Make no bones about it — life in a restaurant is difficult work. The hours are long, the pay isn’t much, and the work is ultimately thankless. Or at least, that’s how it used to be. The past few years, we’ve watched “foodie” culture explode into prime time, elevating many chefs to celebrity status. It’s no wonder, then, that the chef memoir has become as much of an art form as cooking itself. As many of you know, Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef of New York’s Prune restaurant, recently released Blood, Bones & Butter, a book that many are calling just as beautiful as her simple, impassioned food. Using Hamilton’s book as a starting point, we examine ten chef memoirs — from the newbies to those seasoned with experience — that we’ve found particularly enjoyable.
Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Gabrielle Hamilton, in addition to being a lauded chef, also happens to have an MFA in writing. This becomes blindingly apparent very quickly in Blood, Bones & Butter as Hamilton doles out nuanced morsels of autobiographical information from her childhood on a farm in rural Pennsylvania to her dirt-poor, drug-addled time lying about her age to get restaurant jobs. She’s never as passionate as when she’s writing about food, though, and the way she conveys the the entire sensory experience of the fire pits she and her family would use to cook food for her father’s massive parties leaves you feeling as though you yourself must smell of wood, charcoal and too much wine. It’s also worth noting that, on Blood, Bones and Butter, Anthony Bourdain contributed this blurb: “I put this amazing memoir down and wanted to crawl under the bed, retroactively withdraw every book, every page I’d ever written. And burn them.”
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
By now, you undoubtedly know Anthony Bourdain: chef, author, world-traveler, host of No Reservations. Kitchen Confidential returns us to a halcyon time before Bourdain’s king-of-most-media empire, though, when the lovable curmudgeon was a little less, well, less lovable. Bourdain does copious amounts of drugs, swears like a bitter sailor, and insults vegetarians, food critics and Emeril Lagasse with equal venom. Most importantly, though, Bourdain cooks. In the kitchen he’s as genius as he is passionate, and it shines like a beacon through his crust, bitter veneer. We personally feel that Bourdain’s later-years mellowing out has taken a toll on the enjoyability of his writing; revisiting Kitchen Confidential, though, is always a debauched pleasure.
Heat by Bill Buford
At the start of Heat, Bill Buford, former fiction editor for The New Yorker, is just like all of us (or at least just like the cast of Hell’s Kitchen): he assumes that since he can make a decent pasta dish, there’s absolutely no reason he couldn’t hack it in the kitchen of a real restaurant. The resulting wake-up call that he receives as a line cook at Babbo is both harrowing and hilarious. Buford’s journey from behind his desk into the belly of Mario Batali’s beast shows that that magic formula to being a successful restaurant cook is as much about mental fortitude as it is actual skill; by the end of the book we were pretty sure the chef life was the last thing we wanted for ourselves.
Made From Scratch by Sandra Lee
To a certain ilk of chefs, Sandra Lee’s inclusion on this list defiles even the very word “cook.” Lee is best known as the savior of soccer moms everywhere via her philosophy of 70/30 “semi-homemade” cooking; that is, having 70% of a dish’s ingredient being store-bought/pre-cooked and 30% made from scratch. It’s enough to drive Gordon Ramsay into a murderous rage. We didn’t care for her much, either, in fact, until we read her memoir, Made From Scratch. What we learned is that Sandra Lee’s a very special kind of crazy, the kind of crazy that turns endearingly earnest with a few pages (and a few drinks). Lee’s incredibly tragic childhood is disarming even to the most jaded reader, and what follows is a crazy set of obstacles leading to her unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit. After reading this, we’re completely okay with her making pie crust out of tortillas.
Dirty Dishes by Pino Luongo
If Anthony Bourdain is a gangster, Pino Luongo is definitely an O.G. At the very least, after reading Dirty Dishes one is left with the vague sense that Luongo has killed a man in his time. Having fled Italy for America to avoid being drafted, Luongo crafted the idea to bring a taste of his mother’s cooking to the masses. In doing so, Luongo’s uncompromising, take-no-prisoners legacy was born. On his resume: Centolire, Sapore di Mare, and Cocco Pazzo. Also on Luongo’s resume: giving a young Bourdain a turn in his kitchen, a relationship which would ultimately lead to one of the most entertaining fall-outs in the culinary world to date.
The Devil In The Kitchen by Marco Pierre White
“Why don’t you just fuck off?,” Marco Pierre White says to a diner criticizing his cuisine, less a question than an instructional statement. This is what The Devil In The Kitchen is: White, heralded as the first true “celebrity chef,” being a complete nightmare of a human being and an utter magician of a chef. As the youngest chef ever to have been awarded three Michelin stars, with (at varying points) Gordon Ramsay, Heston Blumenthal, and Thierry Busset in his employment, it would seem like White had everything. We applaud the moment, though, when White gave his Michelin stars back and chose to focus on finally achieving happiness in his personal life.
Life, on the Line by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas
All chefs dream of achieving what Grant Achatz has. He’s won essentially every award available to his profession, and in doing so has re-imagined the way we eat. Alinea, Achatz’s restaurant that he opened in 2005 with business partner and co-author Nick Kokonas, has made a fast name for itself as a vital food destination, deconstructing flavors and even the very ideas behind modern American cuisine. Similarly, Achatz and Kokonas take their business apart and put it back together for the reader’s benefit: their method, madness and event Achatz’s terrifying bout of tongue cancer (a chef with tongue cancer!) are presented in a way that’s every bit as weird and wonderful as Alinea.
The Apprentice: My Life In The Kitchen , by Jacques Pepin
What makes beloved french chef Jacques Pepin’s memoir so enjoyable isn’t that he ends up as one of the foremost authorities on French cooking and cuisine or that he eventually pals around with the likes of Julia Child. Rather, it’s Pepin’s unique, humble voice, which is a rarity amongst the wild, inflated egos of the modern celebrity chef. Pepin describes lovingly his time as a child in war-torn France, in the kitchen working alongside his mother, and the tenderness is genuinely palpable. Even better, Pepin’s simple approach to cooking makes those incredibly daunting French recipes seem like something we just might be able to tackle.
It Ain’t All About The Cookin’ by Paula Deen
We admit: we want Paula Deen to be our grandmother. Say what you will, but the unabashedly loud, unflappably raucous southern chef with a well-documented fetish for butter has quite the strong personality. We didn’t know how strong, though, until we read It Ain’t All About The Cookin’, Deen’s memoir detailing her dirt-poor upbringing, her crippling agoraphobia and her struggles raising her sons Jamie and Bobbie, who, let’s face it, come across as ungrateful twerps through the book’s early portions. Throughout everything, from her back-room lunch delivery service to the formation of her beloved Savannah restaurant Lady & Sons, she never loses her warmth, her wit or her tendency to be a bit racy. Paula Deen: adopt us. Please.
My Life in France by Julia Child
Without My Life in France, much, if not all, of this list wouldn’t exist. Additionally, without My Life in France we wouldn’t have Julie and Julia, better know as the gateway drug to the modern food memoir. Julia Child was a singular spirit, a unique individual who mastered French cooking from the ground up without initially knowing a word of French or a single cooking technique. Her observations on new worlds of culture springing up around her (she initially dismisses television because she feels the act of “staring into a box” could never catch on) are exuberant, and her struggles to find a publisher for Mastering the Art of French Cooking serve as a lesson in perseverance for authors navigating the tricky publishing waters today.