In the 21st century, chefs have gone celebrity -- their own shows, their own brands, their Twitter flocks. The result today: a lot of delicious, if sometimes unlikely food and even more delectable "dish" -- backstage stories that redefine the saying, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."
"Blood, Butter, and Bones" by Gabrielle Hamilton
A meaty memoir by chef who is actually more formally trained in writing (MFA, University of Michigan) than she is cooking. Though Hamilton's earliest memories are of her French mother wearing a fine skirt and heels while stirring an oily spoon at her six burner stove, she was a girl on her own in New York City by age 16 after her parents divorced. She wound up subsisting on loose change and McDonald's ketchup. Eventually she got crap jobs in restaurants -- potato peeling, and such, then not-quite-as-bad jobs for catering companies. By weird, messy, maggot infested turns, Hamilton achieves her writing dreams, then her cooking fantasies. She opened Prune in 1999; not surprisingly, the menu sounds strange, but authentic: Sardines on Triscuits, Classic NY Deli Egg-On-A-Roll and Youth Hostel Breakfast.
"Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: The Romantic, Impractical, often Eccentric Ultimately Brilliant Making of a Food Revolution" by Thomas McNamee
This story begins with the 1971 opening night of a counterculture restaurant that was more hope than plan. Four decades later, the restaurant is a world-wide institution, America finally has its own cuisine, and organic produce is sold in Wal-Mart. The woman behind it all is the diminutive Alice Waters. This authorized biography shows her to be visionary in her commitment to virtuous agriculture and its boon companion, good eating (particularly the slow food movement), but almost hopelessly myopic when it comes to seeing anything to do with a bottom line. The combination of food, finances, and feeling make for more than a few kitchen dust ups. But menus and recipes throughout keep the reading palatable.
"Jacques Pepin: The Apprentice" by Jacques Pepin
Always the optimist, Jacques Pepin not only sees the upside, but the opportunity, in everything -- including an impoverished childhood and personally dubious choices -- such as his decision to cook for Howard Johnson's rather than John F. Kennedy. In this sweet, gentle, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny memoir, Pepin even sees a near fatal car accident as a godsend. It got him out of the kitchen and into teaching! Well, that detour did wind up with Pepin landing more than dozen television gigs and inking some two dozen cookbook contracts. Ah, bon! But for all his savoir faire (and his decades living in America), Pepin remains utterly puzzled by our silliness. While on a road trip in the U.S., he and a French friend saw a sign that said, "Ducks for Sale." Of course they stopped, bought a couple of mallards, and -- right in front of their previous owner -- rung their quacking necks. (What else do you do with ducks?) Every chapter ends with recipes -- many easy enough for the novice chef to follow, all delicious.
"Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain
For the real dirt about what goes on in restaurant kitchens, Anthony Bourdain is the man. This rollicking look at the life of a chef and his world sheds light on some unsavory practices, like using charred bits of bad cuts for well done beef, and smoking marijuana in the walk-in freezer. Yes, Bourdain is nothing if not down and dirty, grappling with the sliminess of raw ingredients and the epithets spat out by the rough characters who are found in the sweaty kitchens of high-end restaurants. But Bourdain earns the right to let loose -- his honesty about his drug use and eloquence on food over-ride the more mundane tales of kitchen malfeasance. He leaves us with a searing account of the chaotic world of a restaurant chef, and wise counsel about never ordering mussels or sword-fish -- especially on Mondays.
"Appetite for Life" by Noel Riley Fitch
Never mind that she never had a Michelin star, Julia Child is the titan of American cuisine. Not only did she single-handedly revolutionize American dining, but she also stood an imposing, broad-shouldered six-feet two-inches tall. Child's early life might seem an unlikely foundation for culinary revolution: a pampered California girl from a wealthy family (even during the Great Depression) who went on to Smith college and a stint in Army intelligence during World War II. But what better inspirations for a Bunyan-esque figure to carve a path of civilization through a wilderness of frozen dinners and canned vegetables? Child followed up her 1961 book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," with her wildly popular TV series The French Chef (1963-1973) and so became America's first culinary star -- she appeared on Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman and Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Her mellifluous voice, down to earth charm, and good humor mingle delightfully in this, the authoritative biography of the life of the first cooking tycoon, whose kitchen is on permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution.