Cooking Dirty by Jason Sheehan

Cooking Dirty

by Jason Sheehan

Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

368 pages, 2010

Buy it online





Turning Up the Heat

Reviewed by Andi Shechter

In Cooking Dirty author Jason Sheehan has a kick-ass way of expressing himself and explains the why of a cook’s love of food, expresses passion and tells the reader why anyone would do what he did for years; work in exhausting, overheated, nasty kitchens full of egos, burns and yelling and make meals for people.  And you get it.

Sheehan hid cooking magazines under his bed the way other adolescent boys hide skin mags. He comes across, often, as an utter mess. A college drop-out, he smokes, drinks, drugs and messes up. He had, it seemed, for most of his life, no idea what to be as an adult. He didn't own a bed. You read his honest narrative and think "I so do not want this guy to get anywhere near my food."

No, wait. I want this guy to cook for me. Everything.  From toast (cinnamon would be nice) to scampi to steak (which I don't eat a lot) to, oh, I don't know, a chicken sandwich. Anything. You see, food, cooking, was the only thing he gave a damn about. It didn't save him, but it was home. Over and over, he lets you know, kitchens were the only place he was content.  He watched, he did things over and over, as you have to.  He even explains how sushi cooks learn by starting with rice.  For months, years, all they do is cook rice. He sounds admiring. It sounds mind-bogglingly awful.  Sheehan learned that way and understands it.   

Sheehan is coarse, and hasn't changed from the rough kid. You'll get tired of hearing certain words. Get over it if you can to get to the excellent writing. He changed the way I thought about a lot of things, a lot of cooking. If nothing else, I've learned the joke of having a clean chef's jacket.  Do you watch cooking competitions? They're a joke. No one gets through clean. And when Jason and co-cook go through the restaurant's dining room and remove all the salt and pepper shakers, I cheered.

Sheehan spent time everywhere from breakfast joints and junk food chain restaurants to neighborhood pizza places that make and proof their own dough daily. He worked in "fine dining" white tablecloth eateries and neighborhood diners. It was at the pizza place that Sheehan first worked and it's a damn good thing.  I shudder to think where he would have ended up if he had not found this amazing match. He's so good, he's flexible, he learned well, he listened and he took on jobs he probably wasn't qualified for because people drop like flies in the business.  Sheehan wasn't a chef anywhere, he stresses, he was a cook. But he learned every kind of food, he just absorbed everything he could in the field and it sort of saved him.

Sheehan now works as a food critic. Restaurant critics who have worked in kitchens know more than the rest of us.  I'll pay close attention. Sheehan isn't a snob, appreciating both haut and bas cuisine. But if Sheehan recommends something, it's most likely out of expertise. He's highly opinionated, he's seriously profane (if you don't like bad language, you might want to skip this book) nut he knows stuff that is worth knowing.

Cooking does not change Sheehan.  He's pretty much the screw up he was when his story began (happily with fewer addictions). He puts it out there himself , I'm not judging some guy who's cleaned up his act. I admire beyond words that he found his passion and used it. I cannot comprehend how he worked in the conditions he did, burning himself, cutting himself, with chaos, fires, yelling, folks quitting left and right, and the occasional visit to the ER. But consider this: I started reading Cooking Dirty early in the afternoon and stopped only because I had to sleep. That speaks to this guy's amazing ability to write. That I got tired occasionally of his swearing? Trust me, I swear daily. It's not prudish on my part, just boredom.  He's just one of those guys.

I try to avoid the "if you like" sort of recommendations, because they're so often wrong, but it does seem to me to be appropriate to say that if you watch food television and if you like Anthony Bourdain, you're going to want to read Cooking Dirty. You don't? Do you eat in restaurants? That's good enough. Read this guy's book. It's hot. | August 2010


Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.