Like everyone else, writers are obsessed with food. Mostly, that obsession takes the form of food writing, which is a tricky business. It's easy to hyperbolize or get dangerously close to whimsical when you're relating the pleasures of eating.
Many writers have gone crazy writing about food: Isabel Allende famously posed topless, her breasts covered by an immense bowl of berries, for the back cover of Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses, which features an uncomfortable passage about food's inherent eroticism. Joanne Harris, too, has made a career out of writing bad novels about the sensuality of eating, and Jim Harrison plastered his highly unappetizing mug on the cover of The Raw and Cooked: Adventures of a Roving Gourmand.
Fewer authors have ventured into restaurant kitchens to relate sordid back-room details. George Orwell shares his experiences dishwashing in the autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London, and he milks the job for all its potent class issues. Much more recently, zine auteur Dishwasher Pete published Dishwasher, a memoir about his quest to wash dishes in all 50 states.
Beyond that, though, there's tough-guy chef Anthony Bourdain and, as of last month, Phoebe Damrosch, with her intriguingly titled Service Included: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. Unfortunately, her exploits waiting tables at Per Se, the prestigious New York branch of the French Laundry restaurant, are nowhere near as titillating as the jacket copy promises.
Damrosch seems unwilling to make any enemies, and so her famous clients go unnamed and the disgusting realities of a four-star kitchen remain unrevealed. Instead, she tells us all about her fabulously uninteresting love life.
For real detail about what goes on in real kitchens, turn instead to Last Night at the Lobster, a novel by Stewart O'Nan. It's the story of a manager at a Red Lobster that's being closed by corporate headquarters. He's got to convince his staff to pretend to care through one final shift.
It's hard to recall the last time a novelist gave a normal person with a normal job such dignity. From the thawing out of frozen soups in the dishwasher to the cleaning up of children's vomit, O'Nan's fascination with the mechanics of a chain restaurant make this one of the more compelling books of the year. This attention to detail makes the drama of running a kitchen—which is, as everyone who's worked in a restaurant knows, dirty work potholed with tempests of aggression—as solid and meaningful as most food writing is flouncy and artificial.