LUCY BURDETTE: Have you ever had a fabulous meal--or even a bad one--and wondered who was the chef behind the dinner? And why he was doing what he was doing? And then what kind of personality leads you to choose a career that involves long hours, heavy physical work, rampant competition, and a big ego?
Psychologist Scott Haas had all these questions and more--and then spent eighteen months interviewing the staff and chef at the restaurant CRAIGIE ON MAIN in Boston. And he's visiting JRW today to talk about that process and his new book: BACK OF THE HOUSE--THE SECRET LIFE OF A RESTAURANT.
Welcome Scott! Will you start by telling us a little about how you got the idea for the project? How much did the book change from its original concept?
SCOTT HAAS: Thanks so much for the invitation to talk about my work, Lucy. I’ve been passionate about writing about the psychology of chefs for decades: In Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain showed us what goes on in restaurant kitchens; Back of the House shows us why. Who in their right mind cooks for strangers, night after night, 18 hour days, for years on end? These are unique, ironically functional individuals who don’t fit into 9-5 lives and somehow find a home in the dark recesses of kitchens. Bandits! Historically, restaurants have always been homes for social outcasts and those who live in the the demi-monde. I’m attracted to that darkness. Did my concept for the book change? Not really: Intimate start to finish.
LUCY BURDETTE: In your book, you talk about how most chefs have a history with food and with cooking from a young age that explains the direction they take. What was your food history like?
SCOTT HAAS: My dad, who was born and raised until a teenager in Bavaria, was always telling my sister and me about how much better the bread, butter, cheese, beer, and so on were in Germany so I grew up wondering about things I had not tasted: Food was something I imagined. I grew up wondering how things might taste, and not how they tasted.
My mom, not permitted to cook with spices, garlic, and onions for my father who, as a central European, preferred meat driven dishes like roasted duck, braised beef, and sauteed veal led me to appreciate eating out. Restaurants became a place where as kids we could try dishes that were not allowed in our kitchen at home that had been “cleansed” of deep flavors.
As an adult, after my wife and I had our son and daughter, I took cooking, which I’d done since an early teen, more seriously, and worked on every recipe from Marcella Hazan’s three cookbooks several times each, read Finnegan and Johnson on wine, and wound up working in restaurants--those of Gordon Hamersley and Silvano Marchetto. I co-wrote Silvano’s cookbook about his famous celebrity restaurant in New York City’s West Village: Da Silvano. And now, as a clinical psychologist, I realize that food is such a great relief from stress, sort of like a solo from Sonny Greer or Miles on “So What?” A nonverbal refuge.
LUCY BURDETTE: I know folks would like to hear a little about what you did in the kitchen at Craigie for 18 months. Did you end up feeling like you had an effect on the staff there? Did you ever feel like you had become a psychologist to the chef or the staff?
SCOTT HAAS: Initially, I listened and developed trust. Then I did a lot of prep. I don’t have the speed or hand-eye skill of a line cook in his or her twenties; frankly, it’s factory work and the complete opposite of being creative. I don’t think I had much effect on the cooks, no; these are very young people who are for the most part utterly undecided about what to do with their lives. I was a stranger passing through town. With the principal chef I wrote about, for sure I became a person he talked to about difficulties; but there is a profound superficiality to the way some chefs regard the depth of their emotional lives--an avoidance, a a calcification, part of why they cook instead of developing intimacy. Cooking is much easier than working on relationships. Certainly the chef told me extremely personal things, but this is not an introspective profession. On the contrary.
LUCY BURDETTE: Toward the end of your time at Craigie, you decided to take a turn working for several of the sous-chefs. What was that like? And what was it like cooking for all of them?
SCOTT HAAS: I was humbled. Like being George Plimpton in a football huddle.
LUCY BURDETTE: Tell us about your favorite meal ever at Craigie.
SCOTT HAAS: It’s not just about the food, and I never ate at the restaurant before I started the book, enjoyed about four meals there while writing the book, and have not been back since finishing the book. I love Japanese, Italian, and Italian-American food, chiefly vegetarian or fish; that is not this restaurant where pork and offal take pride of place. I’m more fascinated by the chef at Craigie’s desire to make the food an expression of his identity than how his food tastes. I do like his roasted chicken; it’s pretty good at $60 for two. But the real story here is: "The milk’s in me, and I’m in the milk," as Sendak wrote. I met a chef whose food in many strange ways is inseparable from his sense of who he is as a person. It was the most unique restaurant kitchen I’ve ever been in: A kitchen about the chef, not the food.
And click here for a fascinating video of Scott talking about the chef he studied, Tony Maws.
LUCY: JRW, Scott will stopping in today to answer your questions. We also have an ARC of THE BACK OF THE HOUSE to give away, so please a comment and you'll be entered in that drawing.