If You Can’t Stand the Heat . . .
I like to believe every book has its own pulse. Each book has its own distinct heartbeat that rises and falls throughout the twists and turns of the story. Rather than judging a book by its lyrical language, cliffhanger plot points or overall message, I often form opinions on a book based on how it made me feel. If a book gives me a true emotional reaction that causes my heart to race, I know I enjoyed it. Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen by Jason Sheehan has a pulse so quick, it’s almost a heart attack.
Sheehan’s memoir explodes with a frenzied opening story of working as a chef on the line at a Tampa seafood restaurant. While wading through a mess of dropped utensils, towels, food and packaging, Sheehan and his team are cooking in sweltering heat, screaming, “Fire all, fire all!” to get the orders out as quickly as possible and pelting one another with mushrooms for fun. One cook faints, only to be dragged off the floor and replaced by another staff member. Sheehan drops to the ground and is revived by another cook with a bucket of ice water. He immediately jumps back up and continues working to the rest of the long, hot shift.
Sheehan has a deep passion for food and a love for working the line. The chaotic 15-hour shifts Sheehan works are about a hundred times more intense than anything I’ve ever seen on Hell’s Kitchen, although in the book, Sheehan’s mother mentions that her son may have a habit of making things up. In fact, even the book’s title is a bit of an exaggeration—there is no “death” to be found in the story, (one must admit its addition does make the title of the book more captivating). If some exaggerations here and there make for a more interesting story, I guess I don’t mind. Cooking Dirty doesn’t have one slow moment, and whether Sheehan is staying awake for days at a time, falling asleep on a flour sack in the back of the kitchen, or chopping off the tip of his finger, I felt like I was sitting bleary-eyed at the broiling chef’s station next to him, watching.
Reading Cooking Dirty was a thrilling experience, but the long, run-on sentences and metaphor-packed statements were often difficult to swallow. One confusing passage begins, “I’ve found that one of the other benefits of the indiscriminate drug spree—beyond pocket joints and the acquisition of too many Bic lighters—is a certain contrapuntal rearranging of one’s mental lawn furniture into patterns more in line with effective feng shui.” Yeah, I don’t know what he’s talking about either. Sheehan’s writing is strongest when he is telling anecdotes about his life in the kitchen, and weakest when he’s writing page after page of wordy self-reflection about how being a cook is the only thing he was ever great at.
After working in over thirty restaurant kitchens, Sheehan has acquired a large collection of outrageous kitchen injury stories, which offer distraction, or relief, from his meandering self-assessments. The absolute grossest injury in the book occurs when a new cook on the line plunges his hands into a vat of boiling fryer oil to reach for a utensil that has fallen into it. The new cook, who is wearing rubber gloves, never returned to work again. Readers with weak stomachs may want to finish dinner a few hours before picking up Cooking Dirty.
Some interesting moments of Cooking Dirty get glossed over, such as Sheehan’s sudden bout with an unexplained illness. In one section of the book, it seems that Sheehan’s wild, workaholic lifestyle has begun to catch up to him and he is placed in the hospital to determine the cause of his frequent, sudden seizures. These seizures prevent him from working and driving in one portion of the book, but are not diagnosed or spoken about again. I found the omission distracting and while reading the last page of the memoir, instead of thinking, “Wow, what a wonderful book,” I thought to myself, “Okay, but whatever happened to his seizures?”
The major turning point in the plot of Cooking Dirty was also the clearest and most eloquently written portion of the book. Sheehan decides to stop stressing his body, finances and marriage, which have all been compromised by his rigorous cooking career, and takes a job as a food writer at a local newspaper. Sheehan’s writing career takes off and he transforms from a brash, drugged-out hothead into a successful writer, husband and father. Unfortunately, the transformation feels rushed and tacked on. Maybe the story of Sheehan’s writing career should be an entirely different book, but I found it much easier to relate to the responsible, studious food lover than the drug-addled, expletive-screaming insomniac. The latter, however, has the better cocktail party stories.
Sheehan’s fast-paced memoir is a fun and out-of-control read that is certainly never boring. At times, Cooking Dirty felt so tumultuous that I had to put the book down to keep my head from spinning. Although parts of Sheehan’s debut novel are too manic and confusing, the speeding pace of the story still managed to carry me along. And maybe most importantly, I’ll never order a meal in a restaurant without thinking of the hardworking cooks toiling away in the kitchen, trying desperately not to faint from the heat.
Books Featured in this column:
Lindsay Champion's writing has been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney's, Fray Quarterly (available now at Barnes & Noble), Common Ties, SMITH Magazine, and in It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, published by Harper Perennial. Lindsay is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and has written hundreds of articles for numerous Internet publications, including Travels.com, Livestrong.com and Trails.com. She received her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. After living in New York City for six years, Lindsay has relocated to Los Angeles for some reason. She lives in Studio City, California, with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s web site. Contact Lindsay.