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‘Cooking Dirty:’ Inside the life of a chef

July 28, 2009
By Amy Mendenhall
It’s a vagabond life as a chef talks about his journey from diners to fine dining to corporate cooking and finally, to food writer in Jason Sheehan’s “Cooking Dirty.”

For anyone who wonders what goes on behind the scenes of their favorite neighborhood restaurant or what draws people to work behind-the-scenes in oppressive heat and a stressful situation, this is an insider’s look into the world of fine and not-so-fine dining. 

Sheehan recalls the roots of his lifelong obsession with cooking, starting at a local pizzeria at the age of 15. He briefly tries film school but ultimately ditches that. When his parents insist he get a job, he goes back to the restaurant business — working at a Chinese restaurant as a bartender where the staff speak Chinese and he must use pantamime to try to figure out what drink orders they’re requesting, where he must stand with a baseball bat and look menacing when the delivery vans show up, and once a month the basement becomes a “club” for a very special kind of clientele. 

Next he journeys to a roadhouse diner where the average “wheelman” (the head of the crew) tenure is a few weeks and his tenure almost ends in a firey kitchen explosion, but instead ends with him in a drunk confusion being led out.

Many of his kitchen jobs end with him quitting either from boredom, burning out, or having a fight with management. But Sheehan bounces from one kitchen to the next, going from a job at a fine dining restaurant where he is practically head chef to a job in a crab shack where it’s expected the cooks will pass out from the heat.

He travels from New York to Florida and back again, and to Arizona and sees his relationship with his long-time girlfriend deteriorate in part because of his strange work hours. 

After he gets double pneumonia, Sheehan also begins experiencing medically unexplained seizures that prevent him from being able to work. But it is also at this time that he starts seeing his future wife, and in part, gets his life back on track again.

It’s with his new wife that he travels out to Arizona and begins cooking again. Although he makes his way through a few restaurants there, he also is led to a part-time job as a columnist and then a restaurant critic. That leads to a better job as a food columnist in Colorado where he wins a James Beard Award.

Sheehan’s journey is an intensely interesting one, of terrible burns suffered to the adrenaline high of the dinner rush and the strange family made up of his co-workers at any given job. This isn’t a look at the world of celebrity chefs, but at the ordinary ones that make up any restaurant a reader may find themselves dining at. And there’s not really any scenes in the book that will make you think twice about dining out — this isn’t a gross-out book, but one that celebrates the love of cooking and the pride one who works on the line finds in doing so.

Contact Amy at amendenhall@graffitiwv.com

Fact Box

“Cooking Dirty” is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. It is $26 and 351 pages long.

 
 

 

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