The Arts of Plating and Plotting: Talking With Michael Gibney

04/23/2014 4:00 AM |

In Sous Chef, author and Park Slope resident Michael Gibney captures what it’s like to work in a fast-paced, upscale New York restaurant: the order and precision expected in the kitchen, the camaraderie of the staff, and the respect paid to the executive chef as they prepare to feed their guests. It’s all told through the eyes of an up-and-coming sous chef and set within 24 hours, from the day’s opening to the last ticket. Culling from his own 15 years of experience working alongside masterful chefs at a number of acclaimed New York and Brooklyn restaurants, Gibney approached writing his book with the care he’d give an elaborate meal.

You set Sous Chef within 24 hours and wrote it in the second person. Why?

That happened organically throughout the writing of the book. It made sense to capture it that way, in 24 hours—that’s a finite, good amount of time for people to understand what the industry is. To some extent, it’s a letter to an aspiring cook: part cautionary tale, part love letter. Speaking lovingly or favorably about things in the kitchen was very important, because I wanted readers to understand even though it’s a lot of work and the day is long, there are these great rewards we’re after. I wanted to show an appreciation for the physicality of the actual process.

You talk about that physicality in the book. Can you elaborate?

I mean what it actually does to your body physically: your knees, your back, and your feet. It’s like sports; you don’t see too many 45-year-old professional athletes. While I don’t claim that cooks are basketball superstars, there is this physical exertion during the day you can only endure for so long.

I loved the lines about focus and discipline, cleanliness and order in the kitchen. You compare it to a military operation.

Oh, absolutely. There are deliberate references all throughout the book to the military. I don’t mean to suggest that cooking is as difficult as going to war, but the training and the way that the system is set up is like the military system because it builds this sort of team cohesion. It keeps you disciplined and ordered in such a way that when the shit hits the fan, you have the right mental toolkit to deal with the pressure. It creates bonds between the team in the same way the military does.

You have a BFA in painting from Pratt, an MFA in writing from Columbia, and, of course, you’re a chef. Do these disciplines share any similarities?

I think I’m just interested in anything that satisfies creative needs. The easiest similarity is the meditative bits; you’re also sharing what you’re doing with others. When you’re plating, for example, you’re making a painting on the plate. But it’s not just making a painting or telling a story with a meal—it’s imagining what it is that you want to communicate to somebody and what materials you have before you and how to make the best thing out of them that you possibly can. When you’re writing a menu, you don’t just come up with cool dishes; you have to think about the whole composition: what are the price points, how do you word it, what’s in season, what’s been done before. There’s a whole heritage to incorporate as well, and you want to make what you create relevant to the conversation. Of course there are differences. I feel a lot more relaxed when I’m making a still life painting for my mother for Christmas rather than working a meat-roast station on a Friday night. It’s a different feeling.

How did you get into cooking?

I was 16. I’d gotten a job as a dishwasher and that really sucked. I looked across my little dish station to where the line was and those guys seemed to be having a much better time. Every day is something new and a bit of a challenge, and you always have the opportunity to learn new things. There is a bottomless well of information in food, whether it’s science, art, anthropology or history. It’s amazing. We’ll never run out of cool stuff to learn about cooking.

Any disasters in the kitchen you can recount?

The biggest screw up I’ve had was my first sous chef job when I didn’t really know what I was doing. I was learning a lot every day. I went in one day, and the chef was making this Eastern Mediterranean vegetable soup. You had to cook each vegetable individually, combining them for this rich, aromatic, healthful and delicious soup. I spent the entire day making it, followed him through this process. We were pouring it out of a cauldron into plastic containers called cambros, and the executive chef said, “Hold this for a second,” and went to grab another towel. Next thing I know, five gallons of this six-hour soup went not just on the floor but directly into the drain. He was standing there and I was standing there, and we were both kind of speechless. He resisted the temptation to get pissed off and chew me out, and that was an important lesson for me, in terms of being a chef and managing people and guiding them. Just remembering that we’ve all messed up like that. Things get spilled; no use crying over them.

Where in Brooklyn do you live?

I live in Park Slope, not far from Grand Army Plaza. I went to Pratt and have lived in Brooklyn ever since; 13 years now. Throughout that time I’ve lived in Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Williamsburg, Prospect Heights, Brooklyn Heights and now Park Slope. I lived in Fort Greene for about five years, and there were a lot of “firsts” there: first apartment, etc., etc. There’s a lot of nostalgia there; that’s where I spent my young adult life. In Brooklyn there’s this great sense of community—not just your own building, but the entire neighborhood. Most people I know who live in Manhattan are constantly operating on the assumption they’ll be living somewhere else in the future. Brooklyn is the sort of place where you can feel like you’re home.

Favorite local dining spots?

My favorite old mainstay is Applewood. Of course, now Brooklyn is loaded with really cool places: Franny’s, Roberta’s, Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fair, Blanca, Battersby.

What are your favorite dishes, both to eat and prepare?

My favorite thing to prepare is fish. The days when someone has a signature dish are growing out of fashion; a dish should have some spontaneity, using whatever ingredients are ready and available. Fluke with whatever-is-nice-at-the-market would be what I like to prepare. Fish is satisfying in a way that feels really clean and healthy, like you’re taking advantage of the opportunity to put some nutrients in your body. And pasta. Rich, delicious, melty, buttery pasta.

You’re making me hungry.

I’m making myself hungry, actually.