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August 28, 2009

Book Notes - Jason Sheehan ("Cooking Dirty")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Jason Sheehan doesn't have a cooking show on television or own a trendy restaurant, but his memoir Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen is a fascinating glimpse at professional kitchens. From his early days washing dishes at a pizzeria to working in a variety of diners, delis and other restaurants, Sheehan captures the chaos of the dinner rush and the bravado (and sometimes stupidity) of his fellow chefs. Intertwined among the kitchen stories is Sheehan's own story which truly makes Cooking Dirty one of the year's most compelling memoirs.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Sheehan's memoir is emphatically not about “the glam end of cooking” or celebrity chefs, but about “a straight blue-collar gig,” where the kitchens are staffed by the kind of guys who get off on the fact that the work is insanely grueling. As Sheehan puts it, “I was being paid to play with knives and fire.” The war stories are as profane and outrageous as you'd expect, and Sheehan finds just the right balance between bravado and humility. There's a subtle shift in emphasis once his personal life (and, eventually, writing career) gains traction, but the kitchens where the best stories take place are never far from sight."

In his own words, here is Jason Sheehan's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen

There was a time during the writing of Cooking Dirty when I fantasized about it being packaged with a soundtrack CD, with its own mp3 player preloaded with all music relevant to the book's construction, laid over a background recording of a kitchen lost in the weeds on a nightmare Friday—all shouts and screaming, banging pans, fire orders and roaring ventilators. There was a moment when I considered heading every chapter with apt lyrics, writing an epilogue like a track list and liner notes. And there were nights when, so far gone inside my own head and dreaming, even, in the guise of the younger me with whom this book dealt, I would lie back and imagine the music that would score its film version.

Music was important in my kitchens because music was a lifeline, lending some order to what was otherwise chaotic, fast, ugly and rough. Music could pick you up when you were running down; could keep you on rhythm when everything around you seemed to be flying apart. A loud radio (dusty, greasy, battered, fought over, prized and held together with tape) tucked away on the shelf above the pass forced everyone to shout, and I liked my kitchens to be full of raised voices. And there were moments when, through some weird coincidence of beat and timing and track-list, an instant would come along where everything just synched—where the opening bars of Shriekback's "Nemesis" lit up, pounding out in counterpoint to the rattling of the ticket printer, downbeat hitting just as you spun a rapid-fire six-top onto the rail and, for just a second, it could feel like you were living inside your own movie, god's own cameras looking down at you and making you glow from within. Rare, yeah, but f**king priceless. Better than a million dollars and a hundred blowjobs. It gave you the juice like nothing else in the world.

And it was music that made much of Cooking Dirty's construction happen; music that set the tone and tempo, brought the noise, manufactured the urgency for me on those nights when I was incapable of conjuring it on my own. It was music which, in many cases, acted as the gate—allowing me to step back into different shoes standing in different places. I made playlists of songs I remembered as inhabiting my former kitchens like ghosts, lyrics etched sonically (permanently, I'd like to think) into ceiling tiles and sweating walls, ancient, greasy, cracked mix tapes still existing as physical objects somewhere, cryptically labeled and packed away, forgotten in cardboard boxes, stuck in among old work boots, broken lighters, utility knives and rumpled chef's whites. Archaeological remnants of a time gone by.

"Ballroom Blitz," The Misfits

A galley classic which actually made it into the first few pages of the book. Not page one, but close. On those odd nights when the line could gauge exactly when the first hit of the dinner rush would roll in, this was often cued up to coincide.

"I Wanna Be Sedated," the Ramones

Actually, pretty much anything by the Ramones was popular. "Blitzkreig Bop," "We're a Happy Family," "Teenage Lobotomy"—short, fast, loud and aggressive was what mattered, was precisely what you needed when you were facing down a full-book night, working a man short and expecting nothing but badness coming. They were all good, but "I Wanna be Sedated" will always be the one that brings me back home again.

"Rise," Public Image Limited

I can't recall whether or not this song was ever one that featured on a galley playlist, but for whatever reason, it has since gotten tangled up in my memories with a series of nights and kitchens that, in their own way, became a kind of backbone to the language in the book—this idea of all memories becoming montages, of all recollection becoming a stew. Rise? That's the song that's playing in my head when I'm looking back over the broad reach of hot nights and bad behavior that made up some of the best years of my life.

"Let's Have a War," Fear

This one ought to be pretty self-explanatory.

"Fiesta" and "South Australia," the Pogues

"Fiesta" was a beginning-of-the-night song—something bouncy and bright, full of brass and weird accordions, to get the boys up on their toes. "South Australia" was the opposite, an end-of-the-night song that got played in my kitchens most often when we were swinging out of service and into clean-up.

"The End," the Doors

This one isn't so much about the song itself as the way the song had been used: in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now, dropping that napalm into the treeline. I worked in a kitchen once where, when we were feeling particularly fire-buggy, we'd play that song during final prep, wait for it to build—nodding along with it, eyes closed—and then, at its peak, flame the trench on the flattop with cooking vodka so that a huge fireball would rise up and tickle the hoods. Fun stuff.

"Innocent When You Dream," Tom Waits

Even today, I have difficulty hearing this song without wetting up around the eyes. It was just one of those that always seemed to be playing when something terrible was happening in my life, and even though I refused to listen to it while writing, it makes at least one memorable appearance in the book.

"Heroin," Velvet Underground

This was gut-wrenching to me, more affecting than any other song out there because it reminded me of when I was still using—like just hearing it again was enough to get me high, dislodging little flakes of crystal from my veins and speeding them straight for my heart. Even the first note or two was enough to send me right back to the bad days, lying blasted, wigged-out, naked and skeletal at the foot of my ex's bed, spine packed with ice, grinding my teeth and feeling the bass line thrumming through the floorboards; a small, desperate part of me trying to reach back over the years and anchor itself. To stay there forever.

"Road to Ensenada," Lyle Lovett

If my wife Laura and I have a song, this is it. High, lonesome guitar. Beautiful lyrics. The story of two people separated by more than just miles. It played at our wedding. We danced to it at our reception (the first and only time that she and I have ever danced in public). And to this day, I can't hear it without seeing her, red hair blowing in the dry wind, looking West and deciding that us two East Coast kids might be able to make a better lives for ourselves out where the roads run straight and flat and fast.

"Lose Yourself," Eminem

Nothing at all to do with cooking or my life in the galley, everything to do with the writing about it. Cooking Dirty was written mostly at night, entirely while holding down a straight job as a newspaper food writer in those days when it sometimes looked as though the entire industry was going to go belly-up at any moment. I'd write all day for my paycheck, go home, play with the kid, sit with the wife, pretend something like normalcy, and then head back out again under cover of darkness to the bar or the all-night diner where I would bang and scratch away at the book.

Keep in mind here, this was before the book had sold. Before there was any promise of reward at some distant end. I was doing it just for the pure thrill of doing it—of getting the words out, the stories down, the language just so. But still, there were nights when I would be exhausted or bored or angry; nights when I thought all of this ridiculous scribbling about cooks and knives and pussy and garlic was nothing but a waste—of time, of energy, of ink, ultimately. What are you doing? I would ask myself, staring down at the tenth or twentieth or fiftieth revision of a page. It's good enough, dumbass. Just let it go.

Then I'd put on the headphones. I'd step outside for a cigarette (sometimes silently half-hoping someone would just steal the damn notebooks off my table; later the laptop, too) and blip forward to Lose Yourself. I'd stand, eyes closed, cigarette burning down in my fingers, and listen to the words: "You only get one shot / Do not miss your chance to blow / This opportunity comes once in a lifetime…"

And then I'd suck it up, get back inside and get my lazy, stupid, punk ass back to work. Success or failure, no one will ever be able to tell me that I didn't work as hard as I could on my first book, have as much fun as I could, make it as good as I possibly could. And I have Eminem to thank for that. If I ever get the chance to meet the motherf**ker in person, I owe him a beer.

Jason Sheehan and Cooking Dirty: A Story of Life, Sex, Love and Death in the Kitchen links:

excerpt from the book

A.V. Club review
Austin Chronicle review
Barnes & Noble review
Dallas Morning News review
Denver Post review
Eat Me Daily review
Graffiti review
Los Angeles Times review
National Post review
New York Post review
NPR review
The Obsessive Chef review
Phoenix New Times review
PRX review
Publishers Weekly review
SFoodie review
Slouch review
St. Petersburg Times review
Time review
Travel & Leisure review

Buffalo News profile of the author
CBS4 Denver profile of the author
KUNC interview with the author
Smith interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks

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