Book Review: “Don’t Try This at Home” by Witherspoon and Friedman

witherspoonFor anyone who has ever cooked professionally, “Don’t Try This at Home” may feel a little too familiar at times. Edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, this short story collection is an engaging compendium of classic kitchen war stories, written first-person by an impressive roster of America’s most well-known chefs (along with a handful of famous chefs from across the Atlantic). Anyone who has ever faced a dinner rush with little more than dread and determination can relate to many of these anecdotal tales, and the book draws most of its strength from its humor and honesty.

A trio of themes emerges from the text, these particular scenarios usually being terrific catalysts for culinary disaster: large banquets, opening night, and first jobs. One of my favorite entries (and one that would fall under the “first jobs” rubric) was by Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, chef-owners of the Border Grill and Cuidad in Los Angeles. Their tale centers upon Hollandaise sauce, which always has the potential to cause consternation, either one way or another. Other tales, meanwhile, arrive completely from left field; Gabrielle Hamilton, chef-owner of Prune in New York, tells a very human story about a blind line cook.

As can be expected, some of the chef-authors are more successful than others in drawing the reader into the chaotic world of professional cooking. Chefs are a creative lot, and I could not help but wonder, as someone who has made a living both writing and cooking, how much editing was really necessary for most of these stories. Not everyone can cook, and not everyone can write, either. However, each one of these stories is well-presented, mostly entertaining, and chock full of worst-case scenarios.

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