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The Seasoning of a Chef, November 5, 2005  For some reason I am fascinated with books that detail people rising in their profession. I used to only read the books about CEOs of technology companies, but now I also read about chefs. There's something about understanding the choices they made, the skills they learned, and the luck they encountered. I especially like reading the person's own version and then the critical version written by others. This is typically only possible with CEOs as not a lot of people are writing book-length criticisms of chefs. That said, the new book The Seasoning of a Chef - My Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond by Doug Psaltis (the Chef) with (his brother and literary agent) Michael Psaltis, and the response to it encapsulated in this thread on eGullet come about as close as you can find.

I've been delaying writing about this book because I'm not sure how I feel about it. And frankly I'm a little gunshy given the reaction to the last time I wrote about a book. But let's dive in. Flame wars are always fun. The book is definitely readable. It only took me a couple of days to rip through it. Some of the literary maneuvers (like telling a story out of order for dramatic effect) seem tried on for size almost like the author has seen others do it and decided to see how it worked. But when a chef is writing a book (even with his brother who is said to have some skills in this area) this can be forgiven. I liked hearing the details of working in these kitchens. It's basically voyeuristic fun especially when you get to see the author treated to special privileges and perks by the Ducasse organization including visiting and working in his other restaurants. When I look at the individual parts of the book it adds up to the notion that I enjoyed reading the book. And in fact I did.

And yet, there's also something unsatisfying about the book. It's kind of like a meal that has great technical execution but no soul. How do you separate the fact that your mouth is satisfied, but your heart isn't getting what it needs? That's kind of how the book was for me. Psaltis was telling his own life story. Even sharing intimate details about how he was feeling and tradeoffs he made, and yet the characters all felt two dimensional. Psaltis moves up the ranks of professional cooks in Manhattan methodically, and while he shares some of the tradeoffs he made, I never really felt them. In fact, I just really had no idea what kind of a guy he was. I walked away feeling that I'd gotten a somehow sanitized version of what happened. Not because he necessarily took out all the ugly details (though he did remove some) but the story just became one of a few repetitive notes: worked hard, learned stuff, sometimes encountered challenges, sometimes overcame challenges, sometimes got rewarded, moved on.

In a way writing a book like this is almost impossible as nobody is ever going to be happy. If you aren't glowingly positive about everyone then people get insulted. (And sure enough Mario Batali and Jacques Pepin regret the blurbs they offered for the back of the book. My feedback to them - you get what you deserve for putting your name on something you didn't fully review. I would be more embarassed admitting that I put my name on something I'd never read than the fact that I endorsed a book that wasn't 100% glowing about Thomas Keller. Isn't the whole point of a chef's good name that they ensure their own personal stamp of quality is earned by every single thing they put in front of a customer? I wonder if you do the same cursory review of food you sell before you put your name on it?) And if you are glowingly positive then you've written a puff piece. It's clear that Psaltis is trying to strike what in his mind was probably a reasonable balance and set of tradeoffs that took into account being honest and not trashing people unreasonably. Mysteriously names of restaurants and chefs disappear or are changed whenever Psaltis has negative things to say about his experience. And in the case of his discussion about the French Laundry where he can't anonymize the tale, with every criticism of Keller and (mostly) his restaurant he loads us up with praise for the very same. I feel like I understand the goal, but unfortunately the book comes off as inauthentic. After reading it I enjoyed many of the details of the inner workings, but feel mostly unsatisfied. And after reading all the eGullet machinations I also end up wondering how much is true. Of course when you write your own story you're bound to put it through your own lens so some of that should be forgiven.

In the end, this book kind of reminds me of the "reality" show The Restaurant with Rocco diSpirito. The book is entertaining. The backgrounds are from a world I like reading about - the world of professional cooking. But I never feel like I'm really seeing the truth. Things feel manufactured. One telling thing, with the Rocco show I kind of suspected that the food they were making wasn't something I would enjoy. And reports I've seen claim that I wasn't wrong. With Psaltis' book, I often wondered, do I want to eat this guy's food? I almost wanted to wait to write about this book until I've eaten at Psaltis' new restaurant - Country in Manhattan. Is it fair to look at the quality of a book based on the food prepared by its author? I say yes. Because ultimately if the food reflects the makeup of the book - entertaining but without soul, then my conclusion will be that the book in its worst light is a reflection of the author. But if the food is great, then I'll conclude that there's a great chef doing his best to be balanced and just misfiring in terms of coming off genuine. I don't know why this context should make a difference in my final estimation of the book, but for some reason it does. I guess its just hard to know how much credibility to give a chef/author when you've never eaten their food.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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