I am not a foodie. I seldom dine out, and I have never worked in a restaurant. With the fine exception of “The Great British Baking Show,” I never watch food television and would be hard-pressed to name a famous chef. But I absolutely devoured “Generation Chef,” journalist Karen Stabiner’s book of narrative nonfiction about a young man opening his first restaurant in Manhattan.
Stabiner followed 25-year-old Jonah Miller as he conceived of, raised money for and finally (18 months later) opened Huertas, a Basque-inspired restaurant in the East Village.
Opening a restaurant in New York is beyond challenging: The cost is astronomical; the stakes are incredibly high; the need for buzz and press and social media is extreme. Talent and hard work are not enough to succeed.
Stabiner did her reporting the old-fashioned way: She was at Huertas almost constantly, for months, “in the kitchen during service, and in the hours that preceded and followed it, attended line and partners’ meetings, and observed everything from recipe prep to the tense moments before a big review hit.”
She also conducted hours of interviews. “When I describe how they were feeling … it’s not because I can read minds,” she writes. “It’s because I asked and they told me.”
The result is a fast-paced, detailed book with plenty of drama — not just the big drama of whether the restaurant will succeed (although that is the question that drives the story), but also smaller dramas: frustrations over the ridiculous New York bureaucracy involved in getting a liquor license; the anxiety over getting reviewed, or getting passed by; the disagreement over the menu between Miller and his partner; the terrible money-sucking summer slump that drags on into fall.
In contrast to Miller’s frenetic experience, Stabiner folds in bits of stories of other restaurateurs, including Gavin Kaysen, who “had an epiphany, standing on the street with his dog: He didn’t have to open a restaurant in New York. … He could go anywhere; in fact he could go home and have a restaurant in Minneapolis, where he grew up.”
In Stabiner’s hands, Kaysen’s Spoon and Stable in Minneapolis’ North Loop becomes a calm counterpoint to Miller’s frantic, nail-biting experiences.
(Some might disagree with how easy she makes it sound, or how Podunk the Minneapolis food scene, with people standing passively in the snow, hoping for a seat.)
The book has a large cast of characters, but Stabiner is skillful at introducing them — one at a time, when you need to meet them, not before. She doesn’t make the mistake of trying to flesh out each person, but keeps everyone within the tight context of the story. Even with Miller, you never see his home life, never meet his wife — and you don’t need to: By keeping the focus on the restaurant, Stabiner keeps the pacing breathless and the drama high.
I might never eat at Huertas — or at Spoon and Stable, for that matter. But “Generation Chef” has given me an appreciation for what has gone into these restaurants and others. This book is as much about dreams and passion as it is about food.
By: Karen Stabiner.
Publisher: Avery, 311 pages, $26.