I am about the same age as Dalia Jurgensen, the author of the new kitchen memoir Spiced. When I was learning to cook and having the wind knocked out of me by my instructors and classmates at culinary school in Vermont, Ms Jurgensen was a interning at Nobu and spending her weekends enrolled in culinary school. For about five years she and I followed a similar path - we both bounced from restaurant to restaurant (she exclusively in New York, I in Boston, Vermont, Northern California and Atlanta), both ending up in charge of our own pastry kitchens within a few years of launching our careers.
In those five years, I worked in 7 different bakeries, cafes, and high end restaurants and hotels. I didn't keep track of Dalia Jurgensen's history and moves as I read her book, but I suspect her numbers were similar. Unlike the workaday 9-5 world, getting ahead and gaining new skills in restaurant kitchens often means bouncing from job to job seeking more responsibility and greater opportunity. Sometimes change is brought on by kitchen burnout and fatigue. Other times it comes in the form of a phone call from an old friend and an opportunity to shift gears.
By the time I finally shifted gears and quit the kitchen for a new career in cheese and cheesemongering, I had grown weary of the kitchen and the person I had become: a mean, self-involved 'bottom feeder'. I indulged in behaviors that attracted the dregs of society. I found myself dating kitchen creeps, the intellectually challenged, men who were, by their own admission, mentally ill, married men - all, to a person, cooks. My mouth was filthy and I was fiercely protective of my space in the kitchen. I directly caused two pastry cooks to flee the kitchen where I was working, terrorizing them and sabotaging their efforts to succeed by intimidation and bad-mouthing. Amongst my non-cooking friends, my stories were legend for their absurdity, and I was a great storyteller of personal kitchen travails. But I was hating the person I had become; cheese allowed me to recalibrate, renew, and re-emerge as a passionate and dedicated food professional, though I had a long way to go before my skin thinned I became a genuinely nice person again.
So while I learned about milk and cheesemaking and aging and purchasing and loving cheese, Dalia Jurgensen continued to dominate the pastry kitchen in New York City.
Reading Dalia Jurgensen's memoir, I suddenly had flashbacks - largely unpleasant - to my time in the pastry shop. As she detailed her experiences, I remembered my own. Burned things in the oven during my first job? Check. Worked for exacting, somewhat cruel bosses? Check. Had after hours exploits with colleagues? Check. Worked on all-women lines in high-end restaurants. Check. Burned, maimed, cut various appendages? Check. Worked for a nutty European? Check check. Skin so thick you could take even the most vicious hazing? Sure. Daily mockery of staff and self? You betcha.
Long after I quit the kitchen, Ms Jurgensen was garnering rave reviews in national publications, romancing her boss, and helping to open up new restaurants in New York. What I had no stomach for - the needless competition, the repetition, the often-cruel work environment, the braggadocio, the prospects of garnering fame for desserts - fueled Ms Jurgensen's passion and her career. Unlike me, she had the temperament for the kitchen. I found the repetition boring. I found the banter - at least in kitchens where I worked that had the space and time to talk - insipid and aggravating (my least favorite workplace, a highly acclaimed 'French Country Bistro' in Boston, had an insufferable Sunday night line staff, all women, who, during downtime, talked about chick flicks and shopping). I found the lack of humanity in the kitchen frustrating and ironic - how can your food have soul when you don't allow your staff to have one? I wanted challenging projects and connection, and the kitchen seemed to offer it only superficially. Quitting the kitchen was, in hindsight, the best career move I've ever made. To this day I have little love or patience for the egos of professional chefs.
One of the cliches of self-realization is Socrates' statement that "unexamined life is not worth living". The same can be said of memoirs - the unexamined life is not worth reading about. A writer who has spent a great deal of time in self-reflection can bring so much more to the story than someone who has just been and done and writes simply of being and doing. One of Jurgensen's flaws as a memoirist is that - at least in this work - she avoids genuine self-reflection and documents her exploits in a style similar to the "what I did on my summer vacation" reports of childhood, with the addition of a few salacious diary-style details. Insights are rare and most of the book details a straight-line narrative without much pause for significance or meaning or even self-understanding. I found myself vexed by Jurgensen's storytelling and structure; her story of rise and stumble and rise again is interrupted, at the end, by several long and boring chapters about her time at Veritas, where she spends more space talking about kitchen nicknames and tomfoolery than she does about her own story, which plods along at the sidelines.
For those who have cooked professionally or are voracious readers of kitchen memoirs, Jurgensen's Spiced offers nothing new or noteworthy. Jurgensen's voice isn't particularly distinctive, and her story isn't particularly unique or remarkable. She lacks the ability to write dialogue in a way that is engaging or natural, and many of the characters in her memoir come off as one-dimensional or superficial, including herself. She glosses over details of her own life, details that would have, presumably, shed some light on her inner life. As a result, she isn't a particularly empathic protagonist, and I found myself hoping she'd quit the kitchen to spend time learning something new about the world or herself on a commune in Tennessee, a yoga retreat in India or a dairy in Switzerland. Anywhere, actually, as long as it didn't involve cooking or baking.
For anyone considering a career in the kitchen, however, Spiced is a must-read. While it isn't adding anything new to the genre or particularly insightful, it does present a very realistic picture of life for women in a professional kitchen. Dalia Jurgensen does have a great memory for details, especially of her pastry; her descriptions of her creations are vivid and lovely and will help the pastry novice understand the effort and planning behind a great dessert.
I'm going to pass on my copy of Spiced to Maggie, a college senior who is going to be attending pastry school in a few months. It will certainly give her a preview of what her life will be like for many years.