Out of the Frying Pan: A Chef's Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal
by Gillian Clark
Published by St. Martin's Press
256 pages, 2007
And Into the Fire
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Clark, chef/owner of Washington D.C.’s Colorado Kitchen, had an immensely interesting book in her. Unfortunately for us, she didn’t write it, opting instead for a candy-floss memoir comparing the challenges of single parenthood to the brutalities of professional cooking.
Don’t get me wrong. Clark is a highly intelligent, educated woman who left a career in marketing to pursue her love of cooking, putting herself through culinary school in her early 30s. Anybody with the guts to do that deserves kudos. When that somebody has two small daughters and a hard-drinking husband soon off the scene, more power to her. But instead of digging deeply into the experience of being a female chef -- challenge enough in the masculine world of professional cooking -- she focuses on what readers of cookery memoirs will recognize as the usual suspects: shady investors, drug-addled cooks, sous chefs who honed their knife skills in prison. There’s plenty of working “in the weeds,” overwhelmed by orders while the garde manger guy tokes up in the basement. We’ve read our Bourdain: we know about that stuff. What is it like to walk into a kitchen as black female? An educated black female who, by her own admission, has difficulty relating to the impoverished blacks she often supervises? Clark admits kitchen staff often felt they had little in common with her, poverty and single-motherhood status notwithstanding.
At one point, having quit a kitchen where the owners sabotaged her, she receives a panicked telephone call from the staff:
Ebonics? Good grief. It’s possible -- and understandable -- that Clark doesn’t want to be known as the “black female chef.” But in a book purporting to be an inspirational memoir, Clark glosses over an opportunity to reach women of all races longing for a role model. She also elides a part of herself. I’m not saying she needs to be Toni Morrison in the kitchen. But a tiny bit more of herself here would have added great depth.
Out of the Frying Pan rapidly establishes a simple alternating structure: a problem in the kitchen, a solution, some recipes. A problem at home with daughters Magalee and Sian, a solution, some recipes. Magalee struggles academically; Sian acts out to gain attention. Both girls are basically good kids, and Clark’s parenting challenges, while often overwhelming, never see her confronting criminally terrifying behavior. Sian’s picky eating is troubling until Clark realizes her daughter is constipated. She devises “Stomach Bliss Meatloaf,” containing a half-cup of prunes, writing above the recipe: “Great for the whole family once a week.”
Magalee, on the other hand, adores sugary stuff that injures her fragile concentration. Clark takes her in firm hand, doling out both punishments and rewards, writing:
Such is Clark’s attitude throughout: problems are tackled using a headstrong if thoughtful disciplinarian’s mentality. Confronted by a recalcitrant child or a lazy cook, she assesses each, often treating child and cook the same way.
Indeed, children do thrive when boundaries are well-defined and leavened with rewards. But adults are not so easily led, and Clark’s motley kitchen staff are no exception. They are oft-troubled people who fail, despite Clark’s strenuous, well-meaning efforts to help. Roshena turns up at Clark’s earliest job, and though she drinks her paycheck, manages to hang on, particularly after Clark allows her to put her special chicken salad on the appetizer special:
"When there was a surplus of chicken breast, we poached it. While it cooled, I told Roshena to stop bragging about her chicken salad and make it for an appetizer special.” Clark gives the recipe, and it does indeed sound delicious. But “Running a functional kitchen was more like parenting than I’d ever imagined."
Certainly getting any group to work cohesively, whatever their ages, challenges all but the most dictatorial. But the adults working in Clark’s kitchens, are just that: adults. Near the book’s conclusion, Clark writes bitterly that Roshena had “finally achieved her lifelong dream and was declared disabled. She now got a check every month without having to work for it.” Firm parenting, allowing children and cooks to fail, the occasional reward: Roshena remained impervious.
But all does end well. After scraping together money from the Small Business Administration and literally painting, scraping, and polishing her rented space, Clark is able to open the Colorado Kitchen in a rough D.C. neighborhood. It takes a little time, but the customers begin trickling in -- and returning, becoming regulars. Sian and Magalee, now teenagers, provide critical help both in the front and back of the house. Clark’s cooking lands her on the Food Network; better yet, Magalee will soon head off to college.
Memoir is tricky ground; there are the inevitable difficulties of truth telling whilst shielding certain individuals, and the endless decisions about how much to include -- or leave out. While I may take issue with some of Clark’s choices, she is writing a food memoir, not Breaking Clean, and it’s impossible not to admire her courage and ambition while applauding her well-deserved success. | May 2008