It’s been hot and humid this summer, more than I ever recall here in Utah. But global warming has its benefits. For example, it’s looking like summer weather might well extend this year into November. And, while that might not be so good for the ski industry, to me it means some bonus lazy afternoons of summer reading in the hammock.
If you’ve already made it through your summer reading stack, bully for you! If not, keep plugging away at it. Either way, I’ve got a trio of good reads to add to the pile. My favorite food writing this summer hasn’t come in the form of food essays, recipes or memoirs. Rather, three particularly fascinating and entertaining “food” books have made my long, hot summer more enjoyable'and all three are about chefs.
These books are not biographies'at least, not exactly. Two of them fit more solidly into a journalistic vein of food scribing, while the third takes us into the sometimes-bent mind and life of a particular celebrity chef and author, Anthony Bourdain.
At first glance, Michael Ruhlman’s The Reach of a Chef: Beyond the Kitchen might just look like a conveniently titled sequel to his other popular volumes, The Soul of a Chef and The Making of a Chef. But whereas his first two chef books were all about the tools, personality, skills, fortitude and passion it takes to become a professional chef, The Reach of a Chef is much more about the cultural phenomenon in America of the celebrity chef. The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef are about what goes on in the kitchen; The Reach of a Chef is about all the things, including money and fame, that work to keep successful chefs increasingly out of their kitchens.
An amateur sociologist of sorts, Ruhlman explores the explosion of the celebrity chef and of “food TV” in our culture; the eruption of Las Vegas as the “Gomorrah of food;” and what all this fuss over cooking means to “heavy-hitter” chefs like Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Rachael Ray, Masa Takayama, Anthony Bourdain and the like. Mostly, it means that they now spend more time in television production studios and boardrooms than they do behind stoves.
And yet, despite our chef-struck popular culture'and notwithstanding the 3,600 cookbooks published last year, the most ever'Ruhlman writes, “For all the popularity of chef-driven restaurants and their outposts, for all the chef-brand pots and pans and sauces, I don’t think the chef’s work is understood much better now than it was 20 years ago.” What the public sees in the American chef of today is success and glamour, but almost never the godawful grunt work, backbreaking labor and the endless hours in hot, uncomfortable kitchens that is the typical chef’s real existence. When Ruhlman takes you there, you can feel the heat on the back of your sweaty neck.
Ditto for Bill Buford’s Heat, which travels some of the same turf as Ruhlman, but with even more of an emphasis on the nitty-gritty work of the professional kitchen slave. A longtime friend of Mario Batali, Buford'much like Ruhlman’s treks to the Culinary Institute of America'signs up to be a low-level, unpaid prep worker at Batali’s popular Babbo restaurant. In doing so, Buford profiles Batali and his gargantuan lifestyle and appetites, along with also placing the reader smack dab in the center'or maybe a dark corner'of a noisy, hot and often chaotic restaurant kitchen. In Heat, you’ll actually feel the heat of the kitchen and know what it’s like to dice 36 carrots, only to have them thrown out because the carrot cubes weren’t perfect. Heat is a faced-paced, very funny read, perfect for anyone who has ever considered a career in the kitchen.
Bourdain doesn’t cook in his restaurant anymore. As Ruhlman writes in The Reach of a Chef, “Twenty-eight years of hellish, backbreaking slog was plenty for him.” And Bourdain doesn’t need to cook at his New York City Les Halles restaurant anymore either. He’s got his hands full being a best-selling author, television star, international celebrity and all-around bad boy of the celebrity chef scene.
For those of us who enjoy bad boys (and girls) and occasionally lapse into bad behavior ourselves, Bourdain’s new book The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps and Bones is a blast. Despite his sometimes annoying attempts at being a gourmand Hunter S. Thompson, food and restaurant enthusiasts'myself among them'can’t seem to get enough of Bourdain’s peeks into the underbelly of the food and restaurant world. In The Nasty Bits, he serves up dish after dish of, well, dish'about himself, his celebrity friends and colleagues, and how to live life large, if not exactly hungry. You just know that a book dedicated to The Ramones is a book you’ll want to chow down like the steak frites at Les Halles.
Insofar as these three all provide dangerously detailed views into the actual work of a chef, cook and kitchen slave, they should be required reading for anyone even thinking about becoming a kitchen professional. For the rest of us, they are simply a gas of a way to spend a few hot hours in the hammock.