Take Five with Lauren Shockey, A First-Time Author on Her Adventures Cooking in Top Restaurants Around the World
Her journey through these four stages or unpaid apprenticeships started at famed molecular gastronomy temple, wd~50 in New York; followed by La Verticale in Vietnam; then Carmella Bistro in Israel; and finally, Michelin two-star Senderens in Paris.
Along the way, she discovered new dishes, flavors and techniques, of course. But more so, she came to realize where her heart truly lies when it comes to cooking.
Now, 27, and a restaurant critic for New York’s Village Voice, Shockey recounts her experience vividly, with plenty of humor and provocative insight, in her debut book, “Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris’’ (Grand Central).
The book, which also includes recipes for dishes inspired by her time in these kitchens, is a delight to read for anyone who’s ever contemplated cooking on the line or only fantasized about it. And I’m not just saying that because I had the chance to meet Shockey last year when we both found ourselves as part of a group of food writers invited to tour Quebec.
Recently, I had a chance to talk with her by phone about how the book came about, some of her more outrageous moments abroad, her famous mentor and what lies ahead in the future.
You also can meet Shockey, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 21, at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, when she will be doing a reading from her book, and signing copies.
Q: What was your favorite of the four kitchens you worked in, and why?
A: They were all so different. Wd~50 was a great first restaurant experience. They taught me the right way to do things – how to chop vegetables, hold a knife properly, be methodical and don’t rush, and to clean your station well.
I cleaned crab every day at Senderens. Every day. But a friend of mine who staged at L’Arpege (Alain Passard’s Michelin three-star in Paris) only cleaned the stairs. They never let her touch the food. She said that at least I got to clean crab.
Hanoi was one of my favorites. The chef was very understanding about this being my first experience in Vietnam. He said that Vietnam isn’t just about what happens in his kitchen. He said that I should eat at food stalls and shop in the markets to really get to know Vietnam.
Of all of them, I would go back to the Vietnam kitchen first. I really loved working there and it’s the type of food that I love to eat. I got along really well with the staff there. In New York and Paris, it was very hierarchical, whereas in Vietnam, they were excited to have a Westerner in the kitchen with them.
Q: What was the hardest or most stressful kitchen?
A: New York. I was constantly afraid I was messing up and that I was the world’s worst stage. I thought Wylie (Dufresne) hated me. I couldn’t even look him in the eye the first month. And he’s nice; he’s not a yeller. Being on my feet 12 hours a day was exhausting. It really takes a toll.
Q: Girl, you had some crazy adventures. You ate dog in Vietnam. You know, when I interviewed Anthony Bourdain years ago, he said the one thing he probably never would eat is dog. How hard was it for you to do this?
A: I never had pet dog growing up because my father was allergic. I wouldn’t say it was one of the most delicious things I ate. But it was one of the most memorable meals of the trip.
I was one of few westerners and few western women who had been there. I wanted to experience the local culture as much as I could. When I had to put the dog in my mouth, well, the first couple bites of any steamed meat is not going to be easy. It was chewy and pinkish gray. It definitely took a few chews to get it down.
Q: When you cooked in Paris, one chef was constantly making suggestive comments to you in the kitchen, while another stage who was only 17 hit on you. Only in Paris, right?
A: The French are very passionate people. (laughs) They like to express their love or admiration in interesting ways.
The 17-year-old definitely had feelings for me, but the chef was just doing that in the spirit of joking around. It’s harder, though, when it’s your boss who is doing the joking. You just have to cringe under your apron hoping he won’t say anything next. A lot of his comments were seen in jest, as I was the young American girl there.
The hardest part is that there just aren’t many other women in the kitchen to commiserate with and be friends with. It’s also a tough job for a woman. Physically, I’m 5’2’’, so carrying 50-pound box of octopus is very heavy. It becomes a very male environment.
Q: Did you know all along you were going to write a book from your experiences?
A: I got the book deal at the end of my time at wd~50 and after I had set up the trip to Vietnam. It became financially easier to do the other two trips with those funds. I kept a journal for the first part. Then, I really tried to listen to dialogue and to pay attention to details.
Q: During these stages, what did you learn that surprised you most?
A: The biggest lesson I learned was that what I loved about cooking was home cooking, not restaurant cooking. And there is a significant difference between the two. With restaurant cooking, it’s all about repetition. It has to be the same as it was the week before and the following week. In the home kitchen, I love the improvisation, the ability to play it by ear and the whimsy. And you can’t really do that in restaurants. You never get to see people enjoying your food in a restaurant, either. You’re never in the dining room.
Q: Did you get any feedback from the chefs mentioned in the book after it came out?
A: Wylie seemed fine with it. I didn’t hear from the chef in France. But I’m not surprised.
Q: So you have no more plans to cook again in a restaurant?
A: Not at this point in time. I don’t know what’s next really. I’d love a job where it involves a bit more cooking. I really enjoyed the recipe development part of the book. Now, ironically, as a restaurant critic, I don’t have time to cook.
Q: Your photo appears on your book jacket. How do you keep your anonymity as a restaurant critic with that out there now?
A: On the first day of my job at the Village Voice, the Web site Eater, published a photo of me, putting it out in the open for all. So, I’ve never really been completely anonymous. Indeed, it’s hard to find anyone without a photo of themselves on the Internet.
But when I go out, I do my best to remain under the radar. I have a wig and several fake glasses, and I make reservations and credit card purchases under a fake name. I do what I can, and to the best of my knowledge, I haven’t been uncovered.
Q: What’s the one dish you learned from your stages that you still make often?
A: I make the chocolate cake and almond tart a lot. (Recipes are in the book.) I love the green mango salad from Vietnam. I love going to Chinatown markets to buy the fresh herbs there for it.
Q: Is there a chef you’d still love to train under?
A: If I did another stage, I would have liked to have explored a culture that I didn’t know: Africa or South America. Or even Mexico. I would focus on a place over a chef. That’s how I came up with these four kitchens in the first place.
Q: Is there anyone you’d be intimidated to cook for now?
A: I really only did a year of professional cooking. So, I’d still be nervous to cook for any professional chef.
Q: So many people dream about going to culinary school and becoming a chef. What would you say to them?
A: Go work in a restaurant before spending the money on culinary school to make sure what you love is professional cooking in a restaurant. Culinary school is not cheap. And a lot of chefs — including many at wd~50 — never went to culinary school.
I am glad I went to culinary school. It will never hurt, but if you’re going just to become a restaurant chef, you should think about whether it’s worth it or not.
Q: Years ago, you wrote a mash note to Amanda Hesser (former New York Times food writer and founder of food52), which kind of kick-started your career. How did that come about?
A: I wrote her a fan letter when I was a freshman in college, I was about 19. She had just come out with her book, ‘Cooking For Mr. Latte’ (W.W. Norton). There was an email address under her author photo, so I emailed her, saying, ‘Hi, I’m a big fan.’ She actually wrote back, and I didn’t expect that. I told her if she ever needed an assistant that I’d do anything for her, that I’d pick up her dry-cleaning for her.
We met and she invited me to her house. I ended up working for her at the NY Times doing recipe development and a column for the paper’s ‘T’ magazine supplement.
She’s definitely my mentor. The best advice she gave me was: ‘If you want to write, pitch as much as you can. You won’t get a story published if you’re not pitching. Be persistent.’
Q: Who would play you in the movie version of your book?
A: Mmm, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Probably not Julia Roberts. She’s a little too old now. I don’t know if Maggie is a foodie or not. She seems like she has a level head, though.
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