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I just finished reading Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly and Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook pretty much back-to-back. Once you’ve read the first, you can’t help but be curious about the latter. The author of both is Anthony Bourdain, an in-your-face guy who somehow provoked in me simultaneous reactions of “Just shut up!” and “Tell me more…”

Kitchen Confidential essentially tracks his crazy career as a good-but-not-great chef, though not in a linear way – there are plenty of asides, advice, rants, and reminiscences. Throughout his tales of drug-fueled kitchen adventures, I kept thinking, “This guy is kind of an asshole,” but the book is saved because of two things. First, you get the sense he would be the first to tell you he’s kind of an asshole. And second, he writes in a truly engaging way about the world of food, from a behind the scenes look at a day in the life of a chef, to a chapter on “how to cook like the pros” (butter and shallots are necessary, a full set of specialized knives is not) to bigger-picture descriptions of how the restaurant industry works. He has an eye for detail that makes you really feel what it’s like to work the line, and this is what kept me turning the pages and tolerating the over-testosteroned tone.

Kitchen Confidential was written when Bourdain was in his mid-forties, recovering from heroin addiction and nearly burned out after decades in many different kitchens, an unknown chef.

What a difference a decade makes.

The book was a hit, and Bourdain is now a celebrity chef with his own TV show, guest judging spots on Top Chef…basically, he’s a star. Case in point: in Kitchen Confidential, he writes about how uber-famous chefs like Eric Ripert wouldn’t be giving him a call anytime soon. In Medium Raw? Ripert is described as his best friend in the world.

Medium Raw is composed of stand-alone chapters covering a wide range of topics, including reflections on Bourdain’s life since Kitchen Confidential and his thoughts on “selling out,” his heroes and villains in the cooking world, and changes and trends in the industry. I found this book to be much more lazily written, with a lot more gratuitous sexualized language (how many times do you really need to compare a food experience to a blow job, getting laid, etc.? Or use the word “clusterfuck?”). And yet…there are still plenty of juicy tidbits and beautiful descriptions of the pleasures of eating and cooking. My favorite chapter, titled “My Aim is True,” profiles the meticulous work of Justo Thomas, who cleans and prepares 700 pounds of fish a day for renowned seafood restaurant Le Bernadin.

If you’re interested in the musings of a man who relishes ripping on everyone from wait staff to vegetarians to food world gods (and of course, “bastard” food bloggers), but still has a true love and reverence for the culture of cooking, I recommend Kitchen Confidential. On the other hand, I’d wait until Medium Raw comes out in paperback. Or save your money entirely and borrow my copy – I’ll put Post-It notes on the good chapters 🙂

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Sometimes it feels like a lot of the talk in the food world is related to male celebrity chefs. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some Mario Batali (speaking of which, check out “Heat” by Bill Buford for a peek into the macho world of cooking – it’s a great read). But if you’re in the mood for something with more of a female angle, here are some reading ideas for ladies of all ages:

Fanny at Chez Panisse, by Alice Waters

This book (which I believe is at least partly responsible for me growing up to be a foodie) is written from the perspective of a child exploring her mother’s restaurant. As an adult, I appreciate it even more knowing that the mother/author is Alice Waters, champion of cooking with local ingredients, and the restaurant is known as the birthplace of California cuisine. But when I was little, all I knew was that reading about Fanny’s food adventures made me want to have some of my own. The book contains one of the first recipes I can remember cooking all by myself and serving to my family with pride: calzone with goat cheese, prosciutto, and fresh herbs. Highly recommended for young food lovers!

Rick and Lanie’s Excellent Kitchen Adventures, by Rick & Lanie Bayless

Here we have a cookbook by a male celeb chef, but with a twist: it’s built around him cooking with his daughter. Bayless is hotter than ever right now since winning Top Chef Masters and opening a new street-food restaurant in Chicago, but this book presents a quieter side of him and covers more ground than the Mexican food he is known for. Most importantly, it focuses on getting young people into cooking (each recipe has notes from both Rick and Lanie), so could be a great gift for a teenager.

Women Who Eat, edited by Leslie Miller

This is a really lovely collection of short stories written by all kinds of women about all kinds of food. It focuses on the intimacy of eating, and the editor writes that she “wanted to read…about women like me – women obsessed and in love with all things gastronomical, who hadn’t necessarily translated that passion into a livelihood.” I feel like she’s describing me – no wonder I loved this book! Plus, it has frites and aioli on the cover, ok? Enough said.

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