonder why she wanted kids at all. She wrote about wanting them, and wanting a family in her early 20s, but never said exactly why.

The most interesting parts to me where the descriptions of Mika’s parents, Emilie and Zgibniew. It sounds like they had a fascinating home life, and encouraged their children to pursue academics and other interests. I would’ve preferred to read a book about either of them more than their daughter.

I’m left wondering if she got a book deal only because of “Morning Joe’s” popularity; is Willie Geist next in the lineup?


Book 87: Growing Up bin Laden

Growing Up bin LadenGrowing Up bin Laden, by Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson

When I started reading this book, I thought I would be most interested in Najwa’s perspective, but the more I read, the more I learned from her son, Omar. Najwa’s story is limited in that she lived her entire life with her husband in purdah, or isolation, and thus wasn’t privy to any details of what was happening. Her role was to be a happy, submissive, sweet, unquestioning wife and she fulfilled that perfectly. I was more infuriated with her, for her unquestioning obedience, but I can understand that that is due to a difference of upbringing, life experiences, culture, and religion.

Omar, the fourth son of Najwa and Osama, had a difficult and bewildering childhood. The family went from living in luxury in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to middle-class life in Khartoum, Sudan, to living on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, each step accompanied by more involvement in al-Qaeda and jihad. Omar is an extreme opposite of his father in every way – never understanding the thirst for violence shown by Osama, Omar instead dreamed of peace, and an ordinary life. But he was constrained by his culture, and suffered emotionally and physically for many years before he developed the courage to get out.

This book is educational, as it provides a narrative timeline of the development of al-Qaeda, and the increasing terrorist activity of the organization. We see how Osama bin Laden changed from a student of economics to the world’s most wanted man, and the senselessness of many of the acts he and his group endorse. Omar describes an incident where men killed a monkey, because they were convinced the monkey was a Jew. The book is both terrifying and enlightening, as I don’t realize how people could believe such…garbage? Idiocy? But then I saw how so many of the recruits were boys from villages, who were easily swayed by powerful speakers and religious authorities, and who had no real opportunities in life other than the fighting offered by jihad violence.


Book 76: Heart of a Patriot

Heart of a PatriotHeart of a Patriot, by Max Cleland

While reading “Heart of A Patriot,” I kept turning to discuss certain points with my father, as I was continually inspired and amazed by Max Cleland. In this book he briefly describes his childhood and coming of age during the Kennedy era, which inspired him to get into politics. He then delves into his time in Vietnam and the subsequent grenade explosion that took his legs and arm. He spares nothing in recounting his recovery, both physical and mental, and his sheer determination to walk again despite overwhelming odds was incredibly inspiring.

Cleland used politics as a way to find purpose in his life – he wanted to *do* something. And he definitely did something – Georgia state senator, Veterans Affairs Administrator, Secretary of the State of Georgia, U.S. Senator, 9/11 Commission, and Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission.

During the 2002 Senate race, Cleland lost his seat to a Republican, likely due in large part to a smear campaign that he felt “took away his service.” His vote for the Iraq War authorization also caused him grief and doubt, and he discusses the thought process behind voting for the resolution in the book. I enjoyed some of the lighter information as well, such as the historical desks in the Senate offices.

Cleland is very clearly a Democrat, and his book tells it how *he* sees it – and I find nothing wrong with that. Even so, if you may have political views on the other side of the spectrum, don’t let that stop you from reading this book. While much of it is political, much is also not, particularly Cleland’s battle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the disastrous 2002 Senate race. Some people have said that he sounds like a crybaby, but nothing could be further from the truth; he suffered from extreme depression and anxiety, and fought like a man to overcome PSTD and live a normal life. Cleland’s struggle is inspiring, and I think it’s pretty cool that a normal guy was willing to talk about his struggles so openly, in the hopes that it would help someone else.


Book 64: Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession

CleavingCleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, by Julie Powell

Julie Powell’s penchant for whining carries from her previous novel into “Cleaving.” While reading the book, I actually felt very bogged down and depressed, especially after seeing page after page of her whining about her troubled marriage and pathetic affair. I call her affair pathetic because even after it’s clear the other man doesn’t want her, she stalks him, writes to him, texts him, and doesn’t give up for two years (and the reader gets to hear about it *every* time she tries to contact him). Perhaps writing “Cleaving” was a form of therapy for Powell, but it’s the sort of writing that should stay in a blog or diary, not in a book.

I wanted to like this book. After not particularly enjoying Powell’s first novel, “Julie and Julia,” I had hoped that she would show something worthy of having published a second book. But “Cleaving” fell flat for me, like an unsharpened knife slicing into bread. The main subject, butchering, is only somewhat interesting, and I think the reader is overdosed on descriptions and techniques on how to break up this animal, or how to cut down that animal. My eyes started glazing over after the fifth or sixth long passage of yet another butchering story.

I had read the prologue of “Cleaving” in my copy of “Julie and Julia,” and it caught my attention, but for me that was probably the best part of the book. The other employees at Fleisher’s are far more interesting than Powell herself, and I did enjoy reading her stories about them. However her trips to different countries are recounted in a so-so manner, including way too many experiences of men finding her attractive. Do I really need to hear that a Maasai warrior finds her pretty, after hearing that Ukrainian and Argentinian men do as well?

If I were her, I certainly wouldn’t want such details of my life spewed on a page, published for anyone and everyone to read. But I suppose it does take guts to publicly talk about an affair, her marriage troubles, her husband’s lover, anonymous sex, etc., and her use of butchering as a way to find herself. I’m just not sure if it’s good literary material; the liberal sprinkling of Buffy metaphors certainly doesn’t help.

I’d say get “Cleaving” out from the library if you’re determined to read it, before parting with your money.


Book 63: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously

Julie and JuliaJulie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell

My biggest warning for you if you read this book: Do NOT read it while eating. Just don’t. While it is a book about food, there are some very…icky experiences recounted that killed my appetite.

While reading, I was constantly left with the feeling that Powell’s words are better left on screen in her blog, or maybe part of a comedy routine. The best passages in the book are her imaginary retellings of Julia and Paul Child’s relationship, but those sparse stories can’t rescue the rest of it. The writing is overdone with huge doses of navel gazing. And yes I understand this is a memoir, but the amount of bitching borders on the insane. She wrote that a blog is a blank check for whining, and that’s where it should have stayed.

Julie is so whiny and immature that it’s hard to care about her at all, and indeed I didn’t by the end of the book. Her husband is a saint for putting up with all the fights, crying fits, and worse that she made him endure over her year of cooking all the recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.” I’m sure he wanted to kick himself more than once for supporting the idea.

Her acknowledgment in the Author’s Note that sometimes she just plain made stuff up didn’t start the novel off well for me, and I was further disgusted with many of the episodes she described.

For once, the movie version of a book is better than the actual book – it’s clear the writers of the “Julie and Julia” screenplay spent a lot of time cleaning up Powell’s memoir and making a presentable story.

If you’re looking for a real culinary memoir, read “My Life in France,” by Julia Child.