Underseasoned: Spiced by Dalia Jurgensen [book review]

Let's get this out of the way right at the start: Dalia Jurgensen is not Anthony Bourdain. This is true in many ways — she's short, he's tall; she's pastry, he's savory; she's she, he's he — but it is most relevantly true in the matter of culinary memoir. Jurgensen is the author of the recently released book Spiced (buy on Amazon), and as is the case with any book whose subtitle promises "A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen," comparison with Bourdain's seminal Kitchen Confidential is unavoidable. Sadly, in matters of kitchen revelation, Spiced gets left in the dust.

Which is a shame, really, because if it weren't for what Bourdain hath wrought, Jurgensen might have delivered a different book. Bourdain blew the lid off of what really goes on in the kitchen nearly a decade ago, and absent solid handfuls of hilarious heroin-related anecdotes involving the garde manger, no one else's kitchen memoir is really going to be able to top it. Nevertheless, Spiced can't break free of the now genre-mandated need to remind us (and often) that the kitchen is vulgar, has its own fraternal code, and that restaurant staff are a rowdy, alcoholic lot. Still, for all that Jurgensen talks about foul mouths and drunken benders, it's clear that she isn't really trying to break new ground when it comes to her subtitle's promise. Instead, Jurgensen's heart lies in unfolding the linear tale of her own progress from newbie to experienced chef.

A city of restaurants

Jurgensen's story is a nice tale, the kind of thing that will be inspiring to cupcake-obsessed girls who want to make a career in pastry and need a slightly edgy (but not too much!) idol to look up to. Starting with a friend of a friend landing her a plating position at Nobu in the early '90s, Jurgensen job-hops through a recent history of the New York restaurant scene: Layla, La Cote Basque, Veritas, with cameos from Martha Stewart, a girthsome restaurateur named Drew, and a watchful one named Steve. But even when you know the names and places involved (and if you don't, you're out of luck, since Jurgensen doesn't seem to enjoy employing descriptions or explanations), it all starts to blur together after a while. The world of Spiced is only half-formed, a vague city of restaurants populated by interchangeable insult-spewing line cooks, hostile waiters, and dapper GMs. Through it all Jurgensen glides, dreamlike and chocolate-splattered, like a wide-eyed innocent.

That's right: innocent. Yes, Jurgensen stares at us from the book's cover with bleach-blonde hair and a shoulder full of tattoos, but short of a running chronicle of her hair's current Manic Panic color there's no punk to her narrative attitude. Yes, there's sex in this book, but it's not very titillating. That well-publicized lesbian-fling? It's curtly addressed in the book's opening salvos, and gets no more explicit than first base. In summary: A female waiter flirts with Jurgensen, who doesn't know how to say no. She finds herself going out for drinks and then finds herself kissing in a bar and then finds herself back at the waiter's apartment and then finds herself waking up there the next morning. And that's it for girl-on-girl in Spiced.

And then things happened

Besides just making out with waitresses, Jurgensen "finds herself" doing a lot of things throughout the book; she seems determined to paint herself as a passive player in her life story, going along with whatever flows her way. A job is offered, so she takes the position. Sexual advances are made, so she goes to bed with a coworker. Even the burns and cuts of the kitchen are done to her by knives and ovens who come across as in possession of more agency than Jurgensen herself. She doesn't go after anything or anyone, she doesn't pursue things fiercely or bang down doors to get the job she wants. Things just seem to happen, and she goes along for the ride, a detached observer of her own life.

This authorial passivity is at its most intense (and its most narratively dissatisfying) when Jurgensen deals with the elements that make her kitchen memoir different from all the rest: her emotional life and her culinary creative process. She spills plenty of ink on both subjects, and yet actually says extraordinarily little, and it's hard not to wonder if her inability to unpack these topics are related to one another. When it comes to her love life, Jurgensen never describes herself as feeling anything for her partners, simply acceding to their romantic overtures with an almost dreamlike acquiesence. Similarly, her desserts — which I can confirm from my own independent verification are inspired and wonderful — seem to spring from her hands to her station as fully-formed creations.

With its precious few glimpses at the creation of either a relationship or a dish, it becomes harder to sympathize with Jurgensen's failures or rejoice in her successes. The exception to this is the last chapter — the very last pages — where we finally get a look at a trip to the farmers market, the source of inspiration for a bamboo-honey creme brulee. This is followed by a brief (if thoughtful) rumination on the role of women in the kitchen, and how much longer Jurgensen thinks she wants to take it. The section is the most compelling in the book, but differs so much from what came before that it feels like an afterthought, or the result of a directive from her editor to wrap things up cleanly. Or maybe it's just that Jurgensen's talent lies with bringing her best efforts to the end of the meal — the book ends sweetly, but it's a long road before you get there.

The Final Verdict

Spiced is a nice, quick read that'll be old hat for anyone who's encountered a kitchen memoir before. It has some unique factors — it's about pastry, and it's told by a woman — but it's detached and under-narrated, and doesn't bring too much new to the table. Does it merit being turned into a tv show? Only in the vaguest sense — there's a premise here, but no real characters or conflicts to speak of. Don't hold your breath for a network pickup, check the book out from the library, and save the $24.95 list price for dessert at Dressler, where Jurgensen is the pastry chef. What she lacks in her writing, flavor-wise, she more than makes up in the kitchen.

Helen Rosner

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