No restaurants. The means of consoling oneself: reading cookbooks.
The title of this book caught my eye, because I remember reading that Bourdain said something like never eat out on a Monday night–it’s “merchandising night” when the chef is cleaning out the walk-in. Really, restaurants are social events, designed for Saturday night.
But this is the original Bourdain–without the knives and flames posturing–a positional take on restaurant life. Quinn, a reporter and restaurant reviewer for the Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1970s and 80s, begins by pointing out that kitchens were never as bad as Orwell made them out to be in Down and Out in Paris and London, and chefs never as godly as John McPhee makes out in the New Yorker magazine.
Instead, Quinn tries to give a straightforward view of all kinds of restaurant life, from fancy French and classic American diners to idiosyncratic cafes and the true church–Pat’s Cheese Steaks. Before blogging, Yelp, and Bourdain, getting an in-depth and behind-the- scenes view of restaurant personalities and operations was a real insight. The view will be familiar to any contemporary foodie–long hours, the importance of good ingredients, a strong service attitude, and attention to detail.
Quinn begins with Tell Erhardt‘s International Cuisine. Erhardt was one of America’s early TV chefs and rumored to be the inspiration for Sesame Street’s Swedish chef. And the anecdotes are familiar–personal relationships suffer, as do feet, while chef keeps an eagle eye on the market, the recipes, the staff, and the customers.
Quinn allows himself some McPhee-ish poetry inspired by an all-night counter seat at the Melrose Diner. That was back when there were 70-year old waitresses and they were called girls; the Melrose was a diner without irony. They did their own baking–choosing the perfect apple, canning it dry and adding apple juice in the kitchen, crusts with a custom blend of butter and lard, a machine that rolls out pie dough like an old fashioned laundry ringer. But it’s really about the social scene–from all walks of life and all the City’s communities–whether continuing the party or staggering in from a night shift.
And Quinn was on the cusp of our current food obsessions–the authenticity of ethnic food, the health and environmental problems with fast food, and the decline of home cooking. He also gives a little insight into his side of the business. The last chapter is how to do your own review–who to eat with, what to order, what to look for.
And for a little perspective on where this all led, it’s worth reading Bourdain again. If only to see how young he looks on the cover!