Leaving roast beef, Yorkshire pudding and the grey skies of northern England behind, a skinny young Michael Saxon travelled several continents acquiring his culinary skills and went on to become an executive chef in the five-star hotel industry.
We happened to be browsing in the E&O hotel shop in Penang when I found a copy of Chef’s Tales. I noticed that it was a signed copy with “Happy Reading, Michael Saxon” written inside. I expressed mild surprise at this and the shop assistant said that the book had been written by the E&O Hotel General Manager. After a quick flick through, I decided to buy it as I’m always interested in food-related subjects.
My first impression on reading this autobiography was that it had been written by a thoroughly nice, if somewhat naive, man. As is invariably the case with rookies in the kitchen, he blundered his way through many scrapes and difficulties, learning the ropes as he went. Saxon (although after reading the book I almost feel I know him well enough to call him Mike now) then went on to work in a number of countries including Canada, the Philippines and Indonesia, before moving to Malaysia in 2004 to the E&O in Penang, where he is still General Manager.
I’ve seen reviews elsewhere (Amazon) where Chef’s Tales is likened to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. In my view nothing could be further from the truth. The books have nothing in common other than they’re both autobiographies by chefs. Bourdain’s 25 years of “sex, drugs, bad behaviour and haute cuisine” is a far cry from Mike’s years of kindness, patience, and cultural sensitivity. Bourdain’s book is hard-hitting and even shocking. Saxon’s is a string of amusing anecdotes about a guy who usually tries to Do The Right Thing, and sometimes ends up “in the shit”.
I read the book from cover to cover in a couple of days, so I obviously enjoyed it to that extent. However, I couldn’t help feeling that Saxon isn’t a natural writer. He tells his tales with good humour – and some of the anecdotes did have me chuckling out loud at times. But the book lacked the biting wit which you frequently find in the work of a professional food writer.
Chef’s Tales consisted of anecdote after anecdote after anecdote. I guess that’s what an autobiography is, but Saxon seemed to be more shocked by events than I would have expected. This book may well appeal to a chef – or indeed anyone – who hasn’t travelled much, but a seasoned traveller is more likely to wonder why he was so naive about certain things. And in some cases squeamish about unfamiliar foods.
All in all it was an amusing read and I enjoyed it. I closed the book feeling privileged to have been able to share the story of such a nice man.