All or Nothing

Culture. Literature. Memoirs…. Are they all based on Folklore and Mythology?

A classmate of mine majored in that field — or should I say it was his “field of concentration” rather than “majored”? I always thought it was surprisingly specific as a major, like Geometry rather than Mathematics, or American History rather than History. Anyhow, aside from a bit of Greek mythology, one of the few things I know about this field is the contribution of Joseph Campbell, for better or for worse. Jesse Schenker’s memoir, All or Nothing, is clearly based on one of Campbell’s ideas, a common narrative arc that takes the hero down to despair and then back up through redemption and ending at great heights, like the parabolic graph of a quadratic function in the figure.

Schenker became a famous chef in New York as a young man: James Beard winner, Iron Chef winner, chef/owner of two great restaurants, etc. But before that he was the most hopeless kind of homeless opioid addict in Florida. And before that he was a nice Jewish boy living a middle-class life in Parkland FL and New Paltz NY. So it’s no wonder that a publisher would snatch up his memoir, which clearly promised a compelling narrative.

For the most part it delivers. The title, All or Nothing, describes Schenker’s mindset about everything in life. This obsessiveness, not surprisingly, drives the memoir as well as his actions through addiction, family, and cooking: he needs a good editor, who could cut down the repetitive page after page about the never-ending cycle of stealing, buying drugs, betraying those who helped him, etc. Yes, it’s a familiar story, and we don’t to hear every detail when it’s just like the previous detail. The culinary experiences have a much better pace, from cooking in prison to being a top chef in New York. The reader really gets a sense of what it must be like to be in that world.



Categories: Books