by Betty Ho, Big City Chefs food writer
I came across an interview with Anthony Bourdain, one of my favorite writer chefs and probably the man responsible for making me realize that food and literature do mix. I read his memoir, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly during my freshman year at NYU and thought briefly about dropping out of college to pursue a career as a chef.
“And how are you going to do this?” my parents asked.
“I’ll start by washing dishes!” I said.
Unsurprisingly, they were less than supportive, and I stayed in school. A few weeks after I’d finished his book, I read in the local paper that he was in town to promote his second book, a cookbook for Les Halles, where he was head chef at the time. I waited feverishly for classes to end, then ran to the Barnes and Noble in Union Square with my copy of Kitchen Confidential tucked safely in my backpack. I was about to see the man in the flesh.
He was just as I imagined him to be: lean and mean with a handsome scowl and a rich, deep voice tinged with the ravages of too much salt and cigarettes. I don’t remember much of what he said, aside from the various jokes he cracked at the expense of fellow celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse, but I knew that he had found an eternal fan in me.
His memoir started a hunger for other food-related literature from cookbooks to travel memoirs to books about very specific types of food: salt, spices, beer, and led me to other food writers whose works I’ve come to cherish along with Bourdain’s: Ruth Reichl, M.F.K. Fisher, and Jeffrey Steingarten. In a way, Kitchen Confidential began my literary food education which continues to this day, and I am ever-grateful every time I look over and see it on my shelf between Reichl and Steingarten. My list of food “must reads” grows longer every day, and while I haven’t yet read anything by Emeril Lagasse, I’ll be sure to shelve him far away from Bourdain.
That said, I’d like to inaugurate the weekly Chef Question and ask our own Big City Chefs private chefs: What is your favorite food memoir? Why? And when did you read him or her for the first time?
Washington DC Personal Chef Mikey Torres loves Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which he first discovered in his high school home economics class. Although not technically a memoir, Chef Mikey got from it “such a strong sense of [Child’s] personality…which was unheard of in a cookbook back then.”
Our Denver area Personal Chef Mike Herskowitz likes the now famous cookbook/memoir hybrid The French Laundry Cook Book by celebrity chef Thomas Keller, as well as Surfing the Menu: Two Chefs, One Journey: A Fresh Food Adventure by Curtis Stone and Bewn O’Donoghue.
Chef Rebecca Gruwell, one of our Personal Chefs in New York, shares one of my favorites as well: Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, a brilliant memoir about the ins and out of being a food writer for the New York Times. “It felt as though I stepped into her life,” says Chef Rebecca. “She’s a brilliant and engaging writer, vividly describing the people, places and meals in a way that one cannot help but be drawn into the experience as if it’s their memory too.”
The next time you’re in the bookstore or library, be sure to check out one of our chef recommendations! Happy reading!