Here's a handful of books I've read in the past few months... These are all primarily books about food--chefs, restaurants, criticism--but wine comes up from time to time. I've recently had an interest in books written by chefs that aren't cookbooks. Nothing against cookbooks, but the background stories and behind-the-scenes anecdotes are often quite rewarding. Yes, I do read other things, but these books are probably of specific interest to the readers of this blog. And for the most part, I got all of them at my local network of libraries. Check 'em out! When I was a teenager and first getting interested in cooking, I loved checking out, say, an Italian cookbook for three weeks and cooking everything that looked interesting. Amazon links are provided if you feel like buying any of them.
These are presented in no particular order; aside from the first, all are autobiographical or first-person accounts.
The Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman. The first part of this book covers the arduous Certified Master Chef exam conducted by the Culinary Institute of America. I was surprised to see a local chef in the story, Lynn Kennedy-Tilyou who worked at La Tourelle here in Memphis in the 90s. The remainder of the book focuses on a few up and coming chefs of the 90s, including the great Thomas Keller of the French Laundry. The best feature of this book is that you get a third person look at how several different chefs operate in the kitchen.
The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen by Jacques Pépin. Dude had a hard childhood. I've had to shovel manure for stables and as part of gardening, but I never had to follow behind cart horses with a shovel just to help feed the family during a major world war and German occupation. I'm also amazed at the almost medieval apprenticeship system that Pépin had to go through as he became a great chef. For instance, he dropped out of school at the age of 13 and started on the lowest rung at a fancy hotel. He slept in a bunk on the premises and was charged with preparing food for the owner's dogs.
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Bone in the Throat by Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain comes across as arrogant, but he seems proud of the reputation. The first book is a bizarre tale of sex, drugs, and rock and roll as he moved from a child of privilege to a poor starving chef to an international star. The second book is a work of fiction focusing on the intersection of restaurants and organized crime in New York City. In an effort to continue my formal culinary education, I've ordered his Les Halles Cookbook and look forward to working my way through the recipes.
The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin. This is a compilation of three books, all of which are made up of Trillin's articles for The New Yorker during the 70s and 80s. When every Chamber of Commerce in the Country was trying to get him to eat at the local bad yet expensive French restaurant, Trillin was eating at down home rib joints and taco stands and burger huts. Lots of smart humor here, making me miss even more the great 80s newspaper humorists like Mike Royko and Lewis Grizzard. While Royko had the fictitious yet endearing Slats Grobnik, Trillin had a real life pizza baron named Fats Goldberg to converse with in his columns. Add to that a wife who restricted him to only three meals a day and a pair of daughters who lived on fish sticks and bagels, and you've got a lot of great stories. I'm looking forward to finding more of his work.
Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table, Comfort Me with Apples: More Adventures at the Table, and Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, all by Ruth Reichl. These form a trilogy--though I hope it hasn't ended yet! Reichl recounts her life in food, from being the daughter of a bipolar mother who served rotten food all the time, to cooking for loads of friends at a communal residence in Berkeley, to becoming the food editor of The New York Times, often reviewing restaurants twice: once as the famous critic and once in disguise as a nobody. You also get a lot of back story about the California cuisine revolution of the 80s.
Speaking of which, why not segue into California Dish: What I Saw (and Cooked) at the American Culinary Revolution by Jeremiah Tower. Here you get lots of stories about Alice Waters. I love the Chez Panisse recipes and ideals, but there's also a soap opera element about the formative years. Like Bourdain, Tower grew up wealthy and then struck out on his own as a chef. It's exciting to read about this period in American cooking history, when fresh and local ingredients combined with fun and creativity started beating out the staid, traditional Continental fare. It's also sort of the "Forrest Gump" of the food writing world, as you see guest appearances from the likes of Wolfgang Puck and Paul Prudhomme and many others.
Delights and Prejudices by James Beard. A classic. I purchased a copy of this book at a sale ten years ago and ignored it for a decade. I recently read it and thoroughly enjoyed the tale. Again, Beard was a child of privilege, and because of his amazing taste memory, he can recount in vivid detail virtually everything he ate from birth to adulthood. He was from the Pacific Northwest, and having spent some time there, I can appreciate the rich stories of seafood and wild mushrooms and other local delicacies.
Food in History by Reay Tannahill. The least folksy and most serious of the bunch, this is a study of eating from the Paleolithic era to the present, with stops at major cultural and historical points. If you were the kid who could never get enough in history class, this book is for you. Particularly if you were the kid who helped prepare an authentic Elizabethan meal for Ms. Hankins' AP English class for extra credit. Ahem.