Tasty Titles for Your Inner Chef
It's an exciting time for all self-proclaimed "foodies" - the James Beard Awards season has arrived! The late James Beard was a chef, teacher, and cookbook author who championed American cuisine and guided generations of professional chefs and food enthusiasts. His legacy lives on through an eponymous foundation established in 1985 at the behest of Julia Child. In addition to hosting events and funding culinary scholarships, the James Beard Foundation honors food industry professionals (chefs, restaurateurs, cookbook authors, food journalists, etc.) at an annual awards presentation in late spring. Let's celebrate this year's season with a few foodie-centric titles:
I'll kick this list off with a famous Beard-award winning chef - Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain's 2007 memoir, Kitchen Confidential is part memoir, part restaurant exposé. The memoir follows Bourdain's maturation as a chef, from toiling as a fry cook in New England's tourist traps to his years overseeing NYC's hottest restaurants. Bourdain provides an unglamorous and hilarious behind the scenes look at the restaurant industry. He also weaves useful trade secrets into his narrative, including a whole chapter on how to cook like a pro at home. Though his memoir was not nominated for a Beard Award, Bourdain's PBS show, The Mind of a Chef, has won three.
Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef was the 2012 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for Writing and Literature. Before opening Prune, a New York City eatery of which she is owner and chef, Hamilton spent 20-odd years attempting to instill meaning and purpose into a life beset by early experiences of trauma and neglect. Hamilton fell into the restaurant industry to feed herself, literally and figuratively. She jumped between serving and catering jobs and traversed kitchens in Europe until she reluctantly committed to her love of food and hospitality in 1999 when she opened her restaurant. Hamilton is a trained writer who earned her M.F.A. in fiction writing before becoming a chef. That stated, her prose is rich and enticing. This memoir is a thoroughly delicious read.
Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Food Critic, a highly entertaining memoir by food writer Ruth Reichl, chronicles her years as a critic for The New York Times. The meat of the book details the elaborate lengths to which Reichl went to disguise herself while reviewing some of New York's elite restaurants. She created a series of characters to conceal her identity and avoid the V.I.P. treatment that comes with being a famous restaurant critic. Reichl's memoir takes a frank look at how one's outer appearance and presumed class influence the quality of service one receives. The book also includes a few of Reichl's favorite recipes.
Don't be discouraged with this list if you prefer a good novel over a memoir. Ruth Reichl's debut novel, Delicious! may satisfy your craving. The novel follows Californian Billie Breslin cross country as she begins her new job at Delicious!, New York's premier food magazine. When the magazine is abruptly shuttered, Billie is tasked with staying on to field calls from the reader complaint hotline. Alone in the offices, she discovers a cache of letters written during World War II from a plucky 11-year-old budding cook to chef James Beard. The young writer and her letters inspire Billie to confront issues from her past that have hindered her present. The novel can be a bit saccharine and predictable, and it is not as engaging as Reichl's memoirs, but it's a fun read nevertheless.
If reading the previous titles inspires you to pick up your own chef's hat, here are two great cookbooks for you to check out. The Essential James Beard Cookbook contains over 400 recipes from Beard's published work. It is organized by course and divided into categories according to the type of food (e.g. cocktail food, pasta, cakes). The collection is eclectic: there are recipes for simple classics like fried onion rings and the "Perfect Roast Chicken" as well as dishes hailing from Russia, Scandinavia, and China. The recipes are easy to follow and the ingredients should not be too difficult to procure. This is a great collection for amateur cooks interested in adding to their repertoire.
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman won the General Cooking Book award in 2009. Like The Essential James Beard Cookbook, How to Cook Everything is a comprehensive compendium. In addition to thousands of recipes, the book includes advice on what kitchen tools and gadgets are essential and techniques on cutting and carving. The best part of the cookbook: the inclusion of simple variations of classic recipes. It's a useful manual for the novice home cook.