Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Mincemeat by Leonardo Lucarelli
Storytelling and cooking may have something in common—imagination—but they also have a similar way of feeding people, and doing it well can be positively inspiring. Leonardo Lucarelli reminds us that good chefs use very, very sharp knives in the mastery of their craft, and good writers learn the same skill. Lucarelli says repeatedly he did it all “for the money,” while we laugh uproariously as he waxes eloquent about that meal he prepared--alone--for 250 capoeira enthusiasts in the hull of a rusty old ship with no kitchen docked beside Rome in the Tiber…
There is some special delight in listening to a man at the top of his career as a chef in a country known for spectacular cuisine and flamboyant male displays tell us how, by bravado, native (naïve?) talent—but no training—he goes from zero to one thousand in a matter of years. And he continued to manage it, learning on the job, telescoping years of trial-and-error into moments of insight literally seared into his memory...and his hands.
He is arrogant, abrasive, acerbic…and that is just the A’s. Lucarelli began cooking as a teen, when meals his mother left at home for his brother and himself needed a little massaging to be exciting. He cooked for friends, and the first gift to his first real girlfriend was bread, wrapped in a napkin, four corners tied together. (It had been his fourth try, and was the only loaf not obviously wrong on the outside.) Taste and presentation: he knew it might have something to do with winning hearts. Though that early attempt failed, his gradual emergence as a rock-star in the kitchen gave him plenty of opportunities to bedazzle the ladies.
Drugs go along with sex & rock & roll, and there are hair-raising moments in this memoir when we are not entirely sure Lucarelli is going to escape with his faculties intact. The momentum he achieves in his writing contrasts with the stumbling advancement of his career as he tangles with the law, makes poor choices in work and in life, wrecks his motorbike…everything revolving about an important friendship with Matteo, the grounded center of who he really was. Matteo was an ‘on again-off again’ roommate in Rome, Lucarelli’s alter-ego. A reprinted email from Matteo late in the book shows us Matteo’s talent seeing, feeling, and speaking truth, and how important he was to Lucarelli’s sense of himself.
It always interests me when “bad boys” discover their inner homebodies. Lucarelli was no exception, and truthfully, the portion of the memoir devoted to his life after rockstar status was some of the most interesting and affecting of what he chose to share. Lucarelli shows us that everything we learn can be used in the next gig, and how teaching cooking skills may have rewards that equal or exceed chef-dom when the pros and cons of each are laid side-by-side.
It is not just food or cooking that is so interesting about this memoir, however. Lucarelli reveals insights into the economics of modern Italy from his earliest mention of anti-globalization demonstrations in Genoa in 2001, reminding us that discussions revolving around these issues are not new and have been viewed as critical for many years in countries other than the United States.
More striking even were his revelations about the fluid nature of restaurant employment: under-the-table payments to all restaurant staff, even chefs, to avoid tax; direct wage payments from the night’s take; lack of contracts or protections for staff; the precarious position of most owners when it comes to loan sharks or bank loans. It seems there is no safety. What a remarkably poor investment, one might conclude, unless owners know something investors do not.
Taxes. It is hard to discover from just one memoir how widespread the practice must be, but one cannot but note how commonplace avoidance appears to be for those making even small incomes in Italy. In the United States, poor and middle-class wage earners generally pay taxes while the wealthy exploit investment loopholes that result in little or no tax payments. Tax avoidance may, in the end, be most responsible for both the exuberant display of, and the eventual destruction of, western ‘values.’
The other discussion, worthy in Italy just as it is in the United States, is the importance of immigrant labor, even illegal immigrant labor, in keeping restaurants afloat. Lucarelli even gives a somewhat impassioned defense of the illegals he has known that is well worth reading and considering. What art would not have been produced but for the 'slave' labor of illegals? These very issues we must consider when addressing our own problem of illegals in America.
Economic issues were not discussed in the Wall Street Journal review of this title by food critic Moira Hodgson, but Hodgson does give you an exciting look at Lucarelli’s anecdotes. Take a look for yourselves.
P.S. One last thing that warmed my heart: When Lucarelli began working in restaurants and clubs in the early 2000's, it seems every menu contained several vegetarian options, and at least one vegan option. Mediterranean food is especially easy to 'veganize,' but more importantly, it wasn't odd, but obvious. Nearly twenty years later, American restaurants are limping half-heartedly (heart-attackedly?) into enlightenment.
You can buy this book here: Tweet