“…the dishes they cooked don’t hang in a museum, can’t be ordered from Amazon, won’t pleasantly surprise you when you happen upon them on HBO. Meals pass through us. Restaurants close. Chefs, like General MacArthur’s old soldiers, just fade away. Save for the menus, cookbooks and – more recently – documentaries, there’s no element of cooking that won’t inevitably be lost to the ages along with those who cooked it and those who savored its riches. Gone forever. Like tears in the rain.”
-Andrew Friedman (from Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll pages 7 and 8)
Most of my relatives on my mother’s side work or have worked in the restaurant business. (Oddly enough I can’t think of anyone on my father’s side who has except for my father himself, who briefly worked as a busboy when he first came to Canada as a young man. By all reports he hated it.) So I understand that being a restauranteur is not simply a job or a career choice. It is a lifestyle. You don’t work in the business; you become the living embodiment of your establishment, with 16-hour days that go late into the night and rarely a day off or vacation taken; the only time you have with your family is if they work with you (which they usually do). It demands so much that when my uncles and cousins retired, they could not handle all the free time, and often returned to the eateries now in the hands of their children to work part time (which for them is a mere 40 hours a week). In the case of one of my uncles, he decided to reopen a large joint in a strip mall he owns on the South Shore, to huge success no less.
Before the modern era of the celebrity chef and entire cable channels devoted to food preparation and appreciation, there was a time when trying to create a great restaurant with original menus in the U.S., which was loaded with rubber stamp assembly-line franchises and chains, was a thankless and arduous endeavour. That began to change primarily in California and New York City in the 70’s, with the rise of chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Paul Prudhomme. That epoch is the subject of Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession by Andrew Friedman.
Most people don’t know the hidden side of what goes into creating an original eatery, from the décor to the menu, to the dishes, cutlery and staff; how vital location is, and how challenging it can be to get financed, let alone assemble a kitchen crew that doesn’t break out into knife fights after bumping into each other one too many times (which happens more often than one would think). In his book Friedman details the personal and professional lives of the people who dared to challenge the status quo and redefined American cuisine; where once dining out was about shoveling food into your mouth, they made it about a culinary experience where the meal was the entertainment for the evening.
Friedman’s effort is thoroughly researched and skillfully written; he sits back allows the interviewees to do the talking, leaving the bulk of the quotes intact and resisting the temptation to over-write passages or offer distracting, self-indulgent commentary or asides. The anecdotes are interesting and the book never drags, no small feat when you consider it is over 400 pages and many restaurants more or less are put together and run the same way.
The only thing that annoyed me about the book was the author’s incessant use of quotes before each chapter and subsection. It quickly grew tiresome. When a piece begins with a quote from someone else it calls attention to the writer’s laziness and unoriginality…wait…forget I said that. Quotes are fine.
In between CEGEP and attending University one of my aforementioned uncles sat me down and tried to dissuade me from going to film school, suggesting I take a job at his upscale dining hall (it turned out my mom, fearing I would ultimately end up an unemployed bum, put him up to it). Needless to say I turned him down. (Haven’t regretted it yet. While I appreciated the offer, it just wasn’t my destined career path. Don’t think he’s ever forgiven me.) He proceeded to ask me what was so appealing about the entertainment business. I told him that I like to work on special projects; where a group of people collaborate and produce something beautiful and unique from their imagination and effort. “The restaurant business could be like that as well,” he said. And it’s true. Like making a movie, it requires teamwork and creativity; where everyone has their assigned task working towards the vision of the director and producers; the menu is the script, the grand opening is the premier and every meal is another screening. My uncle understands that, and so does Andrew Friedman. That’s why Chefs, Drugs and Rock & Roll: How Food Lovers, Free Spirits, Misfits and Wanderers Created a New American Profession works so well.
*Please note: The preceding review, quotes and page numbers are all based on an advance, uncorrected proof. Final version of the book may vary*