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University of California Press, 303 pages, $48 cloth/$17.95 paper

Most diners would rather not know what goes on behind the swinging doors of the restaurant kitchen. We hear the yelling, sense the bustle, and hear the occasional clatter of pots and pans. We know that the environment is probably not a bastion of cleanliness and that the grease-stained chef is cursing the customers under his breath. But we don’t want to think too hard about the preparation of the food; we just want to eat it. As a restaurant worker tells sociologist Gary Alan Fine, “[I]f [customers] saw what goes on inside of the kitchen, they would never eat out again.”

In Kitchens: The Culture of Restaurant Work, Fine goes backstage at the contemporary American restaurant, exploring in

academic detail the life and hard times of the professional cook. The sociology professor, formerly of the University of Minnesota and now at the University of Georgia, arranged with a series of Minneapolis restaurateurs to spend a month in each of their eateries, observing the workers and their tasks with notebook in hand. His chosen restaurants ranged from La Pomme de Terre, a favorite of the young and trendy, to Stan’s Steakhouse, an unpretentious joint that serves slabs of red meat to a neighborhood clientele.

While ethnographic descriptions of other cultures are like stories from beyond the looking glass, accounts of our own culture can come across as long-winded explanations of the bleedingly obvious. Fine, like any good ethnographer, tries to see the world through the eyes of his subjects; in a kitchen, this means developing a fine sense of smell and taste. “We become so taken with the reality of the world that we have learned to experience that we forget to notice the world that we are experiencing,” he writes in his essay “Ethnography in the Kitchen.” “For this research, my attempt to remain sensitive to the challenges of senses was critical.”

Fine’s careful analysis of the data from his “senses” enables his book to go beyond the obvious, though nothing in Kitchens will seem altogether new to former waiters and prep cooks (or anyone who has ever worked a high-pressure job). Fine makes explicit the unspoken rules and subtle interpersonal negotiations that make up the work environment of the kitchen.

Fine describes the restaurant as a theater of food—though he focuses almost exclusively on the backstage area, where food is prepared. Servers spend much of their shifts onstage, performing (with varying degrees of dedication or skill) the role of genial host to a succession of often unappreciative guests. The server’s art is one of appearance; he or she must maintain a relatively unruffled exterior despite the chaos of the surroundings.

Meanwhile, the cook, Kitchens’ primary subject, remains backstage all the time. But Fine contends the cook and not the server is the true artist. To support this point, Fine quotes George Orwell, who in Down and Out in Paris and London offered a barely fictionalized account of his own kitchen experiences. “[The cook] is an artist, but his art is not cleanliness,” Orwell wrote. “To a certain extent he is even dirty because he is an artist, for food, to look smart, needs dirty treatment.”

But if the cook is an artist, Fine properly notes, he is an artist of the commercial variety, constantly having to cut corners and rein in his aesthetic tendencies in order to deliver food to the servers on time. The constraints of time and cheap ingredients take their toll on the food, and more sensitive cooks blanch at the “shit” they produce. But there is no time to fix the mistakes. Indeed, Fine notes, a cook’s ability to “let go” of certain dishes that don’t meet his standards—rather than fiddling over them until they are perfect—is part of the code of professionalism. Most customers, after all, are not gourmets, and won’t notice the difference. Looking down at a salmon dish that has gone awry, the head chef at La Pomme de Terre sighs, “Oh well, they all look like shit. We don’t have to worry.” A co-worker jokes, “The room’s dark.”

As Fine shows, the cook’s most crucial skill is that of organization—more important than knowing how to prepare a soufflé from scratch is the ability to keep track of 20 orders at once while standing in a hot room, covered with gravy, the air filled with steam and smells and the yelling of servers and managers and other cooks. If a cook makes a mess while preparing an entree, well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Indeed, much of Kitchens details the disrespectful treatment food gets behind the scenes. But this book is hardly an exposé. Fine takes more or less the same attitude to the disarray in the typical kitchen that the workers themselves take; grime is an occupational hazard. Indeed, restaurant workers eat from their own kitchens without hesitation, and so do we. Cases of food poisoning are rare, and patrons assume a certain culinary safety.

Similarly, no one will be terribly surprised to learn that cooks sometimes bend the rules under pressure. Instead of grilling steaks all the way through, restaurant workers sometimes drop them onto the grill long enough to give them the distinctive “score marks,” then plop them into an oven to finish them off; managers substitute artificial truffles for the real thing. With the exceptions of soups, sauces, and spaghetti, food that falls on the floor is picked up and brushed off. And waiters or cooks who feel mistreated often sabotage diners’ food, cooking meat until it’s leather-tough or, yes, spitting in the soup. Kitchens doesn’t divulge anything alarming, but it will make customers think twice before sending that medium-rare steak back for an extra charring.

Much of Kitchens simply describes the day-to-day realities of the cook’s life. But Fine goes beyond mere description in those sections that describe personal interactions in the kitchen: the strangely intense, if ephemeral, camaraderie of restaurant workers; the fights that erupt one moment and are forgotten the next; the displaced anger taken out on pots and pans instead of on customers. Fine takes a curious linguistic turn in a chapter titled “The Aesthetics of Kitchen Discourse.” In attempting to decode the small talk of cooks and their colleagues, he soon discovers that not many of his subjects can quite articulate why they like the taste or presentation of particular foods. It’s not that they have a specialized vocabulary: They have almost no descriptive vocabulary at all. “The remarks of chefs may appear somewhat thin,” Fine comments. “It is evident from these data, and from the accounts of those who have observed or worked with cooks, that aesthetic discourse is not detailed in most kitchens.”

He’s not kidding. “What is something that you really like?” he asks one cook, Doug.

Doug: Stuffed green peppers are really good.

GAF [Gary Alan Fine]: Why do you like them?

Doug: The flavor of green peppers.

GAF: How would you describe that? What is it about green peppers that you like? Doug: I like fresh vegetables. I like green peppers.

While such discussions frustrate Fine, he eventually realizes that cooks themselves have enough shared experience to be able to communicate with each other in a stripped-down speaking style that can confound the outsider. “When a particular dish is called ‘nice,’ ‘good,’ ‘wonderful,’ or ‘disgusting,’ we are in a world of shared assumptions,” Fine notes. “[O]thers will know why that adjective is used, even if they disagree.”

That said, Fine’s book comes far closer to “nice” than to “disgusting,” but it is not quite “wonderful.” It doesn’t offer a philosophy of the kitchen, or any particularly biting social criticism, but that isn’t Fine’s intent. Kitchens is a solid, sensible ethnographic study, carefully researched and elegantly presented—at least by academic standards.

Still, when Fine quotes Orwell on kitchen life, the difference between the professor’s craft and the novelist’s artistry is apparent. Perhaps it is asking too much to expect Fine to be another Orwell—just as it would be to expect Stan’s Steakhouse to become La Pomme de Terre.CP