You might think this is just another one of those culinary memoirs and skip it, but you'd be wrong. Spiced: A Pastry Chef's True Stories of Trials by Fire, After-Hours Exploits, and What Really Goes on in the Kitchen starts out lukewarm, but gets better as you read along. The copy I read, however, was an uncorrected proof, and so it's likely that it's better now.
The other difference is that Dalia Jurgensen is the first pastry chef to write her memoirs; most other culinary memoirs are written by chefs who are entree-centric, for lack of the proper word. Jurgensen's insights to the inner working of kitchens are bracing. She doesn't gloss over the sexism plaguing the modern kitchen; though some kitchens are better than others--seems completely dependent on the tone the chef sets. Jurgensen shares how dishwashers hover over porno mags, as well as more implicit manifestations of sexism in the kitchen.
Having only worked in one kitchen for one day, and most of my restaurant experience being at the front of the house as a server, I didn't realize how quickly chefs burnout or how often they "self-medicated" with a geographical cure. And yet, I did know a bit about socializing after work at bars; my SIL was a bartender for years and rarely made it to holiday events because of her work schedule.
Besides working at various levels in kitchens Jurgensen spent some time in Martha Stewart's kitchen testing and creating recipes where she honed her food styling skills and developed a method for meticulously tracking each modification she made in recipe until it was perfect. Her forays into catering and consultants jobs provided insight into the pros and cons of those types of jobs.
Her descriptions of kitchen culture and politics are illuminating to someone who hasn't worked in that environment. For example: One cook hazes a waiter by constantly calling his sexuality into question. When Jurgensen and two colleagues leave Scarabee for Q25, the staff at Q25 sabotages their efforts. She writes about romance in the kitchen and how that can backfire. There's more, but I'll let you discover those morsels as you tuck into the book.
One of the most fascinating parts of the book was her creation of desserts for the various chefs she worked for. I wish there was more about her intellectual and creative process, to really get inside the pastry chef's mind. And yet, her descriptions of cooking, slicing, dicing, plating, and styling are detailed and mouth-watering:
I set one of the chickpeas pancakes, studded with small squares of tomato and chopped black olives and cooked in brown butter, in the center of each white plate. Now, the salmon. With my sharpened chef knife (a Sharp edge is absolutely imperative; you need to cut, not tear), I sliced each rectangle og fish on the bias with one smooth motion...The deep-coral center gradually gave way to the pale pink of the fully coked outer edges of the cooked fish. (87)
Jurgensen's book is chockablock with details about culinary careers, and specifically, what it takes to become a renowned pastry chef. It's a perfect mixture of her personal life and professional life that left me wanting more. So I'm headed to her blog to read about her Spiced Life. You might learn from her example and skip culinary school all together, as her training didn't prepare her for the reality of kitchen work. So, start at the bottom and work your way up, and one day, you might be top chef.
So my questions for Jurgensen: Where in Tennessee does your mother live? And what restaurants do you recommend in the Volunteer State? Because, this blog is all about Tennessee, after all.
While I wait for anwers, I should try her recipe for Lemon (or Lime) Pound Cake. I love pound cake's simplicity and density and am always on the hunt for a new kind of pound cake. Dalia's content below:
Dalia's Lemon (or Lime) Pound Cake
Pound cake is not the first treat that comes to most people’s minds when their sweet tooth starts calling out, probably because most pound cakes are bland in flavor, dense without being rich or just plain bad. But for my English, sweets loving husband, pound cake, specifically a lemon pound cake, is a revelation. He thinks it’s perfect with afternoon tea (of course), after dinner with berries and ice cream, even for breakfast (I told you he has a sweet tooth).
Lemon pound cakes make my husband happy and since they are easy to make (and because I love the way his eyes light up upon smelling one when he walks in the door) I make them more than any other treat or, puddings, as he calls desserts. Last week I didn’t have lemons around and instead used some limes and the result was just as delicious. So, here’s my favorite lemon (or lime) pound cake recipe, one I adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible. The method may seem a bit counter intuitive at first (there’s no creaming of the butter and sugar) but the result is a tender, delicious lemon pound cake.
3 Tbsp milk, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract
1-1/2 cups all purpose flour
3/4 cup sugar
3/4 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1-1/2 sticks (12 Tbsp) butter, soft
zest of one lemon
2 Tbsp lemon juice
3 Tbsp sugar
1. Grease a loaf pan (approx. 8 1/2 x 4 1/2 x 3). Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, 3/4 cup sugar, salt and baking soda and mix with the whisk attachment for 30 seconds to blend.
3. With a fork, whisk together the eggs, milk, lemon zest and vanilla.
4. Add the softened butter and half the egg mixture to the flour mixture. Mix on low speed until just incorporated, then increase speed to med-high and mix for one minute. Scrape down the sides.
5. Add the remaining egg mixture in two batches, mixing for 20 seconds and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition.
6. Scrape batter into the prepared pan and bake until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted to the middle of the cake, about 55 minutes. I also recommend rotating the cake halfway through the bake time to ensure even baking.
7. Let cool for about 20 minutes.
8. Mix the lemon juice and 3 Tbsp of sugar.
9. Carefully unmold pound cake onto a plate. With a fork, poke holes into the top of the cake.
10. Brush (or spoon) the lemon syrup onto the cake. Don’t worry if it drips down the sides-that’s okay.
11. Transfer cake to a clean plate and cool completely.