Last week Toronto got a hint of the summer weather to come (which has since vanished) and I decided I wanted to read something light, that didn’t require too much thinking, and could be read on a beach if there were one around. I picked up Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris, a cooking and travel memoir by Lauren Shockey.
The book started out well. It told Lauren’s story of traveling around the world, working as a stagaire (basically an unpaid intern who works in restaurant kitchens to learn new things). As a recent culinary school graduate, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life and decided to immerse herself in the restaurant world to not only learn quickly, but also to find out if the line chef life was for her.
The first restaurant she worked in was Wylie Dufresne’s wd-50 in New York City which specializes in molecular gastronomy. As this was the most “out-there”, technically complex restaurant she wrote about, I found it the most interesting. I knew that molecular gastronomy was very scientific and focused on chemical transformations of ingredients into something new and unexpected, but didn’t realize quite how much time and effort was required for every component of every dish. She gives many descriptions of things like painstakingly cutting confit lemon quarters into millimeter cubes. I really liked the inclusion of some of wd-50’s recipes in this section. They are nothing I would recreate at home because of the vast amounts of time and ingredients required, but are full of little tidbits and techniques that can be borrowed.
Next Lauren traveled to Vietnam, where she worked at La Verticale. This restaurant was much more focused on flavour than technique. I also enjoyed this portion of the book, especially the writings about the different street foods and ex-pat life. Vietnam is certainly on my list of places I’d like to visit.
At the halfway point of the book, things took a turn for the worse. It became clear that restaurant life was not what Lauren was really looking for and as her interest waned, so did mine. Her stops working in Tel Aviv and Paris didn’t seem to add anything new or interesting to the book. It was more of the same really. Her daily work at the restaurants was to chop vegetables for hours, shell 50lbs of crab, clean walk-in refrigerators. There’s only so much you can say about those kind of tasks.
The biggest problem I began to have with the book was that I just didn’t like the author. Since this is a memoir, not liking the author and her voice is a big problem. She started coming off as a bit entitled and never really happy with anything. wd-50 was too bogged-down in technique rather than satisfying food. La Verticale had delicious food, but the other chefs weren’t passionate about their work and cooking was just a job. Carmella Bistro in Tel Aviv was too mundane. Senderens, a restaurant in Paris with 2 Michelin stars, was too fussy and Parisians were snobs. I will also freely admit that part of my dislike of the author stems from jealousy. When she didn’t like doing office work after graduating from University, she was able to drop $40,000 on culinary school then spend a year travelling around the world learning from chefs in top restaurants without ever having to hold down a paying job. Must be nice.
The first half of the book was enjoyable enough, and I really liked the inclusion of recipes each step of the way. The recipes inspired by each restaurant in each of the four cities all use very different ingredients, flavors and techniques. There are a few that I’d like to try at home. However, the book became repetitive, was longer than it needed to be, and was overall quite shallow. We got glimpses into what happened in each kitchen and the cultures of each city, but it never really went beyond that. If you’re looking for a more succulent food memoir, look elsewhere.