Neat Observations

2014.May.04 Sunday · 1 comment

in Books & Other Media

Easily the most bizarre book in the gastronomy world I’ve ever read. I’m of two minds (at least) about Observations from the Kitchen by Richard Neat. Let’s start with the style. It’s written in a weird third-person with all the personae titled rather than named, “The Cook”, “The Banker”, etc. It’s strange enough when someone writes about themselves in the third person, but third person abstract is a step way beyond. The book is written with the intermingled threads of a chess game, a series of recipe procedures, and personal interactions. The chess game is meant to be, according to the author, a metaphor for the way things unfold in the kitchen. Unfortunately, the metaphor is lost in translation – here and there it seems to apply to the rest of the narrative, but mostly, not. One reviewer of the book assumed that he himself was lost because of not being a chess player. No, I play chess and it’s the narrative that’s lost.

The text is desperately in need of a good old-fashioned proofread. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes abound. Homonym interchanges take place with maddening regularity, seemingly several times in each chapter, as the author doesn’t seem to either have understood, or, perhaps, just let some sort of auto-correct feature take place, between pairs like break and brake, your and you’re, bare and bear, etc.

The book is, apparently, intended as an odd auto-biography, tracing the author’s/chef’s journey through his career in various locales and kitchens. There’s no question he’s a brilliant and well-known chef. I’ve used some of his recipe elements myself and they’re without peer (not pier). The food and the recipe procedurals are without a doubt the highlight of the book. And there’s no question he illustrates how much effort and thought go into his dishes.

“The Cook”, perhaps self-aware, or perhaps oblivious, presents himself proudly as an overbearing, histrionic and petulant tyrant and points to this as “the only” recipe for a successful restaurant venture and the training of cooks. I certainly don’t agree… the best restaurants I’ve worked in have never been those with “difficult” chefs.

Worth a read for the food, and perhaps just a glimpse at that infamous line between genius and madness.

[Edit: Not even a year later, unexpectedly, I ended up being invited to cook a popup dinner in Costa Rica, and while there, went to Neat’s newest restaurant, in San José, Park Café.]

Moderately interesting, not quite as “outre” as the excessively long title Anything That Moves: Renegade Chefs, Fearless Eaters, and the Making of a New American Food Culture by Dana Goodgyear might lead one to believe. The author is a bit too infatuated with restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who makes anywhere from a cameo to a full blown participant in almost every chapter. The book is very Los Angeles-centric – pretty much nothing happens unless it’s there, as if that city is the epicenter of the cutting edge food movement – nothing against L.A., but, really, it’s not. Of course I found the chapter about underground restaurants intriguing until discovering that it’s basically 100% dedicated to Wolvesden, again, nothing against them, but they weren’t the first, they didn’t invent the concept, nor did the concept start in Los Angeles, not by a long stretch.

The book is a bit too self-centered – not in a pretentious sense, and I understand that she’s writing from her personal experiences – but she seems a bit too sure that she’s the one that has discovered, for the first time in history, all the things that she’s writing about, even while acknowledging that she heard about each and every thing she experiences from someone else. In the end it comes across as a series of personal journal entries rather than a well thought out book. That doesn’t take away from the overall subject interest, which is what held my attention through the book.


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