The Inner Lives of Chefs
Credit: eatingb00ks / Instagram

These chef memoirs and stories from the kitchen will warm your heart and your belly.

By Jessica Dukes

“Chef” is an official, hard-earned title much like “Professor” or “Doctor.” It takes a chef years of being an apprentice and working long hours to fine-tune their cuisine and make it their own. Eventually, they get to run the back of the house, the kitchen, where they perform daily miracles on a plate. We love chef memoirs for the same reasons we love a good meal – they’re a satisfying triumph of hard work, following a vision, precise science, and pure artistry.

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Yes, Chef: A Memoir by Marcus Samuelsson

Chef Samuelsson’s remarkable journey took him from battling tuberculosis at three years old—walking 75 miles to a hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia—to living with a white, middle-class family in Sweden. Finding his flair for cooking through his grandmother, he worked his way through cutthroat restaurants in Switzerland, grueling cruise ship stints, and, ultimately, to New York City, where he began to make his mark at 24 years old. His memoir explores the meaning of home, survival, and a lifelong passion for food.

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the culinary underbelly

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Chef Bourdain’s first memoir can be credited with reviving the current fascination with what really goes on in the kitchen. Filled with salacious stories about sex, drugs, and when to never eat fish, Kitchen Confidential either scared people away from the restaurant business, or sent them running toward it. No detail is spared, and the voice we all know from Bourdain’s later TV shows still lives beautifully on the page, 20 years after its debut.

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Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook by Alice Waters

In 1971, Chef Waters opened Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, both for her love of French cooking and as a social experiment. Her big idea: Even the most traditional cuisines could be flexible. Blending cultures into one recipe could create a multicultural dining room and eventually a more understanding society. Today, she’s an icon of the sustainable food movement, so it’s exciting to read her origin story, from when she was young, uncertain, yet striving to start a conversation about the politics of food.

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Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi and Joshua David Stein

If it weren’t for cooking, Chef Onwuachi’s life in the Bronx might have taken a turn for the worse. His passion drove him to save enough money from selling candy on the subway to start his own catering business. By 27, he opened one of the most talked-about restaurants in New York City. As a higher level of fame has eluded him, this young chef has a lot of insights on race, cuisine, and what it takes to follow a dream.

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

This is the story of decades spent wandering in and out of kitchens. Chef Hamilton grew up in rural Pennsylvania, where her parents threw lavish dinner parties on a shoestring budget. Later, she collected recipes and techniques from home kitchens across Europe. She spent time in large catering kitchens. Eventually, she had two kitchens of her own: one at her first restaurant, Prune, and one at home with the family she never thought she would have.

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SOUL: A Chef’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes by Todd Richards

Most contemporary cookbooks tell stories and provide a touch of history behind each dish, but SOUL is unique in that it blows open any stereotypes you may have about Southern cuisine. Chef Richards’ personal stories and tastes shine through on every page, as does his mission: “It starts with honoring our culinary heritage…The next step is acknowledging one another’s.” The result is an education on soul food, and how recipes like Collard Green Ramen and Cush-Cush (an African cornbread) are related.

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Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness by Cat Cora

Chef Cora, the first woman to win the Iron Chef competition, has loved to cook ever since she was a child. She loved being creative, but she also loved that the kitchen provided a safe space to escape from an abusive childhood and later, a place where she was accepted as a lesbian. Her intensive culinary education, her Food Network stardom, and her life as a wife and mother are all laid bare in this exciting and tender success story.

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L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi, Tien Nguyen, and Natasha Phan

Chef Choi is the creator of the Korean taco – a genius pairing of the two cultures that informed his life as a Korean-American kid growing up in Los Angeles. Choi spends years cooking in well-stocked ritzy kitchens, but his destiny takes him back to the streets. When his Korean Taco food trucks start rolling, he single-handedly reinvents street food, and fuels a movement that values simple ingredients and delicious bites that everyone can afford to enjoy.

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Burn the Place by Iliana Regan

Chef Regan’s childhood on her family’s Indiana farm was difficult. Unable to explain that she felt like she was really a boy, she threw herself into farming and harvesting, which taught her about ingredients for recipes she invented in a small barn kitchen. At 15, she began working in a restaurant, battled discrimination, and befriended a group of radical foragers. Eventually she cooked her way into her own Chicago restaurant, Elizabeth, which features what she calls “New Gatherer Cuisine”—visionary dishes built around locally foraged and gathered ingredients.

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Where I Come From: Life Lessons from a Latino Chef by Aarón Sánchez

Chef Sánchez was born into the business. Zarela Martinez, his mother, is famous for introducing traditional Mexican cuisine to the American palate with her NYC restaurant, Zarela. Through her, Sánchez met and worked with influential chefs, particularly Chef Paul Prudhomme in New Orleans. Sánchez’s story is an inspiration and a reminder that remaining true to tradition and family is still an effective path to success.

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