Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Food and Books: Jenn B's Loves

Jenn B.  Not a lesbian.
One of our favorite things about the blog is guest posts. We get to hear from our old bookselling and publishing friends which is great, but more importantly we get a free blog post. We're lazy so it's a very big deal.

The latest sucker is Jennifer Burgess, who worked with Gianna at a bookstore in Florida. They also lived together but Jennifer doesn't like for people to know that because then they assume she is a lesbian. [Wait--Gianna's a lesbian?!]

[I should also remind people that Gianna and I are anti-foodies, in that she's the Italian who eats at Olive Garden and I refer to Sonic as "that tasty little bistro." So we're pretty much never going to review food books...unless it's a retelling of my time spent as a Sonic carhop one summer. How is it we don't have a book deal yet?]

Jenn's guest blog:

From a very early age I only really ever had an interest in two things: reading and eating. I like movies, I love music, but if you asked me where my passion lays it is in books and food. When I was younger one of my great joys was a bowl of any kind of food I could eat with my hands and a good book in a quiet corner. Now that I am an adult I still find one of my greatest comforts is sitting in a quiet corner in a bar or restaurant with a book and a plate of good food. 

McDonald's cheeseburger.
I grew up in restaurants, my mother working Sunday brunch shifts at a local Sheraton, manager shifts at a local McDonald's, or cooking on the line at the local Red Lobster. Food was what paid for us to eat.
Around the time of my fourteenth birthday my very poor parents told me that if I wanted money for extra things like clothes and books I would need to get a job. The only place that would hire a fourteen year-old kid was McDonald's. That is where I started. I was the weekend birthday hostess at McDonald's. [Now that has got to be a shitty job.] When I turned sixteen, I knew I wanted something more, so I walked a mile up the road and applied (in my smelly McDonald’s uniform) at the tiny Barnes & Noble in my neighborhood. After three tries they hired me. Books and food, it is all I have ever known. 

Over the years I would supplement my meager bookstore salary with stints waiting tables at various chain restaurants. Carrabba's, Applebee's, Bennigan's and even three horrible, flair-filled days at a TGIFriday's. When I was given an option to move from Washington, D.C. to Austin, TX, to possibly get a dream job at a university press I knew I needed to make more cash for the move, and I knew the only way to do that would be to wait tables. It was fast, easy money but a chain restaurant wouldn’t do; it would have to be somewhere upscale, somewhere with larger ticket food items, it would have to be fine dining. Even though I had zero fine dining experience, I was lucky, there was a new upscale restaurant close to my apartment and on New Year’s Day 2008 I walked in and begged for a job. The manager took pity on my chain restaurant experience and gave me a chance. I started at my first fine dining restaurant two days later.
I remember sitting in the cookbook section of Barnes & Noble during my shifts fondling the famed chef Thomas Keller’s French Laundry Cookbook. Wondering how a book could be so beautiful and informative at the same time, wondering what a meal would taste like at any restaurant that would inspire a book like that. Imagining what type of home cook would shell out $75 for a cookbook with ingredients I had never heard of. [Not me.  Someone else bought the salt in my pantry. If Diet Coke isn't the paired beverage with an entree, I'm probably not interested.]
At that first restaurant I learned who those people are. I learned how to turn a simple love of food into a passion. My first night on the job, the chef/owner asked me if I liked corn bread. I foolishly thought I was telling the truth when I said “no, chef;” he then shoved this small piece of heaven he called corn bread into my mouth, force feeding me really, and telling me “trust me, you will like this” and he was right. It was light, flavorful, a little bit of heat, but the corn came through in a way I could not have expected. [Like Fritos!] I loved it. Chef taught me the importance of flavors, the importance of trying new things, and the importance of combining those things and presenting it to others so that they can experience the same emotions that I could through a well-cooked meal. The short time I worked in that restaurant, with those people (including Chef) who loved food so passionately, they were the most valuable education in my life. [Sonic trained me how to carhop in, like, seven minutes.  That's some on-the-job training.]

I eventually made it to Texas and got the job at the press. Working behind the scenes and learning how books are made and sold was another amazing experience for me. Being around people who are passionate about information and getting it out and available to everyone was a once in a lifetime experience. I was finally learning how the books I loved were made, what it actually took to bring words and worlds to life. But that job didn’t happen right away and in the meantime to afford to live I knew I could fall back on my food experience. 
West Virginia ramps.
So stinky that schools sent
kids home in the afternoon
if they ate them for lunch.

I found what I thought would be a temporary home waiting tables at a new fine dining restaurant in the new campus hotel/conference center. The incredibly talented executive chef and his team of sous-chefs continued my food education. At their hands I tried foods I had only ever read about like sweetbreads, quinoa, and West Virginia ramps (that are only in season for a very limited time each spring and taste like a strong onion mixed with garlic, whoa baby, they are good but no kissing after). I tasted tomato water, foams, and saw how an immersion bath of extra virgin olive oil could be used to cook a fillet to a perfect medium rare. ["Tomato water" is hoity-toity for "ketchup."  I'm certain about this.]

Once I got the job at the press, I couldn’t quite bring myself to give up the restaurant. I loved it too much. By day I was immersed in the world of books and at night I was immersed in the world of food. It was amazing. Things rarely last forever though and circumstances changed. Unfortunately I no longer work in either of these two worlds that I am so passionate about.

Don’t feel bad for me though. I keep up to date with both by reading and eating, and when I can, reading about eating. Chefs and food writers are my rock stars and I devour books about the food world. Books by Anthony Bourdain, Grant Achatz, Frank Bruni, Ruth Reichl and Phoebe Damrosch line my shelves and I will read any other book about food I come across. 

I watch chefs I have come to know and respect open new restaurants and perform on shows like Chopped and Top Chef. I can’t walk through a bookstore without looking at the cookbook section and fondling The French Laundry Cookbook or Ad Hoc by Thomas Keller. I dream of the day I can go to these chefs' restaurants that are so real to me in the books written by and about them. [There's a lot of fondling in here for a blog post that isn't about Fifty Shades of Grey.]

When I opened a package from Gianna and Liz last week and it contained the new memoir by Marcus Samuelsson, chef of Red Rooster in Harlem, I almost cried with joy. I have admired Marcus Samuelsson since seeing him on Top Chef Masters a few years ago. Reading about his life and ambition makes him less celebrity chef to me and more human. 

Chef Marcus Samuelsson
The memoir is well written and filled with depth. It is an accurate portrayal of what it takes to be a success in the world of fine food. The hotel and restaurant kitchens of Chef Samulsson’s life mirror kitchens I have seen in my time in food. There is a downside to ambition in this world and Samuelsson doesn’t make excuses for it. There is a lack of satisfaction in not having a place to truly belong, and his search for his place in the world drives his passion and very much shapes the chef and man he becomes. Samuelsson owns up to his choices in life and his contributions for what they are, good and bad. There is a little gossip in there too. I won’t spoil it, but let’s just say Chef Samuelsson confirmed for me that my opinions about a certain loud mouth celebrity chef were right on (and also a certain bad ass president may or may not enjoy a hug after a good meal).

If every chef I have loved in my life writes a memoir as good as Yes, Chef, I won’t have time to mourn for the professions in books and food that I no longer have. I will be a very happy reader for a very long time.

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