In case anyone is looking for holiday gift ideas, for oneself or others, I have assembled a brief rundown of my very favorite food literature. (When writing it up I realized that about five of my all-time favorite works of food writing were in the Time-Life Food of the World series; I’ll do a separate post on those later.) Every one can be read strictly for pleasure, even if it’s technically a cookbook.

Counter Intelligence: Where to Eat in the Real Los Angeles, by Jonathan Gold, the only food writer to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. If you like reading this blog, you’ll love this book – he’s like a more talented, or at least more polished and experienced, version of me. This guide to hole-in-the-wall, eccentric, wonderful, old-fashioned, cutting-edge, and quirky Los Angeles restaurants can be read with great pleasure as a travelogue even if you’ve never been to LA and never plan to go.

A Taste of India, by Madhur Jaffrey. Atmospheric, beautifully written and photographed guide to Indian regional cuisine, nostalgic, personal, and lovely.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Edition: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.), by Anthony Bourdain. Gonzo chef turned food journalist Bourdain’s funny, scabrous, macho, politically incorrect memoir of a (frequently high, drunk, and/or stoned) life in the kitchen.

A Cook's Tour: Global Adventures in Extreme Cuisines, also by Bourdain. While still preserving his jackass, testosterone-overdose charm, this book, about his world travels shooting a show for the Food Network, is better-written and more thoughtful and atmospheric, at times even poignant. The warning for political incorrectness stands, but I appreciate Bourdain’s lack of condescension, genuine love and appreciation for a whole lot of places and cuisines, and recognition of the backbreaking hard work that goes into food production.

Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen (Vintage Contemporaries) and More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen, by Laurie Colwin. Very humane, sweet, gentle, and cozy essays on (mostly American) food and living, cooking for children and invalids and the jetlagged and homeless shelters – the written equivalent of comfort food. The recipes are extremely simple and come out well.

The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection. I like a lot of Michael Ruhlman’s books but this is my favorite, three long essays on the CIA Master’s exam, an inventive Cleveland chef, and Thomas Keller. Great journalism, especially the first essay, which contains an account of terrine preparation that had me literally biting my nails in suspense. Fans of Top Chef would enjoy this.

Feast: Food to Celebrate Life, by Nigella Lawson. Mostly a recipe book but with excellent essays, multicultural (though primarily British) without pretending to insider knowledge, sensual and often funny. I especially liked the touching, practical essay on cooking for funerals and for people in mourning.

Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany (Vintage). A solid, well-written, often funny account that reads like a good, albeit lightly plotted, novel.

Before everyone leaps up to inquire – I like M. F. K. Fisher but not enough to put her on an all-time favorites list. Ditto Ruth Reichl.
A blonde, blue-eyed surfer dude sushi chef in Santa Barbara recommended THE SOUL OF A CHEF to me, saying that it he thought it presented a better and more realistic picture of what it was to be a chef than Anthony Bourdain's books, which he thought were overly macho and too much of the author and not enough cooking. (I love Bourdain's books, by the way, but macho is certainly an apt description.)

THE SOUL OF A CHEF is Ruhlman's second book, but the one I read first. It's in three parts, essentially three extended essays.

The first section is the best and worth the price of the book. Ruhlman follows a handful of candidates testing for the grueling ten-day Certified Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America. This part has all the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller, the sort where you watch, half laughing and half in horror, as the characters make terrible mistakes which will doom them. A bit where a female candidate has one last chance to make up for previous mistakes by cooking a perfect seafood terrine is the most edge-of-your-seat sequence I've read in a long time. This essay should be required reading in classes on the art of non-fiction.

The second essay is only mildly interesting, about a somewhat innovative chef in Cleveland.

The third essay, while not quite up to the level of the first, has some of the most luscious food descriptions you'll read anywhere. It's about Thomas Keller, the legendary genius chef at the French Laundry. Although a lot of the ingredients of his creations do not appeal to me (oysters and tapioca; cauliflower panna cotta) the way everyone swoons over them make me really want to try it some day. I don't suppose anyone reading this has ever been there?

THE MAKING OF A CHEF, about Ruhlman's training at the Culinary Institute of America, was a huge disappointment. It lacked the thrills and characterization of the CIA story in SOUL, and by the one-third mark I was skimming. Ruhlman's writing skills clearly improved greatly with time and practice.
A blonde, blue-eyed surfer dude sushi chef in Santa Barbara recommended THE SOUL OF A CHEF to me, saying that it he thought it presented a better and more realistic picture of what it was to be a chef than Anthony Bourdain's books, which he thought were overly macho and too much of the author and not enough cooking. (I love Bourdain's books, by the way, but macho is certainly an apt description.)

THE SOUL OF A CHEF is Ruhlman's second book, but the one I read first. It's in three parts, essentially three extended essays.

The first section is the best and worth the price of the book. Ruhlman follows a handful of candidates testing for the grueling ten-day Certified Master Chef exam at the Culinary Institute of America. This part has all the suspense of a Hitchcockian thriller, the sort where you watch, half laughing and half in horror, as the characters make terrible mistakes which will doom them. A bit where a female candidate has one last chance to make up for previous mistakes by cooking a perfect seafood terrine is the most edge-of-your-seat sequence I've read in a long time. This essay should be required reading in classes on the art of non-fiction.

The second essay is only mildly interesting, about a somewhat innovative chef in Cleveland.

The third essay, while not quite up to the level of the first, has some of the most luscious food descriptions you'll read anywhere. It's about Thomas Keller, the legendary genius chef at the French Laundry. Although a lot of the ingredients of his creations do not appeal to me (oysters and tapioca; cauliflower panna cotta) the way everyone swoons over them make me really want to try it some day. I don't suppose anyone reading this has ever been there?

THE MAKING OF A CHEF, about Ruhlman's training at the Culinary Institute of America, was a huge disappointment. It lacked the thrills and characterization of the CIA story in SOUL, and by the one-third mark I was skimming. Ruhlman's writing skills clearly improved greatly with time and practice.
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