Chefs used to confine themselves to writing cookbooks. Then along came Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, which shocked diners everywhere. Behind those swinging doors, chefs were doing more than turning out haute cuisine. They were also drinking too much, doing drugs, having sex, and, if angry with a customer’s complaints, spitting on a dish before it was delivered to said diner.
Bourdain is now an international celebrity. His CNN show, Parts Unknown, has placed him on the culinary map, both literally and figuratively. And his first book triggered an avalanche of other chef tell-alls. Italian chef Leonardo Lucarelli is the latest entry into the field. His memoir, Mincemeat – The Education of an Italian Chef, chronicles his rise and fall and rise again in various restaurants across Italy. With little formal training, Lucarelli worked his way up the food chain, eager to do everything from washing dishes to cleaning tables, anything for the opportunity to learn from talented and, in some cases, neurotic, chefs. “The difference between a chef and a sociopath?” he writes. “I don’t believe there is one.”
While working in restaurants, Lucarelli also earned his degree in anthropology, a discipline which certainly allowed him to study the restaurant business and the players from a fresh perspective. He’s also a terrific writer, able to describe his surroundings, his co-workers, and the food being prepared with colorful language. (The book was translated from the Italian by Lorena Rossi Gori and Danielle Rossi.) The result is an engrossing read that will be eaten up (pun intended) by food aficionados.
Like so many chefs, Lucarelli first learned about cooking from his parents. His father was only 40 when he died, but his enthusiasm for cooking inspired his son. “I so admired the way my dad was able to turn cooking into pleasure,” he says. “Mom fed us; dad delighted us.” Soon, Lucarelli was cooking for his teenage friends, inviting them home for lunch. The first present he gave his first real girlfriend was a loaf of home baked bread.
Of course, Lucarelli might have continued as a home cook, preparing food for family and friends. But the life of a chef proved to be a huge draw. “These days chefs are hip, they’re top guns,” Lucarelli writes. Restaurants now favor glass windows and open kitchens, providing star chefs with a stage where they can perform for the customers. Yet what goes on in the actual kitchens is not ready for prime time viewing. And through his experiences – he worked in 15 different restaurants in Italy, including in Lazio, Tuscany, Emilia-Romagna, Vento, and Trentino – he takes us into those testosterone-drenched, overheated workspaces where tempers flare, accidents happen, and somehow the food emerges to dazzle (most times) the guests.
There’s a pecking order in kitchens, and Lucarelli beautifully describes his co-workers, many of them immigrants looking to start a new life in Italy. There’s Sofia, from Nigeria, who manages to wash pots and pans in a minuscule sink, all the while keeping her head down and avoiding trouble. Sandro, a chef with a beer belly, was caught stealing and fired. Lucarelli would work for Sandro more than once, with varying degrees of success. Lucia, a waitress with double-jointed knees, told Lucarelli she had had two abortions and was pregnant again. Giulio, the “young-dude chef,” was constantly snorting coke.
Lucarelli was serious about becoming a fine chef, but he was not immune to all the distractions that have derailed many talented cooks. He writes about his drug binges (he snorted coke and shot up heroin with a brilliant cook, Emiliano), sex orgies (one threesome with his boss, Michele, and Michele’s girlfriend, Vanessa), and an ill-timed motorcycle ride (he and Vincenzo end up getting arrested and charged with possession.) Although his skills continued to improve, holding down a steady job proved to be a challenge. Those managing restaurants were often more interested in the social aspects, eager to attract a fashionable crowd, than they were in the food. And in one instance, the restaurant Lucarelli worked in was trashed overnight, ostensibly because the owner, Arturo, was in debt to the wrong people.
Then there were the inevitable accidents – burns from grabbing a too-hot skillet, a cut from a too-sharp knife, and, in one case, the near severing of a thumb from a meat slicer. Cooking, we learn, is a dangerous business.
Despite it all, Lucarelli knows that he will continue to work as a chef. “The truth is that I could have tried any number of improbable careers without finding one that I love as much as this,” he writes. “What other job would allow me to peep through so many cracks in the wall of life?” Now, thanks to his memoir, we get to peep, too.
Photos courtesy of Other Press
Mincemeat – The Education of an Italian Chef