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Back of the House” is a rollicking story about what goes on in the kitchen of Tony Maw’s restaurant, Craigie on Main, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is an enjoyable and somewhat quick read, as well it should be. The characters in the book include the larger-than-life Tony Maws, cooks who seem to come from questionable parts of society as well as those that are as recognizable as one’s neighbors, and characters, like Tony’s father, who seem more like caricatures than real people. There are tattoos aplenty, a wealth of salty language, and good descriptions about behind the scene activities that take place in a cutting edge restaurant.
Scott Haas is a pretty good reporter. His ability to believably reproduce scenes that he has witnessed helps propel the story, and he is also capable of keeping each character distinct and individual. This is no easy task.
There are some downsides to the work. One is the fact that the stress of the book is that Scott is a clinical psychologist. We are never told how good a psychologist that he is, and those with high expectations of finding deep insights will probably feel a bit of disappointment with the insights presented. Sometimes there are Godlike pronouncements such as that on page 13 where Scott determines, seemingly on sight, the motivation of one of the cooks. Another good example involves Santos and the goat which Tony has brought in. Scott looks at Santos’s face. “It’s just a goat, ‘Said Santos,’ but I [says Scott] could see from his expression growing a little bit sadder, that he[Santos] was beginning to see it as the living creature that it had been.” Really? There is no follow-up to show that anything that Santos did was consistent with this interpretation; in fact, many incidents in the book suggest otherwise.
Others insights, such as the one at the end of the book (I won’t spoil it by telling the end here) sound amateurish. In fact, concerning Scott’s last “evaluation” of Tony, most readers could easily provide (based solely on the material presented in the book and having watched some episodes of Dr Phil) at least three more different and equally valid possible evaluations or reasons for why Tony acts as he does. Other pronouncements sound as if they could be believable if there were more information to support them.
The second issue involves when Scott steps in with comments on “how” Tony should be doing things in order to get results, overlooking the fact that Tony is already getting results, and very good results at that. It ends up sounding like a student who has taken a creative writing class telling D. K. Rowling how she should be going about writing a Harry Potter novels.
I think that the second issue comes from Scott’s never really understanding that Tony is working at a mastery level, well beyond the measure-and-make variety of cooking. Because of this, Scott finds himself using the wrong tool (his clinical psychology training) for the job, kind of like using a pliers to remove a rusty lag bolt. Just when Scott thinks that he has a grip, his pliers slip. This is because Haas is trying to understand what motivates Tony without understanding where Tony is now. Clinical psychology may tell us what motivated a person, but it can’t tell much, if anything, about mastery.
Because of the wrong focus, Scott never really understands what is going on in Tony’s world. If we follow Scott’s narrative, Tony has become a Master in the Zen sense. His relationship with food has shifted from intellectual to experiential. Like the sushi masters, he knows how a fish must be cut, not because of “the rules,” but because that cut will be the best to bring out every aspect of the fish. To understand Tony better, consider the relationship of the master cabinet maker in Japan to the apprentice. The Master will show the apprentice how to make a joint and then send the apprentice away to make that joint. The apprentice will return with his attempt, the master will look at it and tell him that he has not gotten it yet, and send him away. This may go on for a hundred times…until the apprentice understands “joint.” What the master is trying to do is to move the apprentice beyond the mechanics to something even deeper, something that applies to all joints, regardless of angle, wood, glues, or tools.
Like Tony’s staff, many apprentices are frustrated by this approach, as is Tony, because what Tony is doing is not “teachable” in the normal methodology; it must be “learned” by working through frustration and desire. Tony can show, but it is up to the cooks to internalize what that means. It is the difference between “Color By Number” and The Mona Lisa. Whether one teaches quietly or noisily, one can only teach so far. The student needs to go the rest of the distance.
Scott underscores that this “mastery” situation exists by things that he leaves unsaid. In the fish cutting incident, Scott does not say that Tony’s way of cutting really made no difference and his insistence on cutting fish his way was because of some kind of petulance. Obviously, it did make a difference. The same is true of attributing Tony’s success to offering people what they wanted (Nose to tail eating) as the reason for his success. If that were the case, then dozens of similar places should have sprung up following the same formula. Tony’s success came because he “knew,” on a level of a master how to do it right.
Many people become good in a restaurant. Some people, because of luck and/or marketing, become very good. Only a few become masters.
To enjoy this book more, I would suggest that a reader consider that there are really two stories going on here. One is the story of Tony as seen through the eyes of Scott. The other is the story of Scott’s being in over his head which leads to his inability to understand Tony and Scott’s flailing around because Scott’s training has been only a feeble aid. Because of that, Scott Haas keeps overlooking the obvious: Tony is at the top of his game. Lumpy grumpy or not, Tony is getting things done.
Surprisingly, I don’t think that any of this necessarily makes Back of the House a “bad” book. To me, the book became more interesting as I became aware of the parallel stories: Tony is frustrated because he is having troubles getting the results that he wants, and Scott Haas is frustrated because his training is not producing any real answers.
In a very human way, then, last pages are a dénouement without the book ever reaching a real climax. Ballistic Tony and his group have finally reached a stasis and Tony is happy. Tony doesn’t know why things have worked, and Scott doesn’t understand why his (Scott’s) things haven’t worked. Scott’s work is finished and he ends his tome with a weak-willed grumble about what he (Scott) really knows to be the truth.
Inevitably, “Back of the House” will be compared to “Kitchen Confidential.” The difference may well be that Bourdain always recognizes that he is part of the crazy world about which he is reporting, and is willing to admit, later in the book, that not all of the world that he has been reporting on is as crazy as the one to which he has belonged. (See his comments about Veritas, for example.) Scott Haas never sees where he and his methods fit (or do not fit) into the world about which he is reporting. It probably would have been a more satisfying ending if he has said “I have been a Clinical psychologist for years, and Tony Maws has left me with more questions than answers…” or something like that.
Back of the House is fun. It just shouldn’t be taken seriously.