Why you should care
Because we’ve had enough macho chef memoirs already.
This past year, we’ve moved on from the stories of the alpha-male chefs who run the fine dining business by cursing, drinking and bullying. Thankfully, there’s an exciting new wave of memoirs and fiction penned by women who are chefs and front-of-house staff at high-end restaurants.
“We’ve certainly seen the rise of the female chef, but they’re still struggling with the stigma of having a strength position and being able to run and lead,” says Stef Ferrari, editor of Life & Thyme, a magazine that documents restaurant culture around the world. Books like Gabrielle Hamilton’s Blood, Bones and Butter were important, she adds, because they let the reader see what creating a successful restaurant is about, and other female chefs have followed Hamilton’s lead. Whether you’re curious about what it takes to create a restaurant empire as a woman, how to deal with pushy customers as a female sommelier or navigating post-shift waitstaff drinking politics, these fearless women have got you covered.
Exploring life on the other side of the swinging doors, Sweetbitter has “cracked the genre open” for books about front-of-house jobs, according to Amanda Dell, co-director of the Food Book Fair and co-host of the podcast Recommended Reading with Food Book Fair. Stephanie Danler, who has waited tables at Union Square Cafe and Buvette in New York City, drew on her experiences to create a lyrical coming-of-age novel — a story of a young woman who moves to New York City to do something. What that something is she has no idea, but a back-waiting job at a fictionalized version of Union Square Cafe forces her to learn how to taste good food and wine while she figures it out. The development of sensual appreciation turns into the ability to see things for what they are, rather than what the protagonist wants them to be — a changing force in both her love life and career.
You’ll want to recount her wacky wine-festival adventures at dinner and ask your friends how many smells they can identify in a glass.
Like Sweetbitter, Cork Dork explores learning how to trust and refine your senses. One day former tech journalist Bianca Bosker realized that she had been mindlessly consuming wine for years, which prompted her to question whether she was fully living her life. This led her to attempt to join the rarefied world of sommeliers — the first clue that among all the quirky personalities you’ll encounter in the book, Bosker is the quirkiest. Her journalistic instincts, which give the story heft, pull at threads of the question “Is wine tasting actually bunk?” And her enthusiasm for answers is infectious: You’ll want to recount her wacky wine-festival and sommelier-competition adventures at dinner and ask your friends how many smells they can identify in a glass.
Though Amy Thielen’s book is part kitchen memoir, it’s no Kitchen Confidential. A large chunk is set in the kitchens of David Bouley and Daniel Boulud, but there are few juicy tidbits, and Thielen’s life, at least as presented in the book, is definitely not fueled by sex and drugs. It’s actually kind of wholesome — Midwestern wholesome — and that’s the point. At times Give a Girl a Knife, which recounts Thielen’s training as a chef in New York City and her growing up in rural Michigan, lacks an interior narrative arc. However, it’s fascinating to learn how Thielen’s love of Midwestern home cooking translated, and didn’t translate, to the fine dining world.
In this memoir, you don’t learn exactly what makes Barbara Lynch tick, but her story of how she built a restaurant empire without any formal training as a chef is compelling simply because of just how much she has accomplished through sheer grit. Before she opens her first restaurant, she fibs her way into a chef job on a cruise ship, and creates an Italian wedding feast for a friend in Italy, with only one trip to the country under her belt. The Italian wedding chapter is one of the best — you feel the pressure Lynch was under. Lynch and Hamilton “can and should write their memoirs,” says Dell. “They have the accomplishments behind them to back it up.”