Friday, August 7th, 2009
“The idea that if you can do one thing well—cooking—nothing else really needed to matter. Kitchens were a saving grace for a lot of guys I knew who didn’t really have much else good going on in their lives. And, you know, there was also the drugs and the waitresses and all that, too. One shouldn’t discount the lure of perpetual immaturity.”
In his debut memoir, Cooking Dirty, Denver food critic Jason Sheehan makes his point abundantly clear: Normal, emotionally well-adjusted people do not cook for a living. Throughout the fifteen years or so that the book covers, Sheehan works alongside every possible breed of misfit in every kind of kitchen—from French to Italian to a brief stint at the Waffle House while making his way as a writer. He’s been cut, set on fire, and physically attacked in the name of food—and he loved every minute of it.
For anyone who’s ever worked in a restaurant, Cooking Dirty will bring back painfully familiar memories of dinner rushes gone wrong, near death experiences, and hours spent washing dishes. The amazing and surprising part is that Jason’s infectious enthusiasm will actually leave you feeling nostalgic for these horrible experiences.
Chris Teja: Well I wanted to start by saying that I really loved the book and completely related to it as a guy who grew up working more food service jobs than I care to remember. Was it difficult for you to piece together that much of your life and career from memory?
Jason Sheehan: I’m glad you liked it. And if you did time in food service growing up before finding a better way to make a living, then it was written just for you. As to the difficulty of piecing it all together, I’d say no. My gig now—writing about food in Denver—has been pretty autobiographical from the start, so I’ve had a lot of practice. That said, there are some nights (and weeks, and the occasional year…) that remain kinda fuzzy.
Chris: Haha. Well I’m happy you were able to get it all down on paper. You describe many of your fellow cooks and chefs as being relatively unstable and, I know you talk about this in the book, but what do you think it is about the job that attracts that particular type of person?
Jason: For me, it was (believe it or not) the quiet that came from all that pressure; the idea of being able to focus on just one thing for hours at a time. I didn’t have to think about my bills, I didn’t have to think about my girlfriend or my crappy car or anything else. Even when my entire life was falling down around me, I could just spend hours every night focusing on this piece of fish, slicing that bulb of garlic.
And for a lot of the guys I worked with, it was the same. The idea that if you can do one thing well—cooking—nothing else really needed to matter. Kitchens were a saving grace for a lot of guys I knew who didn’t really have much else good going on in their lives. And, you know, there was also the drugs and the waitresses and all that, too. One shouldn’t discount the lure of perpetual immaturity.
Chris: Definitely. I also thought it was interesting how you talked about chefs sharing a love of war stories and movies such as Apocalypse Now. Why do you think so many of you make that connection between war and life in the kitchen?
Jason: Something to do with the camaraderie, something to do with the pressure. Something more to do with no one who wasn’t there ever being able to get it right. The language was so heavily influenced by military jargon and the heavy macho trip that some of the guys were on was so reminiscent of the better war stories. Ultimately, though, I think what it came down to was that cooks love telling stories. It’s what we did whenever there wasn’t cooking or prep to be done. It’s what we did when we showed up in the morning, what we did over drinks at night.
And so many kitchen stories play out like war stories (the fort under siege, the last-minute rescue…) that I think a cook just naturally gravitates to them. I know I did.
Chris: That makes perfect sense, and I think the book does a great job of describing the insane feeling of being in the kitchen during the middle of a dinner rush. I particularly enjoyed the part where you talk about your first job and how you slowly and painfully mastered the art of scraping pans at a local pizza place.
Jason: Love at first sight, baby. I knew I was done from the minute I walked into that joint…
Chris: Wow. Was it really that clear from the beginning, or do you remember a particular moment when it really hit you that food was going to be more than just a job for you?
Jason: From the first moment, I knew I was on to something. I knew that this was a job where I’d never be bored, where there would always be some action going on. The food? That came later, and sort of piecemeal. I absolutely fell for the environment first.
Chris: During the fifteen years or so that the book covers you lead a pretty chaotic life of working in many different restaurants in a number of different cities. Was it that things became boring once they became too stable or is that just part of life as a chef?
Jason: It was a little bit of both, but it was also because I considered myself an apprentice for a lot of that time—just a guy who was trying to learn all he could. True, I would leave once I grew bored or thought I’d learned all there was to learn from that position. Or if there was another, better job down the block. But you’re right—some of it was also just the nature of the job. It wasn’t like any of us were going to be making a career out of the kinds of places we were working in, so we would just do whatever we were doing until something better came along.
Funny story: that’s actually a pretty good definition of the book’s title. Cooking Dirty is a bit of cook’s slang from when I was working in upstate NY, and it basically meant a well-trained guy doing low-rent work just for the money. Usually it meant doing diner work or flipping steaks while you were between “real” jobs just to pay the rent and keep the lights on, but I essentially spent about a decade cooking dirty.
Chris: Do you include your stint at Waffle House in that, or does that not count because it was just for fun?
Jason: No, the Waffle House definitely counted. I mean, I was working as a restaurant critic, but making virtually no money, so I had to do something. The Waffle House was right there, walking distance from my house, and I was going there every night anyway. So I took the job, was glad for the paycheck, had a lot of fun, and became what I have to believe was the only French-trained chef and working food writer ever employed to cook through the night shift at a Waffle House.
Chris: Now that is just plain awesome. In the book you mention that as a teenager you read a lot of food magazines and that you wrote stories to entertain your friends. Did you ever imagine those two interests intersecting the way they have or was becoming a food critic a complete surprise?
Jason: A complete, total, mind-bending surprise. Swear to god, I never saw this coming in a million years, and the way I fell into it was so strange and accidental that I wouldn’t be able to repeat it if I tried.
Chris: What do you think you would be doing today if writing didn’t work out?
Jason: Standing a post on a line somewhere, just waiting for the first dinner rush to roll in.
Chris: Somehow that’s not surprising. Do you ever miss that feeling?
Jason: Just about every day. After spending so long in that position and milking it for every ounce of fun I could have, I don’t think I’m ever going to stop missing it. Lucky me I get to spend my time writing about it all now. Double lucky that there’s so many people who seem interested in knowing just what it felt like.
Chris: Definitely. I knew when I read the book that anyone who has ever worked in a kitchen would love it just as much as I did.
Jason: That’s who it was for, man. I mean, fantastic if there are civilians out there who dig it, but really? I was talking straight to all the cooks and dishwashers, the floormen and bartenders, mercenary prep specialists, crazy night bakers, jacked-up execs and miserable station chefs—my people. I wanted to write a story for them, about them, and in their language.
Chris: Mission accomplished. I think you might even accidentally get a few of the sane ones that managed to make it through life without ever having to step foot in a kitchen.
Jason: I’d be happy to have ‘em. Everyone is welcome on my pirate ship.
Chris: And finally, the capstone to every SMITH interview…what’s your six-word memoir?
Jason: Nothing ever went without saying.
Chris: I think that’s five?
Jason: After a 350-page book, I think it’s funny that I came in one word short on a six-word memoir.
Chris: Haha, Maybe every person has a finite number of words they can write and you just ran out?
Jason: Ha! Yes. Right there. Right at that moment I ran dry.
Chris: You had a solid run, Sheehan.
Jason: Can’t complain, right?
READ an excerpt from Cooking Dirty
BUY a copy of the book
CHECK OUT some of Jason’s Denver restaurant reviews