A good restaurant runs on hunger — not just that of its customers, but also of its owners, who put in 18-hour days obsessing that every single detail must be as perfect as possible. But although the hunger of the diners is pretty simple to figure out, that which drives the owners is remarkably diverse.
You couldn’t find clearer evidence of that than in two recently published, highly anticipated, but seriously flawed, chef biographies. The first, Life, on the Line, is the story of Grant Achatz, the culinary alchemist behind Chicago’s top-ranked Alinea restaurant. The other, Blood, Bones & Butter, is by New York chef Gabrielle Hamilton, whose Prune restaurant embraces heartfelt rusticity above all else.
Besides the fact that they cook, it’s hard to think of much the two have in common. In fact, given their respective temperaments and philosophies, it’s a pretty safe bet that if they were locked in the same kitchen for a day, there would be only bloodied scraps left.
The one thing they do share is that hunger, that atavistic gnawing beast that lives inside them and drives them forward. And although we may be grateful for the results of this demon when we’re sitting in the dining room, unfortunately it doesn’t make it any easier to live with in the intimacy of the printed page.
In Achatz’s case, the hunger is ambition. Raised in a solidly middle-class Midwestern restaurant family (he got a purple Corvette as a graduation present from culinary school), he bounced out of a short, hard run in the kitchen of Chicago’s then-reigning king Charlie Trotter (see: “revenge, best eaten cold”).
But shortly thereafter he found a home in the nurturing kitchen of the nascent French Laundry in the Napa Valley, where he became a protege of chef Thomas Keller. Given Keller’s obsession for doing everything the one, true, exact right way, and his way of encouraging his charges, this was a perfect spot for Achatz, who comes across in the book as more fascinated by the technical aspects of cooking than by its more sensual pleasures.
Having eventually learned all that he thought he could in California, Achatz moved back to Chicago to run a restaurant called Trio, where he earned his first reputation with his modernist style of cooking. A couple of years later, with the backing of a frequent customer, he opened Alinea, which is still probably the most experimental restaurant in the country.
And then Achatz was diagnosed with cancer — of the tongue no less. His battle with the disease and his eventual triumph (no spoiler, it’s revealed in the first chapter) are truly dramatic.
Still, there is an odor of calculation that fouls the story. And that comes from Achatz’s overweening obsession with making an impression and climbing the ladder. Other than that, he remains a fairly opaque personality.
Maybe it’s naive of me, but I would have liked it if the book had as much about the actual cooking Achatz was doing as it did about the influential writers he was serving and what they said about him.
There is no absence of passion for cooking in Hamilton’s Blood, Bones & Butter. She clearly loves food. Of course, there is no absence of passion for almost anything in this book, to the point that Hamilton sometimes comes across as even a bit unhinged. The after-work unload over many drinks is a cherished tradition in the restaurant world, but it plays less well in print.
If ambition is the motivating characteristic in Achatz’s memoir, rage takes center stage in Hamilton’s. To a certain extent, that is perhaps justified. Hamilton’s adolescence went in a blink from a kind of bohemian rhapsody to nearly Dickensian. Or at least that’s the way she remembers it, though she doesn’t come off as the most reliable of narrators, and it seems some family members recall it somewhat differently.
The book has been praised for its openness and honesty, and it’s true that there can be little left about Hamilton’s life that we don’t know about. Things just seem to happen to her, from opening her restaurant on a whim to dumping her live-in lesbian girlfriend of many years to engage in a green-card marriage with a man she then proceeded to have two children with despite the fact that they continued to live in separate apartments and apparently couldn’t stand each other.
But ranting is the not same as writing and what’s lacking in this book is any kind of introspection. Hamilton has a strong, visceral style, but mainly in one key. She seems to be regularly taken over by an overwhelming loathing of almost everything nonedible she encounters — her mother and father, her co-workers, her husband, her husband’s Italian mother and even his family’s seaside villa.
Yet she never stops to ask herself, “What is going on here?” or “Why am I like this?” Of course, neither does Achatz — the pair are almost equally inscrutable when it comes to their inner lives.
Work in a professional kitchen is based upon accomplishing certain rote tasks under high-pressure conditions in a limited amount of time. Stopping to wonder why things are done a certain way is a luxury that can’t be indulged. But writing books requires a different set of skills entirely.