I read Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential a couple of years ago, and numerous food books and memoirs since. But I haven’t found anything that could match the fierce joy, fun, and truth of Bourdain’s book until I picked up Jason Sheehan’s Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love, and Death in the Kitchen. Unless you are familiar with Westword, an alternative newspaper from Denver or follow the Beard Awards for food writing closely, there’s no reason you should have heard of Sheehan. Sheehan would be the first to tell you that he wasn’t a chef. He was a cook.
Sheehan started his life in food at the age of fifteen in a mom and pop pizza place in Rochester, New York. Cooking didn’t come naturally to him at first. He had to learn and relearn everything. On the other hand, the brutal environment of the kitchen did come naturally to him. The kitchens Sheehan worked in sound a lot like Bourdain’s: a multilingual and motley troop of illegal immigrants, social misfits, and losers. Brawling Sheehan fit right in. The best parts of this book are when he shares his war stories of 140 degree kitchens in Florida, bewildered and underhanded owners in Buffalo, serving up breakfasts non stop for the line dancing crowd at midnight.
One of my favorite parts was in Albuquerque, when Sheehan–despite his protests that he didn’t know what he was doing–got hired as a baker. Since he was starting right away, he hurried off to buy supplies and a baking/pastry cookbook. Trying to learn all that material in less than an hour, Sheehan said, “was like trying to teach long division to a hamster” (290*). Stories like that had me snorting and chortling with laughter through the whole book.
Sheehan meanders around the country, picking up jobs with remarkable ease until he hits a wall in Albuquerque. He falls into food writing for local alternative newspapers and corporate magazines, inventing his own gonzo biographical style of writing. As I read, I didn’t feel like I was reading so much as having the author talk to me. His voice as a writer is utterly real and I would think that the only difference between reading Sheehan and talking to him is that there would be more swearing in person.
The only thing I didn’t like about this book was Sheehan’s tendency to gloss over things. By his own count, the author worked in more than 30 restaurants in less than 15 years and, for him, they’ve tended to blur into one another. Consequently, they tend to blur by in the book, too. I would have love to hear more war stories. Since I know that I wouldn’t last five minutes in a professional kitchen, I have to get my kicks through food memoirs. The honesty and the humor in the book balance out this minor flaw. I had a great time tagging along with Sheehan through his country-wide tour of cooking and carousing. If you like food memoirs and have a high tolerance for Bourdainian shenanigans, I would definitely recommend this books.
Hell, I’d read this one again in a heartbeat.
* From the 2009 Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition.