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November 28, 2022

5 Essential Chef Memoirs

The best chef memoirs entertain, enlighten, and answer the question:

Why do we do this to ourselves?

Words: Michael Harden

When Anthony Bourdain came along and threw Kitchen Confidential in our faces, he practically invented a new genre: the chef memoir. Bourdain’s sweaty, behind-the-scenes, sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll take on restaurants might have glorified atrocious behaviour (a smorgasbord of bullying, misogyny, assault, substance abuse and questionable hygiene) but it also shone a spotlight onto some ingrained fault lines in the industry which, it could be argued, helped lead us towards current conversations and changes around issues of kitchen culture, mental health and work-life balance.

Obviously people have been writing about food and cooking for centuries. French gourmand Brillat-Savarin coined the phrase “you are what you eat” back in 1825, and restaurants have featured heavily in celebrated literary works like George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. Then there’s Marco Pierre-White’s strange 1990 memoir-cookbook-picture book hybrid White Heat  which created the template for the chef-as-rock-star trope that Bourdain enthusiastically embraced.

But nobody had done it like Bourdain before.

"Well-written and insightful, the best chef memoirs accurately convey what it is to be hopelessly smitten by restaurants."

Since it was published in 2000, Kitchen Confidential has turbo-charged and defined the chef memoir genre. Warts-and-all is the starting point, and while some lesser works come across as akin to culinary torture porn the best chef memoirs cover dark and light in equal measure. They’ll tell you of terrible mishaps, hilariously disastrous services, struggles with anxiety, depression, drugs, relationships and confidence, but they’ll also convey that undying, unquenchable, irresistible pull that restaurants and the industry have for so many people. They answer the question: Why do we do this to ourselves?

For those outside the industry, Kitchen Confidential was a voyeuristic peek behind the curtain. To those within, Bourdain gave us a ‘how not to’ guide, a cautionary tale, even if we didn’t realise it at the time.

Chef memoirs are always a great read for those in the game, even if it’s just to ridicule how wrong they got it. But the best ones can also act as guide books, for both what to do and what not to do. Well-written and insightful, they accurately convey what it is to be hopelessly smitten by restaurants. Here are five of the best of them.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

By Anthony Bourdain 


For all the dodgy attitudes and behaviour (which Bourdain addressed in re-prints of his most famous book), Kitchen Confidential remains the most exuberantly enthusiastic work ever written about restaurants, kitchen camaraderie and the general lust for life that keeps people in the industry.

Bourdain might be disdainful about certain elements of the food world (the industrial celebrity chef complex and its sanitising of the cheffing profession is a particular irritant) but no one can write about flavour and cooking with as much full-throated energy.

Bourdain’s description of trying his first oyster as a child while travelling in France with his parents (“with one bite and a slurp, wolfed it down…it tasted of seawater…of brine and flesh… and somehow…of the future”) will be familiar to anyone who has tasted something for the first time and understood, happily, that they’re hooked.

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

By Gabrielle Hamilton


Gabrielle Hamilton, New York City-based chef and restaurateur, is a magnificent writer. Reading BB&B is a pleasure for the prose alone, but Hamilton’s experiences with food and the industry add a bucketload of clear-eyed, insightful, gritty texture. She tells of being brought up (and then abandoned by) parents who “bought whole legs of lamb, four gallons of milk at a time, whole wheels of cheese” and describes how she came to build and run one of the city’s most popular small restaurants, Prune, in such meticulous detail that it should probably come with a trigger warning for those who’ve travelled a similar path. 

What Hamilton does brilliantly is to put her work in restaurants within the context of a whole, sometimes messy and complicated life. She addresses not being caught in the “woman chef” ghetto, the chaos of juggling a small business with children and family, and the overwhelming pressure that at times seems it’ll break you – until a perfect restaurant service, or a supplier arriving with beans that “taste like pure chlorophyll.” BB&B is a handbook for life, both in and out of the kitchen.

Plenty: Digressions On Food

By Gay Bilson


One of the great Australian books about food and restaurants, Plenty is not, strictly speaking, a chef’s memoir but Gay Bilson has spent enough time in restaurant kitchens (two of them iconic: Berowra Waters Inn and Bennelong at the Sydney Opera House) and in the restaurant industry generally, to qualify. Plenty should be required reading for every dreamy-eyed newcomer.

Bilson can be blunt about the difficulty of running restaurants (even when they’re not in tricky locations) and about people she believes to be blow-hards, but she’s also remarkably generous with sharing her knowledge about the history of the Australian food scene and her intricate, intimate understanding of ingredients. There are also plenty of hard-won insights into restaurants, including the observation that the constant expectation of serving up something new is the “enemy of good food."

Eat A Peach

By David Chang


Anyone considering opening a restaurant, who thinks it’s all about glamour and celebrity, needs to read David Chang’s memoir. On the surface, Chang, with his wildly successful Momofuku restaurants, his James Beard Awards, his TV shows, cookbooks and podcasts, would appear to be the dream made reality. But below the surface, things are darker and more chaotic.

It can be a gruelling read – Chang is brutally transparent about his ongoing struggle with mental illness and his sometimes-dysfunctional relationship with staff (“I hate that the anger has become my calling card”). But he also imparts advice and encouragement (“if I can get here, as fallible and neurotic as I am, anyone can”). Coming from a man who arguably altered the way Americans eat by flaunting convention and asking the question: “what if the underground became mainstream?” it’s advice well worth heeding.

Our Lady of Perpetual Hunger

By Lisa Donovan


There’s a lot in Lisa Donovan’s memoir about the challenges (to put it mildly) women can face working in the male-dominated restaurant world. An award-winning cook whose work with traditional southern US desserts and baking landed her in prestigious American kitchens (as well as being an award-winning food writer), Donovan is very much in the brutally honest, post-Bourdain school of chef memoir writers.

She chronicles the tribulations of her often turbulent work and her personal life without self-pity and with plenty of raucous, self-deprecating humour. The way she writes about food is sublime – her description of eating a “truly important” Californian apricot for the first time is both hilarious and moving. But it is her insights into the restaurant world, its structures and its flaws, that should land this one on your must-read pile.

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