With the cult of personality that's sprung up in the past few decades around chefs, entities who used to work, for the most part, in anonymity, it's sometimes tempting to think of these exalted personages as larger than life. Well, think again, Foie Gras Breath. Editors Witherspoon and Friedman have convinced, cajoled or coerced some of the culinary world's leading lights to come clean and admit that - at least on occasion - they have feet of clay.
There are tales of woe here from 40 chefs, running the gamut from Ferran Adria to Geoffrey Zakarian. The most recognizable among them - thanks to their visibility on the small screen, among other things - are Anthony Bourdain and Mario Batali.
Bourdain relates a tale of mayhem on a New Year's Eve gone horribly wrong that could just as easily have been an excerpt from his own book, Kitchen Confidential. No customers are beaten up in Batali's yarn, which takes place in London, but rather it's the budding cook who finally gets fed up with rude treatment at the hands of an imperious chef and does something about it.
Pilgrimages to Mecca - err...France - and imperious chefs who might have been drill instructors in a former life figure into a number of these stories. Wylie Dufresne's pilgrimage story also includes an owl that doesn't know its proper place in the scheme of things, while Marcus Samuelsson changes things up a bit with a story about an icy reception and some formidable language barriers in a Swiss, rather than French, kitchen.
Not surprisingly, there are a quite a few tales of dishes that did not turn out quite as planned and foodstuffs that just generally did not behave themselves, among them 3,200 lobsters "gone off", a tray of canelones taking a dive into a fish tank, a terrine taking a dip into a bowl of chocolate and 1,200 servings of fermented pea soup. Oh, and Michel Richard, who takes the cake - literally - with a story about a ruined cake, a pair of hungry dogs and some quick thinking.
Other chefs recall catering weddings too nightmarish to be believed, entire restaurant staffs getting rip-roaring drunk and the night Pavarotti almost didn't come to dinner - though he certainly made up for lost time when he finally did.
A thread that ties many, perhaps even most, of these stories together is that they seem somehow to turn out right in the end. This is not due so much to the storytellers feeling the need to tack on a happy ending as it is that they work in an industry in which, as Daniel Boulud - the fermented pea soup guy - says, "failure is not an option".
Food writer William I. Lengeman III maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a daily Web site, and Tea Industry New, a weekly newsletter. More information at his home page - http://wileng3.blogspot.com
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