Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out
By Steven Shaw, Harper Collins, 249 pp., $24.95
Fat Guy says
Whoa, you might say. Easy there, Big Fella. But Fat Guy makes his case. Fat Guy is the nom de internet of Steven A. Shaw, the handle millions know him by on his website eGullet.com. He's a new breed of food writer, a lawyer gone straight. First it was Jeffrey Steingarten writing for Vogue, then Shaw writing for Elle. Could this be a trend? F. Lee Bailey writing for Harper's Bazaar? Well, Cosmo maybe.
As a chef, Anthony Bourdain gave us an insider's look at the restaurant business in ''Kitchen Confidential." As a civilian, Shaw examines restaurants, as the subtitle says, from inside out, a reporter sometimes imbedded in the bouillabaisse.
George Plympton-like, he dons whites at New York's Gramercy Tavern, where brunoise becomes the bane of his existence. ''You call that a brunoise?" a sous chef sneers at him, sweeping away a half-hour's worth of diced celery into the garbage before deftly showing him how to do it. If walking the cliched mile in someone else's shoes alters your perspective, standing a shift in chef's clogs does the same. Shaw actually tries various kinds of footwear, none with much satisfaction; his feet keep killing him. But he soldiers on, bringing us to the produce market, to the late-lamented Fulton Fish Market, to a New Jersey artisan cheese maker, to a Louisiana clam farmer . . .
While Fat Boy is lighthearted on eGullet, Shaw is more businesslike here (there's even a bibliography), which is not to say the book doesn't have its lighter moments. As a New York City boy, Shaw is amazed to find that 8 a.m. is late by dairy farm standards. But he's here to inform, as when he points out that every restaurant is really two places -- ''the one the public eats at, and the one where the regulars dine." The words ''eats at" and ''dine" are well chosen, and one of Shaw's several tips on how to get the most out of a restaurant is to become a regular. ''Veteran diners take the long view," he notes.
Coming into the food criticism world via an unusual route (in his lawyering years he discovered lunch was often the highlight of the day), Shaw is unfettered by convention. He's not afraid to point out that certain emperors, including Zagat, have no clothes.
While most restaurant critics try to remain incognito (longtime Globe restaurant critic Tony Spinazzola winced when his photo somehow crept into an obscure publication called The Beverage Journal), Shaw thinks it's foolish and futile. In his imbedded period he sees how little the kitchen can actually do for a VIP table. After all, the sauces are already made, the food already prepped; an extra portion or added dish is about all the chef can extend. Is this really going to sway a critic?
Shaw even takes on the tipping system and makes a good argument that there's a better way, noting that the current system does not necessarily reward the best server or guarantee the best service.
''Turning the Tables" is a well-rounded work by a well-rounded guy.