In the years since Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential invented the genre of the chef tell-all, there's been a glut of food biz memoirs serving an insatiable appetite. Many of them are good--some even brilliant--and what makes the best ones stand out are the voice, characters and unique perspectives of the authors. As Bourdain himself demonstrated, it's seldom about the food.
A good memoir is often contradictory and doesn't come to neat conclusions. It allows us the pleasure of reading without contrivance or gimmick, like that goofy sprig of watercress draped over tuna tartare. In Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef, debut author and chef Leonardo Lucarelli chronicles a haphazard career in professional kitchens throughout Italy, working long hours amid inept sous chefs, illegal dishwashers and unscrupulous owners, with lots of sex and prodigious amounts of drugs. It's not the first version of this story we've seen, but it's one of the most personal and heartfelt. Lucarelli gives us a peek inside the mind of a kind of professional whose instincts tend to run counter to everyone else's. All of which is to say: Mincemeat is a damn good memoir.
Lucarelli is not a celebrity chef--or at least, he wasn't when he wrote his memoir (titled Carne Trita, or ground beef, in the original Italian; "mincemeat" is something of a misnomer by the otherwise capable translators Lorena Rossi Gori and Danielle Rossi). He freely admits to stumbling into his profession. Born to hippie parents in India and raised in Umbria, he went to college to study anthropology and started throwing dinner parties for friends. He lucked into his first real restaurant job with a chef who didn't examine his résumé too closely. From then on, Lucarelli careened from one failing restaurant to another, gradually honing his skills and his tolerance for drugs and alcohol. There is ample sex, too, mostly with waitresses who are judged and hired on the merits of their breasts, or for having just the right "mop of curly hair"--The restaurant industry is rife with casual misogyny, as well as homoerotic horseplay.
But it would be wrong to give Leonardo Lucarelli the mantle of bad-boy chef. Though he drives a motorcycle and insists on a black uniform (contrary to industry-standard "whites"), Lucarelli is simply too earnest to pull off the gleeful violence and nihilism that are hallmarks of some others. And that's not a bad thing. "I never get whether it's the environment that shapes people or people who shape the environment around them," he writes, describing his no-nonsense work ethic amid the chaos of the kitchen, with its odd hours and questionable employment practices. "The thing is that nobody ever suspects that a chef might have another life... probably because, if you really think about it, they never do."
Lucarelli's writing is genial and breathless. He veers between ardent stoicism and comic indignation, and he has a tendency to dispense cheeky aphorisms such as "the best medicine to treat a bad case of exhaustion and paranoia is egotism" (which he follows with, "I snorted coke until I was blue in the face..."). And his pronouncements have a sometimes loopy logic to them: "The first ten reasons why I work as a cook, hanging in there and relentlessly signing up for any job in any way connected to food, is money. If I hadn't earned enough money to let me take a year off, I'd never have graduated. If I hadn't earned enough money to buy a camera and pay for the darkroom photography course, I wouldn't be taking photos. I owe who I am to the kitchen. Therefore, the eleventh reason is gratitude." It would be annoying if he weren't so winsome.
If there is a superimposed theme in Mincemeat, it's the accidental nature of fate. Lucarelli goes wherever chance and opportunity take him, knowing that, at his level, a chef's skills are fungible. For him, cooking is perhaps a passion, but not a calling. It's refreshing to read about a chef who does not wax rhapsodic about food.
Artistic expression is not Lucarelli's primary motivator. But neither is money, despite what he says. Throughout the book are characters like endearing galoot and sous chef Michele and the hapless and conniving Vincenzo, who are foils for the high-strung and high-minded Lucarelli. The people he writes about are what give the memoir shape and make it--and his career--meaningful. He lovingly describes friendships with a care and attention usually reserved for lovers. That's what makes Mincemeat sing. Lucarelli came of age in testosterone-fueled kitchens, but it's his sensitivity and sincerity that set him apart, and will keep him in good stead if he continues to write. --Zak Nelson