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A Bland Dish: One Chef, 'Four Kitchens,' No Spice

Resources and connections permitting, here is one way aspiring chefs land coveted jobs at the El Bullis and Momofukus of the restaurant world: They graduate from culinary school, then spend anywhere from a month to a year working as a stage (the French word for, essentially, kitchen intern, which, in most cases, means unpaid kitchen intern) under an international top chef. Finances and personal lives are duly sacrificed.

This is what Lauren Shockey discovered when she set out to become a chef after graduating from the University of Chicago in 2006. A lifelong cooking enthusiast, Shockey traded a Manhattan PR job for the $40,000 gamble of culinary school and a year of travel and work in restaurant kitchens in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv and Paris.

Four Kitchens opens in wd-50, the molecular gastronomy temple of chef Wylie Dufresne (the 'wd' a nod to Dufresne's initials, the '50' to the eatery's address at 50 Clinton Street in Manhattan). A foamy, Frankensteinian mix of culinary art and scientific tinkering, molecular gastronomy demands the kind of equipment more likely found in a NASA lab. Indeed, Shockey's introduction to haute cuisine could just as easily have prepared her for an advanced degree in chemistry. At a prestigious joint like wd-50, eating reflects more a pursuit of cultural capital than gastronomic pleasure; which is to say, Shockey was overworked, underpaid and, in this experimental environment, developing a skill set that wouldn't translate to most kitchens.

A typical day, she writes, went like this:

I sliced endive for an hour; trimmed Brussels sprouts leaves for an hour; separated six flats of eggs, seasoned the yolks, sucked the air out of them in the Cryovac machine, and poured them into plastic bags.... Next, I would spend an hour deep-frying squares of bacon, dehydrated cooked orzo, and dehydrated beef tendons and packaging them up in pint containers for service.

Lauren Shockey is a New York City-based food writer.
Lauren Shockey is a New York City-based food writer.

After wd-50, Shockey opts for more conventional training. Hoping to swap a Cryovac for less avant-garde kitchenware, she heads to Hanoi to work at a French ex-pat's Vietnamese restaurant, then to a market-driven bistro in Tel Aviv and, finally, to Paris to shell crabs at a two-star Michelin eatery. In each culinary capital, the writer's adventures follow the same pattern: arrive in a new city; undergo kitchen culture shock (though casual sexual harassment in the kitchen is a more or less global epidemic); make new friends; entertain, then abandon the notion of romantic intrigue; and glean essential lessons about cheffing. Along the way, she learns to embrace local ingredients, to dismiss culinary pretension and, most importantly, to avoid grilled dog. As a literary garnish, each of Shockey's chapters are bookended by recipes either lifted from or inspired by her sundry places of employment.

Four Kitchen's central conflict, such as it is, hinges on Shockey's ambivalence about cooking as career or cooking as source of pleasure. The two goals, she gathers, are incompatible. The more she's exposed to marquee chefs who treat their work as a business rather than as a creative endeavor, the more she leans to the latter.

Since the publication of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential in 2000, pastry chefs, culinary school students and embedded reporters have fed the reading public a litany of first-person accounts of their misadventures in the food business. Within this swelling canon of memoir-cum-cookbooks, Four Kitchensfalls well short of the genre's tastiest reads, serving up platitudes about self-discovery that say more about post-grad tribulation than they do about kitchen life. After all, no matter where in the world you're cooking, only so much can be said about slaving over rote tasks and being verbally abused 14 hours a day.

As for the question of what a culinary professional who opts out of restaurant work might do with her life, Shockey seems to have found her answer: She's now a food critic for the Village Voice.

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