Cutting It Fine; By Andrew Parkinson; Jonathan Cape; pounds 12.99
There is a myth cheerfully perpetuated by the media and the writers of press releases that cooking is the new rock 'n' roll, and that chefs are the Mick Jaggers, Jon Bon Jovis and Ozzy Osbournes de nos jours. It's true that some chefs have the egos of antediluvian rock stars, and others even have their drug habits and sexual mores, but as anyone reading Cutting It Fine: Inside the Restaurant Business will observe, the similarity ends there. Chef Andrew Parkinson's picture of life in a contemporary kitchen is brutally honest and a warning to inexperienced outsiders tempted to have a go in this booming business sector.
The hierarchy, structure and practices of the modern kitchen were set up by Auguste Escoffier, Cesar Ritz's kitchen supremo, around 1900, and precious little has changed since then. It is a profession characterised by crushing work rotas, intense heat, furious noise, extremely unsociable hours and defiantly low pay. Anyone familiar with George Orwell's classic piece of restaurant reportage, Down and Out in Paris and London, will find all too many similarities in Cutting It Fine.
By his own admission, Parkinson is no Gordon Ramsay or Marco Pierre White, although he probably works just as hard as them. His restaurant is Soho Soho, a decent, highly profitable, middle-of-the-road part of the Group Chez Gerard. He is pleased with his position there.
As well as charting his own rites of passage from Ellesmere Port, the working-class town in Merseyside where he was born, to kitchen supremo at Soho Soho, the book examines each part of restaurant working life, from the structure of the kitchen to the daily disciplines that govern each part of the working day.
It is presented in Parkinson's unvarnished words like a stream of consciousness - although I suspect that it is edited from a stream of dictation to a tape recorder. It tells you everything you need to know about how the modern restaurant works, and, in spite of the welter of technical detail, it certainly isn't a dry, bloodless analysis. It pulsates with life and has tremendous immediacy.
The effect is an intimate picture of the last of the great unreconstructed 19th-century industries, reminiscent of Zola or even Dickens. It is an exacting and dynamic world where sexism, racism, machoism and masochism are endemic. On the smooth, homogenised surface of our society, in which restaurants have such a central role, the forthright vitality and energy of the professional kitchen, with its ritual bullying, intense physical demands and ferocious discipline, seems oddly out of place.
Perhaps because it is so at odds, there is a kind of nobility about chefs.
The will to succeed, to cook, to get the food out to the punters, frequently in the face of appalling difficulties, is ferocious. It drives chefs to endure conditions and put up with demands that few others would be prepared to tolerate, no matter how well paid.
When I first began to write about restaurants, I knew nothing of the way in which they worked. To remedy my ignorance I wrote to Raymond Blanc to ask if I could work in the kitchens of Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons.
He, in his ignorance and kindliness, said yes. It was an experience that very nearly killed me and very nearly did for the Manoir's Michelin stars. However, it was quite enough to give me an enduring respect for what chefs do and the way in which they do it.
The professional kitchen is one of the few parts of British industry that demands that you work harder. A good kitchen works at its best only when it is really stretched and the adrenalin is coursing through the veins. Mistakes occur when the dining room is half empty, and there's no challenge to get the brigade psyched up.
There is a ferocious passion, too, that motivates chefs and runs through a professional kitchen of which the customers, in their calm, orderly dining room, have no inkling. It's something that we should all be aware of, and be grateful for, every time we sit down at a restaurant table.
With Parkinson's compulsively readable book, we have no excuse not to be.