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Bookshelf: Books About Cooks

6th May 2015

In case you haven’t bought a Mother’s Day present yet, I thought I would write a Bookshelf post today and explore one of my favourite genres; the chefs memoir.

I love books about cooks and cooking. Chefs are interesting people. They are artists,  tempered and cured in that sweaty, high-stress, crazy kitchen world of fire and shouting and temporary creations of great beauty. Chefs are something of a cross between performance artists and craftspeople, whose creations are consumed and then disappeared, before their workshop is scrubbed clean for the next performance.

The atmosphere of a commercial kitchen (as any waitress who’s had to venture in with a customer complaint will tell you) is stressed and intense. It’s weird back there in Kitchenland, and a it takes a certain type of personality to handle it, let alone excel at it.  I once managed a restaurant in London where all the Algerian chefs in the steamy hell-hole of a kitchen downstairs  could not pronounce my name (Rachael) and so called me ‘Richard’ instead. I got on with them well, and they taught me my only Arabic phrase: Yalla yalla. (Hurry up.) Once I hid in the dumbwaiter, sent it below and jumped out to shout ‘Yalla! Yalla!’ at them. Head chef Mo nearly had a heart attack. How we laughed!

These days, the only commercial kitchen in my life is my own, where I churn out chicken casserole and blueberry porridge for at least three seatings and fifteen covers a day. I might bring back ‘yalla yalla’ though. Could help with the school run…

Here are a few of my favourite books about cooks:

Trail Of Crumbs: Hunger, Love and The Search For Home by Kim Sunee is a memoir that drips with bohemian glamour. If you are partial to the ‘moved to Europe and fell in love and here is my soup recipe’ genre (and who is immune to this?), then you’ll love this offering. It’s Kim Sunee’s story of her search for connectedness - adopted as a child, she feels rootless, and tries to anchor herself by settling in the Provencal countryside with L’Occitane founder Olivier Baussan, and then by opening a bookshop in Paris.  As one does. Kim is a poet, and her style reflects this. Add a hefty chunk of fruit-n-nut chocolate, and this book is a Mothers Day bath waiting to happen.

Spilling The Beans by Clarissa Dickson Wright is a wonderful read; with all of the wit and brio you would expect from this woman, one half of the British ‘Two Fat Ladies’ cooking team. This book traces Dickson Wright’s aristocratic and troubled childhood, scarred by her relationship to her brilliant, brutal father. Clarissa, bedevilled with alcoholism, parties away her fortune in style, and then in wretchedness, and finds redemption, finally, in her love  of food. An amazing story.

Anthony Bourdain is the king of the art-punk (‘don’t touch my dick, don’t touch my knife’) chefs, and he practically reinvented the genre with his first book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures In  The Culinary Underbelly.

“So who the hell, exactly, are these guys, the boys and girls in the trenches? You might get the impression from the specifics of my less than stellar career that all line cooks are wacked-out moral degenerates, dope fiends, refugees, a thuggish assortment of drunks, sneak thieves, sluts and psychopaths. You wouldn't be too far off base. The business, as respected three-star chef Scott Bryan explains it, attracts 'fringe elements', people for whom something in their lives has gone terribly wrong. Maybe they didn't make it through high school, maybe they're running away from something-be it an ex-wife, a rotten family history, trouble with the law, a squalid Third World backwater with no opportunity for advancement. Or maybe, like me, they just like it here. ”

It’s a rocking ride.

Stephanie Alexander, writer of the kitchen staple ‘The Cooks Companion’ and latterly, creator of the Kitchen Garden program that is transforming schools all over Australia, is an Australian icon. In her memoir A Cooks Life she traces her journey from childhood in Melbourne, through her training in London and Paris and finally to Melbourne in the 70’s, when Australia’s restaurant culture came of age. This book is a story of Alexanders culinary triumphs, and the personal toll that her success exacted.

Blood Bones and Butter  by Gabrielle Hamilton is  one of my favourite chef’s memoirs. This evocative and beautifully drawn portrait takes the reader from the sudden ending of Hamilton’s wild, idyllic childhood, through her global wanderings and finally to her internationally acclaimed New York restaurant Prune. She ties the threads of her life story together so beautifully. It’s a wonderful tale, lyrically and honestly told.

A Suitcase and a Spatula was written by my friend Tori, who blogs here (and I interviewed here). In this book Tori takes the reader on a leisurely journey around the world with her as she cooks and eats at a series of wonderful places. It’s armchair-travelling at its finest!

Finally, My Life In France is my all-time favourite food memoir, by my favourite all-time foodie, Julia Child. I absolutely adore her warmth and eccentricity. She is like nobody else, and in this memoir she describes the year she spent in Paris with her new husband, where she first learned to cook. It’s the story of the two great loves of her life – French cooking and Paul – and Child  tells this love story with great humour and energy.  An absolutely delightful read.

To end this post, I’d love to share the last scene of Curb Your Enthusiasm Season 3, where Larry David tries desperately to cover up his chef’s Tourette’s Syndrome, at the opening night of his restaurant. Possibly the best restaurant scene in television history. (And highly unsafe for work!)

Bon appetit! Happy Mothers Day! And if you have any books about cooks to add to this list, leave them in the comments.

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