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Onyx reviews: The Seasoning of a Chef by Doug and Michael Psaltis

To the outside world, the life of a chef seems glamorous. They work in pristine white garb and flit through the kitchen creating elegantly presented savory works without breaking a sweat.

Doug Psaltis is here to set the record straight. The grandson of a Greek immigrant, his life in the kitchen began when he went to work lugging sacks of potatoes in his grandfatherís restaurant and follows an arc that takes him through some of the finest Manhattan establishments all the way to the kitchens of world-renowned Alain Ducasse.

Psaltis identifies two kinds of cooks: those who are just putting in the hours doing what is asked of them, and those who take jobs to learn. Psaltis clearly falls into the latter category. Even the best-rated restaurants eventually reach a point where they stagnate. They still produce first-class food, but the menu is no longer evolving. Cooks-for-hire are happy to follow an established routine. Aspiring chefs will realize itís time to move on.

Kitchens are not spacious workspaces. In many establishments, theyíre crowded with cooks and support staff working the various stages in meal service. Some cooks do only pastry or bread preparation, others concentrate on fish or meat, still others do the appetizers or desserts. Often they vie for stovetop space while attempting to coordinate the components of a meal so that everything is ready at the same time. An overly efficient kitchen will stress the servers who interface directly with the clientele. Itís all about pace and rhythm, but itís also about rank and status, with cooks competing for the more prestigious positions in the kitchen.

Itís an exhausting life that leaves little room for anything else. Cooks often work sixteen-hour days, six days a week. They arrive early to prepare the mise en place, the ingredients required for particular dishes. Peel the potatoes, filet the fish, set things up so that when the time comes everything is ready. During the heat of mealtime rush, cooks routinely cut themselves with their knives and burn themselves on pans and stovetops. Itís a lot like show businessóthe show must go on despite injuries.

For cooks with aspirations, days off are rarely spent relaxing. Psaltis routinely visited other kitchens, doing unpaid, menial work to learn how things are done elsewhere, essentially interning for possible future jobs. He rises through the ranks, gaining a reputation that eventually leads him to an elevated position in Ducasseís new Manhattan restaurant, which affords him the chance to travel to other restaurants in the Ducasse empire in France and Monte Carlo.

Psaltis has strong opinions about the right and wrong way to run kitchens. Even when heís a lowly pastry cook, heís studying operations to prepare himself for the day he gets to run his own kitchen or restaurant. Ducasse makes him chef de cuisineóthe highest position in a kitchen where the chef is not involved in daily operationsóat his new restaurant Mix, but Psaltis discovers his ideas are in conflict with the other half of the business, the management, where the almighty dollar trumps the chefís aspirations.

Itís clearly a job that only someone who loved cooking could survive. Psaltis has the insiderís perspective and does a fine job of conveying the different personalities he has worked withóboth his colleagues and coworkers, and the different kitchens themselves, each of which has its own unique flavor. Itís an eye-opening look at a profession that few diners ever see, and a stark contrast to the gussied-up version of cooking that is shown on The Food Channel.

The Seasoning of a Chef is co-written with Psaltisís twin brother Michael, who is this reviewerís literary agent.

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