Wednesday, March 5, 2014

The Kitchen: A Delicious Account of the Author's Years as a Grand Hotel CookThe Kitchen: A Delicious Account of the Author's Years as a Grand Hotel Cook by Nicolas Freeling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nicolas Freeling's "The Kitchen: A Delicious Account of the Author's Years as a Grand Hotel Cook" seems a strange book to read in the times when Big Mac, chicken nuggets, and peanut butter and jelly sandwich are considered edible food. Nicolas Freeling, the great European mystery author with some 30 novels to his credit, writes about his 15 years as a cook in hotels in France and England. These were the times and places where food was taken seriously.

He begins as a lowly help in a Michelin-starred hotel, then moves to the Hotel des Pyramides in Paris, to finally work as a second sauce cook in a Normandy coast hotel. In 1954 he moves to his native England and works in a series of hotels in the English countryside.

"The Kitchen" is a charming little book about what it means to be a cook. About the smells in the kitchen, about the sound of chopping vegetables, about reusing every little leftover scrap, and about techniques of holding a knife. But mainly it is a book about people; Mr. Freeling paints vivid portraits of cooks who were his teachers and his co-workers: Fred, the larder chef, Monsieur Bonvalet the "Dad" in the seaside hotel, and the Matron, in England. It is also a very funny book; characterizations of eating and living habits of hotel guests are hilarious, the incident with a trout escaping from a display tank is pure slapstick, and I love "sabir, the international language" that was developed because cooks hailing from different countries needed to communicate with each other.

Mr. Freeling explains why giving exact amounts and exact processing times in recipes does not make sense: no two seemingly identical ingredients are ever the same and no two frying pans ever conduct heat in the same way. The book also provides a bigger lesson that transcends the culinary trade: one cannot learn a complicated craft out of a book; without years of hard work gaining experience, one would always remain an amateur.

A good and very pleasant read.

Three and a half stars.

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