May 2009

Elizabeth Bachner

nonfiction

Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen

There’s a difference between foodie memoirs and bar/restaurant/club memoirs. A good restaurant memoir has to have a hearty dollop of food porn in it, but it’s more about How Things Work back there, a behind-the-scenes look at the dirty technicalities of a bizarre subculture.

The ones written by women are often less about the badass progress of trailblazers in a male-dominated field, and more about using the kitchen as a place to sleep your way to a M.R.S. degree in food-service studies: in Behind Bars: The Straight-Up Tales of a Big City Bartender, Ty Wenzel explains her rules about never hooking up with bar patrons, but then also tells how she married one of her regulars, a successful writer. In Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter, Per Se waiter Phoebe Damrosch sleeps with the sommelier even though he’s in a long-term relationship, and scores a wedding ring instead of bad karma. And in Spiced, petite blond pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen sleeps with her boss -- except the book doesn’t end with a (slightly nauseating) wedding like Service Included. I would’ve expected this to make me happy, except, then, what was the point of the hundred-or-so-page slog through that relationship, which mostly consists of dialogue where he overuses her nickname (“Doll” or “Dolly”). There’s an earlier chapter where she sexually experiments with a Japanese waitress (or cook or something? I can’t remember, though I read this yesterday) at Nobu. We don’t really hear about the sex or how the aftermath is resolved -- the punch line is that she burns her hand at work by setting it on some crème brulee.

Pastry? Sure, if you skim through the thing for the good bits, there are pyramids with secret centers of mousse piped in, passion fruit cheesecakes with wine-stewed berries, quenelles of green tea ice cream, and pear tart Tatins with fromage blanc ice cream. But Jurgensen’s book didn’t make me feel like I was actually eating those desserts, or even like I badly wished I could. And it also didn’t give me a real, vivid sense of what it would be like to create and prepare them.

I’ll come right out and say it: Anthony Bourdain’s heavily hyped Kitchen Confidential is not at all overrated. It’s the kind of book you want with you when your flight gets delayed for ten hours in Denver, although chances are you’ll finish it in the first two. Yes, I admit that I’m part of the demographic that finds Bourdain kind of hot, but I don’t think I’m being biased -- I’m also a George Orwell fan, and Bourdain wrote one hell of a fun memoir, although I wish I didn’t know that mussels stew in their own pee. There are some details I wish I didn’t know in Down and Out in Paris and London, too, but the book is worth it. I can’t fault Spiced for being so trifling (heh) compared to Bourdain’s work -- after all, Bourdain is really a writer, and Jurgensen is really a pastry chef. I’m loathe to give her memoir a bad review, because what if someday I get famous and get served a comped V.I.P. meal at wherever she’s pastrying at the time, and instead of getting extra candied and caramel things, I just get regular panna cotta?

There are too many great foodie and food service memoirs these days to read all that banter between Joey and “Dolly,” though. Spiced is light on the food porn and light on the How Things Work, and weirdly, light on the juicy private-life gossip, too. It ought to be like eating a great dessert, or a few of them, but it’s a bit closer to those dodgy mussels, the kind that you’re pretty sure won’t give you food poisoning, but that taste a tiny bit off. It’s not at all unpalatable, but it’s not delectable, either.

Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen
Putnam
ISBN: 0399155619
288 Pages