Cooking Dirty: Life, Love and Death in the Kitchen

Jason Sheehan

Close to a decade later, Jason Sheehan’s Cooking Dirty brings a profound sense of déjà vu: a cautious soul might allude to Bourdain’s shadow looming large over this much trumpeted tome; a less delicate flower would marvel at Sheehan’s barefaced cheek in appropriating Bourdain’s rock ‘n’ roll chef schtick in its entirety. And then some.

Insisting he holds no truck with the whole celebrity chef/foodie culture, chef-turned-food writer Sheehan promises the unvarnished and unpalatable truth. If you’re expecting a typical Hollywood narrative arc of tortured young genius pushing himself to breakdown only to find redemption through the love of a good woman, you’ve come to the wrong place, says Sheehan. And, then, with the chutzpah of the true egomaniac, he sets about telling us exactly that tale with his good self in the starring role, an apron-clad superman of a type last seen in Under Siege, as action hero Steven Seagal, muttered, “I’m just the cook”.

Unlike Bourdain, a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, Sheehan’s training has all been on the job beginning as a pizza parlour dishwasher aged 15. Save a handful of posts in more upmarket restaurants, his cheffing CV largely comprises stints in those distinctly American establishments – diners, waffle bars, fry shacks, steak houses ad infinitum – that dominate the large middle ground between fast food outlets at the bottom and the rarified Michelin star mob way up in the stratosphere.

All kitchen work is punishing but that aforementioned middle ground, where taste and quality often stumble in a distant second to speed and volume, is a true endurance test and Sheehan recounts it faithfully and well.

At 27C dogs die in cars, but the kitchen temperature of one Florida fry shack where Sheehan serves time hits 60C in the muggy summer heat, as they churn out an astonishing 914 meals a night.

A plastic bottle of cornflour makes the rounds with all and sundry dumping it straight down the front of their trousers to soak up the sweat and keep the ‘tackle’ from sticking to their legs; ‘making pancakes’ they call it.

Casualties are plentiful. As one FNG (F...... New Guy) passes out, runners plunge onto the line, hip-checking their way through the chaos to drag him off, as the expeditor (a sort of kitchen foreman) shouts out, “hydrate the bitch!”. The FNG is dumped over a floor grate near the fridges and doused with ice water. He comes to, screaming, spluttering, kicking.

It is in this Florida prologue that we are treated to the first in an endless procession of anecdotes and asides illustrating the manly cut of Sheehan’s jib: when he passes out, he is rehydrated on the spot, gets up and resumes cooking.

Sheehan’s kitchens are populated by the dregs of society: oddballs, maniacs, (current and former) criminals, junkies, alcoholics and infinite combinations of all these. Neither are intoxicants mere social pleasures as Sheehan and his co-workers chug constantly on beer, wine and liquor, whatever is to hand; drugs, soft and hard, are consumed with equal abandon.

Fights erupt constantly as all and sundry crack under the strains and turnover is endless as staff are fired, quit or vanish forever.

Sexual relations are conducted with the same offhand lack of scruple as waitresses are ‘enjoyed’ on countertops, cutting boards, flour sacks, cellars; anywhere a sweaty chef can gain purchase for a couple of frantic minutes of fornication. If this all reads like the chaos, madness and moral breakdown of a war zone, it is no coincidence; Sheehan, often referencing Apocalypse Now and Michael Herr’s Dispatches, fancies he is one small remove from actually taking on the Viet Cong himself, a mere matter of bullets over bain maries.

From a blue-collar Irish-American family, his Irishness is an essential part of his ‘backstory’, citing whiskey, brandy butter and The Pogues as his “people’s” greatest contribution to world culture. He constantly evokes the voice of Denis Leary, another Irish-American to labour under the assumption that overtly prodigious drinking and smoking is the only way to illustrate manhood.

Or how about the night he puts an eight-inch blade right through his hand: “In full view of half my crew, I coolly drew it out, wrapped the hand in a side towel secured with a boxer’s wrap of duct tape, and worked a full Friday night on the saute station one-handed.”

What a guy! If Coco Chanel herself were to fetch up as a fry cook, she’d hardly devote as much of her autobiography to matters sartorial. Kitchen-wear is largely functional and standard for obvious reasons, but Sheehan repeatedly describes his alternative outfits du jour: old punk rock T-shirts, scruffy biker boots and bandanas pinning down his mohawk; a regular Travis Bickle of the tureen.

But like all the best Hollywood stories, this bad boy exterior masks a passionate and creative soul. From his teens, concealing Gourmet magazine as if it were porn, and making night-time odysseys to the roughest neighbourhoods in search of ethnic cuisines, Sheehan eventually masters a variety of skills and can bandy about the high-falutin’ menuspeak with those same oft-scorned celebrity chefs – a case of not only having his bread buttered on both sides but around the edges as well.

And if potential scriptwriters still haven’t got the message, he offers his idealised obituary: “(Sheehan) was a good cook. Sure he was a reprobate, a degenerate animal. Always broke, always borrowing money. He was a foul-mouthed, bad-tempered, cross-eyed, snaggle-toothed, brain-damaged, tail-chasing fuckup and a total wreck of a human being. But, man, Sheehan could cook.”

The tales of kitchen madness and debauchery are authentic, but Sheehan’s constant self-glamourising plants a niggling doubt over the whole enterprise. Near the end, as he makes the transition from cook to writer, he overhears a food magazine executive shouting, “we need one of those Anthony Bourdains” Sheehan bursts into the room announcing, “I am Jason Sheehan and I am your Anthony Bourdain.” Either way, it’s a shame because while Sheehan is the far better writer, Kitchen Confidential still reads like the documentary, Cooking Dirty like the fantastical action thriller – entertaining, but a complete work of fiction. One for the weekend stove-top warriors.

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