Even though Dressler pastry chef Dalia Jurgensen has cooked in New York for almost 15 years, working both the sweet and savory side at Layla, La Côte Basque, Veritas and Tonic, she's still a relative unknown. Call it modesty, call it destiny. Call it about to change. Next week, Jurgensen releases her memoir "Spiced," a very dishy look at a woman's journey from Nobu upstart to running her own kitchen.
It's a sometimes brutal, all-the-time honest journey peppered with nasty injuries, late night benders (more here), a lesbian love affair and lots of pastry talk—the chef's inner-struggle with serving the fan favorite, and blasé, molten chocolate cake is particularly rich food porn. And most surprisingly, she doesn't hide identities; Scott Bryan (Apiary) and Joey Fortunato (Extra Virgin) played prominent roles in her career, and much is written about their strong personalities.
It all sounds a bit like "Kitchen Confidential." We agree, as does the book's author Anthony Bourdain, who blurbed "Spiced" as a "valuable addition to the annals of first-person culinary history." We recently caught up with Jurgensen.
This book is going to cause a bit of a stir, no?
I feel like I've lost all perspective because I've worked on it so closely for so many years. I have no idea. You never know who people are going to react, but for example Scott Bryan just read it and was thrilled. He was very happy.
Was Scott at least surprised a bit by your portrayal of his kitchen style, which was a cross between "Patton" and ‘Animal House'?
I sold the book while I was working at Veritas, so he knew that I would be writing about my experience there. Scott Bryan would always say, I don't care what you write, as long as you make sure to note that Culo is gay. [Editor's note: "Culo is gay" is revealed as a long-running kitchen gag between the staff and a particular cook.]
Did Bryan realize how much of a man-child he is—as vividly portrayed in the book?
I don't know. I really think he is who he is and doesn't really worry about what he should and should not say. It really didn't occur to me that he may come off harsh to some people. He's always been a little bit out there, but likeable.
And what about Joey Fortunato? You write about working under him a Scarabee, Q56 and Tonic, and how you eventually had a romantic relationship.
He hasn't read it yet, actually. Obviously it is true and I told him that I would be writing about certain bits, but I think he is OK with it. [Editor's note: During our night out, Fortunato admitted to reading, and very much enjoying, "Spiced."]
NYC chef-authors usually don't name names out of fear of burning bridges in this extremely tight industry. Were you ever concerned?
I don't think there are any people that I portray in a negative way, with the exception of maybe Culo, who I don't think is a totally unsympathetic character. I did hear from my chef at La Côte Basque, who also seemed completely fine with it. I don't really have ill will towards the people I worked with. But we will see when people start reading it.
Anthony Bourdain blurbed your book—he doesn't really blurb books. Do you have a relationship with him?
Not at all. Scott Bryan, who was written about in "Kitchen Confidential," knew his phone number and very kindly asked if [Bourdain] would mind receiving a copy of the manuscript for possible endorsement. He read my book and I am very appreciative. I read his "New Yorker" article that came out before "Kitchen Confidential." It was amazing to see my kitchen world land in the pages of something so literary. It was genius. It combined two things I really enjoy: writing/reading and cooking.
You write about the tortures of including certain fan favorite desserts on your menu, including the molten chocolate cake...
Even though it was annoying and sort of the no-brainer dessert, I had to suck it up because people loved the thing. Even people who know about food love it. It's warm and chocolaty and you can serve it with some type of crazy ice cream if you want. But I've completely given in at this point [laughing]. It's on the Dressler menu.
You open up a lot about your sex life. Did you have that always in mind?
I hope that whenever I put those into the story, they served a purpose and showed something larger . When you open a restaurant, it becomes your life, so it's hard to separate your personal and professional sides. That's why a lot of affairs happen. I don't think about "too much" or "too little." I just want to tell the story.
Photo by Sarah Shatz