Seasoning Needs Some Spice

It’s always troubling when I get my hands on a long-awaited book and find it very disappointing. I love the food writing genre and couldn’t wait to read The Seasoning of a Chef: A Journey from Diner to Ducasse and Beyond by Doug Psaltis. But only half way through now, I am extremely disappointed. The back of the book bills Doug Psaltis as the anti-Bourdain, which is fine. We don’t need a million Bourdains in the kitchen. But being the anti-Bourdain doesn’t mean you have to be completely boring and self-involved. Sure, it’s his autobiography (written with the help of his twin brother Michael) so of course it’s self-involved, but the guy always seems to make himself out as the star in every kitchen. He has no humility and no sense of humor. It’s the most boring kitchen book I’ve read. He claims to be the most passionate chef, but that is not evident reading this book. Everything is a learning situation, every kitchen a schoolroom for him. That’s fine–but it’s not compelling reading to hear again and again that he’s the hardest worker and learns from every mistake.

There’s a tendency to repeat himself and to overuse literary devices, which could be forgiven if the subject matter were more interesting.
One of the more irritating devices is that of the ominous sentence: “On the day that marked the beginning of the end of Panama Hatties for me, I arrived as early as anyone else in the kitchen.” Or “On the day that I knew was my last, as I came into the kitchen Peter was leaning over a cookbook on the pass amid the general level of accepted chaos around the rest of the kitchen.” They really lead to nowhere. And he tries to give you these build-ups to something exciting: “One day in late January, when New York got hit with its first big snowstorm of the year, I faced a real test.” Okay, this seems promising. Some big kitchen mishap? The snowstorm prevents food deliveries? Nope. He goes on for several pages about how difficult it can be starting in a new kitchen, as you try to learn the new system. But as I already know, he loves learning and hard work. And then he starts discussing the use of sauces. Finally he gets to the big “test” which amounts to the chef/owner coming in and using his station to cook some salmon for a VIP. Wow.

I know I sound particularly harsh here, but it comes from disappointment. I suppose not everyone can be Anthony Bourdain, who just as self-important maybe more so, at least has the decency to realize it and joke about it. Psaltis’ ego gets in the way of what could have been an interesting book. I’ve certainly read other books where the writing isn’t polished, but the subject matter is interesting enough to make up for it, for example Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa by Karin Muller. I found her writing clumsy at times and lacking finesse, but I also thought the strength of the book was the story she was telling. Psaltis’ book is poorly written, plus it’s just very boring.