If we listen to the whispers inside us, the voice that tells us something is not as it should be, life can become a wonderful series of twists and turns. Dahlia Jurgensen felt stifled in her corporate career and chose to follow her passion to culinary school eventually becoming a well-respected, often reviewed pastry chef. Spiced is her story of life in the restaurant kitchen.
The October book selection for my online book club was Spiced: A Pastry Chef’s True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen by Dalia Jurgensen, chosen by Libbi of Domestic Wandering.
From a very early age, Dahlia Jurgensen loved to cook. She fondly recounts memories of assisting her mother in the kitchen making many traditional Danish dishes and attempting to recreate the recipes from Anne Willan’s Grand Diplome Cooking Course cookbook she received for her thirteenth birthday. But she was also interested in languages and literature which led her to a career in publishing.
But soon her office job, the uncomfortable shoes, and the bottom line depressed her. It felt like none of it really mattered. She felt stifled.
After a quick call to her parents who urged her to follow what made her happy and to not be afraid to take risks, she gave her two week notice and enrolled in the New York Restaurant School after seeing the number flash on her television screen one evening.
Fortuitously, a friend of a friend happened to know about an entry-level position opening at Nobu, a three-star Japanese restaurant in New York City where Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto worked as head chef. No sooner had she left the corporate world, Dahlia was trailing accomplished pastry chefs learning to plate desserts and create the components of the restaurant’s sophisticated confections.
Dahlia accounts of the hectic, male-dominated, often sophomoric lifestyle of the kitchen providing a sharp dichotomy between the back of the house and the serenity and pleasure felt by the guests at the front of the restaurant. As told by other chefs like Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential, Dahlia shares the stories of painful burns, heavy after hours partying and brawling, sexist taunts, and little tolerance for whining, sickness or mistakes.
She leads us through life at a highly reviewed restaurant to starting up a new eatery to creating new dishes for Martha Stewart to the passionless experience of working at a corporate hotel restaurant. She tells of the repetitious tasks and the culinary creativity, the long, arduous days and the need to turn out perfection night after night.
While the exploits where engaging and made for a quick read, I had hoped Dahlia would provide a bit more insight into how she handled the transition from office politics to restaurant culture from a woman’s perspective. How did it feel to go from sitting in her suit and heels discussing the monthly report to a hot, testosterone-filled kitchen where there were no policies regarding appropriate employee conduct? Did she find herself changing, toughening up, to compete in this new world? What was it like to lose contact with your friends and family because work became all-consuming? How was she able to go from working side by side with business colleagues to taking orders and verbal abuse from her chefs without argument or irritation?
Spiced provides an enjoyable view into the inner workings of a restaurant kitchen and its cast of characters – the flirtatious coat check girl, the gruff and hostile sous chef, the gay and lesbian staff, the homophobic, macho employees who often had criminal records, and the whiny waiters whose feet hurt or whose nail broke. For those curious about what is actually happening behind the kitchen doors, this book will be an entertaining read.