Leonardo Lucarelli has always liked to cook. His father was an exceptional cook, but passed away young. His mother tried, but could never make anything that transcended the merely edible. As a teen, Leo spent free afternoons at home cooking for himself and friends; he realized he was good, but never considered it more than a useful skill. When he received a scholarship to study in Rome, he jumped at the opportunity to leave his home in the country; when that scholarship covered little more than his books, he walked into a restaurant kitchen and asked for a job. So began “the education of an Italian chef,” the subtitle of Lucarelli’s illuminating autobiography, Mincemeat.
I think what appealed to me so much about this book was that Lucarelli held no pretenses; he never thought he was all that great, even when telling stories that came out of his egotism and hyper-confidence. Everyone reveres chefs these days. They are celebrities on par with actors, diplomats, and musicians, with their own shows, magazines, and restaurants. Even as I was reading this book, I was watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, which places the spotlight on world-renowned chefs, who have become famous for being daring, culinary geniuses who push the envelope and redefine food and the eating experience, etc. etc. Lucarelli would laugh at this show, because it’s exactly the phenomenon of chef worship that he describes in the book, and experiences rarely. Over the course of the story, Leo works in about a dozen kitchens, to varying degrees of success. He counts only one as a real failure, but many of them are grueling, humiliating, dangerous, and poorly run. He ascribes to none of the glamour that non-chefs place on the profession. It’s true that we idolize those who are able to make exceptional food; we prefer to delegate the task than invest our time and money in learning to feed ourselves. Cooking well is a currency in this world. In the culinary realm, it takes a bit more to win others over.
Lucarelli’s account of his career spans from his earliest attempts in Rome, to his current position at a cooperative in L’Aquila. You watch him learn and grow on the page and are treated to an unfiltered, unrestricted view of the kitchens he was employed by—in addition to more personal stories about friends, girlfriends, travel, drug use, and school (which still remained a priority long enough for him to get a degree in anthropology). Many people have been comparing it to Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential, and I do think there are similarities. Bourdain’s trademark is his acerbic, untamed wit; Lucarelli approaches from the side with gentler, more subtle humor. His anecdotes are often funny, in quick, surprising ways, and I found myself laughing at a single line of dialogue multiple times. In general, the whole book was well-constructed and well-written (or rather, translated). As always, not everything translates perfectly, and there were some clunky or cliché phrases, but not enough to count against the whole text. Because the narrative covers more than twenty years of Lucarelli’s life, there are times that it jumps out of chronology to draw in a relevant event, which is acceptable, but was occasionally jarring. I noticed it quite often, but it was never enough to fully take me out of the story. Mainly fast-paced, with periods of somber reflection, the book balanced the profound with the entertaining in a surprising way.
Lucarelli’s is not a unique experience/life, but he has taken the time to place it in his own unique context, and I appreciated this introduction to the rigors of the restaurant industry. I am not a good cook, and have never maintained any illusions to that effect, so in a classic act of voyeurism I went to this book for answers. If you are curious like me, you will not be let down.
Kate Schefer has a BA in Creative Writing from Elon University, and currently lives in Minneapolis with her boyfriend. She is on a never-ending hunt for the best cup of coffee, and the best park bench upon which to sit and read a book, and drink said coffee. If you approach her, she will make you wait for a response until the end of the chapter, because she never uses bookmarks.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Penguin Random House. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.