Burned out from her cubicle job in public relations, writer Lauren Shockey did what a lot of people do in the same situation — she quit and signed up for culinary school. Yes, it’s easy as that. Maybe you should try it?
But what is unique in Shockey’s case is she didn’t just complete the coursework — the arm-singeing, knuckle-shaving, nerve-fraying curriculum — but excelled and wound up as a stagiaire (kitchen parlance for apprentice) at Wylie Dufresne’s modernist temple of gastronomy wd~50 for her first assignment. It’s a place where both classic kitchen tasks like quenelling sit beside cryovacing for sous-vide on the daily check list. It’s a place that can be simply terrifying for a young chef.
In her new memoir, Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris, she details her year-long work study around the world. Think of it as part No Reservations (the kitchen world, warts and all) and part “Eat, Pray, Love” (but more Eat, Eat, Eat). We asked the author — who also serves as one of the Village Voice’s restaurant critics — to discuss working for Wylie, Vietnam as foodie paradise and why Israeli cuisine is misunderstood.
What was the biggest surprise in transitioning from an office job to culinary school?
Well, there’s definitely a physical element. Just learning how to be on your feet for eight hours a day is challenging at first. I remember, the first week of culinary school I literally collapsed into my bed at, like, 5 pm, wiped out and every muscle throbbing. But eventually you get used to it, and then it becomes fun. I’d say the other is the feeling of camaraderie. When I had an office job, I was alone in a cubicle for most of the day, so when I got to the French Culinary Institute (and then when I was working in restaurants), I really enjoyed being part of a team every minute of the day.
Were you surprised that you excelled at culinary school?
Honestly, not really. I had been cooking for a long time and I grew up in a family where we ate a home-cooked family dinner virtually every night. My passion for cooking wasn’t new and I wasn’t a total novice in the kitchen. I’m also kind of a perfectionist, especially when it comes to school, and am not the type to slack off, like, ever. For example, I was crushed when my grad school GPA was .04 away from being a perfect 4.0. Basically deep down, I’m just a super nerd and teacher’s pet!
And you dared to enter the highly technical kitchen at wd~50 for your post-grad stage. Why the hell there? That must have been scary.
I was very attracted to the cerebral quality of Wylie Dufresne’s food, and I wanted to begin my adventures learning molecular gastronomy — or modernist cuisine as it’s now being called. You can learn to cook Italian food or French food in myriad restaurants, but there are really only a few places in the world where you can learn to cook high-concept food. wd~50 is fundamentally the only one in New York City, which is where I’m from and where I was living at the time, so it was a given that I’d work there. I even waited six months to apprentice there. Imagine that — a six-month wait for free labor!
You write frankly about your experiences. With this openness, you transform (at wd~50) from timid rookie to talking shit about a slow fellow stage. Did you feel you were part of the crew at the moment? Or, if not then, when?
For the first month or so that I worked at wd~50, I was petrified of everything and also very slow in completing my tasks. I definitely thought I was the world’s worst stagiaire and I wouldn’t even make eye contact when Wylie walked by. But as I gained more confidence in the kitchen and saw other people screwing up even worse than I, I realized maybe I wasn’t so terrible of a stagiaire. And when my supervisor made fun of another stagiaire to me, I knew that I had made it into the inner-circle. Or at least I was no longer in the outer circle!
You then went on to La Verticale in Hanoi. As I noticed on a trip in 2010, It’s not as popular with Americans as it should be, right?
The country has awesome food. It’s still cheap. And it’s warm. What else do you need? Vietnam was probably my favorite of all the places that I traveled to precisely because it’s so different than New York City. It’s chaotic and noisy and even crossing the street can be a life-or-death situation, but the city has a magical quality. Amid all the bustle, you’ll find tranquil lakes and beautiful temples. Ho Chi Minh City is much more built up and Westernized, but Hanoi still has a colonial beauty. You don’t know how many times I’ve considered moving back. All I need is a husband who wants to come with me, and then I’m gone!
Straight talk: Why is Israeli cuisine such a third-class citizen in the United States?
I think a lot of people think of Israeli food as “Jewish food,” which, in turn, often refers to Ashkenazi cuisine — a cuisine that isn’t necessarily always delicious. I mean, come on, who really loves gefilte fish and cholent? But Israeli cuisine is also really steeped in the Sephardic tradition, which is filled with spices and vibrant flavors. In Tel Aviv, you’ll find dishes like shakshuka (a North African dish of eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce) and jachnun (a Yemeni specialty of rolled dough served with grated tomato), not to mention flavorful ingredients like zaatar (a spice blend made with wild thyme, sumac, and sesame) or silan (date honey).
It’s probably a third-class citizen as you say because until recently it didn’t have much of a food culture. But now as the country returns to its roots and embraces the produce that grows in the region naturally — wine, pomegranates, fresh cheeses, dates — it’s really developing into something.
How is your book different from Eat, Pray, Love?
Well, there’s not as much praying and loving. Think of it more as Eat, Eat, Eat, Eat. And wasn’t the Eat section the part that people liked the most, anyway? So my book is four times better than Elizabeth Gilbert’s book! Just kidding! In all seriousness, though, although there are many similarities — traveling the world in search of adventure and forging friendships — I think the greatest difference lies in the reason why each of us took our trip. Gilbert’s was the result of a devastating divorce and overall dissatisfaction with her life, whereas mine was a product of following my passion for food and cooking, and being young and wanting to find myself. And if the book ever gets turned into a movie, it won’t be starring Julia Roberts.
Check out Lauren Shockey’s recipes from her book Four Kitchens.