Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen
My initial reaction after reading this book was to hurl it across the room and never see it again. Dramatic? A bit, yet justifiable. In an autobiographical narration, Jason Sheehan attempts to merge his experience as a cook with being a writer, but fails miserably.
Cooking Dirty is not your average tale of a typical award-winning chef. There’s no culinary school or classical training involved, just the lessons he learned from the School of Hard Knocks. For a book that promises sex, love, and death in its title, it actually offers very little of any. Instead, Sheehan fills over 350 pages with unremarkable tales told with what can only be described as a teenage angst bravado.
My main problem with Cooking Dirty is that it offers nothing innovative. Anthony Bourdain is already known for his irreverent tales of behind-the-scenes action and Sheehan’s book seems to be a mere (bad) copy of Bourdain, and at one point, Sheehan even alludes to this as true. Regardless, the shameless imitation could have been forgotten if only Sheehan added something new to the plate.
About three-quarters of Cooking Dirty is dedicated to building up the “pirate of the kitchen” persona Bourdain has already well established. Sheehan includes himself in this group of rebels: violent, tough, junkies, and (for the most part) men. The problem is that his love for the wild life did not seem to balance with his passion for cooking. Sure, there are mentions of his love for the culinary arts, but there are so few and the ones that exist lack detail and appear unconvincing.
The entire book isn't simply boasting and stereotypical male bravado, Sheehan's writing is filled with enough self-deprecation, comic lightheartedness, and sarcasm that can, at times, be amusing. For the most part, however, it is incredibly repetitive and obnoxious. Sheehan attempts to draw the reader in with rhetorical questions and meditative remarks, but Cooking Dirty lacks the intimacy necessary for a reader/author dialogue to be achieved. Instead, Sheehan comes across as a (self-proclaimed) know-it-all and rule-breaker. Even when describing hitting rock bottom, vulnerability is missing; the macho persona Sheehan constructs throughout the book does not allow room for it, and he works very hard to convince the reader that he didn’t really care.
The last quarter of Cooking Dirty is the only section that is salvageable. Sheehan narrates what paved the road to becoming a food writer, and in the last chapters he finally reaches that goal. He goes into his recent writings, including the ones that won him a James Beard Award, and it is here that we glimpse the passion for food. Too little too late? Possibly.