Review: The Saucier’s Apprentice
Originally posted on July 17, 2008.
One of the hot new genres among nonfiction publications is the “culinary adventure.” The formula is simple really, a chef or restaurant critic takes a vacation where they do nothing but experience wonderful cuisine and along the way they learn a little something about life. Perhaps we should call it Foodie Literature because it is nurtured by the fact that America’s palate is finally awakening. Recently I got a chance to read my first “culinary adventure” when I received a copy of the Saucier’s Apprentice (W.W. Norton, New York) by Bob Spitz.
Spitz is neither a chef nor a food critic. No, Bob Spitz is something we don’t get to review here often, a “serious” author. I say that tongue and cheek of course – for many years, food writers were looked down upon by novelists. They were lumped into a subspecies alongside sports journalists and the lady who does the advice column. Anyone who has ever read Jeffrey Steingarten knows that food writers are serious authors.
Spitz is the award-winning author of Barefoot in Babylon, Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!, and the New York Times bestseller The Beatles. He has written for virtually every important magazine and newspaper in the country. But he does not have a formal culinary background and perhaps that is what makes his tale so companionable. Because it is so much like that of every other American who has fallen victim to gastronomy.
The story begins with his personal life in shambles – the eight years of travel and research for The Beatles has cost him a marriage and his current romance is a house of cards. The only things keeping him from falling apart altogether are his love for haute cuisine and his daughter, Lily, of whom he writes:
At least my daughter gave me strength. Most nights, I still cooked for Lily, and most mornings I sent her off to school with a lunch bag full of leftovers, the most gratifying moments of my day. Only eleven years old, Lily was a chef’s ideal at the table, game for trying all my crackpot creations. She was the only kid I knew who’d attack garlicky escargots, a seared foie gras, or a dozen raw oysters with fearless relish . . .
The fervor of his burgeoning foodieness manifested itself through his regular Friday-night dinners in which friends and loved ones from the city would venture to his cozy Connecticut cottage for an evening of conversation and Epicureanism. It was at just such a party that he receded from the political debate, withdrawing inwardly to evaluate the meal, his romance, his life. The others raved about the food but he knew that he had missed the mark. He looked at his girlfriend, Carolyn, who thought of food, like so many Americans, as nothing more than fuel, a necessary evil, and realized something was missing. He then announced to the table, “I’m going to Europe, to learn how to cook.”
Over the course of three months, he traveled through France and then Italy, attending classes at a multitude of cooking schools. Some were designed to humor American tourists, at which he encountered more than one brain-dead trophy wife or wannabe Martha Stewart. Some were serious schools where lessons were not just learned but ingested.
He worked in the kitchens of everything from French culinary icons like Le Moulin de Mougins to a tiny family-run trattoria on the Amalfi Coast. He cooked side by side with the likes of Bruno Söhn, Alain Llorca, and Kate Hill. Along the way he transformed from a novice trying to impress beyond his means to a world-class cook, and as mentioned above, he learned a little something about life.
In Apprentice, Spitz manages to capture the essence of each province without sounding like a Mobil Travel Guide. Images burst off the page in full color, allowing you to clearly see the blinding speed of a chiffonade. At times you can almost feel the sensual effect garlic has on the olfactory senses when it hits a hot pan of fruity olive oil. In a word it is captivating.
I found the text most compelling whenever I sensed a change of scenery. I read with absolute anticipation for his descriptions of the legendary locals of cooking Provence, Tuscany, Paris, Naples – I saw them all through Spitz’s eyes. My only regret, why not a month in Spain or a few weeks in the Greek Isles?
On the back cover, Mark Bittman, author of How to Cook Everything, says of the Saucier’s Apprentice, “Just like Spitz: personal, clever, witty, enthralling, and lovable. Why he didn’t invite me along, I’ll never know.”
I feel like he did.
Photo courtesy of W. W. Norton.