I love food; I love everything about it. There, I’ve said it. We live in an age where to admit to such a thing is frowned upon. Thus, the Foodie movement. A tight little group of often self-congratulatory pervs who admit we really enjoy not just the taste, but also the smell, texture, sound (crunch!), and the careful presentation of food. Think about it: food is the new pornography. We’re no longer shocked by nudity in print and on screen. Pick up any “women’s magazine,” and what do you see? Rich, fattening, all-but-forbidden cakes, glistening fried chicken. Imagine a show like “Game of Thrones,” but instead of the ubiquitous bouncing boobies and sex, those nasty old thanes, barbarians, and dragon- mothers were eating mile-high mixed-berry pie and drinking gloppy milkshakes. Scandalous! In our twenty-first century, the love that dare not speak its name is gluttony.
So it’s probably no surprise that the great chefs of our day are as highly regarded as cult leaders to those who love to eat really good food. We watch their TV shows, and we buy their cookbooks religiously. I’d rather try to reschedule a yearly checkup with my gynecologist than to miss an episode of Fox’s “MasterChef.” I respect Graham and Gordon, but I hold my breath when Joe Bastianich takes a bit of a contestant’s food. That piercing stare, the arched eyebrow, the occasional plate of food tossed into the garbage; he’s one mean RESTAURANT MAN. If you have any interest at all in how a restaurant is successfully run, you cannot miss this book. Yes, he’s tough, but he really knows his stuff. Every page is jammed full of the knowledge it takes to rise to the top in an extremely competitive and often cutthroat business. Bastianich is foul-mouthed, admits he’s a cheap fellow, and has no patience for pretension or cutting corners when it comes running his many highly esteemed establishments. He also runs his car on what comes out of his grease traps, changes every toilet seat once a month, and would cheerfully kill anyone caught sneezing into a linen napkin. Whatta man, whatta man.
Even if he weren’t someone who was used to hearing YES, CHEF every time he gave his staff an order, Marcus Samuelsson would still have an interesting story to tell. The first line of the book reads “I have never seen a picture of my mother.” From there, he goes on to explain that, at age three, he, his sister, and their mother, all stricken with tuberculosis, walked seventy-five miles from their Ethiopian village to a hospital in the capital city, Addis Adaba. Their mother died, but the children were adopted by a loving Swedish family, and grew up in Gothenberg. His adoptive grandmother, Helga, introduced him to cooking. But journeying from Africa to Sweden, while enough of an adventure for some, was just the beginning of Samuelsson’s life of drama and exploration. Determined to be the best chef possible, he worked under the most stressful conditions possible in Switzerland, France, and on cruise ships, before finally landing on his feet in New York. At the acclaimed restaurant “Aquavit” he became the youngest chef to ever receive a three-star rating from the New York Times. Sameulsson has gone on to triumphantly open his own wildly successful restaurant in Harlem, called “Red Rooster.” He’s won a James Beard Foundation Award, written several popular cookbooks, and won both “Top Chef Masters” and “Chopped: All Stars.” There is no doubt that this soft-spoken, modest man is a multinational star in the culinary universe.
Bestselling author Thomas McNamee has brilliantly captured the spirit of THE MAN WHO CHANGED THE WAY WE EAT, subtitled “Craig Claiborne and the American Food Renaissance.” No less an authority than restaurant maven Danny Meyer has called this “a must-read book.” Before Claiborne came on the scene, America was largely a country of overdone roast beef, frozen vegetables, and canned cling peaches. A fancy meal out was for “continental” cuisine. Professional quality cookware was found only in restaurants. In short, the concept of fine dining was vague, at best. In 1957, Claiborne became the New York Times food editor; after that, nothing was quite the same. He wrote about ethnic food, and introduced his countrymen to arugula, balsamic vinegar, and practically invented the role of the food critic who could make or break a restaurant. Because he couldn’t live openly as a gay man, his personal life was complicated, and often lonely. He never forgot that he’d been a little boy from the Mississippi Delta, seeking refuge in the kitchen of this mother’s boarding house, but he also had no compunction about enjoying a $4000 dinner for two in Paris.
The life of Giada De Laurentiis is largely the reverse of Claiborne’s. She was born in Rome, into a wealthy and prominent family; her maternal grandfather was famous director Dino De Laurentiis, and her grandmother was Italian movie star Silvana Mangano. When her parents divorced, she found herself in the strange land of Southern California, and finally established her place in the TV cooking world. Her new cookbook, WEEKNIGHTS WITH GIADA, focuses on the fact that like so many of her fans, Giada is a working wife and mom. Most of the recipes she features can be made in thirty minutes, and she includes variations to accommodate different tastes. The popular Food Network star isn’t a snob, and jarred and frozen ingredients facilitate the task of cooking delicious and creative dinners. Gorgeous photos, especially those featuring Giada’s mini-me namesake daughter, Jade; giada is jade in Italian.
The real mystery is not how De Laurentiis can prepare such scrumptious meals so quickly, but rather, how can she keep that slender figure while making great Italian food? Allison Adato gives us the answer in SMART CHEFS STAY SLIM. Written with a foreword by ex-Oprah chef Art Smith, here are the tips we need for eating the best cooking in the world, while keeping our waistlines in check. Joe Bastianich himself advises cutting down on sugary morning coffee with a square of dark chocolate. Esteemed chef Michelle Bernstein focuses on eating more veggies. Jacques Torres informs us that sometimes, it’s OK to indulge in cheese for dinner. Included are delectable recipes from some of the world’s greatest chefs.
Reading these wonderful books is so satisfying, you’ll almost feel like skipping dessert. Almost.
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Michall Jeffers is an accomplished Cultural Journalist, an unabashed Foodie, and an avowed bibliophile. She writes extensively about restaurants and interviews chefs, both in print and online. Her eponymous cable TV show is syndicated throughout the tri-state area, and features celebrity interviews, reviews, and commentary. Michall is a voting member of National Book Critics Circle. www.michalljeffers.com