They say you can’t judge a book by it’s cover–which is why, perhaps, the presence of money on one side of the scale and a burger on the other, in front of the author, didn’t really register when I first picked up When I Met Food: Living the American Restaurant Dream by Kathy Sidell. And without knowing much about Ms. Sidell beforehand, a title like How I MET Food made me think this would be your average food memoir. And I just eat up (if you’ll pardon the phrase), a good food memoir.
So imagine my consternation as the early chapters flew through her early years with more mention of her family’s status in Boston society than food experiences. They were there, of course, but they weren’t expounded upon like you might expect. Or at least how I expected. From this life of privilege Sidell went not into food, first, but into film, producing commercials and movies, all while starting a family. As a reader I wanted to know more about these milestones in her pre-restaurant life but she flew through them with far more tell than show than tell–something even beginning writers are cautioned against and surprising from an English major.
It wasn’t until midway through the book or just passed that the title and the thrust of the book finally gelled for me: Sidell has made her mark on the Boston food scene with her series of restaurants all starting from the Metropolitan Club–shortened to MET–and it’s various expansions. When you realize that the book isn’t so much about food as about running restaurants from a business-centric point of view, things start to make much more sense.
Though if I hear the term “concept” any more I might just scream.
You see, as a former chef, it’s tough to look at the business side of restaurants without food being the primary focus. Even with my current experience being in business, and fully understanding a profit & loss statement, food is the reason for the restaurant–not the means to achieve the “concept” Sidell goes on about For instance, I sympathize much more with her staff than her when she talks about the “Aboslutely!” style of handling any and all requests–oh the fresh hell that much be every night!
That said, the writing and storytelling improve greatly once the author dispenses with the sweep of her background and can concentrate on the ideas, marketing, and a business decisions that went into each of her five establishments. And because this is truly the part that Sidell enjoys the pace slows and we get to experience more of the ups and downs of the restaurant business. Though few first-time owners are able to finance their tony first location without investors or, when the bank calls in the loan on the expansion, have the ability to pay off the note due to a recent inheritance.
It’s also interesting to note the slight disconnect when the author mentions the constant struggle with her weight and the guilt many women face with food, then pages later glorifies in the “generous” portion sizes at her flagship steakhouse. Restaurant portions are regularly double a healthy portion size, the idea of generous makes me think that even with her chopped salads and tartare duo, she’s not doing her patrons any favors in the waistline department.
If you’re more interested in food than front-of-the-house business, you’ll be happy to know that recipes from the authors restaurants and family pepper the prose. It’s best to read this book on a full stomach or you’ll be raiding the fridge before too long.
Bottom line: When I MET Food may struggle with it’s own concept in the beginning, but irons out the kinks and hits its stride leading us through the ins and outs of upper-tier American restaurants in a way many of us may never have the opportunity to experience. It’s a peek into a life the average restauranteur only dreams of, but paints a pretty picture of what many might aspire to.
It’s good to have dreams, even better to have the ability to achieve them.
I received a copy of How I MET Food for purpose of review. All opinions are strictly my own.
Nibbles ‘n Bites, along with all of the sites in the Helper Monkey Network, will be taking a break for the month of January to take care of some behind the scenes work. Happy New Year and Best Dishes to you all!