Cooking Tales: 3 Delicious Memoirs from Chefs

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  1. 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.”

2.  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.

3. 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.