Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

My Life in France – Julia Child

About: With Julia Child’s death in 2004 at age 91, her grandnephew Prud’homme (The Cell Game) completed this playful memoir of the famous chef’s first, formative sojourn in France with her new husband, Paul Child, in 1949. The couple met during WWII in Ceylon, working for the OSS, and soon after moved to Paris, where Paul worked for the U.S. Information Service. Child describes herself as a “rather loud and unserious Californian,” 36, six-foot-two and without a word of French, while Paul was 10 years older, an urbane, well-traveled Bostonian. Startled to find the French amenable and the food delicious, Child enrolled at the Cordon Bleu and toiled with increasing zeal under the rigorous tutelage of éminence grise Chef Bugnard. “Jackdaw Julie,” as Paul called her, collected every manner of culinary tool and perfected the recipes in her little kitchen on rue de l’Université (“Roo de Loo”). She went on to start an informal school with sister gourmandes Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who were already at work on a French cookbook for American readers, although it took Child’s know-how to transform the tome—after nine years, many title changes and three publishers—into the bestselling Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). This is a valuable record of gorgeous meals in bygone Parisian restaurants, and the secret arts of a culinary genius – Publishers Weekly

My thoughts: Other than recognizing her name, I knew little else about Julia Child before delving into My Life in France, which was a Christmas gift from The Astronomer’s mother Jane. Prior to moving to Saigon, I was obsessed with books about food—systems, memoirs, cookbooks, etc., but have been deprived of delicious writing as of late. This book rekindled my love for the genre and piqued my interest in France and its cuisine.

I took away a couple of things from My Life in France. First, writing a comprehensive cookbook on French cuisine is incredibly difficult. I can’t believe she tested recipes 50+ times! Second, life can be fulfilling without having kids. Third, living abroad/total cultural immersion is a beautiful thing. Fourth, it’s never too late to find a true calling or passion. Fifth, make time for those you love and travel to see them often. Sixth, copper bowls are superior for whipping cream.


Stealing Buddha’s Dinner – Bich Minh Nguyen

About: A vivid, funny, and viscerally powerful memoir about childhood, assimilation, food, and growing up in the 1980s.

As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bich Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity. In the pre-PC era Midwest, where the devoutly Christian blond-haired, blue-eyed Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme, Nguyen’s barely conscious desire to belong transmutes into a passion for American food. More exotic seeming than her Buddhist grandmother’s traditional specialties — spring rolls, delicate pancakes stuffed with meats, fried shrimp cakes—the campy, preservative-filled “delicacies” of mainstream America capture her imagination. And in this remarkable book, the glossy branded allure of such American foods as Pringles, Kit Kats, and Toll House cookies become an ingenious metaphor for her struggle to fit in, to become a “real” American. Beginning with Nguyen’s family’s harrowing migration from Saigon in 1975, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is nostalgic and candid, deeply satisfying and minutely observed, and stands as a unique vision of the immigrant experience and a lyrical ode to how identity is often shaped by the things we long for.

My thoughts: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Nguyen earnestly explores and ties together some of my favorite topics: food (!), marketing, adolescence, family, and identity. I haven’t read much literature about the Vietnamese-American experience, but this memoir has definitely piqued my interest in the genre. Growing up I’ve always wondered whether my family’s traditions were our own or an all encompassing Vietnamese way. Comparing and contrasting my experiences with the author’s, I’ve concluded that all Vietnamese grandmothers cut up fresh fruit for their grandchildren after school, every kid wanted the Kool-Aid guy to burst through their kitchen wall, and balancing assimilation with cultural traditions will always be difficult. I highly recommend this book to everyone regardless of background because figuring out the world and where we fit in it is a universal theme.

A Cook’s Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal – Anthony Bourdain

About: A Cook’s Tour is the written record of Anthony Bourdain’s travels around the world in his search for the perfect meal. All too conscious of the state of his 44-year-old knees after a working life standing at restaurant stoves, but with the unlooked-for jackpot of Kitchen Confidential as collateral, Mr. Bourdain evidently concluded he needed a bit more wind under his wings.The idea of “perfect meal” in this context is to be taken to mean not necessarily the most upscale, chi-chi, three-star dining experience, but the ideal combination of food, atmosphere, and company. This would take in fishing villages in Vietnam, bars in Cambodia, and Tuareg camps in Morocco (roasted sheep’s testicle, as it happens); it would stretch to smoked fish and sauna in the frozen Russian countryside and the French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley. It would mean exquisitely refined kaiseki rituals in Japan after yakitori with drunken salarymen. Deep-fried Mars Bars in Glasgow and Gordon Ramsay in London. The still-beating heart of a cobra in Saigon. Drink. Danger. Guns. All with a TV crew in tow for the accompanying series–22 episodes of video gold, we are assured, featuring many don’t-try-this-at-home shots of the author in gastric distress or crawling into yet another storm drain at four in the morning.

You are unlikely to lay your hands on a more hectically, strenuously entertaining book for some time. Our hero eats and swashbuckles round the globe with perfect-pitch attitude and liberal use of judiciously placed profanities. Bourdain can write. His timing is great. He is very funny and is under no illusions whatsoever about himself or anyone else. But most of all, he is a chef who got himself out of his kitchen and found, all over the world, people who understand that eating well is the foundation of harmonious living. –Robin Davidson,

My thoughts: The verdict is in—I don’t like Anthony Bourdain. Sure, he says some humorous things now and again about the Food Network, but I hate how he can’t go a chapter without referencing his penis or someone’s rack. How irrelevant and uncouth! He’s also a little racist (or maybe just brainless) because he titled his chapter on Nha Trang, a beach town in Vietnam, “Can Charlie Surf?” Are you kidding me?

What bothers me the most about Bourdain is that he fancies himself as a no nonsense chef with street credibility; the antithesis of Rachael Ray and company. When in reality he needs to embrace the sell-out within because he most definitely did sell-out. His continual biting of the hand that feeds him is lame. Own it Bourdain!

While my feelings for the man are lukewarm at best, the book was actually a decent read when Bourdain wasn’t being vulgar or offensive. His travels to Russia and Morocco were especially interesting because their cuisine is often overlooked and under-appreciated. He made borsch and cous cous sound like world class offerings. His dinner at the French Laundry was also a pleasure to read.

The book’s concept was interesting, but I would’ve enjoyed it a lot more if someone other than Bourdain wrote it. Say, Ruth Reichl?

Kitchen Confidential – Anthony Bourdain

About: Chef at New York’s Les Halles and author of Bone in the Throat, Bourdain pulls no punches in this memoir of his years in the restaurant business. His fast-lane personality and glee in recounting sophomoric kitchen pranks might be unbearable were it not for two things: Bourdain is as unsparingly acerbic with himself as he is with others, and he exhibits a sincere and profound love of good food. The latter was born on a family trip to France when young Bourdain tasted his first oyster, and his love has only grown since. He has attended culinary school, fallen prey to a drug habit and even established a restaurant in Tokyo, discovering along the way that the crazy, dirty, sometimes frightening world of the restaurant kitchen sustains him. Bourdain is no presentable TV version of a chef; he talks tough and dirty. His advice to aspiring chefs: “Show up at work on time six months in a row and we’ll talk about red curry paste and lemon grass. Until then, I have four words for you: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ ” He disdains vegetarians, warns against ordering food well done and cautions that restaurant brunches are a crapshoot. Gossipy chapters discuss the many restaurants where Bourdain has worked, while a single chapter on how to cook like a professional at home exhorts readers to buy a few simple gadgets, such as a metal ring for tall food. Most of the book, however, deals with Bourdain’s own maturation as a chef, and the culmination, a litany describing the many scars and oddities that he has developed on his hands, is surprisingly beautiful. He’d probably hate to hear it, but Bourdain has a tender side, and when it peeks through his rough exterior and the wall of four-letter words he constructs, it elevates this book to something more than blustery memoir.

My thoughts: I’m a still on the fence about Bourdain–not sure if I like him or loathe him. And with his recent disparaging words against the James Beard Foundation, I’m leaning toward the latter. However, I once read in an interview that his perfect meal is a bowl of phở in the streets of Saigon, so I can’t dislike the man too much.

Kitchen Confidential was definitely an insightful read. Any notions I ever had of working in a professional kitchen have been properly reassessed thanks to Bourdain’s cautionary tale—it turns out that lack of sleep and scars just aren’t really my thing.

In my favorite chapter, Bourdain divulges secrets from his world, such as don’t order fish on Mondays (it’s probably old), don’t eat mussels unless you know the chef (they live in their own piss), and never request your meat well done (duh!).

Kitchen Confidential depicts the professional kitchen as a chaotic, vulgar, and testosterone-driven wonderland, which bodes well until Bourdain presents “The Life of Bryan”—a contrary account about Chef Scott Bryan. It is after examining how Bryan runs his ship that Bourdain’s tough swagger, drug abuse, and bad-ass lifestyle seems silly and needlessly difficult.

Like I said before, I’m still on the fence about Bourdain, but we’ll see where I stand after reading his other books on food–The Search for the Perfect Meal and The Nasty Bits.

Comfort Me With Apples – Ruth Reichl

About: In this follow-up to the excellent memoir Tender at the Bone, Reichl displays a sure hand, an open heart and a highly developed palate. As one might expect of a celebrated food writer, Reichl maps her past with delicacies: her introduction to a Dacquoise by a lover on a trip to Paris; the Dry-Fried Shrimp she learned to make on a trip to China, every moment of which was shared with her adventurous father, ill back home, in letters; the Apricot Pie she made for her first husband as their bittersweet marriage slowly crumbled; the Big Chocolate Cake she made for the man who would become her second, on his birthday. Recipes are included, but the text is far from fluffy food writing. Never shying from difficult subjects, Reichl grapples masterfully with the difficulty of ending her first marriage to a man she still loved, but from whom she had grown distant. Perhaps the most beautifully written passages here are those describing Reichl and her second husband’s adoption and then loss of a baby whose biological mother handed over her daughter, then recanted before the adoption was final. This is no rueful read, however. Reichl is funny when describing how the members of her Berkeley commune reacted to the news that she was going to become a restaurant reviewer (“You’re going to spend your life telling spoiled, rich people where to eat too much obscene food?”), and funnier still when pointing out the pompousness of fellow food insiders. Like a good meal, this has a bit of everything, and all its parts work together to satisfy.

My thoughts: Unlike Reichl’s other books, food takes the backseat in Comfort Me With Apples. I found myself more interested in her life than her eating adventures–although the two are always intimately intertwined. Reichl truly is endlessly fascinating and I feel a little empty now that I’ve exhausted her library.

The unpredictability of life is explored in the Reichl trilogy (Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, Garlic and Sapphires). As an archetypical Type A personality without a defined path for the future, I admire Reichl’s ability to go wherever life takes her. I hope to do the same.