“In the morning, there is a quiet light and an almost ethereal hum in a restaurant kitchen,” says Nashville writer Lisa Donovan in her new book, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger. “This moment is one of the pastry chef’s many rewards. Unlocking the door, the first one in after a night of clatter and shouting, whispered cursing, eye-rolling, loud laughing, sweating, slamming and pounding, the aftereffect leaves a crisp silence — a silence that might be alarming if I didn’t know it was all going to be over sooner than I was ready for. It’s kind of a postapocalyptic silence, after the fallout but just before the zombies show up.”
As much a manifesto as a memoir — in the tradition of Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential — Donovan’s testimony is beautifully written, fresh, and powerful, not to mention aptly named. She describes her hunger to move beyond limiting personal circumstances, to be true to herself, and to be worthy of her gifts, despite her exposure to what she calls “the pathetic underbelly of the hospitality industry.” The price she pays to follow her dreams is high, but what shines through most is her love of the work: “Something as simple as baking can save you,” she writes. “It saved me, again and again.”
Donovan’s culinary journey began in the late 1990s near Niceville, Florida, where she waited tables in a small Italian restaurant housed in a double-wide trailer. Less than two decades later, she was named head pastry chef at Sean Brock’s renowned Husk (with locations in Charleston and Nashville), which she calls one of the “most innovative restaurants in culinary history.” Readers who are not familiar with the famous chefs and restaurants Donovan mentions needn’t worry. The elements of her hardscrabble journey from server to chef are universally recognizable, including her struggles as a single working mother, her victimization by abusive men both in and out of the kitchen, and her fight to be respected and compensated for what she brought, literally, to the table.
Given the opportunity a few years ago to create a special dessert for Diana Kennedy, one of her idols, Donovan was thrilled when the Mexican cooking expert pronounced it the finest she had “ever, EVER” had. Surprised that she had never heard of Donovan, Kennedy’s parting advice was, “Stop letting men tell your story.” It’s advice that Donovan has taken to heart in relating the story of her family influences — Mexican and Appalachian — and her calling to be a lover and maker of food. She describes how that calling directed her choices, for better and for worse, as well as the people who helped and hindered her along the way. “[The kitchen] was where I found a sense of control over my life that seemed otherwise embedded in other people’s troubles and fears,” she writes.
Donovan is never short of passion, and you’ll find no chatty recipe sharing here, no candy-coating of the bleakness of her prospects at times. Instead, Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger is a straightforward, no-holds-barred account of a difficult journey described in vivid, eloquent prose showcasing equal parts strength, anger, persistence, earthy humor, and eventually, something like grace.
After her meeting with Kennedy, she writes, “At that moment, I accepted that I would no longer allow myself to feel that my sense of womanhood and motherhood is the part of my identity as a chef that I have to undersell and downplay for fear of my professionalism being shrugged off, as it has been in the past. I will no longer be afraid to talk about how my strength as a cook rests almost solely in my strength as a woman.”
Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.