Saturday, March 2, 2013

Back of the House: a book review

I don't normally do book reviews here (every long once in a while I'll review a cookbook), but this particular book involves me.

Back of the House is about Craigie on Main, where I used to work.

Therefore, I could not put it down.

Quite literally: I stayed up until 3 am reading it, because I couldn't stop reading it. Every page involved a new "Holy crap! I know that person!!" I'm not in the book or anything: it was written before I ever started working there. Doesn't matter, still intensely interesting.

It's written by Scott Haas, a food writer and clinical psychologist who decided to trail Chef Tony Maws and the Craigie kitchen crew for 18 months. He turned that experience into a book largely about Tony, about how his unique food and restaurant are related to his father- and anger-management issues. But it's also a book about the biz in general, and that's the most interesting part, of course. Even if you've never heard of Craigie or Tony, this book is still a great read.

It made me miss my old job and co-workers more than I thought possible. Working there was intensely stressful, very high-volume and high-pressure combined with stringent service standards, but it was also strangely rewarding. On a busy night, the rest of the universe disappeared. Each task--new napkin at seat 4. Refill 34's wine. Check on 32. Pick up credit card on 43. Run food--expanded until it filled my brain, until nothing existed except 34's wine. Check on 32. Run food. The worst part of the night was when the rush was over, when things started slowing down again, because then the outside world came hurtling back in, and I was suddenly faced with worrying about bills and laundry and traffic and whatever all over again (in addition to being dead tired). It was very zen, in a way, and I welcomed the nightly opportunity to forget everything else.

I also loved talking about food and wine to people, turning someone onto a dish or a wine they'd never try otherwise, watching for that flare in their eyes that meant, "Oh, wow." It wasn't all peaches and cream, obviously; I got yelled at a lot, I made mistakes, my feet hurt all the time, there were always people who were intimidated by the unfamiliar ingredients and the prices and would just order the chicken and then tip 10%.

But that's true of working in any restaurant. That's why behind-the-scenes books are so fascinating, because restaurants are full of passionate weirdos--people who are unfit for any kind of office job, who  work hundred-hour weeks playing with knives and fire, who drink way too much, who can swear in four languages, who often look like pirates (galley tan, heavily tattooed and pierced, long hair, hands ropy with scar tissue). Put a few of them in a room together and you know exactly why I left the business world. No corporate strategy meeting could ever compare.

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