Appetite: 2 intriguing new food memoirs

Pub date March 12, 2011
SectionFood & Drink

Just released in early March, here are two new reads I’d recommend not only for foodies but for fans of the absorbing, well-crafted memoir.

>>Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas: When Alinea’s chef genius Grant Achatz writes a memoir, it’s destined to get buzz among foodies. When this visionary chef was diagnosed with stage four tongue cancer, threatened to lose his tongue and taste buds (something devastating to anyone, much less a celebrated chef), it was news well beyond the food world.

Achatz’s first memoir, written with his business partner, Nick Kokonas, is much more than a cancer survival story. It is also more than a chef memoir. Appropriately titled, Life, On the Line, it may not be the most literary of food memoirs, but it is gripping. I couldn’t stop reading of Achatz’s humble Michigan roots, his rise as a chef under Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, and particularly the incessant drive that led him to opening his own, widely acclaimed restaurant just as he entered his thirtieth decade.

Life, On the Line is raw, honest, with a straightforwardness that is refreshing. A bittersweet tone underlies this impressive success story. I love Alinea as much as most who’ve had the privilege of eating there, and this book certainly acquaints me in a real, unsentimental way with the minds behind it.

I’m already plotting how I can get to Chicago after his unparalleled concepts of Aviary and Next open…

>>Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton: Who knew chef of NY’s beloved Prune, in the East Village, was first and foremost a writer? Early word on the street was that her book was, as Anthony Bourdain himself said, “the best memoir by a chef ever.”

I find the hype a bit high, but do think cooks and food lovers will find much to savor in Blood, Bones and Butter. Though I found it not as compelling as Achatz’s Life, On the Line, Hamilton shines in her mastery of the English language, making it a more pleasurable read.  From idyllic, dreamy parties her parents threw at her rural Pennsylvania childhood home, to the devastation of their divorce that led Hamilton to support herself in restaurant jobs from teen years on, her choice of words creates vivid pictures of each era of her life.

Amidst dish-washing and butchery, she describes her move back to school at “the Harvard of the Midwest” (University of Michigan), where she gets an MFA in fiction writing. It’s an intriguing journey from writing to unexpectedly running her own restaurant. You can’t help but feel writing is her first calling.

As she describes the lamb roasts of her youth, you clearly envision it, and acutely wish you were there: “… the lambs on their spits were hoisted off the pit onto the shoulders of men, like in a funeral procession, and set down on the makeshift plywood-on-sawhorse tables to be carved. Then the sun started to set and we lit the paper bag luminaria, which burned soft glowing amber, punctuating the meadow and the night, and the lamb was crisp-skinned and sticky from slow roasting, and the root beer was frigid and it caught, like an emotion, in the back of my throat.”

** Catch Gabrielle this week in SF at Camino in Oakland (3/11), Omnivore Books (3/12).

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