Anybody craving a juicy, rare exposé on the New York restaurant scene? John DeLucie, chef of The Waverly Inn, delivers just that in his memoir, The Hunger: A Story of Food, Desire, and Ambition. Though the author admits in an atypical self-effacing moment that, “There is a reason why they keep chefs in the kitchen,” he’s wielded his pen with precision and makes a warranted and successful foray into the written word.
With a voice as straightforward as his famed chicken pot pie, and with at least as much bravado as the highly lampooned price tag of his truffled mac’n’cheese, he attempts to summarize his entire culinary career from inception through hard-fought success. The story is told through flashbacks intermingled with highlights of the current night’s work, as if listening to him tell his life story over after-hours drinks. We see him go through kitchen after kitchen, looking for the next step up. We see, also, how his culinary ambitions and the chaotic lifestyle of the professional chef force both of his marriages in turn onto the back burner.
Through it all, he never misses a beat—at least, in the retelling. One does begin to wonder how much some of those quick-witted quips may have been enhanced. The dialogue is heavily peppered with the hot-tempered expletives typical of professional kitchens and stuffed with clever comebacks, like DeLucie’s own response to a waitress relaying a diner’s question of whether the mushrooms in a certain dish were wild or cultivated: “‘Tell her they were hand-picked by a bigamist sect on the outskirts of Oregon,’ I said. For chrissakes, who were these people? Too much time on their hands and too much goddamned Food TV.”
It’s energy like this that keeps the reader craving more as DeLucie plates up his addictive page-turner. In the latter half of the book, though, the flashback technique begins to feel a little off, especially as the stories begin to converge. It’s as if the right dishes have all been placed in front of the wrong diners. There’s that awkward moment when you try to locate what you ordered before you can switch and sink your teeth in. Nevertheless, each part is good and, above all, DeLucie’s passion shows through. As his prologue states,
The kitchen printer is spitting out orders like machine-gun fire and all four Viking burners are flaring like an F-16. The sweat is running down my brow and it’s only eight p.m. We’ll do another hundred dinners before the night is over. The place in on fire and I think: Man, I love this shit.
Stomach your way past the arrogant start, and you’ll love it, too.
(Angela Denstad has worked in the food and wine industry as wine consultant, culinary tour guide, food writer, educator with the Boston Center for Adult Education, and food columnist. Her writing and culinary musings have appeared in The Caledonia Argus, The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Boston Magazine, The Washington Post, and many syndicated publications. Her weekly syndicated column, Thyme Out with Angela, appears each Wednesday.)