FEBRUARY 9, 2017
WHEN I TOLD GIANNI, an acquaintance who owns a wine bar in Rome, that I was reviewing a memoir by an Italian chef, he responded with amused confusion. “Why would anyone want to read a book by a chef?” he asked. “Is he going to tell you how he got all those burns on his arms?” I was surprised by his reaction. Having lived in Italy for some time, I can attest that Italians earn their reputation for being food-obsessed. Of course, not everyone grows their own tomatoes or raises their own pigs, or even visits the butcher shop every day (I even know many who do their food shopping in the supermarket). Still, Italians approach the preparation and eating of meals in the company of friends and family with a reverence that can only be described as religious. In Italy, dining, like sex, is a universal pleasure, one everybody enjoys and about which everyone has strong opinions. I once observed two middle-aged Italian couples conversing in a swingers club, scoping each other out for a potential partner swap. The topic of their conversation was spaghetti with clams, more specifically, where in Rome one could buy the best vongole veraci (tiny flat-shelled clams). The debate definitely ended in a temporary compromise, if not in total agreement.
It turns out it’s this very obsession with food that causes an Italian like Gianni to smirk at the idea of a chef memoir. Almost everyone in Italy believes themselves to be more than competent in the kitchen. Combine this culinary confidence with a food culture that prides tradition over innovation, and the gap between home cook and professional just isn’t as wide as it is in the United States.
And yet. Leonardo Lucarelli, a 20-year veteran of Italian restaurants, would disagree. In his new memoir, Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef, he writes:
Most people can’t cook, haven’t a clue where to start, and don’t even know what good food is. All they have is a hazy recollection of wonderful Sunday lunches at Grandma’s (bearing in mind that not all grandmas know how to cook) […] we, on the other side of the swinging door, know how to rustle up reassuring dishes that are beyond the capabilities of people who do not work in a commercial kitchen.
However his book, published in Italy in January 2016 and in English last December, is not just about the difference in skill between chef and diner. It’s also about our choices, conscious and unconscious, and how they inform who we are. Born in India to artist parents and raised in Umbria, Lucarelli ambles into his first cooking gig as a cash-strapped university student in Rome in 1996. After that, he drifts in and out of kitchens for years; the culinary life appeals to him in the way that war appeals to others — the heat and hustle, the scars and burns like fleshy medals, the foxhole camaraderie, the addictive feeling of invincibility, and sensuous days framed by “porcini mushrooms and fresh fish arriving at the crack of dawn and the moist panties of waitresses at the end of the day.” He believes that writing and photography are his real occupations (he’s a published journalist), but he always returns to restaurant work — sometimes because he is broke, but more often because he misses the rush. He explains that he titled his memoir Mincemeat because the “meat grinder” environment can destroy, but can also be transformative; a restaurant kitchen is a place where scraps are converted into edible delights, and misfits into master craftsmen.
Of course, the unconventional life of the narrator is a convention of the chef memoir. Anthony Bourdain’s watershed Kitchen Confidential, Bill Buford’s gonzo Heat, Gabrielle Hamilton’s poetic Blood, Bones & Butter, and Michael Ruhlman’s immersion The Making of a Chef are all concerned not just with the preparation of food, but with the personal (and peculiar) lives of their authors. Fingertips lost to various kitchen apparatus, cocaine snorted from others, are as expected in these accounts as car chases and leggy blondes in a James Bond film. It seems, at first, that Lucarelli’s subtitle — The Education of an Italian Chef — promises something new: an account of how one learns to cook professionally, with an emphasis on Italian food. Even when faithfully translated from the original Italian — to read simply “The Education of a Cook” — the reader is likely to expect something different, and equally compelling: an account of the author’s professional coming of age. Unfortunately, Mincemeat delivers on neither subtitle’s promise. Though this is a book that largely happens in Rome, on the Roman food scene, the reader learns remarkably little about either. The gaze of Lucarelli’s writing is so inward that he never manages to paint a clear picture of where he is, either physically or historically. Instead, we mostly follow Lucarelli from job to job; little time is spent on the larger industry that he works in, or on the notable people in that world. It’s as if this narrative were one long letter to a close friend, where the details of people and places were assumed to be already known.
Much of this effect is due to the surprisingly dull (sometimes altogether absent) descriptions of the food in the book. For example, a young Lucarelli lands a job at a respected Roman trattoria whose crusty proprietor, Arturo, “[makes] a meatloaf that [is] the stuff of legends.” But that’s the last we hear of the meatloaf — we never even learn what type of meat it’s made with. And when Lucarelli does mention individual dishes, the translation, done by Lorena Rossi Gori and Danielle Rossi, disappoints. Case in point, that meatloaf again: in Italian, it’s actually a Polpettone — a recipe with an altogether different preparation and history. Perhaps this sort of simplification is supposed to help the reader, but it alienates the food from its setting instead.
Mincemeat does include moments where Lucarelli is insightful about the life of a chef. He is frank, for instance, about the narcissistic, near-sexual power a chef wields over his customers, as he watches them “knowing that their satisfaction or disappointment is all up to [him].” Finally, though, the best parts of the book, are the ones where the focus is not on food or cooking but on people. In one scene, Lucarelli finds himself running a kitchen that only employs residents from a nearby halfway house, including a cook called Marco. One afternoon, after criticizing Marco’s pastry cream (“This pastry cream is shit, it’s absolutely disgusting”), Lucarelli asks him why he was originally incarcerated. Marco replies that he killed a loan shark in self-defense, and doesn’t regret it: “That asshole deserved to die,” he says. “Forget what I said about the pastry cream,” quips Lucarelli in response. “Yours is fantastic.”
And then there’s Joseph, a Pakistani dishwasher living illegally in Rome, who returns home in the afternoons to say good night to the children he has left behind in a different time zone.
This he did like all immigrants: Seated on a plastic stool in front of an ancient computer on a table made of chipboard in a room shared with five other people, he would sign into Skype, draw his face nearer to the monitor, and wait. The connection was slow, the voices choppy, and the image of the two children often froze, but since the arrival of Skype, everything seemed easier and closer. Before that there had been only letters, a few photographs, and the weekly remittances.
Scenes like these have little to do with food or the technical prowess of chefs. But through a few well-chosen details, Lucarelli creates moments that would fit in any book, and be worth reading in any language.