How Restaurant Toil Made Me a Better Home Cook

5 Questions for Lauren Shockey, Author of Four Kitchens

Lauren Shockey recently finished the culinary equivalent of an Iron Man triathlon: She cooked her way around the world, beginning in New York City and progressing through three more restaurant kitchens in Paris, Hanoi, and Tel Aviv. And then she wrote a book about her adventure. What did this culinary marathon of restaurant toil (and writing!) teach her about home cooking? That's the subject of our interview with her today.

Read on for Lauren's favorite things to eat from the cities where she worked, the most useful things she learned about home cooking from restaurants, and the one restaurant task she hopes she never does ever again.

Lauren Shockey is a friend and a delightful dining companion — and dining is something she knows a lot about, having worked in all those kitchens. Beyond that, moreover, she is now the dining critic for The Village Voice in New York City. Her book came out of this love of cooking, and of writing about food.

The book takes you deep into the restaurant world — literally behind the burner. Lauren gives you a peek into four very different kitchens, with perspective on the challenges of being a woman in the male-dominated space of professional kitchens. (She also has a short period in Paule Caillat's kitchen, which we toured here.) Lauren does all this with great good humor and wit, and you can vividly see the places she lived in; it's a whirlwind trip through Paris, Tel Aviv, Vietnam, and New York City.

Her book is a great read; I highly recommend it.

Read Lauren's book: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris, $16.49 at Amazon

Find Lauren online:
Lauren (ldshockey) on Twitter
Lauren Shockey, Lauren's website

But of course, this being The Kitchn, we're most interested in home cooking and how the process of cooking in these four restaurants brought Lauren squarely back to her home kitchen. How did that happen, and what did she learn? For the full answer to that, you'll have to read the book, but here are a few of her thoughts on what she learned about home cooking from laboring in restaurant kitchens.

5 Questions for Lauren Shockey

1. As you show us Four Kitchens, working in restaurants is exhausting. What did you eat to keep your energy up during those long hours? Could you find time to cook at home at all?
One great thing about working in restaurants is that you get free meals for lunch/dinner known as "family meals." And unlike the complicated food we were putting out in the restaurants, this was the type of fast, easy cooking that anyone can do and that everyone loves. At wd~50 we ate dishes like fish and chips, lamb meatballs with tzatziki, chicken curry, and beef stew with buttered noodles, while at Carmella Bistro, we had schnitzel with mashed potatoes or fresh falafel with chopped salad. I always made sure to eat a really big family meal to have enough energy for the next five hours of service.

And, of course, when you're working in a restaurant, it's important to constantly taste your food to make sure it's seasoned correctly, so I'd supplement my meals with bites of random components of dishes throughout the evening.

Because I worked the dinner shift in New York, Hanoi, and Tel Aviv, I rarely had time to cook since I got home past midnight. But I worked mornings and afternoons in Paris, so I was then able to make dinner for myself there — though I often found myself preparing simple foods, very unlike what I was making in the restaurant. Paris has such great markets, so I shopped for all kinds of fragrant herbs and wild mushrooms and farm-fresh eggs, which I'd turn into earthy omelets. I often visited the cheese shops and bought Roquefort and tossed it with sliced endives coupled with a baguette. Yes, often times the whole baguette!

2. You worked in restaurants in New York, Paris, Vietnam, and Tel Aviv. Tell us about a favorite dish you discovered in each place.
One of wd~50's famous dishes is the "eggs Benedict," which takes the traditional components of the dish and reinterprets them into a cylinder of sous vide egg yolks, paper thin slices of deep fried bacon, and cubes of deep fried hollandaise. The hollandaise cubes are breaded in English muffin crumbs and are deep fried. Although they look like solid squares, when you break into them, warm hollandaise sauce oozes out over the plate. It's different, for sure, but super inventive and unlike anything I'd ever seen before.

In Vietnam, my favorite thing to eat was bun cha, which is a dish of rice noodles with charcoal-grilled pork patties and fried spring rolls. It's served with a big plate of assorted herbs and lettuce, and you mix everything together to delicious results.

In Tel Aviv, a dish that I fell for was sabich, which takes cold fried eggplant and stuffs it inside a pita along with hard boiled eggs, chopped veggies, tahini, and amba, which is a mango pickle. It tastes of the Mediterranean.

The food that most reminds me of Paris is the canelé, a small pastry that's soft and custardy on the inside but with a crunchy exterior. It's flavored with rum and vanilla and makes for great snacking or even as a breakfast treat. I'll make them for special occasions now, but they are a bit of a production, since you need to let the batter rest overnight.

3. As a home cook, what are the most useful things you learned from working in restaurants?
In Tel Aviv, I learned a trick for getting the seeds out of a pomegranate easily. Simply slice the fruit in half lengthwise, then make several slits around the cut-side. Place the pomegranate half in your palm, seed side-down, all over a large bowl. Then whack the fruit as hard as possible with a large spoon. The seeds will fall right out into the bowl, and you've got a seeded pomegranate in under five minutes. How cool is that!

I also learned a tip at wd~50 that's really helpful when making cakes or things that drip easily. To avoid making a mess all over the counter, simply line your work surface with plastic wrap. When you're done, just pull up the plastic wrap and you've got a pristine countertop.

And finally, I'd say a general tip is don't buy a knife set! You can do almost anything in a kitchen with one good chef's knife and one simple paring knife, and you'll save money, too. And sharpen them at least twice a month! Prep work is a lot easier when you have super sharp knives.

4. Were there any skills or restaurant practices you hope to never use again?
In Paris, one of my main jobs every day was shelling stone crabs. It was a laborious process: first washing the steamed crabs, then hacking at the shell, flicking out the meat, and finally sifting through it under a black light to find any hidden pieces of shell since it illuminates them but not the meat (a nifty kitchen trick!). I had to do about 20 huge crabs a day, which took about three to four hours, just shelling crab, often cutting my hands in the process. So I'm not really missing having to do that anymore!

5. Do you have any advice for a home cook thinking about taking the plunge into the restaurant world — as a chef or business owner?
I wanted to pursue a restaurant job because I loved cooking. Yet the greatest lesson that I learned from my year of cooking was that restaurant cooking and home cooking are two totally different worlds. When you work in a restaurant, repetition plays a significant role in what you're doing, since guests come to restaurants with specific expectations of dishes. Home cooking, meanwhile, allows for improvisation and whimsy.

What's more, when you're a professional cook, you rarely get to see people enjoying your food — it's all about getting plates out as fast as possible to customers. I love sharing meals with others and participating in the meal as a group. Restaurant cooking can be thrilling for sure, but for me, it was never as personal of an endeavor as home cooking.

My other piece of advice is if you're thinking about going into the restaurant world or want to attend culinary school, try and apprentice for a month at a restaurant similar to the type of one you'd want to open. See if you actually enjoy working in restaurants and can handle the lifestyle. Most restaurants are happy to take on free labor and you'll come away with a better understanding of the expectations of the business.

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Thanks so much for visiting, Lauren!

Read Lauren's book: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris, $16.49 at Amazon

Related: Chez Panisse Chef David Tanis Talks Dinner Parties

(Images: Alainna Lynch; Hachette Book Group)

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