Out of the Kitchen: Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan [book review]
The way I see it, the problem with kitchen memoirs is that they're all about kitchens. Whether they tell it well or not, these books all have the same story: "Once upon a time there was a kitchen, and it was full of fire and knives and profanity and drugs and booze and fucking, and the whole time this was going on you, dear reader, were right there on the other side of the swinging door, eating your magret de canard aux pommes without the slightest sense of what violently seething beast had created it, but now you know! The end!" The first time you read it (Bourdain), it blows your mind. The second time you read it (Buford?), it's still good enough to hold you. But by the third or fourth go-around (DeLucie, Jurgensen, innumerable others), the formula is worn out — one more rundown of Spanish body-part slang and you're ready to hurl the book across the room.
Jason Sheehan's Cooking Dirty (buy on Amazon) doesn't pretend that it's not doing the same thing, taking a page from Bourdain and the rest of them with its swears and knives and hard drinking. But the saving grace of this book — what might even make it rise above the rest — is that here, the stoves and walk-ins are just the backdrop to a non-kitchen memoir. The book takes place in the back of a restaurant, sure, but Sheehan doesn't tell the story of a kitchen. He tells the story of himself, and that makes all the difference.
The story of himself is a violent, peripatetic one. From his starting point as a dishwasher at an Italian joint at the age of 15, he hops from restaurant to restaurant for over a decade, through the no-name diners and family restaurants of upstate New York, Florida, and Arizona. His jagged rise takes him from a FNG ("fucking new guy") to master of the short-order, then executive chef, corporate chef, hotel chef. And while this ride up the culinary hierarchy delivers narrative propulsion, the story doesn't hinge on it. Instead, the kitchen's choreographed violence and barely contained chaos serve as both foil and metaphor for Sheehan himself, as he calls in a novel mix of alcohol, destructive relationships, and willful ignorance to both navigate and avoid the tempestuous waters of adulthood and responsibility.
At face value, this is the stuff that ploddingly depressing memoirs are made of. But Sheehan (who escaped the short-order hamster wheel by becoming the food writer for a Denver alt-weekly) tells his story with disarmingly agreeable prose, painting his aggressive down-and-outness with the same kind of glossy, cockeyed grime that makes kids want to be Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs when they grow up. He pulls no punches when it comes to describing his shortcomings: college dropout, destructively aimless, occasional thief, ragingly alcoholic, a friend to all substances, emotionally repressed, pugilistic, masochistic, immature, impulsive, broke. It works, of course: everyone likes a good antihero. Sheehan's willingness to paint his own flaws in minute detail is winning, his exploits and attitudes drawing out equal parts sympathy, horror, and a particular vicarious thrill.
Peter and the Lost Boys
"There's a Peter-and-the-Lost-Boys vibe in the best kitchens, a kind of J.M. Barrie sense of great and piratical adventure," Sheehan reflects at the book's narrative turning point, when he decides to get off drugs and change his life. "But it is also isolating, insulating, an outright and considered rejection of straight and normal life in favor of a few loud, uncertain hours of action." Though it's hinted at and danced around elsewhere, this passage is the only time that Sheehan comes right out and says what his memoir is about: Cooking Dirty is the story of a Lost Boy who finally, at the end of the day and on his own terms, comes around and grows up.
The problem is that nowhere in this remarkably honest narrative is the story of how Sheehan got lost in the first place. For all that Cooking Dirty is a subtle explication of Sheehan's long journey out of Never-Never Land and into the real world, it's strikingly devoid of any glimpses of the journey in. We get sideways hints of his life before that first pizza joint — his mother always worried about first impressions, his childhood bedroom is off a hallway decked out with family photos — but it's barely anything, and the question of Sheehan's backstory floats up between the lines throughout. While the book reads just fine without the psychological history, it's a missed opportunity for depth and resonance, and a surprising oversight from such an otherwise self-aware narrator.
An exhilarating cautionary tale
Don't let this psychological analysis paint the wrong picture, though. Cooking Dirty might be a coming-of-age story masquerading as a kitchen memoir, but it's got its share of culinary dirt. There are more than enough tales from the line to satisfy the folks who pick this up expecting Kitchen Confidential II: Son of Bourdain — white-knuckle tales of un-thawed fish and assembly-line corned beef, glimpses at the shifty economics of hotel kitchens and seedy Chinese restaurants.
But it's also got a real person behind the story, someone who's a joy to root for and to (un-cheesily) learn from. I'm grateful that I didn't live Jason Sheehan's life, and that neither (as far as I'm aware) did anyone I know and love. But I'm also grateful to have been able to experience it vicariously: it's the most exhilarating kind of cautionary tale.