Ever a fan of the “real world” cooking tale or memoir, I picked up The Seasoning of a Chef: My Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond by Doug Psaltis and (his brother) Michael Psaltis. Boy did I not realize what I was getting into! The book itself explores Chef Psaltis’ impressive journey from his grandfather’s diner to working at some of the most expensive and elegant restaurants in the United States and France, without ever attending culinary school. Having no formal culinary training myself, I was eager to hear how he had done it.
The book has some wonderful moments. I found the early chapter about working at the diner especially moving and vivid. As the book continued though, I was disappointed in the writing. Moments and stories that could have been exciting seemed a bit dull, as if the personality of the kitchen had been stripped out. Professional kitchens are energized places, filled with commotion and passion and strange characters, but not a lot of that is revealed in Cheg Psaltis’ book. He comes off as a driven and rather severe person, and the writing suffers somewhat from those same qualities. I wished the passion he claims for cooking were more evident in the way he told his story.
The one real issue I had with the book was the chapter entitled, “Cooking by the Book.” He and another chef “Alex” are selected to “run the kitchen of Peter’s restaurant.” For some reason at this point, Chef Psaltis stops naming names. Throughout the entire book, he reveals the names of restaurants he works at and the names of the chefs he works with. I was familiar with many of those names, and for those with which I wasn’t, I assumed the chef was using real names. And then this chapter: “Peter” is not the chef/owner’s name. And the restaurant’s name is never mentioned. I found this troubling, as he was very critical of “Peter” and the restaurant. It seemed disingenuous to use a pseudonym in only one instance, and raised questions about the validity of other sections of the book. Why openly criticize Thomas Keller at the end but hide behind “Peter” in the middle of the book? Who was “Peter” anyway?
After finishing, I set about to do a little research, curious about “Peter” and public reaction to the book. Hours later, bleary-eyed from reading too much online, I discovered how controversial this little biography seems to be. Chefs that had blurbed the book have recanted (Jacques Pépin and Mario Batali!), there were allusions that Chef Psaltis did something or something happened at the French Laundry, for which he may have been fired, then an admittance by the chef that he slapped someone while working at the Laundry, etc. etc. etc. It turns out the “Peter” is Dan Barber, and the restaurant that Chef Psaltis helped open was Blue Hill, one of my favorites in New York City. (Again maybe not, “Alex” who really is an Alex, Alex Ureña, said recently in a phone conversation with the New York Times that Chef Psaltis was hired two weeks after the restaurant opened!) So much controversy! What to do? Who to believe?
Do I recommend the book? Yeah, if you like cooking and are curious about what it’s like to work at some of the best places, and work really hard to pursue your passion. And if you’re really into the industry and want all the gossip and back story speculation, you can check out this New York Times article from October 5, 2005 by Gina Bellafante Kitchen Ruckus: A Chef’s Memoir and this very long (13 pages!) eGullet thread Doug Psaltis, The Seasoning of a Chef. The eGullet thread has comments from Michael Ruhlman, Anthony Bourdain, and even Doug Psaltis himself. And of course, all this sets the stage for what may inspire the most critical reviews yet: Country. Chef Psaltis is on the verge of launching Country with Geoffrey Zakarian. Serving modern European-American fare, the 120-room cafe is supposed to open this week, and a formal dining room will follow later this fall. More at New York magazine’s Food Openings & Buzz – Week of Oct. 10, 2005 And they say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I guess we’ll find out soon enough!