Kitchens. There’s nothing quite like ’em. They’re the heart of everything, whether they’re a modest home set-up or in an elaborate, multi-starred restaurant. Professional kitchens are intense little incubators and magnifiers, whereby lifelong relationships can often be forged—or forked—in less time than the average person spends getting to know a potential mate. If you have spent any length of time in any kitchen, enough to become borderline obsessive about it, you may start asking hefty, searching questions about life, food origins, farming, relationships, God, and so forth. Kitchens—a place of curiosity, creativity and risk-taking—naturally generate lots of questions and good stories. But you have to know what to do with them. These three chefs have much to recommend to them beyond life behind the line. They can hold their own behind the laptop, too.
When it was published in 2000, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential painted him as something as a Kerouac of the kitchen. This gritty, no-holds-barred memoir—which was birthed into the world as a story David Remnick published in the New Yorker—provides an unflinching glimpse of the misadventures of a certain kind of culinary trajectory (read: male, young and badass), along with behind-the-scenes practical advice (don’t order fish on Monday unless you know for sure it’s fresh). As a chef, Bourdain’s chops are long well-established, but the guy can truly put coherent, insightful and occasionally bawdy sentences together. It’s no wonder countless magazines have paid him to do so, ranging from the beloved, defunct Gourmet to offbeat Lucky Peach. Whether it’s on the page, or on the screen (No Reservations, The Mind of A Chef, etc.), it’s always his voice. These days, Bourdain’s grayed and mellowed with age (becoming a father later in life might have something to do with that too).Don’t believe me? He’s not the token wild card chef on The Taste, the TV show for which he serves as executive producer along with Nigella Lawson.
(See also: Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness and the Making of a Great Chef, published in 2007. MPW was the first British chef and youngest one ever to win three Michelin stars. And then, punk-rock style, give ’em back.)
Within the first few pages of Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef (2011), it was clear to me that this Pennsylvania native could very likely could have become successful via her writing alone. (She attended the University of Michigan’s MFA program for fiction.) Luckily for the rest of us, the tug of the kitchens both domestic and professional—of her youth and her Italian mother-in-law, along with, ultimately, her own restaurant Prune—offer endless storytelling fodder. By turns funny, precise and graceful, Hamilton’s book was a New York Times bestseller and seriously elevated her profile. Her cookbook for Prune, which was just published last year, shakes up your expectations of cookbook design, assuming a fair degree of culinary skills and notes-in-the-margin on purpose. It definitely subverts the cookbook norm, referring to your fridge as the “reach-in” and offering quantities such as “x4” and “x16” along with admonishments against plating something to make it look “restauranty.”
(See also: Kathleen Flinn’s The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry: Love, Laughter and Tears at the World’s Most Famous Cooking School. It’s a bit more light-hearted and humorous and less gut-wrenching, but full of heart.)
Chefs who cook extraordinarily well, who develop close relationships with farmers and the land and are finely attuned to seasonal cooking tend to be, by and large, a thoughtful bunch. It’s a rare chef among them, indeed, who can articulate those ideas in writing and weave a damn good story to boot, without the skillful assist of a ghostwriter or co-writer. In The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, chef Dan Barber (Blue Hill in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Pocantino Hills NY) has put together a provocative look at our current food culture, turning upside down the current thinking about buzzwords such as “sustainability” and “farm-to-table.” He asks important questions about taste and what it means to be a chef, and examines our disengagement from nature and agricultural ignorance—broadly speaking. It’s a thought-provoking read that’s never preachy; it’s entertaining and deeply engaging. Barber’s on a quest, and readers happily go along for the ride as he visits and learns from farmers around the world in search of new insights and a new food system that genuinely honors the land.
(See also: The most obvious choice here is Michael Pollan, who isn’t a chef, but whose works (Ominvore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto) travel in this territory and have provided pivotal “a-ha” moments for many readers.)
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.