Tag Archives: restaurants

* Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li

Number One Chinese Restaurant stars an immigrant family who owns a Chinese restaurant, of course, while one of the sons wants to strike out on his own and build something more fancy. There’s a difficult mother, the memory of a controlling father, a mafia-like figure, and a large case of waiters that complicate all decisions and actions. There’s a fire and a difficult opening night, and lots of behind-the-scenes intrigues. I did not find any of it very exciting.

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*** Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker

If you are a wine connoisseur, you will want to read Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste — and you will undoubtedly like it. What’s more intriguing is that a non-drinker, or a cynic who thinks that the drinkers who mumble about tasting blueberries and grass and dirt (!) must be faking it, will both find the book fascinating. The author spent a year studying wine (and passing a difficult sommelier exam) and it turns out that it is, indeed, possible to taste blueberries, grass, or dirt, although many experts really use the words to telegraph a particular type of grapes rather than a particular taste. Who knew? She also touches on the restaurant business and restaurant people, and her descriptions of the very rich who are able to buy the most expensive wines could have been excised without diminishing the rest of the story at all. But the tasting stories are worth it!

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* Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler

We are staying in the restaurant business with Sweetbitter, a novel  in which a young woman moves to New York and finds a job in a fancy restaurant. The first half of the book is a well-researched description of the workings of high-end restaurants, with a heavy display of wine erudition. It’s not exactly gripping but it moves along tolerably. The second half descends into a tiresome and obviously hopeless love triangle. What a bore.

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*** Chop Chop by Simon Wroe


Chop Chop starts as the twisted life of a restaurant kitchen, viewed by a poor English degree graduate who needs a job, any job, then blossoms into an even darker tale of gangsters. It’s written cleverly, as if the author had consulted with his ex-colleagues on the tale, always one step ahead of breaking the illusion of a brilliant tale. Much more fun than the standard restaurant memoir — and probably not the best choice to read before going out!

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*** Counter Culture by Candacy Taylor


Counter Culture: The American Coffee Shop Waitress is a haunting book that describes long-time, “career” waitresses, highlighting the difficulty of their jobs as they walk miles, heft heavy loads of plates, and soothe the egos of difficult customers. If you think, like me, that any job is interesting and unique, and you enjoy learning about how everything works behind-the-scenes, you will enjoy this book — and tip, generously, your next capable waitress.

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* Bread and Butter by Michelle Wildgen


Bread and Butter follows three brothers who own two restaurants in a small town, competing and yet intertwined in not so healthy ways. The story weakly mixes little spats between the brothers (including inane dialog) with lots of food porn about making and eating trendy dishes, and employee drama, including or not the brothers.

I did not like. Might be better suited for a food nerd…

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*** Yes Chef by Marcus Samuelsson

Yes, Chef: A Memoir, by the Ethiopian-Swedish chef Marcus Samuelsson is  a sweeping personal story of an ambitious young man  who knows he must leave his adopted country of Sweden to fulfill his ambition of becoming a chef on the international stage. Along the way are some casualties, most sadly a daughter conceived when he was but a teenager and left behind, but they are told straightforwardly and serve to emphasize the tough life of a apprentices in high-end kitchens. The best part of the book for me was the author’s ever-present curiosity about food, ingredients, and techniques, wherever he finds himself in the world.

May all failed soccer stars have as much talent as resolve as Samuelsson.

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*1/2 Charlotte au Chocolat by Charlotte Silver

Charlotte Au Chocolat: Memories of a Restaurant Girlhood has its delightful (pardon the pun) moments, when the author describes the behind-the-scenes action in her parents’ then mother’s restaurant, and in particular how the waiters and cooks dote on her, the elegant, polite child sipping her Shirley Temple at table A1. But the rest I found much less charming. The story of her hard-working, perfectionist mother could be remarkable, even heroic, but comes across as more than a bit of a snob. And the author’s detailed description of her outfits may be cute when she’s talking about her little-girl dresses, but gets tiresome as she grows up. Too bad, the title was appealing.

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*** The Sorcerer’s Apprentices by Lisa Abend

I enjoyed The Sorcerer’s Apprentices, which talks about a season working at elBulli, the famous Spanish (or should I say Catalan) restaurant that is (was!) the center of so-called molecular cuisine (explored in Life, On the Line, reviewed earlier in this blog). (I will go on a parentheses diet now.)

The author tells the story of the restaurant though the eyes of the stagiaires, the unpaid, overworked, exploited, in my book, apprentices who make it possible. They are a very international bunch, with some barely speaking Spanish, which turns out to be a big problem, not surprisingly, and their lives are told in what could quickly degenerate in the syrupy athlete portraits we get for the Olympic Games, but somehow the book avoids this tiresome cliche — perhaps because the author is not afraid to show character flaws and planning mishaps or complete absences of planning along with their more glorious adventures. She shows how the fifty chosen few (out of 3000 applicants, to heck with the parentheses diet) are drawn into the obsessive, oppressive machine of the restaurant, expected to function as little more than deft fingers and to not think independently for fear of messing up the system. And get this, they never get to taste the food! Still, it’s an inspiring story of driven and creative cooks, and I’m talking about the stagiaires here. A good summer read.

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** Life, On the Line by Grant Achatz

Life, on the Line is the life story of the chef behind the uber-famous Alinea restaurant in Chicago, including his bout with very untimely and peculiarly cruel, for a chef, tongue cancer. If you are thinking that tongue cancer and chef odyssey are a strange pairing for a book, you are right. And unfortunately the author and his co-author, his business partner for the restaurant, try to transform the last third of the book into sage guidance for opening and running a restaurant, which I don’t particularly care to learn about…

But I really liked the beginning, in which the young chef is born in a restaurant-owning family, but in a totally different genre of restaurant, the cheap, family style kind, and slowly moves to professional culinary training and eventually to The French Laundry in Napa where he discovers obsessively careful cooking, although it’s way too conservative for his lofty ambitions. I found it very interesting to follow his trajectory towards his own place, and along the way his descriptions of what really happens in kitchens while the diners enjoy soft music and romantic lighting. Maybe you can step the lame discussions of how restaurants are funded and managed (it turns out, just like any other business – who knew?)

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