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The Best Food-Focused Memoirs of Fall 2017

Chefs and restaurateurs on their struggles, successes, and the food that carried them through

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The chef memoir as a literary category blew up after Anthony Bourdain published the seminal Kitchen Confidential in 2000. Since then, cooks have been detailing their struggles in the kitchen and on the plate with a raw intensity that’s tempered by the memories of a meal. Here’s the newest crop of books that relive the moments of a life spent in food, including poignant words from chef and writer David Lebovitz, a new tale from California cuisine pioneer Alice Waters, and a long look back on a life’s work by Nobu Matsuhisa. Also find a gorgeously illustrated new children’s book, a collection of Vogue magazine’s food features, and a photo-forward biography of Julia Child’s life in France.

I Hear She’s a Real Bitch

Jen Agg
Penguin Books, September 12

Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg is a hero for many women in the restaurant industry. From the moment she started working behind the counter at the long-gone Toby’s in Toronto, Agg has been fighting the patriarchy nonstop. Remember her fiery op-ed in the New York Times? She said what a lot of women in her industry are still thinking — “high-end kitchens have long been regarded as a male domain” — and the raw quality of her frustration became a rallying cry for women in food across the world.

Her memoir, I Hear She’s a Real Bitch, is an eye-opener. Written with a sense of urgency, it’s an important work because it spells out exactly how the restaurant industry is gendered.

Even at a young age, Agg knew she wanted to work for herself because “being a boss is better than having a boss.” As she faces failures and challenges, from closing her first bar, Cobalt, in order to crawl out of a $300,000 tax hole to feeding her male business partner ideas he would later take credit for, she learns to operate and own several popular bars and restaurants in Toronto and Montreal, including the Black Hoof, Grey Gardens, and Rhum Corner.

Meanwhile, she champions women’s rights (gloriously uncensored on Twitter), calling out several problems in her industry — sexism, harassment, and unequal pay — all while speaking her mind in a beautifully unapologetic way. This memoir is so much more than a book about starting and running a restaurant. It’s about hard work and dedication, never backing down, and taking a stand for what you believe in. —Esra Erol

L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home

David Lebovitz
Crown, November 7

A dedicated blogger and cookbook author who spent the early part of his career working at Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse in Berkeley, pastry chef David Lebovitz brings his conversational and often wry, self-deprecating voice to his latest book, LAppart.

Those who have faced trying house hunts and renovations or harbor dreams of moving abroad should proceed with caution when approaching this book. Lebovitz’s memoir quickly crushes any romanticized images his readers may have of expatriates casually uprooting their hectic U.S. lives for a simple existence in a petit Parisian flat. The author, who lived in Paris for roughly 10 years before naively embarking on his journey to buy an apartment in the city, adeptly removes some of the shine of living abroad as a foreigner. By the end, readers will feel his pain and fatigue dealing with questionable realtors, one truly awful contractor, and several rage-inducing trips to Ikea (or “EEy-Kay-a” as the French call it).

While this is not a traditional cookbook, Lebovitz stays true to his culinary roots by channeling his attempt to build a home in the City of Lights through food. Many of the chapters are punctuated by thoughtful (often French) recipes inspired by his Paris experiences, such as kouign-amann pastries and Swedish meatballs. As a chef, the author is not a slave to tradition, although Lebovitz does a good job of laying out the differences between what’s standard and what are his own revisions to original recipes. The moderate-to-challenging recipes laid out in LAppart require some experience and gut instinct to get right.

In some ways, these cooking experiences might even mirror Lebovitz’s own trials and errors as he navigates the complicated landscape of Parisian bureaucracy and construction in one of the greatest food cities in the world. Overcoming a challenge can sometimes have delicious rewards. —Brenna Houck

Food in Vogue

Vogue Editors
Abrams, November 14

“You know that we don’t do food the way other magazines do.” The first words of Food in Vogue are technically those of Vogue articles editor Taylor Antrim quoting longtime fashion editor Phyllis Posnick, but they also lay the groundwork for this book that marks the magazine’s 125th anniversary.

The volume collects some of the more iconic food photography and writing published in Vogue, with a heavy dose of Jeffrey Steingarten, who’s held the magazine’s food critic title since 1989. Steingarten’s writing has always felt too gilded with personal access and excess (and exclamations!) for my personal taste; Tamar Adler’s pieces, also prominently featured, are more my speed.

It’d be nice if there were more older selections from the magazine’s archive, examples that would help Food in Vogue craft a stronger argument about the magazine’s (and food’s) place in American culture. Take, for example, Sophie Kerr’s 700-word piece about the rise of the self-proclaimed “gourmet” — aka the person inciting “torrid arguments that rage perennially in our public press over whether or not clam chowder should be made with tomatoes.” The article could easily stand in for a modern-day #take about how one’s taste preferences shouldn’t boil over into classism; a tongue-in-cheek look at the emergence of the “foodie.” It was written in 1948, and one of the few older stories in the book.

But while a Food in Vogue book published in 1978 functioned as a retrospective (subtitle: Six Decades of Cooking and Entertaining), this Food in Vogue is a coffee table book, and it benefits from Vogue’s murderer’s row of the century’s top photographers — from Irving Penn to Helmut Newton to Annie Leibovitz. It’s visually stunning. The late Irving Penn, best known for his portraiture but with an eye that imbued personality into inanimate objects, takes center stage: See the starkness of a potato chip, egg yolk, and pats of butter plopped atop a raw steak, or the coq au vin that places the chicken in the pot — cleaned and de-feathered only below the neck. Feel the odd loneliness of Eric Boman’s “Stuck on You,” depicting dry pasta stuffed into bread in an uncanny manner; the playfulness of Helmut Newton’s “Roast Chicken and Bulgari Jewels” and “Chicken in Heels,” the latter of which, literally, sticks two miniature high heels atop a raw chicken carcass.

Food in Vogue might not make you hungry, but like the magazine itself, its presence will project an invaluable idea: that its owner has impeccable taste. —Erin DeJesus

Nobu: A Memoir

Nobu Matsuhisa
Atria/Emily Bestler Books, November 7

Nobu Matsuhisa’s memoir, released 30 years after his first restaurant opened in Los Angeles, explains a lot about the man who created an empire on five continents. In seven chapters, with descriptive subheadings, the Japanese chef recounts a lifetime with lows that left him near suicide and highs that found him in his own movie star trailer acting alongside Robert DeNiro.

Matsuhisa unveils the pain of losing his father as a young boy, the perseverance it took to become a sushi chef, and the deep respect he has for his culture and relationships. Glitzy stories name drop Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Tom Cruise, and Cindy Crawford; sharp business deals with restaurant partners like Drew Nieporent keep the reader engaged and energized when dramatic moments of struggle are no more.

Because I am familiar with the Nobu and Matsuhisa restaurants, I was drawn to stories of how many signature dishes — the sashimi salad, soft-shell crab rolls, and black cod with miso — were created. But more than a culinary-centric memoir, the book carries the wisdom of a successful self-made man who made many mistakes and who had weaknesses and moments of despair. His goals and mottos — seeing a smile on his customer’s face, cooking from the heart, forging ahead even if it just a millimeter a day — may not be shared by every reader, but relatable life lessons from a passionate spirit are what keep the pages turning.

The non-fluid, abrupt story-telling style, dotted with examples and explanations that belong more in a teaching setting, is easy to forgive because of the vulnerability and boldness that Matsuhisa brings to the book. The man who reintroduced Japanese cuisine in America shuns the “fusion” label he is often assigned and even dares to ask what exactly Japanese cooking is anyway. —Andra Zeppelin

Coming to My Senses: The Making of a Counterculture Cook
Alice Waters
Clarkson Potter, September 5

One of the architects of California cuisine, Alice Waters reveals her rise to Chez Panisse fame in her latest memoir. Waters has never been shy about telling her story, but this book goes further back than most of her earlier work. She didn’t grow up with organic carrot puree on a silver spoon: Waters credits her culinary coming of age to a repressed suburban childhood that butted heads with the protest-fueled Berkeley of her college years in the mid-1960s. Published a year after chef Jeremiah Tower’s Start the Fire — a reissue of his 2004 memoir California Dish in which he takes credit for California cuisine — Waters tells her side of the story with the quiet confidence of someone who has been practicing her craft for over 50 years. —DG

The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart
Emily Nunn
Atria Books, September 26

Not so much a cookbook as a mini recipe collection contained within a memoir, former New Yorker staffer Emily Nunn chronicles her search for comfort through food and cooking during the most difficult period of her life. Following the death of her brother, a breakup, and a stint in rehab, Nunn set out on a cross-country journey to reassemble her life, breaking bread with friends and relatives and crashing on couches in what she dubbed “the Comfort Food Tour.” Come for the poignant personal reflections, stay for the recipes for country ham biscuits and grandma’s lemon cake. —WF

Whats Cooking?
Joshua David Stein, Julia Rothman
Phaidon, October 16

Food critic (and frequent Eater contributor) Joshua David Stein added children’s author to his resume last year with the release of Can I Eat That?, and this fall he follows it up with Whats Cooking? With Julia Rothman once again lending her clever, colorful illustrations, the book tackles oddball cooking questions (“Do frozen peas grow on frozen trees?") to introduce kids to various dishes from fried ice cream to ballotines — ensuring its place on many a holiday gift guide for the precocious young foodie set. —WF

France Is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child
Alex Prud’homme, Katie Pratt
Thames & Hudson, October 24

Few food icons have maintained a hold on culinary obsessives’ imaginations like Julia Child. Her international-spy-turned-French-cooking-goddess story is so good it sounds fictional — hence why it’s currently being dramatized into an upcoming TV series. For a more intimate portrait of Child’s real life, look to this new collection of rarely-before-seen black-and-white photographs taken by her husband Paul — curated with the help of his grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, who also co-wrote Child’s memoir My Life in France — that chronicles their adventures in Paris and the French countryside, culinary and otherwise. —WF

Other notable titles:

The Taste of Empire: How Britains Quest for Food Shaped the Modern World by Lizzie Collingham. Basic Books, October 3

Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine by Kelley Fanto Deetz. University Press of Kentucky, November 6

Larousse Wine. Hamlyn, November 7

Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship With Food by Rachel Herz PhD. W. W. Norton & Company, December 26

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