All or Nothing – One Chef’s Appetite for the Extreme
Dey Street Books
Release Date: September 30, 2014
Jesse Schenker is an executive chef who owns two successful restaurants in New York (Recette – named “Best New Restaurant” in 2010 by the New York Times, and The Gander, which just opened in March of this year), and was himself named one of Zagat’s “30 Hottest Chefs Under 30” and Forbes’s “30 Under 30”. He’s been a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Rising Star award, and won his a battle against an Iron Chef on The Cooking Network’s Iron Chef America.
Hard to believe that a few years earlier he was estranged from his family, homeless, living on the streets of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, an addict whose life existed solely around the next hit, the next high, the next score.
It’s not like Jesse Schenker had a hard life. He came from a well off, non-abusive Jewish family living in a gated community in Parkland, Florida. But in a perfect storm of a developing Type A personality, no obligations, no responsibilities and no accountability, he went from being an intelligent but hyper slacker kid to high school drop-out addicted to heroin and crack. Even though he felt energized when he was cooking, he had and lost a host of jobs in various restaurant kitchens due to his drug habits and unreliability. Obviously, the talent was there – but not the discipline.
About half the book chronicles Mr. Schenker’s downward spiral, and it truly is a harrowing and horrific journey. To see someone with so much promise, with so much going for him, to squander it all down a rabbit hole of drugs and moral depravity is very hard to read about. To his credit, he pulls no punches and asks for very little sympathy. Occasionally he teeters on the edge of blaming others for not pulling him back from the brink, but stops just short of handing off a guilt trip to family, officials, friends. And he openly acknowledges how easy it was for him to play people, to manipulate them into giving him what he wanted, whether it be drugs, money, a place to crash, or absolution and forgiveness.
But eventually he kicks everyone he knows in the teeth once too often in an effort to get the next hit, the next high, the next score. He lies to, steals from and cheats on everyone, and in turn is lied to, stolen from and beaten up as is the life of a junkie. His family ends up refusing to even take his phone calls, no relatives are left to turn to, and all of his friends are either long gone or as strung out as he is. There is a warrant out for his arrest, and it’s a miracle that he hasn’t already ended up dead in a ditch or rotting in an alley from some kind of disease born of neglect and filth.
The second half of the book is about his redemption, how he claws his way back from rock bottom and reapplies himself with a frenzied passion to the culinary arts, much the same way he used to be gripped with an obsession for drugs. In fact, Mr. Schenker often reminds us – as he had to remind himself – that although he was no longer “using”, he was still addicted, but this time with a driving need to succeed as a chef and restaurateur. Yet it is that very self-awareness – something that was missing before – that keeps him from that dark place he was at when his life revolved around drugs; that, and the support that he gets from those around him.
As with most chef’s memoirs, All or Nothing allows the reader to be surrounded by the sights, sounds, smells, and most of all, tastes of a high level of culinary expertise, and to get a peek into the craziness and the strict methods occuring behind the scenes of a quality restaurant. I daresay that is why many readers are drawn to these kinds of books. Even those of us with a lowly epicurean pedigree enjoy a fleeting fancy of being the gourmand, or at least inhabiting their playground.
But All or Nothing goes one step further. Not only do we get an agonizing personal tale (with a seemingly happy ending), but we also get a glimpse into the manic mind of a man whose success is pushed forward by an almost psychotic need to achieve, to control every tiny aspect of his culinary world. It would almost be frightening were it not that Jesse Schenker seems to be very aware of the potential for disaster that a loss of perspective would portend, and is determined to not let himself be lost in the maelstrom again. For that, he deserves the richest of accolades.
The book itself, however, feels a bit superficial, almost like an extended magazine article rather than a dense and gristly autobiography. It’s hard for me to put my finger on it, but something is missing. Big, huge, arching ideas, such as Mr. Schenker’s awareness as an addict of coming face to face with God – are acknowledged and touched upon, but even though there are a few paragraphs of discussion there’s no real commitment beyond a statement letting us know here and there that there has been a commitment. We’re left floating on the surface when we want to be grabbed by the hand and pulled under.
This is not an author being disingenuous – it seems more that perhaps Mr. Schenker knows his subject matter so well that he doesn’t realize we need to have the menu he’s prepared described in more detail in order for us to fully appreciate the sumptuous meal he’s placed in front of us. Maybe had there been some photographs scattered throughout the text, or a placket of illustrations in the middle of the book, separating the “before” with the “now”, the narrative might have become more personal to the reader. I wonder if I can find an archive of the Iron Chef America episode from which Mr. Schenker emerged victorious – I bet that would do the trick! To see the man in action would put a lot into perspective.
Or enjoying a meal at Recette – that would most likely do it, too. But I don’t see that happening any time soon, not for me, anyway! Still, reading All or Nothing has definitely piqued my interest in fine dining yet again, and Jesse Schenker’s story has been nothing short of inspiring. He’s still so young, as well. He’s come a long way from the sleeping in the gutter to delighting the connoisseur – it will be fascinating to watch and see where he goes from here!