Author Interviews
5:26 pm
Tue March 25, 2014

'Sous Chef' Reveals The High-Adrenaline Dance Behind Your Dinner

Originally published on Tue March 25, 2014 8:03 pm

A restaurant kitchen at the peak of the dinner rush can be a crazy place — hot, crowded and filled with a kind of intense energy that some people, like Michael Gibney, thrive on. Gibney's been working in restaurants since he was young. In his new book, Sous Chef, Gibney tries to capture the rhythm of the kitchen by taking his readers through one day in the life of a fast-paced New York restaurant.

Writing is a new affair for Gibney, but cooking is his first love. He got his start in the restaurant business as a kid, washing dishes. "That was not very glamorous at all, and I realized that the people who were cooking were having a much better time and seemed much cooler," he says. "I was sort of allured by the mystery that surrounded them."

Gibney loves the creativity of cooking and the adrenaline rush that comes with the challenge of preparing good food for a lot of people all at once. But he also likes the quiet, early part of the day. As sous chef, Gibney is second in command in the kitchen, just under the chef. He knows things will get increasingly hectic as the day goes on, so he takes this time to think through what lies ahead.

"It's most important to have a walk around," he explains. "Have a walk around the dining room, have a walk around the entire kitchen ... make sure everything is in order, that there's no stock that's boiled away on the stove, nothing is actually on fire. And start preparing yourself mentally for the day. Look at the numbers, and then get started on whatever's most important as quickly as you can."

Big industrial-size stoves line one wall of the surprisingly small kitchen. A center island stretches to the back with narrow aisles on each side. A stainless steel counter known as "the pass" is the area where the food is plated. It's hard to envision how the staff manages to work in this compact space. "I'd say, at any given moment, if you were to take a picture of this room there would be 15 or 20 people in it," Gibney says.

At this moment, Chef Julian Proujansky emerges with a large cod. He stands at the pass, deftly wielding a sharp knife and talking as he cuts the fish into smaller pieces. In the book, Gibney describes the way people work together in a kitchen as "the dance," and Proujansky agrees that a kind of choreography is essential for this kind of cooking.

"If everything is humming along smoothly ... I just stand here, pivot, grab the garnishes, put them on the plates, call the table, look at the tickets," Proujansky says. "If everything is going smoothly, no one has to move, almost. Things start to fall apart when the two garde manger cooks are crossing each other up, the entremet cook forgot whatever she's doing, and I have to run back there and cook it for her, and I can't look at the tickets, and everybody's out of place. And it's like a wheel spinning, and then it starts to lose its axis, and then the whole thing just falls apart."

Talking with the chef, Gibney learns that tonight he will be filling in for the cook who usually does the meat. The stove where he'll be working is already hot. "I'll be standing right here for about eight hours sweating profusely over slabs of meat that are going in and out of these ovens," he says. "I will be spinning around back and forth like this all night, and coordinating times and sending everything up there."

To the outsider it sounds like Gibney has a grueling night ahead of him, but he wouldn't have it any other way. He's ready for the dance to begin.

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A restaurant kitchen at the peak of the dinner rush can be a crazy place, hot, crowded. It can also be filled with a kind of energy that some people thrive on. Michael Gibney is one of those people. He's been working in restaurants since he was a teenager. In his new book, "Sous Chef," Gibney tries to capture the feel of the kitchen. He takes readers through one day in the life of a fast-paced New York restaurant. NPR's Lynn Neary met up with Gibney in the kitchen.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: Writing is a new affair for Michael Gibney, but cooking is his first love. He got his start in the restaurant business as a kid washing dishes.

MICHAEL GIBNEY: And that was not very glamorous at all. And I realized that the people who were cooking were having a much better time and seemed much cooler. I was sort of allured by the mystery that surrounded them.

NEARY: Gibney loves the creativity of cooking and the adrenaline rush that comes with the challenge of preparing good food for a lot of people all at once. But he also likes the quiet, early part of the day. As sous chef, Gibney is second in command in the kitchen, just under the chef. He knows things will get increasingly hectic as the day goes on, so he takes this time to think through what lies ahead.

GIBNEY: It's most important to have a walk around, have a walk around the dining room, have a walk around the entire kitchen, look through the walk-in boxes, make sure everything is in order, that there's no stock that's boiled away on the stove, nothing's actually on fire, and then start preparing yourself mentally for the day. Look at the numbers, and then get started on whatever's most important as quickly as you can.

Are you ready for this?

NEARY: Gibney offers to show me around as preparations are underway for tonight's dinner.

GIBNEY: So this is the main area of the kitchen. We're standing at the pass right now. This is where all the food gets plated.

NEARY: The pass is a stainless steel counter at the front of a surprisingly small kitchen. A center island stretches to the back with narrow aisles on each side where the work is done. Big industrial-size stoves line one wall. It's hard to envision how the staff manages to work in this compact space.

GIBNEY: On average, I'd say, at any given moment, if you were to take a picture of this room there would be 15 or 20 people in it.

NEARY: Well, I have to say, I'm being distracted now by this large piece of fish that somebody - or the chef...

GIBNEY: Our Chef Julian is about to butcher.

NEARY: Hi, Chef Julian.

JULIAN PROUJANSKY: Hello.

NEARY: Chef Julian Proujansky has emerged with a huge cod. He stands at the pass, deftly wielding a sharp knife and talking with me as he cuts the fish into smaller pieces. In the book, Gibney describes the way people work together in a kitchen as the dance. And Chef Proujansky agrees that a kind of choreography is essential for this kind of cooking.

PROUJANSKY: If everything is humming along smoothly. It's like, you know, I just stand here, pivot, grab the garnishes, put them on the plates, call the table, you know, look at the tickets. If everything is going smoothly, nobody has to move, almost. You just know your place. When things starts to fall apart, when the two garde manger cooks are crossing each other up, the entremet cook forgot whatever she's doing and I have to run back there and, like, cook it for her, and I can't look at the tickets and everybody's out of place, and it's like a wheel spinning and then it starts to lose its axis a little bit, like, and then the whole thing just falls apart.

NEARY: In this passage from the book, sous chef Gibney captures what it feels like to get into the rhythm of the kitchen, when the dinner hour is in full swing and everything is clicking.

GIBNEY: (Reading) Fat splutters, timers chime, food goes, tickets are stabbed, new one's plucked up, organize the board, start again. Eight fish now. A pan to each, eight butters, eight garlics, eight flips, eight (unintelligible), eight plates, eight more picks. Machine gun frequency, clean pans in from Kiko, they're getting heavy, they drop on the flat top like a bullet blast. Your arms are stiff, the branzino is done, swing open the oven where the heat blazes, it dries your eyes, blink it out. Grab up the Griswold, bring home the door, the towel is wet, the pan burns your hand, dizziness, nausea, synesthesia, pain.

NEARY: Talking with the chef, Gibney learns that tonight he'll be filling in for the cook who usually does the meat. He takes me over to the stove where he'll be working.

GIBNEY: Be careful not to touch that area over there because you'll burn yourself.

NEARY: It's already hot and he hasn't even started cooking yet.

GIBNEY: I'll be standing right here for about eight hours sweating profusely over slabs of meat that are going in and out of these ovens and I will be spinning around back and forth like this all night and then coordinating times and sending everything up there.

NEARY: To the outsider, it sounds like Gibney has a grueling night ahead of him, but he wouldn't have it any other way. He's ready for the dance to begin.

GIBNEY: These are mussels that are actually going with that cod fish.

NEARY: Lynn Nearly, NPR News, Washington.

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