Mincemeat: The Education of an Italian Chef
Culinary figures are now rock stars. They own and promote restaurants, books and cooking devices with great passion and financial success. While Italian chef Leonardo Lucarelli may not be one of the well-known celebrity chefs of the world, his memoir is an enticing and enjoyable behind-the-scenes examination of the life of kitchen masterminds.
Lucarelli is not well-known outside of Italy. To my knowledge, he has never had a cooking show on American television or on Food Network. Until I turned to the dust jacket and viewed his photo, I had never seen him before. In 2013, the Italian magazine Il Reportage published Lucarelli’s article that lifted the curtain on the life of a world-class chef, exposing moonlighting, exploitation of workers and a general lack of concern about legal niceties in the industry. Italians apparently take the details of their restaurant operations seriously, and the article became popular on many websites. It also served as the inspiration for MINCEMEAT, which is part biography, part exposé and part cooking saga.
"I assume Lucarelli writes as he cooks, with heart and soul and attention to gritty detail. MINCEMEAT is intelligent, entertaining and a true glimpse of the craziness that goes on in kitchens around the world."
Lucarelli has the self-awareness and confidence necessary to be a chef. He notes that these days chefs are hip: “Those big glass widows and open kitchens are there to give naïve and gullible diners the impression they are seeing what actually goes on inside.” But there is quite a bit more that goes on behind the scenes. In an exuberant and boisterous style, Lucarelli takes us behind those doors. He writes in bursts of enthusiasm moving from story to story and interspersing personal tales with those of his profession. It is almost as though David Foster Wallace donned a chef’s hat and apron.
Becoming a chef was not Lucarelli’s career ambition. He was born in India while his parents were visiting there. He grew up in Umbria, moving to Rome to study anthropology in college. He began working in kitchens to support himself in school, and repeatedly embellished his work record to obtain jobs in the kitchen. He often boasted of work experience that he never accomplished and moved to better positions in the kitchen hierarchy. After completion of his education in 2006, Lucarelli managed his first restaurant. His accurate resume is now impressive, with 15 different positions in 15 Italian establishments from Tuscany to Trentino, two of which were Michelin-starred restaurants. Currently Lucarelli lives in Abruzzo, consulting for many restaurants in Rome and writing for travel magazines.
Reading MINCEMEAT may give you second thoughts about sitting down to a meal in a restaurant. Between undocumented and inexperienced employees, illicit romantic encounters, drugs, criminal activity and a few other questionable activities, there is wonderment that the food even comes out of the kitchen and that it is fit for consumption. But it does, and perhaps the best analogy is a food analogy often heard in politics: “You simply do not want to see the sausage being made, you just want to enjoy it.” This memoir is comical yet also heartbreaking with the occasional poignant story. Lucarelli captures the rush of the high pressure that accompanies work in the kitchen. Somehow the food gets plated and presented, and the customers are satisfied.
I assume Lucarelli writes as he cooks, with heart and soul and attention to gritty detail. MINCEMEAT is intelligent, entertaining and a true glimpse of the craziness that goes on in kitchens around the world.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on December 16, 2016