Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Observations on "Cooking Dirty" by Jason Sheehan

By the time you finish reading the prologue of Jason Sheehan’s book, “Cooking Dirty,” you will be breathless, horrified, amused, and maybe even frightened: as in what could be next? In a self-deprecating torrent of super-heated prose, Jason charts the events during dinner service in a fantastically hot, chaotic and frantic kitchen in a restaurant in Florida.

Deeper into the book the pace slows and aspects of Jason’s persona begin to reveal themselves, or rather I should say Jason reveals them – in almost painful detail.

I should point out that Jason is a friend and we share lunch regularly with a foodie group I created 3-plus years ago. I began reading “Cooking Dirty” with every hope that I would love it…and I do. I have wondered for some time how he came by his way with words. Early on in the book he states that he wanted to be a writer and kept journals on a regular basis.

I wonder if, assuming he still has any of those journals, the addition of some quotes from them would have added another dimension to what is already from another dimension.

My partner, Peter, once sat next to Anthony Bourdain’s mother at a performance at the Metropolitan Opera. When Peter mentioned her son’s book, “Kitchen Confidential,” her comment (delivered in a marked New York accent) was, “The language!”

As a former sailor who could swear like one years before boot camp, I love it when a writer can use the words “pork” and “pussy” in same sentence, as Jason once did in a Westword review. In his writing, the “f” word appears with some regularity, always causing me great amusement.

I am writing these paragraphs in between reading snatches of “Cooking Dirty, “ always with great anticipation for what will come next.

I suppose I could have been mildly offended by his description of how he felt about what was on the kitchen radio at the pizza joint where he worked when he was 15: “the kitchen radio…was forever tuned to a station that…played only one song that was twelve hours long, sung by a gay Italian man who’d recently been punched in the mouth, and prominently featured an accordion being played by a spastic and tone-deaf monkey.” You know what though, I majored in political incorrectness in both high school and college and that marvelous turn of phrase made me roar. I had to read it to Peter before starting the car to head home from the gym. He too roared.

Is the prose purple? Don’t know, but it is extraordinarily colorful, and not the speech I’m used to from the rather mild-mannered, polite fellow Jason seems to be today. But then I’m only around him in mixed company.

“Poor life choices,” seems to be a recurring theme for Jason. But few of us (and certainly not moi mème) make all the right choices. “Always do the right thing,” an iconic line from Spike Lee’s similarly named movie sometimes just means have another drink, another cig, another snort of something.

Do I suspect some embroidering of this life story? Sure I do. Especially when I read, “These stories tend to grow in the telling.” I tell stories about myself that have grown in the telling just because you need a story to be a good one, even a great one. As long as the core of the idea bears a solid kernel of truth I say go for it.

Jason “borrowed” his parents car in the middle of the night. I would take my parents’ car in the middle of the day, pick up my best friend, and drive 95 mph to and from a swimming hole when he and I were supposed to be tutoring (me tutor, he Jane) for his GED.

Jason takes well-deserved pride in his leadership in the diner kitchen where he works for a while. As I write this, I’m about 1/3 into “Cooking Dirty,” and still enjoying every page. How does he continue to come up with wry, witty, hilarious (and sometimes filthy) turns of phrase?

Oh shit, he’s crashed and burned at the diner. When Jason hits bottom he doesn’t really bounce back up. Rather, he bounces along the bottom. When I read to my partner, Peter, the part when he goes back to Rochester and knocks on his parents door to be taken in, I got all choked up. I’m reminded of the Robert Frost line that has stuck with me for decades: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in."

Lord, this tale is unrelenting. It appears that some form of redemption is at hand as his relationship with Laura develops. I’m really interested to know about how he transitions into a writer. I know it’s coming, but he hasn’t mentioned writing since his high school days I think.

I want to meet Laura. The saga of the developing relationship between Jason and his wife-to-be is as convoluted as Jason’s life between 15 and 25, the point I’m at in the story. His life seems more settled, though that is a relative term. He’s productively employed, more or less healthy, but obviously not at an arrival point yet; rather, the departures are slightly fewer, the destructive behavior somewhat more moderated, the story telling still bold and brash.

Well, we’ve finally gotten to the part where Jason becomes a writer, not entirely about restaurant reviews at first. After an epic episode of cat-fighting with Laura, she seemed to have gotten his attention about the writing idea and he gets his first job. It appears that Jason’s life may be about to take a turn in an upward direction.

I am so near the end of the book and yet I can’t sort out the kaleidoscope of emotions, fear, loathing, horror he’s exposed me to. I know that I’d have to stretch to imagine my own life, not entirely uncheckered, being so chaotic and mercurial. I find myself wondering how Jason can remember so much detail, much experienced in drug and alcohol induced near stupors. He seems at this point near to waking up from a lengthy (nearly 15-year) nightmare.

The moves (devious) into a writing career are cool. I’m so glad Jason got away with what he did to get one of his first writing jobs. I won’t spoil the story for anyone by telling it.

Turns out even after coming to Denver to assume his post at Westword, Jason still got whacked out on occasion. But he did come here with Laura as his wife and they acquired a daughter whom Jason clearly adores. Peter, after hearing me read him another portion of the book this morning, asked if I thought there was a movie possibility here. Jesus, I would think so. We’re debating who would play Jason.

Am I reading something into his story if I suspect there will always be a longing for the kitchen inside of Jason. What I hope there is is a long string of writings in his future so that they’ll be in my future as well. Keep drinking the snake wine, Sanjo.


Laura said...

I used to think Giovanni Ribisi would make a good Jason. Just the right amount of twitch and boyish charm. Then I thought Ryan Gosling, but mainly for personal reasons. As I've watched him age, I've decided he could be played by someone a little darker like Jeremy Renner. Someone a bit brooding. Or Aaron Paul from Breaking Bad.

P.S. I'd like to meet you, too! (:

Peter said...

There's no physical resemblance to Jason, and he's probably too old now anyway, but Paul Giammatti in "Sideways" was temperamentally right to play Jason in a film of "Cooking Dirty."

Two tiny corrections: I met Anthony Bourdain's mom Gladys at a Met national patron luncheon, which she attended as the guest of the late French soprano Regine Crespin. Gladys and I hit it off, and arranged to have lunch together shortly thereafter. It was during the course of our lunch together that I discovered she was Anthony's mom. Her accent is actually New Jersey rather than New York. She is--or was--an editor for "The New York Timew" Metro section (she could by now have retired), and objected as much to what she felt was the faulty editing of "Kitchen Confidential" as to the salty language.

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