The Book of the Week is “Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster” by Jon Krakauer, published in 1999. This book tells the story of a group of people (naive tourists) in 1996 who had a burning desire to climb the world’s tallest mountain, yet were ill-prepared to do so. The guides they hired charged tens of thousands of dollars, but the guides were themselves inexperienced in dealing with the trip’s harsh conditions. Among other serious problems, there was a lack of: a) life-sustaining equipment due to poor planning, b) physical fitness and c) adaptation to the altitude among the participants. One thing led to another… Read the book to learn of the tragedy that ensued.
The Book of the Week is “Ben & Jerry’s: The Inside Scoop, How Two Real Guys Built A Business With A Social Conscience and A Sense of Humor” by Fred Lager published in 1995.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, a couple of childhood friends who had drifted apart, resumed their friendship in their late twenties. Their work lives were aimless at the time, so they decided to go into business together. They settled on selling ice cream, based on Ben’s life philosophy, “If it’s not fun, why do it?”
Ben and Jerry worked around the clock in the couple of years it took to create a business plan and convert a gas station in Burlington, Vermont to an ice cream store. The 1978 Grand Opening saw the giveaway of free ice cream cones to the public. This book– the owners’ first– describes the trials, tribulations and triumphs they experienced in getting the business up and running, and growing.
The Book of the Week is “Don’t Try This At Home” edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Andrew Friedman, published in 2005. This is a compilation of anecdotes from chefs who encountered some difficult situations during their careers. Some told of “making lemons from lemonade” and others gave a general overview of their experiences.
Four chefs whose stories were particularly intriguing, include Daniel Boulud, David Burke, Marcus Samuelsson and Geoffrey Zakarian.
Boulud recounted an episode in which, as culinary chairman of a fundraising event, he and his staff and extra hired help were required to make 1,200 servings of pea soup. The “400 pounds of a variety of five peas” were to be stored in “25-gallon stainless steel containers set in ice water.” Certain people failed to stir the soup hourly overnight, as they should have done, so it fermented. The next morning, “All twelve hundred servings’ worth, was sour, useless garbage.” The guests would be arriving that evening and were expecting high-end pea soup.
Burke is another chef who also saw a serious problem for which he had to come up with a solution quickly. He was supposed to cater a man’s fiftieth birthday party at which there would be a surprise dessert, envisioned by the wife. She wanted a greatly enlarged, custom-made French dessert (“floating islands”) that would serve 200 guests. However, all of the meringues to be used in the dish collapsed, producing a very unprofessional look. It could not be presented at the end of the meal. What to do?
It was a language barrier that caused the Swedish-speaking Samuelsson excessive grief while he was working at a restaurant in Switzerland. This was on New Years’ Eve, no less– one of the biggest nights of the year for business. He was asked to make terrine, which required proper setting of gelatine. He had never used powdered gelatine before, could not understand the German, French and Italian instructions on the package, and did not ask anyone for help. The resulting concoction smelled bad, and resembled bathtub mold. Was it too late to salvage the situation? Samuelsson’s anecdote was the only one in the whole book that exhibited admission of error and true introspection. Kudos to him.
Zakarian tells of how he became a foodie. When he fell in love with France on a college assignment, he scrapped his academic plans to enjoy the fine food there instead. Even so, as a starving student, he led a frugal existence, until two strokes of great good luck allowed him to partake of more luxury than otherwise.
The Book of the Week is “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, published in 2000. This is the eloquent account of the author’s personal experiences as a worker in the restaurant business. He provides anecdotes on the people, their personalities, problems and the kinds of behind-the-scenes activities and events that restaurant patrons do not see.
Bourdain describes one of his first kitchen jobs he held when he was a brash youth, and how his older coworkers put him in his place. Other forms of entertainment that culinary workers enjoy include the initiation rite of sending the new kitchen help on a fool’s errand, and playing practical jokes on the restaurant manager. Bourdain tells of his employment woes and others’. He also reveals culinary dangers (dirty little secrets) about which diners may not want to know. This book is educational for anyone wishing to enter the restaurant business as well.
The Book of the Week is “The Vineyard” by Louisa Thomas Hargrave, published in 2003. It is a memoir about the first wine-grape farmers on Long Island in New York State.
In the early 1970’s, Louisa and her then-husband, Alex, wanted to grow grapes to make wine to sell. “I [Louisa] decided that having a vineyard wouldn’t take much time, so I enrolled in chemistry and calculus courses at the University of Rochester while we scouted for vineyard property.” They thought they would be able to spend more time with the children they planned to have, if they worked in the same place where they resided. Running a winery seemed to fit the bill. The endeavor turned out to be more difficult than they imagined. The Hargraves had never managed a vineyard before, let alone any business, but prior to plunging in, they “did their homework” the best they could, were passionate about wine and were willing to work hard.
They purchased a plot in Cutchogue on the North Fork of Long Island. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were the first grape varieties they planted. Fortunately for them, the soil was compatible with these high-quality varieties. They released their first wine in July 1977, from fruit picked in 1975, aged in barrels.
Louisa provides a detailed account of the numerous risks grape farmers and wine makers face; the birds, bugs and weather, to name a few. She also recounts problems her family encountered, including educating their daughter and son and dealing with legal tangles concerning their business. One particularly stressful episode involved fighting an extortion attempt by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Despite all the hardships, the Hagraves nurtured a successful vineyard because they possessed and/or acquired the passion, courage, focus, skills, talents and luck in sufficient amounts.
The Book of the Week is “The Merry Baker of Riga” by Boris Zemtzov, published in 2004. This book described the difficulties of operating a bakery in Riga, Latvia in the 1990’s (just after the fall of Communism).
Latvia used to be a Soviet territory. The half-American author was a businessman and part-owner of said bakery. Latvian culture was largely to blame for the poor profitability of the capitalist venture, which lasted only a few years. Language and sanitation were among the myriad problems Zemtzov encountered.
Whenever an employee had a birthday or there was an excuse for a celebratory social gathering (which was often), the consumption of alcohol ensured that nothing got done the whole afternoon. Alcohol consumption also played a part in a bad experience Zemtzov had with a contractor who was supposed to complete a renovation job in his home.
Nevertheless, Zemtzov described an aspect of Latvian culture that this American blogger found to be quite funny: on one’s birthday, one is woken up at the crack of dawn by his or her loved ones, is wished a happy birthday, and has a birthday gift shoved in his or her face.
In sum, this was an entertaining tale.
The Book of the Week is “Walking on Walnuts” by Nancy Ring, published in 1997. This book is the career memoir of a pastry chef in New York City. Ms. Ring discusses the uncertainty surrounding the fiercely competitive restaurant business in New York, and thus the attendant job insecurity of a pastry chef. She discusses the details of the job– long hours, difficult bosses, hard work, and a hilarious episode in which The Fig Tree restaurant personnel were tipped off that a very influential restaurant reviewer, one Bette Brown, was to visit one night.
A woman fitting the reviewer’s description entered the eatery with her entourage. She proceeded to complain about a draft at her table, then when moved, about being too close to the waiter’s station. The bread basket caught fire from a candle on the table… You can see where this is going– a long series of further mishaps, complaint-fodder for the fussy diner, “… who sarcastically asked Liz [the waitress] if she had graduated from high school.” Ms. Ring, who was also a waitress there at the time, witnessed Liz’s feisty temper flare as she finally told off the customer.
The supposed Ms. Brown confronted Carl, the restaurant owner, who, at the bar, was “… busy crying into his fourth double bourbon.” With the ‘don’t-you-know-who-I-am’ speech, she told off Carl, telling him her name. It was not Bette Brown. Carl was extremely relieved. A good dining experience was had by the actual Bette Brown, who had been there earlier that evening.
This book contains not only entertaining anecdotes, but recipes, too.