Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review: Four Kitchens, by Lauren Shockey

For a long time, I have been a lover of foodie literature - well, foodie anything, really - so I was really looking forward to reading Lauren Shockey's Four Kitchens. The author, a recent culinary school graduate, tells the tale of her "real" culinary education - working in the kitchens of restaurants in four far-flung locations: New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris.

Although it doesn't exactly break new ground with the premise, the book has real potential for lovers of foodie and travel lit, particularly given the unique choices represented by two of the locales (Hanoi and Tel Aviv). Unfortunately, Four Kitchens falls into the trap that currently spoils much of the genre: it is not so much about the food and the cooking as it is a generic women's memoir that happens to take place in and around food, with a few recipes thrown in to help fill the pages.

Shockey begins her culinary travels in New York in the kitchen of a restaurant called WD50, which specializes in "molecular gastronomy" a laborious, chemistry-driven approach to cuisine. Although the cuisine and cooking techniques are sophisticated and unique, we learn very little about them.Shockey seems to prefer to skim the surface, and where she does decide to offer and insight or explanation, it tends to assume her reader is utterly naive, "We left a tip large enough to cover my food, as one should always do when food is comped."

She leaves WD50 for her next restaurant,  in Vietnam - but WD50 remains her frame of reference for the remainder of the book, with constant comparisons and references to it.

There is a lot of potential in Four Kitchens to present the reader with some interesting characters and insights, but Shockey, instead, is constantly thinking of herself - in particular, she relates to the other kitchen staff in terms of whether she made friends with them, or whether or not they like her. I found this particularly tiresome in the Hanoi section, where she rooms with an Australian expat, but much of the information we get about Belinda is Shockey noting she has made the breathtaking adjustment of referring to Belinda as her "flatmate" rather than her roommate. In a lengthy sequence in Hanoi, Shockey has a local take her to sample dog meat; regrettably, the entire section has an "Ew, gross" quality to it - as though she is trying to shock her girlfriends rather than inform the reader.

There are some interesting tidbits sprinkled throughout Four Kitchens - I had never heard of molecular cuisine, for example, and was intrigued by the description of a local Vietnamese unpasteurized beer. But by and large,
the author prefers to observe these things and then offer up her questions about them ("I wonder ..."), without following up by doing any of the research that might better round out the book, or herself.

I do think the Four Kitchens might go over well with a younger audience, as it has a coming of age quality that a younger person - perhaps one contemplating becoming a chef - might relate to. But for the more experienced reader, Four Kitchens comes up very short both as foodie or travel lit - there is just not enough depth in the writing to satisfy.

This is my contribution this to this week's Weekend Cooking.

"Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend."

Be sure to check out the other entries this week. As always, hosted by Beth Fish Reads.


  1. It seems that often times these foodie culinary memoirs are more about them and something that is not relevant to the food experience. Although you have made me curious to go seek it out.

  2. I never like it when you expect a book to be about a certain topic, but it seems to be all about the writers life instead of the topics you want to read about. Such a pity.

  3. A shame as this one sounded like it had potential. I would have been very curious to know about the cultural differences that would have been observed in studying in such different kitchens but it sounds like there's none of that here.

  4. The premise sounds interesting since I LOVE to read about food (hence my blog name!) but too bad this one is more about her, than about the food... guess I will pass this one. Thanks for the review!

  5. I think a few to many are jumping on this bandwagon. the problem is I think you have to have an interesting personal story to tell as well for it to stand out.

  6. Drat! I had hopes for this one, but I bet I'd be disappointed too.

  7. Another one of those books where it sounds interesting to pick up but quickly loses it. I've read several of these last year.


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