Lauren Shockey: Author of Four Kitchens

image-laurenshockey200After completing a degree at the University of Chicago, Lauren Shockey took up a role in a public relations agency. But after just one year in the “perdition” of the corporate world she quit her job and enrolled in the French Culinary Institute to start her training as a chef.

She went on to take up internship roles in some of the world’s most well-known restaurants, in New York, Paris, Hanoi and Tel Aviv. Her book, Four Kitchens, chronicles her life as a stagiares (chef’s apprentice).

Lauren has also written articles on food for The Village Voice, The New York Times, Slate, and the Atlantic Food Channel.

Click play to listen. Running time: 23.49

Four Kitchens

Transcript

* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability

Valerie
Thanks for joining us today, Lauren.

Lauren
Thanks so much for having me.

Valerie
Now tell us, you decided to quit your job and then go off on this year-long adventure in four kitchens around the world. New York, Paris, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, but then you decided to write about it. What inspired you to write about it?

Lauren
I’ve always been interested in writing, and I’ve done some food writing while I was in college, and some freelancing after that. So, writing was always something that came naturally to me.

I was always so fascinated by the overall kitchen experience. Working in a kitchen is just such a different environment from anyone who has had a desk job. You’re on your feet all day and it’s very fast paced. Thinking about that, I realized that if I was interested in it, I felt other people must have been too.

So, I pitched that idea as a book, and then that ended up working out.

Valerie
When you came to that day, when you were sitting in your cubicle in your PR job, what cracked it? What made you just decide to just chuck it in? Had you been thinking about it for a while? What was the turning point?

Lauren
Sure, I mean I think anyone who decides to leave their job must have been thinking about it for at least some point in time. And I just had sort of been thinking about what I really enjoyed doing, which wasn’t necessarily photocopying all day. And, what I really did love was cooking, and I figured, “Well, if cooking is what I really love, why don’t I try and find a job where I can do that all day?” So, I decided to apply to culinary school, and then I made the plunge, and it was great.

Valerie
Wow, was it scary, or exciting, or did you — how did you think?

Lauren
It was exciting.

Valerie
How did you think that you were going to support yourself?

Lauren
Well, I had saved up some money working, and then that was sort of how I helped pay for culinary school. But, yeah, it is sort of nerve-racking to sort of leave a steady job with an income, to then go to a point where you might not have a job, especially with cooking, which doesn’t pay as well, most cooking jobs don’t come with benefits or a full salary. You get paid about nine or ten dollars an hour. But, ultimately I reasoned that I would rather take a risk and do something I loved than regret never having taken that risk.

Valerie
How did you pick those four cities or restaurants I guess?

Lauren
Well, I’m from New York City, so the first restaurant where I worked, wd~50, is here. And that was sort of easier to find a restaurant at home. The restaurant focuses on molecular gastronomy, which is a type of cooking that manipulates sort of flavors and textures, and does sort of lots of foam and sort of crazy things. I was really interested in that type of food, mostly because it’s just a very cerebral type of cooking, and there aren’t many places in the world really where you can learn that type of food. So, I knew I definitely wanted to be at wd~50 because it’s really the only restaurant in New York City that does that kind of food.

From there I went to Vietnam, and I choose that because, simply I loved Vietnamese food. I’d actually never been to Vietnam at all, but there’s just something about the country that really was attractive to me. And, I sent a letter to a chef, Didier Corlou who’s sort of the face of Vietnamese cuisine over there. And, he said yes, I could work in his restaurant. So, basically I just bought an around the world ticket and said, “OK, I’ll meet you there on this day.” And he was like, “OK, sounds good.”

Valerie
Great.

Lauren
Yeah. From there I went to Tel Aviv, mostly because I’m Jewish, and I was interested in that idea of sort of the homeland. And I also wanted to pick a country where we might not associate it with being like a foodie place. So, Vietnam and Paris, those are very sort of food-centric capitals, but Tel Aviv you never really hear about when it comes to the food. And, I sorted of wanted to understand what a place is like that had an emerging food culture, and sort of figuring out what it sort of wants to be producing and sort of where its culinary vision is going.

Then finally I went to Paris, which just sort of made logical sense. How can you not talk about cooking and not go to Paris? And so there I worked at Senderens which is a two-star Michelin restaurant, served haute gastronomy, very sort of rigorous and old classic way of setting up a kitchen.

Valerie
Did you know at the start that these were the four that you were going to do? Did you know that you were going to complete them in a year and then be done with it?

Lauren
Yeah, I got the book deal right sort of at the end of my New York experience, so that sort of helped me frame the rest of the book. I didn’t really know what restaurants I’d be working at because sort of the nature of restaurant jobs. It’s not sort of like something where you could apply six months in advance. It would be very much sort of one month in advance. So, definitely I didn’t have a restaurant in Paris until about two weeks before I got there.

So, that was nerve racking, sort of down to the wire.

Valerie
So, you pitched this book before you went on your adventure, a little bit like Elizabeth Gilbert did, and I’m sure you’ve heard the comparisons.

Lauren
Sure, yeah.

Valerie
Had you read many books of that kind of genre?

Lauren
I read her book, and I read sort of like A Year In Pavasse, so sort of those sorts of travel logs. And, I wouldn’t necessarily say that definitely inspired me, I definitely sort of wanted to do it because I was really interested in the types of food that I could learn around the world. And, especially talking about food, it is so different from place to place. I was really interested in experiencing food culture sort of in the country of origin.

Valerie
Did you take notes as you went along and did you write as you went along, or did you wait until the end before putting pen to paper?

Lauren
No, I definitely wrote as I went along. I’m always a note taker, so for the first part, before I had a book deal I just sort of had been taking notes about what that restaurant life was like. But, then afterwards I definitely did take notes, and specific notes. Every night after I got home from work I’d sit down at the computer and just sort of go through the whole day’s activities and kind of remember as much dialogue as possible.

Then, so I had maybe a two week period between each country, and I spent that time trying to draft what might make sort of the bones of the book. And, then of course when I got back at the end of the year, that was when I really went through and edited and sort of redrafted the whole thing.

Valerie
How long did it take when you got back to whip it into shape?

Lauren
I’d say about three to four months. And then, with my editor, and I, probably did two months worth of editing.

Valerie
Right, and did you decide early on the structure of each adventure, so to speak? Or did you kind of just let it all flow and see what happened?

Lauren
Yeah, I kind of let it all flow just because when you’re writing about your life, you can’t really plan out your life and who you’re going to meet and what adventures you might have. I knew that structurally I wanted to set it up with recipes at the end of each chapter, because I knew I definitely wanted to have recipes in the book so readers could experience sort of the foods and cultures that I was talking about. Not just by reading it, but also by cooking and eating the same things that I was. But other than that, it was pretty — I let things happen.

Valerie
Did you find it a fairly easy process, or was it difficult?

Lauren
I mean I found the writing itself to be a fairly easy process. I mean it’s definitely a long process, which is something that can be difficult. I mean the first day of work was back in February of 2009, and it just came out now, in July of 2011. So, I image it as sort of like having a baby, you’re very excited for it, but at the same time, it’s gestating so long that you’re sort of like, “Come on, let’s come out already.”

Valerie
I know you’ve also written articles on food for publications like the Village Voice, New York Times, Slate, Atlantic Food Channel, now did you start doing that before you went on your year long sojourn, or did you start doing that afterwards?

Lauren
I had done a little bit beforehand, when I was in college I had interned for a food writer at the New York Times, so I had a little bit of food writing experience before that. Then, sort of when I came back, after I’d written the book actually, I saw a job opening at the Village Voice and applied for it, to be one of the restaurant critics, so that’s actually what I’m doing now.

Valerie
When you are a restaurant critic the kind of writing that you do there is very different to what’s in the book, which is memoir. What do you do to try and differentiate your descriptions of flavors at different restaurants and to make sure that it’s a unique article each time?

Lauren
Well, for one thing, just the word counts are much different for my reviews, that it’s a 500 word limit, usually. So, that’s quite short, whereas a book, you know, 500 words is only one page. So, you can definitely go into more detail in a book. You can talk about one dish for a whole page, whereas in the review, you definitely have to do that in very sort of picky, short sentences. So, I’d say it’s sort of about capturing a glimpse rather than going really deep, the way you could with a book.

Valerie
When you do your restaurant reviews, are you typically spending your time describing flavor, the cooking style, the overall experience? What do you think makes a good varied review?

Lauren
Yeah. I think definitely the overall experience, taking into consideration, obviously the food, which I feel should be first and foremost, but then also things sort of like the ambience. And, even the simple question, “Would I want to go back here?” Why or why not, and how can I convey that to the reader without just saying, “Come back here.”

Valerie
I think that people are very food-obsessed, and particularly with restaurants, but also with food writing, there’s a lot of amateur food bloggers out there who are starting to gain quite a following. What is this fascination with food and why do you think it’s exploded in the last few years? Particularly, with television shows, MasterChef, Iron Chef, Top Chef, what’s going on?

Lauren
I think it’s just sort of a cultural turning point where food is something that we all experience every day, multiple times a day. And, sort of with the internet sites, like yelp and I don’t know if you have similar sites in Australia where you can write reviews easily. There was once a point where the only people who could write about food were, maybe like five critics at sort of the top papers, but it’s much more of a democratic process now, where everyone has a voice. I think with that collective voice rising, it’s also led to a greater collective interest.

Valerie
Are you writing on your next book now?

Lauren
I don’t have anything in the works. I did really enjoy the book writing process. So, we’ll see what happens there.

Valerie
You did or you didn’t, sorry?

Lauren
I did. So, I’m not quite sure of what I’d want to do next. I have some ideas mulling.

Valerie
Do you think it will be a book? I mean you will write another book or are you wondering about that as well?

Lauren
Yeah, I think at some point. I am still quite young, so. I imagine that some point in my life there will be another book. I just don’t know when that would be. You’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Valerie
When you did come back, and you spent your four months, you know, with your head down and actually writing, how did you discipline yourself? Like describe to us your writing day. Did you have a set routine or did you fit it around other things? How did that work?

Lauren
No, I mean I definitely sort of had a routine, I personally I like to write in the morning, sort of between 9:00 a.m. and noon, I think that’s when I get the most work done. I went to the library a lot, just sort of where it was quiet and I would have no distractions, I would turn my internet off. Basically, just sit down there and just plow through it. Yeah, and I think having a good comfortable office chair and just limited the distractions is a big one. It’s so easy to surf the web, then 20 minutes later you’re like where did that time go?

Valerie
Definitely. You have a blog as well, do you spend much time on it?

Lauren
Not really, the blog that’s on my personal website is mostly just sort of links to stories that I’ve done or just sort of other interesting things that I have found related to food. But, I do blog daily for the newspaper, the Village Voice. For that I have to do three stories a day, so that takes up most of my blogging time.

Valerie
Yeah, definitely. You must spend a lot of time visiting different restaurants. Do you go incognito? Do people know who you are?

Lauren
I mean my picture — obviously having written the book and there’s an author photo, my picture is out there. I wouldn’t necessarily say I’ve been identified. I do have a wig, and I have fake glasses that I wear. I mean I do my best to stay under the radar, I would never make a reservation in my own name. And, I have a credit card – it’s with an alter ego. It’s quite like a spy.

Valerie
That must be fun.

Lauren
Yeah, it is fun. I get a little nervous wearing the wig sometimes.

Valerie
Why’s that?

Lauren
I feel people — it’s not a very good wig, so I feel people might notice that it’s a wig, but probably not, actually.

Valerie
Have there been any obvious points where people have figured it out? And you’ve noticed the service change or something?

Lauren
No, I mean I’ve definitely — I’ve been in a restaurant once or twice where people have said like, “Oh, weren’t you here two weeks ago?” And in that instance I might say, “Oh, I live around the corner, and I’m a big fan of the restaurant.” But I wouldn’t, from what I can tell I don’t think I’ve ever been recognized.

Valerie
What would your advice be, I know that there would be a lot of people listening to this that would love a job like that. They might not have the time to take a year off and travel around the world, but they would absolutely love to go to different restaurants to write about the experience. What your advice be on how they could do that, or what they should do to put themselves in the best position to do that?

Lauren
What I did was called a stage, which is basically a culinary apprenticeship. It is quite common in the restaurant world to do this, and even high level chefs do stages so they can learn maybe a different technique from other chefs. I would say if you have any interest ask a restaurant you like if you could spend one day a week in the kitchen working there for free. And, the truth of the matter is most people aren’t going to turn down free labor. You might have to be picking parsley for hours on end at the beginning, but, you know, that’s what I did. Someone in the restaurant world has to do it, and if you don’t have as much experience, that’s a good way to start off. Once certain chefs see that you can master picking parsley, you’ll be given a task that is greater than that.

But, I think, really, most restaurants will be willing to let you in their kitchen, if that’s something you want. And, I don’t even think you need culinary school, most of the restaurants where I worked, the people hadn’t gone to culinary school. And the thing is, if you work in a restaurant, they’re going to teach you what they want you to do, and how they want you to cut the carrots. It doesn’t really matter if you know ten different ways to cut carrots, if it’s not that one way that they’re doing it, it doesn’t really matter.

Valerie
Do you think that that is an important background to have to be able to be a restaurant critic?

Lauren
Yeah, I think it definitely helps, understanding why certain foods taste good, and why certain food has been cooked properly, versus things that haven’t been cooked properly.

I know for my job, actually it was a requirement, having been to culinary school. So, that was something that really surprised me. I didn’t necessarily think it was a requisite for the job, but apparently my bosses did.

Valerie
Lucky you went.

Lauren
Yes.

Valerie
What’s your advice to people that are planning a big career change? And possibly ditching their cubicle job to do something completely different, like you?

Lauren
Sure, I think one thing that’s really helpful is to have a plan, and have a plan to know how you’re going to enact your plan. I’m very goal-oriented, so it was easy for me to say I like cooking, I’m going to go to culinary school, I’m going to work at wd~50. So I had it all very lined out.

I think what sort of stops people is they say, “Oh, I don’t like my job, but I don’t really know what to do or where I’m going to go.” And, I think sort of once you have a plan, and you can see from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ and then point ‘C’, that really helps things.

Valerie
Tell us what you thought the best part of the book writing process was? Or,  just that whole period, from —

Lauren
Well, I guess seeing it in print.

Valerie
Do you remember the day that you saw the final book in print? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing?

Lauren
Well, my editor sent me a copy of the book, maybe like a week or two before it came out. So, that was very exciting. But, I think the most exciting was when I saw it in a book store for the first time. And, sort of realized that other people could actually purchase it then.

Valerie
What kind of response have you been getting from people?

Lauren
I think it’s been good, I try not to read too much about and to obsessively Google search myself. I think people are enjoying it. And, it’s a very sort of believable book. I think anyone who has had any sort of job that they didn’t like will appreciate the aspect of following your passion and doing what you love. And, for anyone who has an interest in food, it really goes into food cultures, and sort of goes behind the scenes, which is something that I love doing, sort of meeting people in their restaurants and eating food with them in their country, I mean that was such a great experience, that I think anyone would appreciate it.

Valerie
Paint us a picture in five years’ time, what will Lauren be doing?

Lauren
Oh gosh, I don’t know, something related to food for sure. I’m not quite sure it would be restaurant reviewing. One thing that I really enjoyed about the book writing process was the recipe development and sort of figuring out how to adapt recipes from the restaurants where I worked to the home cook. And, one sort of lesson that came out from this book was that I really loved cooking at home, and not so much cooking in the restaurants. There’s definitely a great energy and a fascination I have with restaurant cooking, but what I really loved about cooking was seeing people enjoy my food and sharing that experience together. I would like to do something where I get to involve food and people, and have them be happy.

Valerie
Finally, what are you cooking tonight?

Lauren
Tonight? Well, I am actually going out to dinner, for a review dinner, but obviously I can’t say where, but hopefully it will be good.

Valerie
Tell us then, if we were in New York, what would be the top three restaurants you feel that we should go to?

Lauren
The top three to go to? Well, right now, the biggest restaurant that’s been hyped this season is The Dutch, which is Andrew Carmellini’s American restaurant. But, it’s not really American in the way that you might think of burgers, or something like that, it really sort of takes all sorts of different cultures, there’s some Mexican influences, there’s Japanese influences, and that is something really sort of exciting to see.

Then one of my personal favorites is ABC Kitchen, which is sort of very vegetarian and locavore-friendly. They do serve meat, but a lot of the emphasis is on the vegetables. They do a really nice roasted carrot salad. So, I would definitely recommend that.

And then, one restaurant that I found this year that I really liked was called Cocoron, and it was this really tiny ten seat restaurant that served soba noodles. So, that’s just nice if you want something off the beaten path.

Valerie
Wonderful, thanks for the tips.

Lauren
Sure.

Valerie
On that note, thank you very much for your time today, Lauren.

Lauren
Yeah, thanks so much for having me.


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