Why do we love books by and about chefs? It's hard to say for certain, but there's no denying that Anthony Bourdain's memoir, Kitchen Confidential (Harper Perennial), launched the genre into popular consciousness. Bourdain not so politely informed us that Ramones-blasting ex-junkies cook our food and, more importantly, he helped us develop an appreciation and general taste for stories involving fast-paced--and potentially disastrous--kitchen life.
Maybe we like chef stories for the same reason we like disaster movies. There's always the potential--and likelihood--that chaos will ensue at some point, but also that everything will turn out right by the end. And like disaster movies, chef stories work best when they involve likable people who want to serve up good food and wine, but have working against them the fact that running a successful restaurant is about as likely as surviving the impact of a giant asteroid headed straight for Earth.
For this reason, Don't Try This at Home: Culinary Catastrophes from the World's Greatest Chefs (Bloomsbury, $25, 308 pages), a collection of essays by 40 top chefs released late last year, should be the perfect read for any food-and-wine lover. It's a dream-team assemblage, comprising a gamut of personalities from the inner-demon incarnate Bourdain to the friendly-yet-fun Sara Moulton to the pedantic, master craftsman Tom Colicchio. The collection of them all, sharing their kitchen-chaos stories in their own voices, is as good a concept as the tasting menu. But what works so well for someone like Bourdain doesn't work for every chef, leaving us with a book that's full of flavor at some moments and bland at others.
The main reason is that most of the chefs didn't do their homework assignments, and fail to deliver what the book's cover promises. Even if they aren't specifically about exploding pressure cookers or soufflés acting like a game of Whack-a-Mole gone awry, isn't it fair to expect at least somewhat entertaining stories from the likes of Daniel Boulud, Mario Batali, Hubert Keller and Marcus Samuelsson? Most of the essays, in fact, simply involve the chefs preventing disaster rather than enduring or even escaping it, which really isn't compelling on its own. The celebrity chefs need to show their human side, and admit that they're as capable of losing control over chaos as they are at maintaining it.
However, there are some stories that deliver above and beyond the book's title, bringing the concept of making lemonade out of lemons to a whole new level. Michelle Bernstein's essay is particularly inspired--she recalls dropping an entire foie gras terrine into melted chocolate, a tragedy that results in a eurekalike triumph. Other standouts include Bourdain, Jonathan Eismann, Norman Van Aken, Jimmy Bradley and Michel Richard. But most of the chefs' essays don't measure up to Bourdain's contribution, largely because these chefs don't have his writing experience or a unique enough voice to make weak kitchen stories at least seem strong.
|Anthony Bourdain is at his best when there's substance to back up the schtick.|
Some essays are quintessential Bourdain, like his review of Japanese restaurant Masa, in which his joy and delight of the dining experience are conveyed in such a way that the reader's stomach can't help but rumble. It's as if we're sitting right beside him for the duration of the dinner; we can see and smell each and every bite to a degree of clarity that, for foodies, could be considered torture.
Unfortunately, however, The Nasty Bits suffers from many of the same problems as Don't Try This at Home. At least half of the essays simply feel labored, almost like they're the last steak frites served that night and the chef just can't be bothered to give his full attention to preparing it. Bourdain's schtick is what makes his writing so fun, but when there's no substance to back it up, the schtick is just … schtick.
Though there are enough juicy bits in both books to make them worth the purchase price, it's reasonable to ask ourselves just how long we'll have a taste for this sort of thing. Publishing house Bloomsbury seems to think we will for quite some time, as yet another collection, How I Learned to Cook, is currently in the works. But it will only succeed if the contributors forget about their celebrity status when they sit down at the computer, and stop playing it safe. Writer-chefs are at their best when they take us on an adventure in their crazy world, not just offer up the odd morsel and expect us to enjoy it simply because an exalted chef presented it.
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