Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Wife of the Chef

This is the first in a series of posts about people that I met along the way of my book tour who also happen to be authors.

Courtney Febbroriello and her husband Christopher Prosperi run the wonderful restaurant Metro Bis in Simsbury, Conn. Each month, they feature a special author dinner, based on recipes in the selected book. They put together a multi-course dinner based on The Sharper Your Knife last December, presided over her chef husband. (Mike still talks about his version of stuffed snapper wrapped in prosciutto, the latest recipe from the book that I’ve posted online at my site.) But this post isn’t about that dinner. It’s about Courtney, and her book Wife of the Chef (Three Rivers Press, 2004).

In the 1950s, my parents owned a restaurant. I’m not clear why a couple of Irish and Swedish descent decided to open an Italian restaurant in San Francisco, but there you have it. This was long before I was born, but my three brothers and my sister were already old enough to fight in the back of the family car. My mother does not reflect on those couple of years fondly. There were food disasters, staffing hassles, constant runs to buy everything from flour to paper napkins. They worked late in the night, took shifts watching the kids and subsisted in a perpetual state of exhaustion and debt. Sometimes, they fed the kids pizza for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“It was the hardest work I ever did, and we never made any money,” mom says. Finally, she decided to use her secretarial skills to get a day job in an office; her salary went, in part, to cover the wait staff. She kept one positive souvenir from the experience – her spaghetti and meatballs are the best I've ever had.

I had this story in my mind when I started Courtney’s book.

With ascerbic wit and confidential tone, Courtney shares the reality of life as a chef’s wife – and co-owner of a restaurant. She shares the less glamorous side of the business, from bookkeeping to broken ice machines to the challenge of managing a hundred tasks at once. There’s little pay, no benefits and a lot of debt. She's a self-professed anal retentive, who cannot help noticing everything that's imperfect from dirty silverware to empty breadbaskets. She’s clearly not in her marriage for the food; she’s a vegetarian who lives on potatoes, yogurt and buttered noodles. While she takes on the responsibility, she doesn’t necessarily get the credit. That goes to the chef.

I glimpsed Courtney’s life first-hand during the course of two days in Connecticut. She picked us up at the airport, drove us back and forth to our hotel, drove me to a book signing and to an early morning TV appearance an hour away, and handled all the details of the event and even took me to the local TV station for a morning appearance. She’s got a wry sense of humor and a quiet element of determination about her that comes through in her writing.

I highly recommend her book to people considering opening a restaurant. Like Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, her account is frank, and pulls no punches. I could see some people thinking that perhaps she protests too much, but knowing the backside of the restaurant business, I don’t think that she does. The restaurant business is one glamorized by the likes of the Food Network, but the reality is that it’s a demanding world filled with hard work, long hours and the occasional broken Fry-O-Later. So why does she do it? Ah, that’s the piece that seems overlooked in many reviews of her book. She does it all for a couple of simple reasons. One, she loves the chef. Second, she loves it for the rewards that keep people in the industry.

"At no other time in my life have I felt more challenged, confident, overwhelmed and consequently more alive than I do when working in this business," she writes. "...I am more creative, resourceful, responsible and flexible than I could ever be working behind a desk. And I love it. The constant education and stimulation gives me the energy to keep on going when one of the floor staff doesn't show up on a holiday or somone in the kitchen knocks over a five-gallon bucket of chicken stock."

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