Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Wednesday, November 30, 2016: Maximum Shelf: Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef

Other Press: Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli

Other Press: Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli

Other Press: Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli

Other Press: Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli

Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef

by Leonardo Lucarelli, trans. by Lorena Rossi Gori, Danielle Rossi

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

Other Press, $25.95, hardcover, 320p., 9781590517918, December 6, 2016

Other Press: Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli

Leonardo Lucarelli: The Importance of Chance Encounters

Born in India to self-described hippie parents and raised in Umbria, Leonardo Lucarelli has cooked in Italian restaurants since he was a college student. Hailed as the Italian Anthony Bourdain, Lucarelli writes ardently and earnestly about his education--culinary and otherwise--in Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef, newly translated and published in the U.S. by Other Press.

What made you decide to write a memoir?

In actual fact I didn't decide anything. Back in 2012 I was fleeing from a restaurant that had run me ragged. I wrote an article. Not out of anger. I just put together a few statistics and described my experiences in the kitchen. I guess it was me saying: Come on, don't believe what you see on TV. There's nothing pretentiously well-mannered or gracious in our world. Don't be wowed by the latest Master Chef recipes. Instead, give a thought to how much illegal employment there is in restaurants, how many rules are broken, and how dishwashers, cooks or even chefs are paid. Not to mention how much.

I'd never felt such a strong urge to do something in my entire life. It was picked up by a fairly popular literary website. The Italian publishing house Garzanti came across it and contacted me. I went to Milan to talk to Michele Fusilli (who would later become my editor), and he suggested I write a book. Everything that has followed, including the book's publication in the United States, is icing on the cake! I guess I deserve some of the icing, but there are many people I have to thank, starting with Michele.

What are you trying to do with this book?

All I wanted to do was tell the truth. Whenever I got stuck, Michele would say: Just let it all out! When will you get another chance to write a book about your life? So I just went ahead and told the story like you would tell co-workers over a beer late at night after the end of service.

It's not an "everything you ever wanted to know about restaurant kitchens" book. What it does is describe how someone can grow in a far more complicated, dirtier, less rational world whose appeal is far less obvious than what you see on TV.

Who, when asked who or what made them embark on this crappy life, why or when they started it, and whether it's worth persevering or not, can't come up with an answer? That's how it's been for me: fate has always played a huge role in my life and my choices. A calling? No way!

The restaurant scene you describe is testosterone-driven, filled with casual misogyny, drugs, egos, hot tempers and no contracts. Has that changed?

I don't think much has changed, although I realize I am already an "older generation" cook. Many young readers, including quite a few at hotel school, write and say they identify with the characters in my book, which is heartening. As time goes by, the drugs, drinking, hot tempers and so on tend to taper off, not because the setting has changed but because your very survival is at stake. There is a time for everything, especially if you outlive the age of fooling around.

Today "culinary schools" (which I think are mostly useless) are a dime a dozen; scions of good families flock to kitchens hoping to become the next Ramsay or Adrià. Restaurants are trying to pass themselves off as science labs. But the restaurant underworld, the throbbing heart of the business, the millions of eateries large and small where people dine daily, are the same as always, much like the ones I describe.

What aspect of writing was most difficult for you? What came easiest?

Starting was really hard. I thought my book needed structure, but where to begin? I had only ever written articles before. I hammered out a schedule; sometimes I'd skip three months of writing then bash out two chapters in one weekend. The writing process forced me to look for explanations, reasons for certain decisions I'd taken in my life, that I had never taken the time to delve into.

Whatever happens, happens, I would say to myself (or, om namah shivaia, as my mother used to say... see, there's still a bit of the hippie in me!). I wanted readers to understand why things go one way rather than another; the importance of chance encounters, dreams, fate, deliberate choices, circumstances. But, above all, the people around you.

Incidentally, my first child was born in 2013, the same month I started writing the chapter that I sent to the publishers to decide if it was going to be worth writing this book or not. As he started growing so did the story.

You say that "doing a job you love is a punishment." Tell us more about that. Do you have any plans to put your photography skills to use?

When you do a job you love, that you're passionate about, whether it's cooking or carpentry or running a business, you sometimes get a niggling feeling that you're missing out on all the other great occupations you might have been attracted to at least once in your life. However, or perhaps fortunately, in order to believe we can do something we need others to define our worth and validate our results. So we forge on and create our destiny.

I've always cared about being well-regarded. I wrote the book without overthinking where it would end up, but now that it's doing so unexpectedly well I almost feel a duty--a responsibility--to keep writing. You have to have a healthy dose of self-confidence to stomach disappointing the world's expectations. I never have, although I'm still taking photos and thinking that one day I just might work for UNICEF in Angola.

Can I say here just one thing in Italian? La questione è che diventando molto bravo in qualcosa inevitabilmente cresce la nostalgia per tutto quello che non potrai più essere. 

You paraphrase Anthony Bourdain at one point, and Mincemeat shares a lot in common with Kitchen Confidential.

I certainly can't deny his influence. I remember the first time I read Kitchen Confidential: it was in July 2003. I should have been cramming for my university exams but I had just started working as a sous chef in Rome to pay the legal fees for an upcoming court case. [That book] literally shook my world. In it I found everything: everything I knew and imagined and hoped and feared. And some other stuff, too. It shone a spotlight on the violent, narcissistic, foul-mouthed, poetic, nihilistic and exciting world I had only barely glimpsed in the kitchen.

If at a certain point I decided I really did want to become a chef, I owe it partly to that book. And I know I'm not the only one. How could I fail to acknowledge him? It would be hypocritical.

Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?

Who knows? My son is three now, so in 10 years' time my main occupation will probably be being a dad. Hopefully a dad with a passion for travel, so my son grows up knowing that the world is an amazing, confused and confusing place full of people with different customs and habits. And excellent food. Mincemeat might help me achieve that. This is definitely a watershed. Who'd have thought a couple of years ago that I'd be here now, answering your questions? --Zak Nelson, writer and bookseller

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