Book review: ‘Spiced’ by Dalia Jurgensen

The subtitle of Spiced describes it as “A pastry chef’s true stories of trials by fire, after-hours exploits, and what really goes on in the kitchen”. To be honest, I think it makes it sound juicier than it actually is, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it.

I actually set out expecting to hate this book. Oh here’s another dilettante checking out of her cushy job to tackle a “life of cooking”. I find the whole belly-of-the-beast restaurant-kitchen and/or food memoir genre to be entirely too crowded, especially because I’ve read a few of the big ones, such as Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Buford’s Heat. Yes, we know you work long hours to succeed in the restaurant kitchen. It’s hard. You get burned. It’s staffed with a bunch of macho jerks. So what can this memoir possibly add?

Two things: diversity of experience, and a woman’s perspective. It turns out Jurgensen is not just a dilettante, but someone who made a major career change to professional cooking long ago. So unlike Heat (which I loved, by the way, don’t get me wrong), it is not a manufactured experience to write about. This gives the story an air of authenticity I did not expect, but which I found refreshing. Her diversity of experience goes from Nobu to Layla to Veritas, with stops along the way with catering companies and even Martha Stewart’s test kitchen. This keeps the story interesting with different descriptions of approaches and kitchen cultures.

This leads to the other aspect I found interesting: the woman’s perspective. We learned from Bourdain that a restaurant kitchen is a variation of a fraternity house, but maybe worse. Reading Bourdain is reading it from the perspective of head frat boy himself. The difference with Jurgensen is that you are hearing it from someone who is the target of the sexism in the kitchen. She doesn’t find it acceptable, but knows she can’t change it. Instead, she quietly tolerates it and, career-wise, seems to seek out kitchens that have less of that element, and also proves that you can still thrive even in a hostile environment.

Some details I could have done without: we know there’s tension between the cooks and the waitstaff, okay already. I also found her romances and sexual exploits to be the least interesting parts of the book as well as gratuitous.
All in all, Spiced is a nice little read. It’s compelling and well-written. It feels genuine, rather than the manufactured experience which is so prevalent in this genre these days.

Dalia Jurgensen has a blog at Spiced