Denver-based alternative-weekly food writer Jason Sheehan earned a James Beard award for his essay “There’s No Such Thing As Too Much Barbecue,” written for National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” series. During his teenage years in Rochester, New York, Sheehan boosted his parents’ station wagon late at night and drove to the city for barbecue at Hercules Chicken And Ribs. And it wasn’t even good barbecue, he writes in his memoir Cooking Dirty: A Story Of Life, Sex, Love, And Death In The Kitchen: “I know now that it was terrible barbecue, smoked in an old oil drum set out in the parking lot…” But no matter: That story, along with the ones about the pizza place where he first worked in the kitchen, the Chinese restaurant where he first tended bar, and the grocery-store sushi he secretly bought for lunch as a kid, reveal how a young man from the suburbs fell in love with food.
Yet Sheehan tells those stories with an apologetic air. He isn’t a chef or gourmet, he’s never studied in Europe, and the one restaurant at which he seems to dine most often, if name-checks in the book are any indication, is the Village Inn pancake chain. The goods he has to sell in this memoir aren’t his fine-dining bona fides, or even his Diners, Drive-ins, Dives-style raves about hubcap burgers and hot wings. They are epics of the line, of kitchens and the men who staff their stations; of 914 covers a night at a crab shack; frying eggs at the all-night diner mobbed by country line-dancers at midnight; of knife fights, blackouts, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. Sheehan cooks his way from New York to Florida to New Mexico and through two major relationships, winding up in Denver with his quirky college crush, a newborn daughter, and his first job in journalism.
All of which would be both entertaining and original if Anthony Bourdain hadn’t already done it so well in Kitchen Confidential. Sheehan protests several times that his book is the antidote for the artificial, antiseptic world of celebrity chefs and the Food Network, but because he has to out-Bourdain his unacknowledged predecessor, the excesses he chronicles often stink of playground boasting and general bullshit. Still, when he isn’t hacking through a jungle of macho hyperbole, Sheehan produces some wonderful passages, like a whole chapter on teaching a new guy to make toast while calling out breakfast orders in the heady patois of the working kitchen. What Cooking Dirty reveals isn’t the shocking, salacious truth about restaurant culture—that’s old news—but that its author is an essayist at heart, and that giving him a book to fill was a mistake. The sooner somebody gives Sheehan a TV show where he can limit his descriptions of food-service chaos to half-hour chunks of bleep-laced narration, the better.