Sunday, November 20, 2011

Four Kitchens: Traveling the World with Lauren Shockey

Over the last few months of summer Lauren Shockey's Four Kitchens kept popping up on my radar- on my favorite blogs, in tweets, as giveaways, etc. Who was this young woman, just a couple years older than me, who I kept hearing about? Turns out Four Kitchens is the first book from a great new writer in our food-loving midst. Even though I had read a few posts about the book and some excerpts I wasn't sold on the book at first. Since there was no promise it'd be a homerun, not coming from a well-known and seasoned writer, I didn't buy Shockey's book right away. 

Luckily Lauren was one of the authors at the Freerange Reads event I attended at the beginning of September, throwing out a second line for me to catch. After she read us her stomach-churning experience eating dog meat in Hanoi I was effectively hooked and knew I would enjoy her book. But she didn't fully reel me in until last month's book launch party for Kathleen Flinn. At the September event I was able to hear the quality of her reading, but at the book party she was able to speak candidly to a small audience in a discussion about home cooking. After that I knew it would be worth my time to spend 300-pages or so with Lauren. So that was the night I bought the book and jumped right into it after finishing the books I had already queued up at the beginning of the month: Flinn's The Kitchen Counter Cooking School and Ruth Reichl's Comfort Me With Apples.

The comparison to Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and Four Kitchens has been made a few times, for valid reasons. Both are memoirs about women who travel alone to multiple countries with set goals in mind, eating along the way and ending with a final revelation. As Lauren said at the Flinn event her book is really just 'Eat, Eat, Eat, Eat- and wasn't that everyone's favorite part of the book anyway!?' Her journey to four countries and her work in four different restaurants is very interesting. As a chef-loving nation, getting into the kitchens anywhere is always a bit foreign and exciting for us. To get an insider's peek at one of the nation's most interesting kitchens, the molecularly focused wd~50, in addition to kitchens across the globe makes Shockey's story captivating to a broad audience; to lover's of Bourdain as much as those who loved reading (and watching) Gilbert's trek. 

After completing her degree at the French Culinary Institute and while working on a Masters in Food Studies at NYU Lauren comes up with her plan to be a stage (aka unpaid kitchen worker) in kitchens in New York (because that's where she's from), Hanoi (because Vietnamese cuisine fascinates her), Tel Aviv (because she is Jewish) and Paris (because of its gastronomic importance). 

We begin at Wylie Dufresne's wd~50 in Manhattan. wd~50 serves dishes prepared using molecular gastronomy and unique flavor combinations. It is a rather interesting place to begin a multi kitchen year, since few other restaurants in the world use the techniques and scientific ingredients that wd~50 does. Lauren begins at the bottom, doing prep in the basement but quickly earns respect from her co-workers and starts plating dishes during the dinner service. She does a great job. It makes for a really fresh start to the book.

Next up we head to Hanoi, Vietnam where Shockey works at Didier Corlou's restaurant La Verticale. Right off the bat, her mother thinks it strange that she is going to Vietnam to work in a restaurant run by a Frenchman. Her inkling that it will be the best way to learn is right, plus she is aware of Corlou's attention to flavor in his cooking. The fact that Corlou is not Vietnamese allows him to see the cuisine of the country for what it is and find excitement in it. In many ways this is how Shockey is able to see things, being an outsider in the four places she works, and even in New York because she is out of her element, at first, dealing with the molecular ingredients. It seems Lauren gets the most out of her time in Hanoi. She spends a lot of time tasting the local cuisine outside of the kitchen. She tries many traditional dishes, even super spicy ones and, yes, dog meat (I didn't re-read these pages when I came to them, euh- but they are excellently written because you feel like you are there eating the thit cho with her). Lauren makes easy friends of the kitchen staff she works with in all four places, but especially in Hanoi. She is also fortunate to make fast friends who are part of the ex-pat scene. It seems everyone in Hanoi is passing through, constant wanders. Once in Tel Aviv there are persistent undertones of a homecoming for her friends there, many of them have moved to Tel Aviv to stay, for a variety of reasons, and encourage Lauren to do the same.

Tel Aviv, Israel is the third stop on the journey. The drift we get from Lauren about Tel Aviv is that it is a pretty relaxed place which makes for a calm kitchen at Daniel Zach's Carmella Bistro. The nicest thing about Lauren's time at Carmella is the amount of responsibility she is given in the kitchen, and how quickly. There is a real progression in skill and respect from wd~50 to La Verticale then to Carmella. The company she keeps in Tel Aviv are warm and welcoming, not unlike in Hanoi, but different. The friends she makes in Tel Aviv seem to have a sense of groundedness. Many of them have been "called" to Tel Aviv, as their homeland, and unlike her friends in Hanoi, they are not setting off to a new country every few weeks. If Lauren is most comfortable culturally in Hanoi, she is most comfortable in the kitchens of Tel Aviv. She executes perfect dinner parties on the fly and even finds herself getting impatient with new stages while working in the Carmella kitchens- a clear sign of her achievements. 

Shockey's last stop is Paris, France. Being the francophile I am, I was most eager to get to this section of the book even before I opened it. Sadly, it is my least favorite kitchen/country in the story. Lauren opens up the section talking about how there are two types of people, the diehard francophiles (moi) and then those who just don't love everything French. She, like me, studied in Paris during undergrad and found the Parisians to be a bit icy. During my first month I spent a lot of time crying in Paris, worried I had made a huge mistake, thinking I should go home, and being vexed by thoughts of no longer loving, let alone liking, Paris anymore. Shockey seemed to share many of these same feelings during her time in the city while in college, but unlike me she doesn't seem to shake them. She does great work at the famed Senderens but her time there feels deflated. Some tasty recipes come out of the Paris section, and an expertise in shelling crabs, but this part of the book is a bit of a joyless read.

Her time working across the globe in top kitchens ultimately leads Shockey to conclude that she is happiest with the time she spent outside of the restaurant kitchens; cooking for that Yom Kippur party, learning to make cha ca from Son. At the Flinn book event Lauren spoke about the joy's of watching people eating, and liking, her food and the ease of cooking with a glass of wine in hand instead of the high pressure of working the line or prepping the same ingredients over and over. There is a lot of balance in this book. Though she is working her hardest in these top-rated kitchens, in her heart she is a home cook, like most of us. Her journey is appealing to both the restaurant chef and the general cooking public. 

In her epilogue Lauren offers some keen advice to readers: if you want to go to culinary school spend time in a professional kitchen before you decide to pay for it. I am happy to read this advice. Student loans have become such a weight on everyone and the cult of chefery is so popular that when you pair the two plus the fact that the culinary school graduates find themselves making barely enough to live it makes for a messy equation. Shockey is upfront and realistic. I find her honesty to be very refreshing. This book isn't an ad for culinary school,  it is an example of what is possible spending time as a stage

And not to leave out a very important facet of this book-- the recipes! It is really chock full of  delicious global cuisine and a little at-home molecular cooking, too. The two things I keep thinking about and can't wait to try are: Tel Aviv's Eggplant Mashed Potatoes (page 255) and Paris' Almond Tart with Mirabelle Cream (page 325). She has a mix of menu items, her original inventions and recipes based on popular family meals she had in the different restaurants. It is as much a cookbook as it is a memoir! 

If you like cooking, learning about the workings of restaurant kitchens, traveling, trying new things and being independent you will enjoy spending 300 pages with Lauren Shockey as much as I did. Currently Lauren is working for the Village Voice writing about food, checking out the latest restaurants and even interviewing Jacques Pépin
Keep up with Lauren's latest news on her website: Lauren Shockey
Follow Lauren on Twitter: @ldshockey
Like Lauren on Facebook: Lauren Shockey Facebook Page


Irina G (Fit Flexitarian) said...

I was at the book launch for Kathleen Flinn and, I have to say, I completely agreed with Lauren's "eat, eat, eat, eat" bit. I actually already had the book but haven't had time for it yet. However, your review of it has convinced me to make this the next book on my reading list. Thanks!

The Culinary Librarian said...

Glad to hear it Irina! It is a quick read, perfect for the holiday break! ;)

Jonathan Dixon said...

Reading with Lauren at the Free Range event in September was one of the fall's real highlights...