The secretive, rarefied world of an award-winning kitchen is rarely glimpsed by those not wearing a toque, but this week, two memoirs from acclaimed chefs shed light on the typically hot activities behind closed doors.
Gabrielle Hamilton narrates her decades-long journey to becoming chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York City in Blood, Bones & Butter, which Anthony Bourdain has already deemed the "best memoir by a chef ever." Then, later this week, the much-heralded Grant Achatz releases Life, on the Line, tracking his story from determined young cook to leader of the molecular gastronomy movement. His cruel battle with tongue cancer nearly derails his goals, and ratchets the drama to impossible heights.
With their respective memoirs, Hamilton and Achatz are in excellent company in the world of food writers. After you're done cracking open their worthwhile efforts, here are five must-read classics:
The bubbly chef was what one would call a late bloomer: It was not until her late thirties that Julia Child discovered her desire to eat and to cook. She then enrolled as a student at France's Le Cordon Bleu, and it was her great gift to herself (and us) that she was not intimidated by the school's overly strict headmaster, or her predominantly male classmates. If anything, these obstacles strengthened her resolve to surpass her own expectations. My Life in France details Julia's life-changing years in the country, from flunking the culinary school's notoriously difficult final exam to the often frustrating process of co-writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For the cook looking for inspiration—nay, for anyone who thinks it may be too late to answer their true calling—this memoir is an inspiration.
Jacques Pepin's story is about as French as you can get: As a child in the midst of a world war, he peeled potatoes in his mother's restaurant, went on to a formal cooking apprenticeship at the very young age of 13, serfed his way up through France's then-feudal kitchen hierarchy, and eventually achieved international acclaim as a master of French cooking. Pepin's love for his craft and his upbeat, vivacious personality shines through his writing; even his description of a near-fatal car accident is seen with an optimistic view. The recipes at the end of each chapter are the highlights: They vary from homey and soulful (Maman's Apple Tart) to indulgent and elegant (Ramequins au Fromage).
In what may be the complete antithesis to Jacques Pepin, Anthony Bourdain writes unabashedly about the hostile, cutthroat competition in the kitchen, complete with expletives, rampant drug use, and sex in the back of the house. Underneath all that testosterone, though, split-second glimpses of Bourdain's vulnerabilities seep through, and transform the book from a hedonistic action-adventure to poignant character study. Threaded between the anecdotes are fascinating insights into the economics of running a restaurant. A book that Bourdain probably thought would deter earnest would-be chefs only fueled a new generation ready to battle for the toque.
"There is a communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk. And that is my answer, when people ask me: Why do you write about hunger, and not wars or love?" M.F.K. Fisher conveyed her love for food through her writing, and inspired readers and chefs alike to consider food as something more than mere sustenance on a plate. Her autobiographical Gastronomical Me veers outside the culinary world and into heady topics like love and war, though even those chapters are seen through hungry eyes. The taste of her first oyster parallels the story of her first crush (on a fellow female student at boarding school) and wartime thrift and shortage informed her cookery. Fisher's ability to beautifully articulate the connection between one's food and one's soul remains unmatched today.
Laurie Colwin published several fictional works during her short lifetime, but she may be best known for her witty, simple columns for Gourmet. A few of those columns, supplemented with vignettes from her life as a home cook, were collected for Home Cooking. The book is worth reading for the chapter titles alone: "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," "Repulsive Dinners: A Memoir." However, it is in the foreword where she makes her most marked observation: "No one who cooks cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers."
Did we miss one of our favorites? Share your candidates in the comments below or tweet them @ thedailybeast with the hashtag #bestfoodmemoirs.
Tien Nguyen is a freelance writer in Los Angeles. More of her work can be found here.