We live in an age of celebrity chefs and food television, and, if you’re like me, the pleasure is in the peek behind the curtain at the expert hands that make the food. It's in the authoritative ways they talk about the making, and the special language of the kitchen, and the feeling that somehow, briefly, you get to belong to that world -- even though you know there’s no true belonging, because you’re not there, and if you were there, it wouldn’t be a kitchen you’d mostly be seeing. It would be a television set, with cameras on dollies and an audience on risers and a real chef who is playing the part of a real chef, but who isn’t being a real chef at all, because a real chef is working in a real kitchen under the special and unpredictable pressures and time constraints of a real restaurant in real time.
This problem – the desire to get closer, down in the trenches of the daily life of a person who belongs to a world not one’s own – can never find its solution in television, because the medium is too distorting, and there is too much money at stake to offer the kind of screen time that a closer look would require, and, anyway, the presence of the documentary cameras would change the behavior of everyone involved so much that any hope for closeness would be dashed.
Faced with these constraints, the book begins to seem like an advanced and exciting technology. It can be whatever length it needs to be. It can see its subject not only from the outside, but also from the inside, through careful reconstruction. And if, like Scott Haas, author of “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant,” its writer has more or less an all-access pass, and if that writer is willing to return to the place often enough to seem less like an observer and more like a part of the place, then the people in the place will likely let their guard down fairly quickly, and revert to the everyday way of being that is the primary texture of the place. This means the book can offer a much richer, more true, and less distorted picture of the daily life of the place, a special intimacy that brings the reader great pleasure. (And that goes double for the audiobook, especially when the narrator is as able as Johnny Heller, whose delivery in “Back of the House” has a conspiratorial quality that makes the listener feel as though we’re sneaking into the rarefied restaurant world together and stealing all the secrets.)
The restaurant in question, Cambridge’s Craigie on Main, belongs to Tony Maws, a non-traditional chef whose menu isn’t rooted in any particular regional cuisine or food tradition, but which is, instead, an extension of the taste and personality of the chef. Hass’ interest in Maws began in skepticism about the concept, and ended, after a year-and-a-half’s immersion in the life of the chef and the restaurant, in admiration.
It is a virtue of “Back of the House” that Hass is a psychologist and a food writer rather than a chef or a line worker, because it means that he takes nothing for granted. We learn alongside him, as he follows each member of the kitchen, takes his turns trying out the work himself, observes the trouble latent in the power differential between cook and chef, and allows his portrait of Maws to unfold procedurally, each new bit of information about Maws and his history recasting the preceding information for the listener the same as it did for the writer. (A set piece in which Hass interviews Maws’ parents is especially pleasurable in this way.)
It should be said: While the pleasures of “Back of the House” are many — sharply drawn characters, special access to a special working world, a pleasing thoroughness of description — the writing is occasionally unwieldy. Occasionally there's a long run of dialogue that doesn’t seem to go anyplace, and from time to time we're swept up in confusion when a scene begins before the writer has offered the context that would enable the reader to fall into the moment. But on the whole, and especially in the audiobook edition, Haas and Maws make good companions, and the listener feels welcome in the world of the kitchen.
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