Back Of The House--A Chef's Life

I have been spending my reading life in Paris of late but now my reading sees me heading off into the back of the house lives of some famous chefs and food writers. The two titles I am starting with keep me both in Paris and finally gets me to read a book that has languished for many years on my shelf. This is a very personal category as I spent many years "back of the house" in many restaurant kitchens, my life has moved on--but I am still an avid home cook. You can follow my cooking adventures in Gourmappetit.  


  A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter 

I loved this book from its rambling quirkiness to its often insightful prose, it is a fascinating glimpse into a life of a restaurant and its chef. The author spent several months working in the kitchen of the three Michelin star Paris restaurant, Taillevant. His tenure at the restaurant culminated with a five hour meal shared with his wife, in the 19th century dining room--a meal meticulously prepared and served-just like this book. The writing is a clever juxtaposition of the meal, the back of the house, history, and the love of food. 


     My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme

I got this book as a Christmas present back in 2006. I'm not quite sure why I never read it, it languished on my shelf for close to twelve years. As many aspiring female chefs do I consider Julia Child to be an inspiration and a role model in so many ways--not just as a chef. Julia was a tall, large-boned, "handsome" woman who could have easily slid into the role of an American housewife in Paris when her husband Paul was stationed there in 1948 after WWII. I admire her because it just never seemed to occur to her that she couldn't conquer Paris, master French Cooking, get accepted at the Cordon Bleu, teach classes, write books, or become a TV personality. An ordinary woman with the spirit to become quite extraordinary. 

Julia wrote this memoir about her years in France with the assistance from her grandnephew Alex, she passed away in 2004, I believe just after completing the first draft, her love and joy for life sing through these pages and since I am crying while I write these words I imagine that this is part of the reason it took me so long to finally read this book. 


   Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton

The author is the chef of the acclaimed NYC restaurant Prune and a very talented writer. Before she opened Prune, Gabrielle spent 20 some fierce hard-living years working in bars, summer camps, catering companies and restaurants in America, France, Greece, and Turkey. She had an idyllic childhood in upstate New York mostly spent with her French mother in the kitchen, her parents were locally famous for their large food themed parties. This world was destroyed when her parents split and her mother left the family behind. Ms. Hamilton went to college in Michigan where she earned an M.F.A. in writing. She also got her first catering job there. 

The book details her life, her family, her prickly marriage with an Italian, motherhood, her restaurant and her restaurant family. She is an honest gritty writer, she is not always likable and I certainly don't agree with all of her choices but she is a great talent both in the kitchen and as a writer. Her work ethic alone is enough to make me lie down and weep. As I got an inadvertent education in yoga and eventually became a reluctant yoga instructor I can relate to the experience of coming into a career through the back door, so to speak.


     Back of the House: The Secret Life of a Restaurant by Scott Haas

Second book in this category that features a writer who wanted to get a look at the "back of the house" and this book is in its own separate way also reading time well spent. The author is a clinical psychologist and a well regarded food writer who wanted to get a look into the minds of some top American chefs. The book features some of the conversations that he had with several such chefs but it mostly features the James Beard Award winning, Boston chef, Tony Maws. Scott spent 18 months immersed into Tony's kitchen life at his restaurant Craigie on Main, and he became a part of the restaurant family.

This book is less about what makes the food so amazing, the author captures the excitement and drama of the kitchen but not the food and the artistry of cooking. Instead his focus is on the actions of chefs and the employees, looking at the back of the house through the eyes of a clinical psychologist. He examines the flaws, the staff turnovers, relationship troubles and does a good job of showing the reality of life as lived in the kitchen behind a famous restaurant. Truthfully though I found the "head shrinking" elements a little tiresome and overreaching at times but still really liked the book.


   An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler

This is a collection of essays about the joys of simple slow food everything from boiling water to cooking eggs and beans, how to use the odds and ends of one meal to start the next one. She believes that almost all kitchen mistakes can be remedied, cooking resourcefully and not wastefully. Tamar is a writer and a cook who has logged serious time on the line of restaurants big, small, famous and humble. She spent time at Chez Panisse working with Alice Waters and time at Prune working with Gabrielle Hamilton. I just love when books in my categories mesh and interweave in myriad ways.

Her way of cooking leads one to end up with a refrigerator and freezer full of mostly unlabeled odds and ends but out of my growing collection I have made some inventive tasty meals. She is also of the opinion that everything tastes better with a sprinkle of parsley, a squirt of lemon, a dash of parmesan cheese, and a spray of breadcrumbs--and I have found that indeed she is pretty much spot on.


   An Edible History of Humanity by Tom Standage

I know, I know. Technically this book does not belong in this category, I found it stuffed in between "An Everlasting Meal" and "Blood, Butter, and Bones" on the shelf at Half Priced Books and couldn't resist. It is a red herring. I was expecting this to be a book about how certain foods became human staples, I guess. But no, instead the book explores the amazing role of food, especially plant food in history--as a tool of social transformation, political organization, geopolitical competition, industrial development, military conflict, and economic expansion. 

The book spans the time from the emergence of farming in China by 7,500 BCE to today's use of corn and sugar to produce ethanol, it is a different way of looking at history that is both eye-opening and changed the way I view the world. I found it to be a bit of a palate cleanser--it took me out of the "tiny" back of the house world of individual restaurants to looking at food from a much larger perspective.


     The School of Essential Ingredients (A School of Essential Ingredients Novel) by Erica Bauermeister

This is the only fictional "back of the house" in this category and while it hails itself as a novel it reads more like a collection of interweaving short stories. Lillian is a successful chef/restauranteur who conducts cooking classes "back of the house" where she teaches the essential basics of cooking. To me, she was the most interesting character, and at times I wished the whole book was about her but this is not what the author had in mind for her book. Each chapter follows the life of one of the eight students who take this particular round of cooking classes. 

It is about the healing energy of cooking, the soul satisfying work of nourishing yourself and others with thoughtfully prepared simple food, and the mind stilling quality of "hands on doing" that the often repetitive tasks of cooking and baking bring. If you pay attention when watching a cooking competition or show you will often hear the chefs credit their back of house cooking life as the one that made all the difference, the one that turned their life around and gave their life meaning and purpose.

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Hi! I'm Debbie. Here at Categorically Well-Read I give an extra layer to the reading life. Learn more about me, check out my current category of books, submit your own suggestion, or check out my latest post.