Meet the Weekly's New Food Critic

Jason Sheehan writes—as he once cooked—out of necessity, with murder in his heart.

This was The Life. The part they can't teach in culinary school, don't ever show on TV. The unscheduled death and disasters and heat and blistering adrenaline highs, the tunnel vision, the crashing din, smell of calluses burning, crushing pressure and pure, raw joy of it all as the entire rest of the world falls away and your whole universe becomes a small, hot steel box filled with knives and meat and fire; everything turning on the next call, the next fire order, the twenty, thirty, forty steaks in front of you and the hundreds on the way. This was what made everything else forgivable. And I knew that if I could just do this one thing, all night, every night, under the worst conditions and without fail, nothing else mattered...I wrote those lines about three years ago now—just a few of the thousands in the first book anyone had ever asked me to write about myself. It was called Cooking Dirty, a bit of line-cook slang from upstate New York meaning to work below your abilities, slinging hash to pay the rent while waiting for something better to come along.In it, I told all the stories I could recall concerning the weird path I'd taken from know-nothing punk kid, dishwasher, mercenary cook, and French-trained chef to itinerant food writer. The story took me from Rochester to Buffalo, Tampa, Albuquerque, Philadelphia, Manhattan, California, Juarez, and Denver; saw me cooking in greasy spoons and Chinese bars, brasseries and fish houses; and behaving with a gross disregard for reputation, career, or physical well-being until I finally traded it all in for a girl, a byline, and health insurance. The thing was a monster. And when I finished it, I thought I'd said all I had to about food and cooks and myself.Except I hadn't.I was working as a restaurant critic and food writer for Denver's Westword (a sister paper of Seattle Weekly) when I wrote Cooking Dirty. I'd been there for five years at that point, covering cafes and cooks, sneaking in and out of Russian mob bars and secret Ghanaian house restaurants, eating everything that came into my highly erratic orbit, and often coming home at strange hours with whiskey on my breath and barbecue sauce in my hair.After the book, I thought I'd be empty all over again, but I managed another two-and-a-half years in the Mile High City, which went by like ball lightning—all dramatic flash and sizzle, burning memories in its path that I'll never shake. White-lit pho shops in dead-end strip malls. A perfect bowl of shrimp and grits. Ten-dollar steaks on a sunny afternoon, tasting of grill char and poverty. My wife grinning at me over a bowl of croquetas still hot from the fryers. Everywhere I turned, there was another cook, another chef, another menu—generations of family history written in the sting of a nopales taco, the future in a cloud of seared balsamic vinegar, my own past neatly contained in a Friday fish fry, limp steak fries, and two pints of Guinness.Now, it's Seattle. I no longer have any fear of running dry—of ever reaching the bottom of the well of stories that writing about food provides. The one thing I promised myself, though, was that after nearly 10 years, if anyone was ever foolhardy, crazy, or dumb enough to offer me a fresh gig in a new city, I would waste a little ink giving myself a proper introduction. It's only fair, after all: If any of you are going to take anything I say to heart, then the least I can do is let you know a little bit about me first.I am a chef. I spent nearly 15 years dans la merde, and came away with the firm belief that, like president or general or convict, the title of chef is granted for life. No matter where you go or what you do, it follows you, because having been there—lost in the heat and madness and elation of the moment—changes you forever. So though I've been on the other side of the swinging door now for almost a decade, I had put in better than 50,000 hours on the line before trading in my Henckels for a pen. What's more, even after all those years away, part of me still considers this whole writing thing a kind of dodge—some dirty little secret I'll take with me to the grave just as soon as I can get out there and find another real job in a respectable kitchen.That's how it started, after all—"Cooking dirty" with a pen in my hand, writing to pay the rent—when one day I found myself washed up in Albuquerque with no galley to call home. Like porn, local politics, or selling knives door-to-door, it was something I did out of necessity because, other than standing around screaming orders with a knife in my hand, I had no useful skills.The lines opening this piece form the essential core of everything it would eventually take me several years and an entire book to say. They are my apologia and my exaltation, my explanation of everything I found beautiful about kitchens and cooking, and my reason for dedicating 15 years of my life to the kicks, thrills, joys, and nightmares of being a working cook. When I walked away, it wasn't because I loved it any less, only that the trade, it seemed, no longer needed me.Still, I'm not wholly gone from that realm. Writing about food has kept me connected to the twilight world of cooks and bartenders, farmers, purveyors, and fixers. It has kept me out and engaged, bouncing across the surface of an industry I once knew from the inside out, allowing me to dig in when necessary, and always providing me with all the adventure, excitement, brilliance, and doom-struck strangeness I can handle.What writing about food might lack in the in-your-face, submarine intimacy of the Friday-night dinner rush, it makes up for in breadth and depth. Once my universe was confined to a small steel box and the machine-gun chatter of the ticket printer. Now it encompasses whole cities, entire countries—even the world.M.F.K. Fisher, a better food writer than I or any of my gout-ridden ilk can ever hope to be, once wrote: "People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating, and drinking? Why don't you write about the struggle for power and security and about love, the way others do? They ask it accusingly, as if I were somehow gross, unfaithful to the honor of my craft. The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it...and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied...and it is all one."That right there perfectly encapsulates the difference between the joy of being a cook and the complications of writing about dinner. I write about food, yes—that's ostensibly what I'm paid for. But mostly I write about me. I write about my wife. I write about my parents and about presidents, about zombies and punk rock, history, particle physics, bad '80s sitcoms and love and drugs and sex and hunger. And if every once in a while I can slip in a little something about barbecue or the ethereal torchons de foie gras, then I think I'm doing OK.While there has been something of a relativistic shift among alleged critics over the years—a willful dampening of rhetoric and strong emotion, an unwillingness to pick a hill and die on it, a cowardly insistence that even the poor, thumb-fingered jackass down the street trying to make a go of his Indo-Bulgarian fusion concept has a spark of genius in him—I'm not that guy. So just to get us started on the right foot, here are some other pet peeves: I love fish almost unreservedly and I hate celery in everything but a proper mirepoix. Any chef using truffle oil might just as well be handing me a signed confession that he is a cheapskate and a dimwit, and ought to just go back to selling cell phones at the mall. And to this day, after more than 20 years spent in and around restaurants, I still have mixed feelings about the employment of all but the best mushrooms.I believe that science has an honorable place in the kitchen, and that any experiment is worth trying once. Remember, even the robo and the immersion blender were once looked at as wild, pointless bits of galley flummery until their true usefulness became undeniable, so who am I to immediately turn up my nose at some mad scientist with his dewars of liquid nitrogen and glassine baggies of sodium alginate?I love blue-collar grub and ethnic food with equal ardor. Same with French food, sushi, soul food, and pho. I love anything cooked with passion and presented with pride, but care little for the room, the glassware, the silver, or the pedigree of ingredients. In short, food rules—everything else comes in a distant second. And while the second-worst thing any cook can do is put celery in my chicken salad (or bell peppers in my crab cakes), the ultimate sin will always be ennui. Not caring, resting on past achievements, letting the little things slip—that's the worst thing any chef or restaurant can do.So long as someone is honestly trying, my capacity for mercy is near-infinite. But the minute some white jacket starts phoning it in, or letting money or success or the adulation of brain-damaged foodies with more credit than smarts go to his head, I'll be there, waiting, with murder in my heart.Finally, I came to Seattle knowing virtually nothing about its chefs, restaurants, or scene. This was deliberate: I wanted to come as blind as a bat and as helpless as a newborn. That way I can discover anew the city you think you already know, with fresh eyes and no preconceptions.Together we're going to go exploring, to find the weird, the awful, and the delicious. You and me, Seattle, we're gonna have us some fun.jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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