We all have to eat, but we don’t have to eat out – except maybe in New York. In his first book, “The Hunger”, John DeLucie notes that if one were to eat in a different restaurant every day, it would take 46 years to exhaust the restaurant supply in the five boroughs; and given the historical start-up rates and failures, he could potentially never run out of new places to eat.
Take all those restaurants, add up all the kitchen help, servers, bartenders, backroom and front of the house employees necessary to keep them plating meals, and it is easy to see why it takes something special to rise to the top. You have to hunger for the life, or, as in the case of DeLucie, be starving in your own.
Chefs are the free agents of the food world. After paying their dues in whatever lowly kitchen station they start, if they put up the numbers or get the good reviews, they get to move up – mostly by moving on. When they really hit the bigs, it seems they also write books. In DeLucie’s case, he writes as the chief chef (and part owner) of New York’s toughest table and most subtle restaurant, The Waverly Inn.
Sitting on the stoop of the next door brownstone, smoking with his daily pre-dinner espresso, DeLucie is at ease in the streets of his city sating the city’s hunger. He lives to cook and cooks to live. “We kicked ass tonight. I fed a lot of people. Happy people. The night was young. New York would sleep well. I would, too. Much later.” This memoir of life at The Waverly Inn reads like a novel and like all good non-fiction probably has a hefty helping of fiction to it.
DeLucie was 30 years old and riding the subway uptown to Grand Central every day to a job placement firm where he hustled mid-level administrative drones into their own dead-end jobs, when he bagged it all and decided anything was better than that. Growing up Italian on Long Island with marinara in his veins, he knew only that he liked to mess around in the kitchen and liked to eat. The cheapest cooking school he could find was a New School “Master Chefs Course” and DeLucie enrolled.
At the New School he gave his usual half-assed college try to his first assignment to dice carrots. His instructor gave him his first epiphany moment. “She took one look at my carrots, picked up the board, and dumped the whole lot in the garbage. I stared at her with a hopeful shrug. She told me to stop batting my brown lashes at her, do it right or get the hell out!”
Shamed by his lassitude, he indeed did do it right the second time and left the 12 week course with his instructor’s highest recommendation. Thus began his peripatetic journey through New York’s commercial kitchens.
The Hunger is the story of that journey. It is a funny story as DeLucie moves through the kitchens of lousy places and and really good places that don’t make it. He learns from everyone with whom he works and even learns Spanish slang to better direct his staff.
At one trendy spot in SoHo, he discovers the invaluable lesson that pizzazz doesn’t pay the bills. “The only problem was that its clientele, mostly models, were constantly on a diet – consisting mainly of champagne, martinis, and cocaine. The models came for the scene and they were trailed by swarthy English-as-a-second-language guys with snug, buttery leather motorcycle jackets and fitted white cotton shirts unbuttoned to their waists. Everyone was having a great time, but the lack of food sales from the French-Moroccan-infused menu was proving to be a deterrent to anything that resembled profitability.”
While there is plenty of cooking lore and even snippets of recipes in this book, The Hunger is really about DeLucie, an ordinary New York guy who struggles as much with his failing marriages, dubious parents, and paying the rent as he exalts in creating the famous Waverly Burger.
When he more or less stumbles into his partnership with Graydon Carter and the other investors in The Waverly Inn, we are just as excited for him as he is. His memoir isn’t organized so that this coup must wait for the final chapters. Instead, he leads with it, interspersing anecdotes from the Waverly among the remaining chapters that more chronologically follow the progression of his life.
For one reason or another, cooking jobs don’t provide much tenure in New York. DeLucie changes kitchens often. New York chefs all do, and they take their favorite help with them. Eighty hour weeks give way to months of joblessness. That’s the life.
“Not only was I weary of the unemployment scene, but I was fearful of losing my cooking chops. You hear from many chefs that you are only as good as your last meal, and my last meal at Ami was not exactly Per Se. It’s too bad you are not as good as your last drink. You can fall awfully fast in the restaurant business, wake up in no time flat and find yourself doing Sunday brunch at some food factory.”
Chefs have written many books over the years including cookbooks, memoirs, food journeys, kitchen tell-alls, even novels, but DeLucie’s The Hunger stands out. It is a great story of New York City over the last two decades. It has telling scenes of love, marriage, and cohabitation struggles. It makes the launch and workings of new restaurants as interesting as their closings and failures. Finally, it explores the process where one goes from dicing bushels of carrots into quarter-inch cubes to shredding truffles over lightly sauced macaroni and cheese to rave reviews in the New York Times. Would that more novels were as good as this memoir.