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Monday, February 4, 2013

Book Review: Back of the House

While the concept of selling prepared food to customers probably dates back at least as far as the ancient Romans, the modern restaurant is generally thought to have originated in late 18th-century France. Over the ensuing centuries, the restaurant has mutated into many different forms, from the humble "family" restaurant to the world-class places that most of us will never set foot in.
Somewhere along the line, the chef went from being merely "a skilled cook who manages the kitchen" - Webster's definition - to a celebrity in his or her own right, who rarely gets involved anymore in the act of cooking. 
Television and other mass media undoubtedly contributed to this trend, inasmuch as they have caused an explosion of our consumerist and celebrity culture. Undoubtedly, most Americans remain unaffected by this phenomenon, and don't care who's doing the cooking as long as the fries are hot and crisp. For some of us, though (and I don't count myself among them) it's no longer enough to go to a great restaurant - you have to see, if not have your meal prepared by, the chef, who's the real star of the show. Those of us who can't afford it, but who are still intrigued by the celebrity-chef culture, will make do with TV shows featuring said chefs, frozen meals bearing their names, and perhaps an occasional visit to restaurants nominally run by them in vacation spots like Orlando and Las Vegas.
The apotheosis of the chef has had the ironic effect of distancing many chefs from the ostensible reason for their fame:  the food. It's hard to get much cooking done when you're busy running a restaurant empire. And it's also led to the elevation to chef status of people who probably don't know much more about cooking than you or I do, but whose looks and personalities are more telegenic than ours (or mine, anyway).
But there are still great, dedicated chefs out there, and one of them is the focus of Back of the House:  The Secret Life of a Restaurant, by Scott Haas. Haas, who, interestingly, is both a food writer and a clinical psychologist, spent a year and a half in the kitchen - or wherever else he wanted to go - of Craigie on Main, a Boston restaurant headed by James Beard Award-winner Tony Maws. Maws gave Haas virtually unlimited access to all areas and employees of the restaurant, allowing him to observe the dynamics of running a successful, high-end restaurant, and to get to know the employees both as individuals and as part of a team.
At least, the ideal is that they would operate as a team. Haas repeatedly comments upon the dysfunctional nature of the staff at Craigie on Main, a problem that he lays at the feet of Chef Maws. As Haas sees it, Maws is a culinary visionary, with his own, unique concepts about food, but Maws never seems able to transmit those ideas to his staff, or willing to trust them with executing what he has in mind. The result is high turnover, frustrated employees, and frequent outbursts of anger from Maws, interspersed with periods - or at least moments - when the kitchen is hitting on all cylinders, like a well-oiled machine. In the end, despite all the difficulties, it's clear that for many of the players in this drama, Craigie on Main is a de facto family, albeit an exceptionally screwed-up one. 
Back of the House was a quick, and mostly entertaining read, but at times I found myself wondering what the point of it all was. I can't say that it's an insider's guide about what "really" goes on in a restaurant kitchen, because the idiosyncratic nature of Craigie on Main means that what went on during the year and a half that Haas spent there was to a great extent unique to that restaurant. As Haas himself notes, he realized early on that "Tony's story was unique."
But looking at Back of the House as simply the story of one particular restaurant, during one particular stretch of time, I'm not sure that the story was compelling enough to carry the book. I ended up with a good sense of what life and work were like at this one restaurant, but I wasn't sure why I was supposed to care. 
The one thing that seemed to propel Haas was his quest to understand what motivated Maws. Maybe that's a product of Haas's background in psychology, but he seemed driven to figure out what makes Maws tick, why he chose to become a chef, and why he runs the restaurant the way that he does. I found Haas's analysis generally interesting, but again, I never quite became as fully invested in the subject as Haas himself obviously was.
One thing I did take away from the book was a sense of how intense and serious the restaurant business can be. I've never read Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, but I've read enough about it to know that it contains passages of drugs, sex and general debauchery. You'll find none - well, almost none - of that here; at one point in the book, an employee struggles with a heroin addiction, and sex comes up only tangentially, when two of the employees become romantically involved, which does not sit well with Maws. But the business of the kitchen, as recorded in Back of the House, is all business, which tells us something, I suppose, about the changed culture of today compared with the drug-soaked era in which Bourdain came of age, as well as the highly competitive, money-driven nature of the restaurant business, at the stratospheric level at which a place like Craigie on Main operates. When customers are routinely dropping hundreds of dollars for a single meal, which they expect to be among the finest available on the planet, there's no room and no tolerance for back-room shenanigans, of any kind.
While I love good food, I can't call myself a true "foodie," and at times Maas's chef- and restaurant-namedropping (Wylie Dufresne, Heston Blumenthal, L'Espalier, Chez Panisse, to name a few), and his casual use of esoteric food terms (yuzu, cotechino) left me feeling like one of the clueless diners at Craigie on Main who are there because they've heard it's good, but who frankly don't get it, and who reflexivlely order the one thing on the menu they've heard of and feel comfortable with - the hamburger (which drives Chef Maws to such distraction that he ends up taking it off the main menu). 
But the mark of a good book is that you want to keep reading it, and I did. I got to know, vicariously, Maws and several members of his staff, and I wanted to know where things would end up. Would Maws's autocratic, unpredictable ways prove his undoing, or would the staff finally learn how to work together? And while I didn't learn any great, hitherto secret bits of arcane knowledge about the restaurant business, I did come away with more respect and appreciation for the sheer work that goes on to put an attractive, palate-pleasing plate of food on my table when I dine out.

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