Chefs are the newest celebrities on the block, and a love of eating has contributed to this mystique. Television channels are filled with food shows featuring celebrity chefs; they make regular guest appearances on morning news hours and late night talk shows. They pique our interest in a subject easy to relate to. So, then, it’s little surprise that not only has the cookbook market explored in the wake of so many renowned chefs, but so too have sales of their autobiographies.
Anthony Bourdain and the infamous world of the restaurant kitchen
Before he was a household name with television shows of his own, Anthony Bourdain was an executive chef at a French bistro in New York City. Then, in what can rightly be called an autobiography of his early years, Bourdain pulled back the curtain on the less-than-stellar scene found in restaurant kitchens everywhere with a book called Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.
This very well-written, if highly cynical, look at restaurant cooking opened many eyes about just what goes on behind the scenes (and what not to eat on Monday). Not only does Bourdain explore his own love affair with food growing up (via oyster tales), but he shows the very competitive, very masculine side of life in the kitchen — all knives and flames and staking out one’s territory.
Julia Child, the ultimate celebrity chef
This same boys-only mentality prevailed during Chef Julia Child’s days at Le Cordon Bleu, as chronicled in her autobiography, My Life in France. However, it only inspired Julia to work harder, and she spent hours at home simply learning how to dice onions properly, if only to be accepted by the all-male establishment. Little would her colleagues at cooking school in France suspect that one day, Julia Child’s name would surpass them all, and her cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking would become legendary.
Those who have ever tried to cook from Child’s classic cookbooks know just how difficult that can be, and nowhere is it described better than in Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, where blogger Julie Powell decides to cook every recipe (no matter how challenging) in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
For those who want to know what it was like to experience life in France with Julia Child, James Beard, and MFK Fisher, a wonderful book that has appeared in recent years is Provence, 1970, written by the grand-nephew of Fisher, a culinary great in her own right. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to dine with the food revolutionaries who changed how Americans eat, this book is it.
Ruth Reichl, former New York Times food critic and editor of Gourmet
Perhaps the finest autobiography of the bunch, however, belongs to Ruth Reichl, a name that everyone might not recognize, yet every bit as influential in the world of food writing. Her autobiography, Tender at the Bone, contains the most delicious food awakening of all. As a young girl in boarding school, she goes home for a visit with a friend and experiences her first true gourmet meal. It is a revelation, given her own mother’s lackluster (even dangerous) cooking skills. And the rest, as they say, is history — although there’s certainly more to Reichl and her writing.
Certainly what these three food celebrities have in common is not only the desire to create and enjoy great food, but the ability to communicate it well. Each of the autobiographies listed is well and truly worth spending hours reading. And if you don’t come away from these books feeling hungry for something special, well, you’ve probably just had a great meal yourself.