Chef Selfies

Working my way through my reading “pile” (what do we call it these days when it’s electronic?) with a bunch of chef-authored tomes. First up, To the Bone from Paul Liebrandt. I’ve met Paul numerous times though don’t know him well at all. When I worked at AZ he used to come hang out in the kitchen with Patricia Yeo – he was sort of between restaurants and somehow or other connected in to our kitchen and, like any other smart chef spent his downtime learning new stuff. I’ve only had his food once, an evening out with Patricia and our restaurant GM at Atlas during his short tenure there. The food was interesting, if perhaps a little overwrought and precious – it seemed like someone trying way too hard to impress.

Reading the book gives a bit of insight into that, much of his career seems to be just along that vein, trying hard to impress. I’m not sure that I came away with any deep understanding of how he came to be that way, his writing style is fairly reserved and matter of fact (which is kind of how I find him), but certainly there are glimpses from his upbringing of where that might have come from. The book is interesting from the point of view of someone in the field, I wonder if it would be so for someone not. Much of it almost reads like an expanded CV – “I worked here, these were my responsibilities” – then fleshed out by details of what that looked like. There’s very little human interaction in the book, in the sense of we learn little about any of his coworkers or any time he spent with them. Even the various chefs he’s worked for provide little more than background color to the narrative – you could almost come away from the book thinking that he’s forged through his life and career completely solo, with little to no assistance from anyone else, and other people just pop in and out at random, with minimal purpose.

The book is beautifully illustrated with what can only be described as food porn, and there are, scattered here and there, some recipes, or parts of them, for some of the dishes illustrated, and some of those talked about in the text. Many, if not most, or even all, of them go beyond what most people would want to attempt at home, and while any professional cook might be able to turn their hand to them, it would be an exercise in curiosity more than anything. Liebrandt’s style is his own, informed by his impressive resume. If you like the “jewel box” style of food with intricate plating, this is right up your alley.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum is The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen, by internationally renowned chef Jacques Pepin. Everything about this book and the man is probably close to the opposite side of things from the above as it could be. Now, I’ve never eaten anything that Pepin has cooked, he was out of the restaurant chef world before I ever got to New York City and on into his long career behind the scenes and as a culinary educator.

The book itself reads almost like a novel, a storybook. People are the main focus, far more than the food or his career, and he shares deeply and richly of his personal life, his family, his friends, and his coworkers. We follow him through his childhood on into his teens, we see where and why he made the decisions he did. His life is, literally, an open book. By the end of his descriptions of his time spent at each stage of his career, I felt almost as if I’d been along for the ride. Much like watching him on television, he’s open, warm and welcoming.

This book is filled with illustrations – virtually all of them simply black and white photographs of he, his family and his friends over the years. The recipes are straightforward and the sort that anyone with a kitchen and a couple of pans could jump right into and feel comfortable pulling off.

Both of the books, at least on a professional level, well worth reading. Liebrandt’s book is a night out at the hottest trendy spot in town, Pepin’s is a weekend spent with friends at home. It just depends on what you’re in the mood for.

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