Pros: gives a rare glimpse of the trials and tribulations of running a top rated restaurant
Cons: it does this in a very clinical way that wasn't very engaging
As a former chef, I am always interested in reading “behind the scenes” books about the restaurant world so I was excited to receive Scott Haas’s new book, “Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant,” a few months back. Scott is a psychologist, by trade, and has written extensively about food, making friends with a number of big name chefs, so I was interested in his take on chefs and the restaurant world, as a whole. For this expose, Scott chose to write about Chef Tony Maws and his restaurant, Craigie on Main, in Cambridge, just outside of Boston. To accomplish this feat, Chef Tony allowed Scott complete access to the restaurant, and the staff, for 18 months, allowing him, to not only interview people at any time, but to work in the kitchen beside the cooks. With this as the set-up I was looking forward to this book with eager anticipation.
Unfortunately, the book just didn’t live up to my expectations. As you noticed, I stated that I received the book a few months back. Usually I devour these types of books in just a couple of days, but “Back of the House” just didn’t hold my interest and I would set it down and completely forget about it until I’d stumble across it again a few days later. While Mr. Haas is quite good at relating incidents, experiences and conversations, he does so in an almost clinical way which often led me to feel as if I was reading some report as opposed to a book. When I read these “behind the scenes” books I expect a couple of things; first I expect some great stories with a bit of good storytelling to draw me into the actions, experiences and emotions. Instead, what you get here are stories that seem to be pared down to their bare facts. It makes for a great case study, but not really great leisure reading. The second thing I expect is some good food porn-wonderful descriptions of the food the restaurant serves and, at least, a few passages that wax poetically about beauty of the pristine products chefs, at this level, get to work with. What you get instead are a few perfunctory passages about a few of the meals Scott indulges in while at Craigie. Mr. Haas may be a food writer, but he certainly doesn’t seem to be much of a “foodie.”
My other big complaint is how Scott seems to want to focus on the negative aspects of how Tony Maws runs his kitchen. In reading the book, I sometimes had to wonder how Tony made it to work every day, let alone run one of the country’s top restaurants. Sure Chef Tony has some flaws in his management style. I’ll even agree that he may have some major flaws, but we can’t forget that Tony was nominated for a Beard award 3 years in a row and in that third year (2012) actually received the award for Best Chef-Northeast. Having worked in the industry for years, I know how hard it is to achieve that level of success and no chef can do it by themselves. It takes an entire crew to make that kind of magic happen, and to bring a crew up to that level requires a chef to understand his crew and to manage them appropriately. Yet, but staying so focused on the negative aspects of Tony’s management style Scott Haas makes the reader wonder how Craigie on Main can make it through a service period, let alone achieve that kind of success.
There are other aspects about Scott Haas’s take on Tony Maws and chefs in general, that I take issue with; his seeming fascination with the relationships chefs had with their fathers, which seem to come up so often it almost started to become comical. But, I think he stumbled upon an issue that I felt could have been exploited a bit more. In the past, kitchens were run very militaristically, with the chef taking on the role of general. You did what the chef told you to and you never asked questions, and if you didn’t do it right or disobeyed an order punishment was swift and severe. Most of the chefs in my generation and before me grew up in these types of environments and thrived in them. Today, that is not the case. For better, or worse, today’s young cooks don’t respond to that mentality. This was the underlying current in many of the conversations the Scott had with most of the chefs he interviewed for this book. For some, the transition to a more gentle, quite approach has come easy, but for others, such as Maws, trying to develop a management style that is contrary to how they grew up in the business is a bit more difficult. This is an issue that I felt deserved much more time in this book than it did.
“Back of the House” is not without its upsides though. I do think the book does give quite a good view of what happens, in restaurants that guests never get to see. This business does seem to attract a rather dubious set of characters, those that often find holding down a regular 9-to-5 difficult, if not downright impossible. Kitchens are hot, stressful work environments, for the most part, often populated egomaniacs, prima donnas, the disenfranchised, and those living on the fringe of society. Scott also shows how a ragtag bunch of misfits can, and do, come together because of their love of food and serving others, and how that single minded passion can make a restaurant family one of the strongest bonds in a person’s life.