By Samantha Samel
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
At age 27, Brooklyn-based chef Michael Gibney took a break from the kitchen — where he’d been working alongside some of the most acclaimed chefs in the country since age 16 — to channel his creative energy into writing. He received an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University, and what began as his thesis turned into his debut book, “Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line” (Ballantine Books), which he will launch in Brooklyn at DUMBO’s powerHouse Arena on April 1.
Gibney’s book offers readers an intimate and honest glimpse into the restaurant industry, painting both the enthralling and unglamorous aspects of working in a kitchen. And while we know he’s crafty with a knife, Gibney now reveals his deft way with words. His account, told in second person, allows the reader to be a voyeur into some of the most exhilarating and grueling behind-the-scenes happenings (and mishaps) in the restaurant world. Between accounts of burning accidents, disastrous consequences of missing key ingredients, and the office as “a place of refuge” amidst the heat and intensity of the kitchen, Gibney reveals the routines of each player, from the Chef to the dishwasher.
Brooklyn Eagle checked in with Gibney, who shared with us some of his favorite Brooklyn restaurants and revealed what he’s working on now.
After spending years in the kitchen, why did you turn to writing?
I've always been interested in a wide range of artistic disciplines. Painting, writing, theater, music… they've charmed me since I was a boy. A life without any of them would be dull and depressing. Fortunately for me, cooking partakes of all of them in one way or another: the composition of a plate, the story a meal tells, the choreography of service, the rhythm of business—they're all there in a kitchen. So it was an apt profession for me to choose as a kid and it satisfies me every day that I do it. But I reached a point in my career where I realized I had some stories to tell and I decided that now was the time to tell them.
Were you taking notes for the book while in the kitchen or did most of the anecdotes come from memory?
While I do jot down ideas from time to time, most of what I've written comes from memory. Cooking and writing, though they share several common characteristics, are ultimately quite different activities, and each of them, at least in my case, requires complete attention. When I cook, I'm focused entirely on what is happening in the pan or on the cutting board; when I write, I am glued to the computer all day. It's difficult to do anything else at the same time.
How does the New York restaurant industry compare with the industry in other areas of the country?
Having not worked in other areas of the country, I'm in no position to comment on how they stack up, but New York does have a reputation for being as intense as it gets. I think that's because of the pressure unique to the city. Rent is high, competition is thick on the ground, and the vast dining community is uncommonly well-informed and unpredictably capricious. You have to be on your A game in this town, or you'll be shuttered in a matter of months. That doesn't mean there isn't plenty of talent elsewhere, just that it is difficult to succeed here.
Which Brooklyn restaurants have you worked at?
I've worked at Maggie Brown [in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill], Olea [in Fort Greene] and Governor [in DUMBO] in Brooklyn. I also did a very brief stint at The General Greene [in Fort Greene], and consulted for a time at Henry Street Ale House in Brooklyn Heights.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in Brooklyn?
The food scene in Brooklyn has really blossomed in recent years, which is fantastic. Back in the day, the gems were all hidden in far-flung neighborhoods. Now there are great restaurants everywhere. Excellent examples include Franny's, Roberta's, Blanca, Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fair, Battersby, Pok Pok, Chuko… The list goes on. Not to mention the staples, like the best pizza, bagels and deli sandwiches in all the five boroughs.
Where in Brooklyn do you live/when did you move there?
I'm currently on the northern end of Park Slope, where I've been for about three years. The neighborhood has really grown on me and I can't picture leaving any time soon. Before moving here, I lived in Brooklyn Heights, Prospect Heights, Bushwick, Williamsburg, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill. I've been making my way around this neck of the woods for a while.
Are you working on any more writing projects or are you more food-focused these days?
Right now I'm focused on opening a big restaurant in midtown, which is deep in the construction phase. We hope to cut the ribbon mid-summer, but these things are difficult to forecast. Meantime, I've been keeping my skills fresh a few nights a week at a nice restaurant in the West Village run by some friends of mine. So I guess you could say I'm food-focused. But not a day goes by that I don't think about material for the next book. There is still so much that remains to be said about professional cooking.
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The April 1 event will begin at 7 p.m. The powerHouse Arena is located at 37 Main St. in DUMBO.