By The Book | The Great Books On Restaurant Life Are Anything But “Subly”


There are so many subly (a new word I just invented, emphasizing the beneath-ness of sub) genres to spelunk (a caving reference) in the book world.  One of my favorites that I continue to rappel into again and again are books about restaurants.  

I love restaurant life, and the behind the scenes (or in the cave) stuff is really fun to explore.  My favorite book on restaurants is so scarce I don't think it exists, but it was titled something like 1,500 Things Restaurants Do Wrong.  With a title like that you would think I would shrink away from it like Dracula from pizza (it's little known that Dracula shrunk away from pizza every chance he got.)  But I was intrigued, 1,500 is a large number of wrong things.  I could see 1,400, but 1,500!  The book was written by a guy who had worked in the restaurant business his whole life and was just a list of aphorisms of what not to do.  He was apparently very grumpy because the book actually has 1,500 examples.  One that has stuck in my mind is that he said the number one reason restaurants fail was because they don't keep regular hours.  


Not bad food or bad service?  

But he insisted, in his aphoristic way, that if a softball team expects a restaurant to be open and it is unexpectedly closed, the whole team is likely to never eat there again and the restaurant just lost quite a bit of business over the next 15 years or so (although they would be closed due to lack of regular hours, theoretical business I think he meant).  I don't know how true that is, but it made me think.  He also said that if you see something on the floor and a staff member just walks by it without picking it up it's a bad restaurant.  All sorts of little gems like that, even down to how to wash the silverware and saying hello when someone comes through the door.  

Another great restaurant book is called Waitress, by a woman who started waitressing at her parent's place when she was a kid and kept waitressing her whole life.  She recounted how in her twenties she loved her co-workers and they would go out every night after their restaurant closed.  She would spend all her money and be tired all the time, but she loved the camaraderie and then she woke up one day and she was 45.  Whoops!  But she was a good raconteur and told her stories with aplomb.  

Another great restaurant book is Jacques Pepin's Apprentice.  Pepin was sent to work in hotel kitchens when he was very young (13 or 14, I think) and just got such a thorough education in the techniques of cooking that he later wrote the Bible of kitchen technique books La Technique.  The French system of his day had apprentices at a station peeling potatoes or dicing carrots or whatnot until the cows came home (and they didn't come home until you had thoroughly mastered that particular technique – sometimes six months peeling potatoes!  I can imagine Pepin as a youngster, desperately tired of poaching eggs, looking out the window and thinking, “Come on home cows!”) at a life, but Pepin persisted and look what happened.  

Alice Waters biography is also a gem when she recounts her awakening to real food as a young woman in France, and the first years of Chez Panisse are so fun.  She was such a pioneer in bringing fresh food into the public consciousness.  

A common theme in other restaurant books is people working very hard in very close quarters and the drama and friendships that ensue, it's very nice to sit in a restaurant and to think that life is hurricaning (another new word but you get it) as usual right near you, just unseen until you read about it.

mark stolle, jacques pepin