When I moved to Mauritania, a country located in the Sahara Desert, I wasn't prepared to be served boiled intestines or goat's head on a bed of couscous, the tongue arranged just so, but I did my best. Just between you, me and the Internet, sometimes I fake chewed and fake swallowed, but at least I tried to be polite and eat whatever I was served. So I was amused and offended when I had Mauritanian friends for a nice, normal spaghetti dinner and watched them leave it after one bite.
“We don't like it,” they said. “Why didn't you make couscous?”
Read the last 5 Minutes on Books on 500 Acres and No Place to Hide.
Most Americans like food from everywhere, and we pride ourselves on trying most things. Our cities boast cuisine from Thailand, India and Ethiopia, and we have assimilated Mexican and Italian food to the point that we now consider them American, so I wasn't surprised when I picked up a copy of Lauren Shockey's memoir Four Kitchens: Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. It made sense to me that a young American chef would want to learn how to cook food from around the world.
Shockey went to culinary school in New York, but it wasn't until she completed a stage (apprenticeship) at a restaurant that she felt she was really learning something. She spent a year and her savings traveling the globe, working as an unpaid stagiere for three months each in four different countries. She decided to first apprentice at wd-50 in New York, where she could learn molecular gastronomy. She thought about what cuisines she most admired and settled on Vietnamese, Israeli (in part to honor her heritage) and French.
Shockey’s memoir gives a fascinating glimpse into the world behind the swinging kitchen doors of high-end haute cuisine. At wd-50, everything is taken very seriously. Molecular gastronomy is a study of the different chemical reactions that change a food when it is cooked. Different foods are manipulated until they are unrecognizable, then beautifully presented in tiny cubes and swirls. Shockey spends her time doing prep, separating eggs and carving Brussels sprouts into perfect spheres. The pressure is high and tempers sometimes fray, but Shockey gains confidence as she manages to survive and even thrive.
She opts to work for French chef Didier Corlou in Hanoi and reports to work ready to carry on the high-stress atmosphere of the New York restaurant. Instead, she finds a more relaxed kitchen with a great emphasis on using fresh, local ingredients and infusing local cuisine with a hint of France. Shockey plunges into life in Hanoi with gusto, sampling street food and even daring a restaurant that serves only dog meat (which sort of puts my goat intestines to shame).
In Tel Aviv, the author enthusiastically arrives at a non-kosher Mediterranean restaurant, confident that she knows her way around a kitchen and is soon put to work plating appetizers and preparing fish—far more serious tasks than she had initially expected. She also spends holidays feasting with newfound friends.
For the final three months of her journey, Shockey heads to Paris to work in a two-star restaurant. Yet again, she finds a high commitment to detail and quality—not to mention sexually aggressive co-workers.
When she returns to New York, she decides to not work in a restaurant but instead to enjoy cooking in her home kitchen for family and friends. And after reading all the recipes that she's adapted from her travels in restaurants around the world, I can tell I'd love be invited to her place for dinner.
Elizabeth D. Jones has loved reading for just about as long as she's had a cognitive memory, and she loves working with the 5 Minutes for Books team. She is an ESL teacher who has lived and worked around the world with her husband and three kids. She blogs about adjusting back to life in the U.S. at Planet Nomad.