Serious Reads: Four Kitchens, by Lauren Shockey

20110818thumb.jpgCulinary school students may enroll with dreams of their own kitchens and maybe a television show, but upon graduation they face the tough reality of restaurant cooking. Lauren Shockey, a University of Chicago graduate who decided to pursue a culinary education at the French Culinary Institute, embraced the opportunities that were presented to her after receiving her degree. She set out on a world tour of four acclaimed restaurants, training in very different cuisines and in very different atmospheres. She shares her experiences in Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris.

Shockey starts her journey in her home town of New York, working under Wylie Dufresne at the much-lauded wd-50. She feels clumsy and nervous, and insecure about her abilities as a novice cook. Delegated to chopping endive and cracking eggs, she learned the intricacies of molecular gastronomy by observation rather than practice. She reiterates often that Dufresne is nearly always cooking in the kitchen, a surprising practice for such a well-known chef. Shockey enjoys her time at wd-50, but the style of food is not much to her liking.

Next was Vietnam, a country she chose for her unfamiliarity with it but her past enjoyment of the cuisine. She worked in La Verticale, a restaurant run by a Frenchman who brings European twists to traditional Vietnamese cuisine. Shockey's co-workers had a hard time with English, but were warm and friendly. Unlike in New York , she lived a comfortable lifestyle compared to others. After wd-50, she was happy for the relaxed environment of La Verticale's kitchen.

In Tel Aviv, Shockey worked for Carmella Bistro, a modern Israeli restaurant near the Carmel Market. The head chef was rarely around—but his influence was felt in the menu and the respect he received from the sous chefs. The food was upscale comfort food, using Israeli spices and ingredients to enliven roasted meats, mashed potatoes, salads, and soups. The chain-smoking kitchen staff was tough and abrasive, but Shockey won them over with her charm and mean knife skills.

And finally she took off for Paris, where she felt compelled to obtain the ultimate education in French cooking. She went to Senderens, a restaurant that held two Michelin stars and the backing of a famous French chef. The food was fussy, too dressed-up for Shockey's tastes, but she made friends behind the line and was allowed to work the line rather than just the prep station.

Shockey brings her four kitchens alive for the reader, embracing and questioning the four cultures and cuisines as well as providing recipes for each. But despite the enjoyment gained from her months of work, ultimately she decides against a career in restaurant cooking. She reflects on the boys-club feel of the professional kitchen, and how she was one of only two or three women at each restaurant. She's turned off by the checked-out vibe that many chef-owners emanate by the time they reached their mid-forties. And she misses the feeling of sharing a meal with guests, of enjoying a home cooked meal around a communal table. But reading the book, one well appreciates her time spent gathering tips, special ingredients, and new flavors to be brought back into the kitchen.

About the Author: A student in Providence, Rhode Island, Leah Douglas loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her work is also featured in Rhode Island Monthly magazine.