By now one could easily argue that there are too many food memoirs. Food and love, food and sex, food and business, food in exotic locales. Like any other genre, foodie lit runs the gamut from the plainly awful, hurriedly assembled texts publishers hope will be easy sells to the true literature, books written by people who, if they chose, could write about anything.
Bill Buford comes to mind, as does the indomitable Anthony Bourdain, whose literary limitations are more than compensated for by his unmistakable writing voice. There are John Thorne’s idiosyncratic, meticulous books, and Jeffrey Steingarten’s informed and witty essays, sadly overshadowed by his cutting television demeanor. Now acclaimed pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen, who left publishing to become a chef, joins this small band of writer/cooks.
In some ways, Spiced is Kitchen Confidential’s fraternal twin: where Anthony Bourdain played just as hard and loud as the rest of the boys and lived to tell, though Jurgensen was a mite less crazed in her pursuits. She did not, for example, acquire a heroin habit, nor does she admit to much drug use. She did drink herself silly and engage in a fair amount of alcohol-lubricated hook-ups with both sexes. And where Bourdain sticks to the savory side of the kitchen, Jurgensen is that rare breed who can move between pastry and protein.
Chefs, Jurgensen claims throughout her memoir, do not take pastry seriously. To that end, pastry chefs must be vigilant about their equipment, their space, their right to the ovens. What she may not realize, or be too gracious to say, is that most cooks are incapable of baking. Any decent cookbook will tell you cooking is an art, baking a science. That is, you can mess around with beef stew—tasting as it cooks, adding salt, punching it up with a little garlic or dried hot pepper. Should your sweetheart be late from work, you can turn your oven down to 300 degrees and everything will be hunky-dory.
Not so with baking. Baking requires precise measurements, preferably in metric measures, which Americans and their particular measuring system know makes more sense but cannot grasp, anyway. Baking and pastry mean using scales. And egg whites. Was there ever a scarier ingredient to the savory cook than an egg white? Maybe chocolate, which, if not properly tempered, seizes into a horrible, shaggy, useless mass.
Atop all this, once your egg-white-tempered chocolate masterpiece is in the oven, which you pray is correctly temperature calibrated, there is no checking. There is no fixing. There is no additional pinch of salt or splash of balsamic vinegar. There is only the hope that the damned thing comes out and isn’t mushy in the middle.
By now you may have guessed which side of the kitchen I hang out in. Which makes me all the more awed by Jurgensen, whose talents steadily develop as she begins her career at New York’s prestigious Nobu, where one of her first acts was to burn a hole in a pot. Mortified, she carries it to Mika, one of the pastry chefs, who mercifully finds it funny.
Thus begins Jurgensen’s journey from office job to pastry chef, a harrowing yet rollicking ride, replete with the professional kitchen antics we’ve come to know and love via Bourdain, Ramsay, Batali. Besides the ruined pan, there are the overbaked cakes, nasty waiters, and sushi chefs who refuse to acknowledge the petite haku-jin (white person) struggling to write “happy birthday” in chocolate. There are the burns and knife cuts. But Jurgensen perseveres, working her way upward, from plating desserts to actually devising them, all in New York’s pressure-cooker restaurant scene.
Jurgensen moves from Nobu to Layla, where she does her cooking school externship and meets Joey, the Chef. He will serve as her mentor and sometime lover for the next eight years. She also meets Mina, a Jewish-Peruvian cook whose sharp tongue earns her the nickname Meany, and Jessie, another female line cook who proudly compares biceps with the other women.
At Layla, Jurgensen moves through the kitchen stations, from lowly garde manger to hot line. She has an amazing sense memory, recalling every recipe: “Every task I did at Layla and Nobu—every dish, every vinaigrette, cookie, and sauce—I remembered. They had seeped into my skin.”
Thus, her lush descriptions of pyramid molds filled with chocolate mousse, white chocolate mousse, chocolate ganache, finished with layers of crushed cocoa beans and halvah. Pomegranate Bombe, a creation consisting of frozen lemon verbena parfait hiding a pomegranate sorbet center, set atop a piece of dacquoise (a meringue involving—yep—egg whites).
As her skills and confidence grow, so does her creativity. Jurgensen documents her increasing interest in pastry—creating fruit desserts from both seasonally available items and tropical exotics fruits. Is a cookbook on the way? We can only hope.
After Layla, Jurgensen works briefly for the notorious Martha Stewart. Again, Jurgensen is too polite to call Martha a monster, though she does point out a few of Stewart’s choice neuroses—the woman actually checked the garbage to ensure leftovers were going not to the landfill, but right back into her chicken feed.
She also demanded a nearly impossible level of detail, not only for herself but for her television audiences, who require simple recipes with accessible ingredients. To that end, everything is labeled, measured (using the American system), and tested ad nauseum.
After a brief stint with Martha, Jurgensen follows Frank to Scarabee, a short-lived but well-reviewed restaurant, where no less than Ruth Reichl writes well of the desserts. From there it’s on to the disastrous Q56, set in a hotel hoping to revamp. Hopelessly overdesigned, with impossible music and a surly staff left from the restaurant’s previous incarnation, Q56 flops. But Jurgensen moves forward, catering, consulting, working briefly for Scott Barton, who opens the world of Louisiana cooking to her.
Fun, fast-paced, and engrossing, Spiced is impossible to put down. Jurgensen’s writing is so immediate, her descriptions of dishes and portrayals of insane colleagues so gripping, that I literally read the book in two nights. If you think office life is difficult, consider working with the kitchen staff at the prestigious Veritas.
The sous-chef, nicknamed Culo, goes out of his way to insult everyone. Disgusted by one of the waiters’ table manners at family meal (the staff meal given to employees before service commences), Culo and another chef, Carter, launch a campaign to “make Adrienne fat”. Called Operation Foie Gras, the men add copious amounts of butter, cream, and bacon fat to the generic pasta sauces commonly served. The kitchen staff, who burn thousands of calories over a night’s work, are unaffected. Adrienne doesn’t fare as well.
Then there is the morning Jurgensen arrives at Veritas to find broken tables, blood, and a handful of hair near the bar. Filthy bathrooms, communal changing areas, and raging chauvinism are all par for the course, with the blond Jurgensen suffering an endless barrage of insults. To her infinite credit, her response, as with all the unpleasant people she comes into contact with, is to politely ignore them. She’s in it for the cooking. She’s in it for the good people, like Ali, the dishwasher from Mali who watches her longingly until she passes along the gift Mika gave her, and teaches him, patiently, to make dessert plates just so. Ali returns the favor by learning English, getting a green card, and “improving exponentially”.
Then 9/11 happens. Jurgensen and her colleagues do the only thing they can: cook. They telephone the Red Cross; amazingly, Jurgensen, toting sandwiches and cookies, is allowed to go below Fourteenth Street. Soon much of the New York restaurant scene is in on the act, heartening until celebrity chefs appear only when television cameras are rolling. Jurgensen and her colleagues are righteously angry until a sobering call comes from the Red Cross: could they avoid food with bones and anything with red sauces? The dishes are upsetting to rescue personnel.
The book concludes on a questioning note. Though Jurgensen loves her work, she is now married and approaching 40. She wants a child, a desire that has no place in the restaurant kitchen. Mindful of this, she is uncertain of her future, which should give us hope: if maternity keeps Jurgensen out of the kitchen, maybe she’ll have time to pen that cookbook. Meanwhile, allow yourself a treat and get Spiced.