Rapidly Reviewed Cooking Reads

Sunday, 11 Jan 2009

Want to blow your life’s savings on cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu?  Live a daredevil life of “sex, drugs and haute cuisine?”  Well, there’s still time, and you can do it all vicariously if risky behavior is not your thing.  I’m going to combine a few of my favorite activities here — reading, cooking, and reading about cooking — to give you four quick reviews of true tales from the food industry. We’ll start with Anthony Bourdain.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Ed: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)

This was a fast, fun and entertaining read, one I’d liken to Animal House in the kitchen. The book is filled with lots of gritty details (as you might gather from the dust cover’s “sex, drugs and haute cuisine” hook) from Bourdain’s early days in the kitchen.  He tells his story with quite a lot of swagger and nostalgia. Bourdain’s bluster got on my nerves at first, but then I got used to it and sat back and enjoyed the Tony Show.  The tone of the book feels like a round of reminiscence and story telling with friends after a few beers. This makes it easy to speed through the book. Each section of the book covers a different time frame. If I had a criticism, I’d say the book lacks transitions, so the shifts between sections representing different periods are abrupt.  However, it helps in a way, because you can pick up in a new chapter without having to remember what you read previously.  This is the kind of book you read when you’re in the mood for a good yarn, not necessarily to learn the nuts and bolts of cooking.  It will teach you, however, how the chef’s lifestyle could take years off your life.

kathleenflynnThe Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter, and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School

This is another light, fast read.  Flynn gives her account of getting laid off from a corporate job she hated and making a life-changing decision to move to Paris to attend the Cordon Bleu.  Her experience of that juggernaut is artfully entwined with a story of true love.  Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, described Flynn’s book as “surprisingly suspenseful,” and I have to agree.  A journalist by trade, Flynn tells a compelling, absorbing story that draws you in and at times leaves you hanging.  She also provides plenty of levity in the form of kitchen bloopers and mishaps related to life as an American in Paris.  As a welcome bonus she provides recipes at the end of each chapter, some simple, some challenging, and I hope to try some of them out soon.  This book could be described as the romantic yin to Bourdain’s debauchery-driven yang.

michaelruhlmanThe Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute

Ruhlman, another journalist, gained entrance to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), took some amazing notes, and lived to tell about it. The books leaves you feeling like you went through the CIA’s gauntlet yourself.  Ruhlman walks you through the canon of cooking education at the CIA step by step, providing incredibly detailed descriptions of the day-to-day and minute-to-minute life of a chef-in-training.  Ultimately, Ruhlman demonstrates the heart and motivation it takes to make it through the “Harvard of cooking schools” as the story of a culinary student in the abstract becomes his own story.  As far as sheer information about what makes a professional chef and what goes into a culinary education, this book provided the most, hands down, of any of the four books reviewed here.

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection

This book builds on The Making of a Chef, but you can read it without having read the other first. In fact, The Soul of a Chef seems to repeat some of the culinary education content from the previous book.  The Soul of A Chef is divided into three parts.  In the first, Ruhlman reports on the punishing Certified Master Chef exam at the CIA, following candidates of different backgrounds, from airline chefs to corporate chefs, through the trial.  Next, Ruhlman follows the trajectory of a somewhat unconventional up-and-coming chef, Michael Symon of Lola in Cleveland.  Symon was named one of Food and Wine’s 10 Best Chefs in America, and Ruhlman gives an inside view of how he built his restaurant from the ground up and how he managed his staff in a way that engendered unprecedented loyalty from them. In the final section of the book, Ruhlman examines the roots and development of Thomas Keller, chef of the acclaimed French Laundry.  Keller selected Ruhlman to help write the French Laundry Cookbook, and Ruhlman writes a good bit about that, as well.  The Soul of a Chef provides a good examination of what makes chefs and restaurants succeed, particularly how chefs with wildly different backgrounds have brought their own soul and style into their work with good results.

So, that’s all the reviewing for tonight!  I have a few more cooking books on my reading list and hope to give you more reviews in the not-too-distant future.

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