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Out of the Frying Pan: A Chef’s Memoir of Hot Kitchens, Single Motherhood, and the Family Meal

Food memoirs, at their best, tell the story of a life (or a portion of a life) through the use of what was eaten, and how, and with whom. Judging from circumstances, Gillian Clark’s (she’s the chef and owner of Colorado Kitchen in D.C.) story should be chock-full of goodness. Just after finishing culinary school, she and her alcoholic husband divorce, leaving Clark to raise two preteen girls essentially on her own. 

Restaurant work is notoriously difficult on women, especially women with families, and Clark has to deal with not being there after school, on weekends or on holidays. Consequently, her two daughters start to suffer, both emotionally and in school. Her culinary career doesn’t go well, either; she’s fired from four separate restaurants until buying Colorado Kitchen. The story of how she (barely) holds it all together does have its compelling moments.

Clark is upfront about her guilt—is she neglecting her kids? Her work? Should she pack it in for a 9-to-5 gig?—and that’s refreshing in a mommy memoir. However, some parts of the narrative are irritating. The four firings mentioned above? There’s never a hint that even one of them might have been Clark’s fault; her job losses are too often blamed on bad help, bad management or other external circumstances (the fact that at least two of the restaurants she mentions, Breadline and Evening Star Café, are both still alive and more than kicking, suggests that it wasn’t just her touch making them successful.) Maybe none of the firings were her fault; nevertheless, the episodes too often come off as her refusing to even admit to the possibility that some of the blame lies with her, and that makes her seem unreliable as a narrator. 

Her mom-focused stories are much more believable and enjoyable. Her girls face the problems that so many preteen girls do and Clark addresses problems in discipline by putting the girls to work in various kitchens, where they learn to work as part of a team and to follow directions. 

The other major quibble with the book is that the recipes—one of my favorite part of any food memoir—feel jammed in and artificial. The best meal-focused autobiographies, like Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte and any of Ruth Reichel’s tomes, make the food a focal point, so reading their stories is like being invited into their kitchens. Clark’s recipes, while appetizing, are often mentioned so briefly in the text that, when you reach them at the end of the chapters, you can’t figure out why on Earth you’d like to make them.

A lack of focus hampers the book—she wants to tell two disparate stories; one of a mom and one of a chef. And the stories never bind together in any effective or literary way. Reading about the local restaurant scene (and what goes on behind it) is fun and any mom with a nontraditional job will surely empathize with Clark. But, in the end, this dish doesn’t quite please the palette. 

The book is available for $18.68 at Amazon.com.

 

 

 

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