This spring's crop of chef memoirs (cheffoirs?) and other local food books is overshadowed by Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas's riveting but flawed Life, on the Line. Forget NYC chef Gabrielle Hamilton's Blood, Bones & Butter—what about the diaries of toques like poor Rick Tramonto or Wayne Cohen? For a former English major like me, it's been difficult to read any of them without playing the Who's-More-Human? game: the young superchef who blithely conquers all before him; the deeply flawed, born-again, dyslexic kitchen tyrant; or the bumptious, unknown, self-published executive turned line cook. Actually, I think I'd have to choose the perpetually hungry beat cop who just wants a good cheap lunch.
Scars of a Chef: The Searing Story of a Top Chef Marked Forever by the Grit and Grace of Life in the Kitchen
Rick Tramonto with Lisa Jackson
I couldn't help but compare ex-Tru jefe Tramonto's cheffoir with Achatz's, based solely on how each treats his former boss, Charlie Trotter. While the younger chef can't help taking swats at the notoriously tyrannical Trotter, Tramonto makes no mention of his infamous foie gras-related pissing match with the man, and is nothing but gracious toward his former foe. Maybe it's a function of maturity, but the elder Tramonto's frank account of his struggles and flaws—encompassing anxiety, drug abuse, depression, business failures, beastly treatment of colleagues, subordinates, and loved ones, and his ultimate religious redemption—makes him come across as unguarded, humble, and ultimately likable. Recounting his beginnings as a mullet-headed, dope-smoking burnout and his later life as a successful but existentially adrift celebrity chef, the book is light on culinary matters, but each chapter begins with scripture and ends with a recipe. If nothing else it makes me wonder how much more we'd have learned about Achatz's inner life if he'd waited until he hit a riper, more reflective age.
Cooking on the Line: From Food Lover to Professional Line Cook
Larousse Churchill Publishing, $14.95
In contrast to the perfectionist Achatz or Tramonto, who clawed to the top and stared in terror at the bottom, 55-year-old line cook Wayne Cohen is awfully pleased with himself. When the accomplished home cook and Maurice Lenell Cookie CEO found himself out of a white-collar job, he answered an ad for a line cook at a Lincoln Park German joint that sounds a lot like the late Prost. Through attrition, he quickly winds up head of the kitchen at the dysfunctional restaurant, and parlays the experience into stages at One SixtyBlue and Graham Elliot before landing on the line at Piccolo Sogno. That's really hard to do, but you wouldn't necessarily know it from Cohen's account. Written in first person, present tense, almost every chapter and section end with a telegraphed foreshadow: things are about to get weird, difficult, or controversial. They rarely do. Like Achatz, Cohen relates his challenges but there's never much of a sense of struggle, and one never really understands why things seem to come so easy for him. Sure, he's confident, with a positive attitude and a willingness to work hard, but lots of young culinary students and first-generation immigrants have those qualities too, and something tells me their experience is quite different from his. Still, as compared to Achatz's and Tramonto's books, this is the one most engaged with the trenches of kitchen warfare.
Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes From the Best Kitchens on Wheels
Ten Speed Press, $20
Not a memoir, but the Time Out Chicago food writer's nationwide survey of both the established and the neo-mobile food movement is quite an achievement. Along with in-depth personal profiles of truck operators and reports on the state of the current political climate in each city she visits, this book is packed with recipes, maps, food porn, and illuminating environmental shots. From the buttermilk-fried chicken of Oahu's Soul Patrol to the tofu meatballs of Philly's Magic Carpet, Shouse covers the subject with a depth and comprehensiveness you haven't seen from her before.
The Beat Cop's Guide to Chicago Eats
David J. Haynes and Christopher Garlington
Lake Claremont Press, $15.95
The Law's answer to 2004's Streets and San Man's Guide to Chicago Eats, this slim collection by a 15-year veteran sergeant reviews his favorite joints where a patrol can (mostly) get in and out in under 30 minutes for $10. Broken down by the CPD's five areas, it contains many solid, well-known institutions (Manny's, Hot Doug's, Old Fashioned Donut), commendable but lesser-known gems (Moon's Sandwich Shop, Carribbean American Baking Company), and only a few head scratchers (West Suburban Hospital cafeteria). There are salty cop stories and recipes with helpful tips (don't scratch the family jewels after preparing jalapeño poppers) as well as fill-in-the-blanks, and like its forerunner, it comes with a bunch of $2 coupons.
From the Jewish Heartland: Two Centuries of Midwest Foodways
Ellen F. Steinberg and Jack H. Prost
University of Illinois Press, $32.95
This isn't a subject I'd given much thought to at all until a galley copy showed up well in advance of its June publication. In this book—the first in a planned Heartland Foodways series edited by Roosevelt culinary historian Bruce Kraig, among others—anthropologists Steinberg and Prost dig deep into the archives to unearth the stories of early settlers struggling to keep kosher on the pioneer trail, rural and small-town Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike adapting old-world cuisines to the bounty of the corn belt, the urban experience through the lens of delis like Milwaukee's Jake's and Skokie's Kaufman's, and the rise of entrepreneurs like the Schulmann brothers of Eli's Cheesecake. It's larded with recipes, from mushroom ketchup to housewives' kuchen, Syrian spinach souffle, and sassafras-bark-infused "blood purifier."