SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST: David Chang (t), Jonathan Eismann(m) and Andrew Carmellini (b)
One of the great things about choosing a cooking career is that there are many ways to make it to the top. Some aspirants take the culinary school route, followed by a series of intern-like stages in the great kitchens of the world. Others opt for the school-of-hard-knocks approach, where the ability to talk your way into a job despite little or no experience— and then fake your way through it until you catch on—is key. Still others just have a knack for cooking, fall into the restaurant life and never look back.
Each of these approaches is on display in How I Learned To Cook (Bloomsbury, $24.95). It's a collection of 40 essays from top pros that has been ably edited and bundled together by Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan. The book promises readers will learn how "The World's Greatest Chefs" got their start in the profession, and it mostly delivers.
The pitch to general readers is that they will be privy to more of the wild, behind-the-scene antics first brought to light in Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. And, yes, we learn that catching a buzz before, during and after work was a common occurrence for many cooking greats included here. Fun stuff to know, but it obscures the inspirational content that makes this book so motivating for up-and-coming restaurant workers. The overall message here is that anyone can succeed, and that getting in over your head just might be the fastest way to do it.
Three things make this book of interest to a professional reader.
One is that it is so skillfully edited that almost every first-person essay comes across as well-structured and well-written, even though we doubt every chef contained herein put pen to paper him or herself.
Second is that you'll recognize that some of your own early goof-ups and failures are not necessarily unique to you. In fact, they've been experienced by industry titans, who still managed to rise above them and prosper.
For example, Ming Tsai finds himself trapped in a chocolate-making fiasco eerily similar to the famous one from "The Lucille Ball Show," only he's working at the legendary Fauchon in Paris when it occurs. Jonathan Eismann learns that a sous chef's role includes adapting his kitchen's prep and service scheme to the windows of productivity presented by his drugged-out crew. Andrew Carmellini flies to Italy for a cooking competition only to learn that the fix was in for somebody else.
Daniel Boulud takes the prize for most inauspicious debut, getting drunk in Paul Bocuse's kitchen as a visitor (at age 14!), then landing a job there later only to be run off for showing up with a bad hangover. Momofuku's David Chang travels to Tokyo to absorb everything he can about noodles, only to find he must buy a $2,200 sobacutting knife before being allowed to make noodles that are served to his master's customers.
Finally, these stories will give you faith that no matter what job you hold now, if you've got talent and aspire to greater things, you're working in an industry where greatness is open to you. As the heavyweights in this book point out, everyone gets humbled along the way. Overcoming the obstacles will get you what you want.
The Good Home Cookbook
The content of this book is fine: more than 1,000 classic American food recipes. But it's the methodology that really makes Perry's book of interest. Every recipe was evaluated, tested and retested multiple times before being deemed worthy of inclusion, with the testing done by more than 700 American families drawn from all 50 states. Would that a version of prepublication recipe refinement like this one would be done for some of the ambitious chef-driven cookbooks we regularly review in this space, with everyday line cooks serving as the testers. It would make the recipes both practical and foolproof.. As this book shows, that's a huge plus.
About Professional Baking: The Essentials
$55? Yes, you read that right, and this book is worth it. Our head hurts just thinking about how much work Sokol put into this 482-page volume, whose 700 photos and 125 recipes are just the beginning of the resources it brings to the table. Sokol is a renowned baking instructor, and her book is packed—and we do mean packed—with the kind of explanations that make the rest of the information come alive. You don't need this book if you are an accomplished pastry chef or there's one on your staff. Just about everyone else who dabbles in baked goods or wants to get better at making them should pony up that $55 and get a copy of this one today. Highly recommended.