Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef by Leonardo Lucarelli
Translated by Lorena Rossi Gori and Danielle Rossi
2016 by Other Press, 352 pages
(I received a galley from the publisher--the book won't publish until December 6, 2016)
Leonardo Lucarelli has a degree in Anthropology from an Italian University. A great chunk of the money earned to pay for that degree came from working in restaurants in every position from dishwasher on up through head chef. In using the kitchen life to earn his way through school, Lucarelli caught himself a case of Kitchen Fever--becoming addicted to the highs and lows of the kitchen; the constant tension and need to concentrate and push; the need to constantly walk a thinner tightrope and search for more creative ways of doing things.
What Lucarelli does is give his readers the life of one who has worked for years in a kitchen but not become a name that even most foodies would know. He's not a television star; he doesn't have his name included in the name of five or six restaurants. He takes the reader into the kitchen and lifestyle at a level they might be able to see themselves in--something harder to do if you're reading the latest Top Chef judge's biography.
What Lucarelli does very well is get the reader to feel the way he does as a server, or cook or even chef--we understand the great gut punch felt when he arrives to a boat for a party he and another are hosting only to find that the galley has no sink and the one burner stove does not blend well with many meals, let alone the menu he's prepared and shown up with food ready to cook. We also feel the electric elation he feels when after that meal, another cook in attendance raves about a portion of the meal. We feel the fear he feels when pulled over on his motorcycle with a passenger holding onto a brick of drugs, and the emotions roiling through his head when he's involved with various women (frequently waitresses).
What I don't believe Lucarelli does overly well is create a solid arc for Mincemeat. There are a ton of great stories here involving drugs, arrests, threesomes with other cooks, travel and various level of cooking but not that bit that hits you as a reader with the a ha! moment. The, That's why I need to read this hammer. If there is that bit or topic, I believe it's Lucarelli's pointing out some of the perhaps unknown economics of life in the kitchen--at least in Italian kitchens. The fact that many cooks/chefs are immigrants working without contracts, that they are abused in the hours demanded, the treatment, the pay scale and even occasional lack of pay altogether. That under the table deals flow freely and can seemingly change on the fly without both parties agreeing. These sections are very well done and it's necessary for these aspects of the kitchen world to be pointed out. It just seems that then the more "exciting" stories surround these important portions not so much to help the reader understand but in order to entice them along as far as possible before foisting the realities on them again.
The writing itself is very good, and had I read four or five essays by Lucarelli, I believe I'd have held them all in high esteem and suggested readers with similar tastes, especially the foodies, give them a read. And I think that people in the groups I'd do that with will enjoy Mincemeat quite a bit as well. Where I think it lacks as a non-fiction work is when I hold it up to something like Kurlansky's Cod, a book about something I couldn't have cared less about, until I began to read his words. It's what I look for in my non-fiction, a work so well done and interesting that it holds the attention, and more, of those that had decided to give it a flyer and read it, not for those that picked it up relatively sure they'd enjoy it. Mincemeat is a very good, solid, even above average read...for foodies and those interested in the restaurant industry.