Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Lamar Burton's Reading Rainbow Time

St. Louis makes me read, a lot. A quick review of culinary literature consumed in the past few months.

Heat, Bill Buford. Mid-life Crisis hits the former editor of The New Yorker and he ends up working in the kitchen of Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant, originally to write a profile on the man in the orange clogs. This launches him into a new career as a cook and food writer. He travels to Italy to learn about pasta and butchery and explores the inside of a celebrity chef's working kitchen. Heat is more than a hagiographer's obsession with a subject. In fact, I believe this book soured the relationship between Batali and Bufurd. Highly recommended if you liked Kitchen Confidential.

Roasting in Hell's Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay. A depressing chronicle of the escape from an abusive father which ultimately led Mr. Ramsay into the kitchen. That being said, an amazing book and a glimpse into what drives individuals to succeed. Perhaps at times the book is a little self-gloating and would love to read Marco Pierre-White's version of the same events; but Mr. Ramsay captures why running a fleet of world-class restaurants is so stressful and rewarding to him.

The ____ of a Chef, Michael Ruhlman. Making of a Chef chronicles Ruhlman's time at the CIA. Soul of a Chef explores what drives chefs towards perfection. Great look behind at both Michael Symon of Lola and Thomas Keller of French Laundry. The section on the Master Chef Exam is interesting, but like the test itself, pointless. The Reach of a Chef explores the age of the celebrity chef. The Soul of a Chef is my favorite of the three. Mr. Ruhlman's writing style is clear and concise while always hinting that there is more, much more below the surface. In a way, his writings make you want to explore the CIA and world class kitchens yourself. Although one can't help but envy his unadulterated access to some of the world's best chefs and kitchens. Of course once this blog gets Peter and I a TV show, that access should fall right in our lap.

Tender at the Bone, Ruth Reichl. I must admit I thought I would not like this book. Luckily, lowering expectations provided the ability for me to enjoy the book as much as I did. Not sure if that is a backhanded, backhanded compliment, which would just be a compliment. Mrs. Reichl's writing explores food as a pathway through her own development. Mrs. Reichl's wit and humor carry what at times is a very sad story, all the while using food memories as trailmarkers. The book includes recipes which serve as the Proustian trigger for Mrs. Reichl to connect her to her past.

How I Learned to Cook, Edited by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan. Easy read. This book puts the story writing in the hands of over 30 chefs to tell their story of why they cook. Some chapters are only a few pages long, but all have a common theme: mistakes. Almost every story chronicles the time in a chef's training when they made an absolutely monumental mistake, got in way over there heads, or fell ass backwards into a job they were unqualified for. It is these mistakes which taught them a lesson and contributed to their success. Which should give hope to all amateur cooks about making mistakes in their own kitchen. Probably the most interesting part of the book is reading about the perfect TV host, Sara Moulton's, entry into professional cooking. Mrs. Moulton it appears once had a penchant for the marijuana and hard partying, not surprising as a chef, just surprising to read about concerning her. Then again almost every chef in this book was a stoner at one time. Good news for stoners, like the Kid Who Didn't Go to France.

A Year in Provence and French Lessons, Peter Mayle. I want to read the rest of Mr. Mayle's books. In a Year in Provence, he chronicles the move of he and his wife to a small town in Provence (althought you could have got most of that from the title). If you have been to France and enjoyed the eating, drinking, and lifestyle, then you will enjoy this book immensely. In French Lessons Mr. Mayle drinks and eats his way around the French Countryside exploring festivals of culinary delights, such as the Frog Legs Festival.

The Nasty Bits, Anthony Bourdain. A collection of smaller essays on eating, drinking, traveling, fame, and Mr. Bourdain's own life. Here is the only problem with this book. Because of Mr. Bourdain's near omnipresence on the Travel Channel (not a bad thing), I can not read his books without hearing his voice in my head (perhaps not such a good thing). However, much like How I Learned to Cook, the essays do not require one to invest any more than a 20-30 minutes at a time. I would put the Nasty Bits right below a Cook's Tour and above Kitchen Confidential, which is to say a good read. The above was written with Mr. Bourdain's voice in my head.

The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller. I had been putting off buying this book for a while now. My rationale was, "what could I possibly replicate or learn from a cookbook so clearly out of my league." Buying that cookbook and merely trying a recipe would be the equivalent, for me at least, of making a dress for Heidi Klum. However, the book is surprisingly approachable. Take for instance, Mr. Keller's instructions for making his Chive Chips. He walks you through the process of peeling, shaping, slicing, baking and cooling the potato chips with clarity and precision. A beautiful book with lots of pictures, co-written by Michael Ruhlman, The French Laundry Cookbook has the added benefit of making one look cool and being useful. The complete opposite of Slap-Bracelets.

Thats it for now. Go back to Work.

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