The Best Food Books (That Aren’t Kitchen Confidential)
Have you read Kitchen Confidential? No? Go read it now. Seriously. We’ll be here when you get back. Anthony Bourdain’s iconic, piratical memoir is a must-have on the bookshelf of any self-respecting food-lover. We know that, you know that, and just about everyone who also goes to bed thinking about what to have for next morning’s breakfast knows that. But what are the other food books that you should be devouring, MOB? What are the best food books that aren’t Kitchen Confidential?
From old school writers like M.F.K Fisher to active critics like Robert Sietsema, who still hits the pavement on a daily basis in the search of New York's great eats, there’s plenty of excellent authors and food-related memoir, novels, and in-depth investigations out there that are worth reading.
These are the best food books which you should be adding to your reading list. Bon Appétit.
Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl
Filled with pithy observations, devilish disguises, and glorious anecdotes from a life dedicated to always thinking about one’s next meal, Garlic and Sapphires is a memoir from Ruth Reichl (the former editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine and New York Times restaurant critic) that’ll satisfy the appetite of any food lover. All of Reichl’s various food books are worth seeking out, though, Garlic and Sapphires is her most telling insight into the hectic life of a restaurant critic during the profession’s heyday. Read it and daydream about the pseudonym you’d use to book a table at the hottest joint in town.
The Cooking Gene by Michael W. Twitty
The Cooking Gene is an important book. Touching on everything from cultural issues surrounding race to the origins of soul food and barbecue, Michael W. Twitty will take you on an unflinching deep-dive into American culinary history through the lens of his own life. An engrossing and captivating read.
New York in a Dozen Dishes by Robert Sietsema
Even if you’ve never been to the Big Apple, you’ll delight in taking a bite out of Robert Sietsema’s funny and heartfelt book about the city’s diverse food scene. The way that Sietsema romantically writes about mofongo in New York in a Dozen Dishes isn't all that dissimilar from the way that Wordsworth used to write about rolling hills and opium. Sorta. Anyone interested in learning more about the dishes that keep the city that never sleeps running should go out of their way to grab a copy of this book.
Heartburn by Nora Ephron
I love Nora Ephron. I love her films, I love her short stories, I love her essays, and particularly love Heartburn: Ephron’s semi-autobiographical novel about the breakdown of her second marriage. Scattered throughout with recipes written by Ephron herself, Heartburn expertly toes the line between fiction and reality. Her wry and incising writing is just as fresh today as it ever was.
The Way We Eat Now by Bee Wilson
If you want the best food book for making you go: “God, maybe I should take better care of myself and the planet...” then The Way We Eat Now is the one for you, MOB. Bee Wilson specialises in in-depth and meticulously researched food books that examine what we eat, the way we eat, and how our diets impact the world around us. Don’t worry about that being too dry, either – Wilson’s writing is entertaining and easily digestible despite the occasionally heavy subject matter.
Longthroat Memoirs by Yemisi Aribisala
Longthroat Memoirs is an entertaining and eye-opening insight into the cultural politics of Nigerian cuisine. The essays – which tackle topics that range from taboo subjects like dog eating and civil war to the evocative power of eggs – all brim with a sense of brio and verve that's rare to find in non-fiction. Aribisala's book is a warm breeze on a frosty day: a refreshing read that you should really get your chops around.
The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
Even those of you with large appetites will find Steingarten’s capacity for gluttony to be truly breathtaking. The man lives and breathes to eat and reading this book – a tidy and well-curated collection of his many food-related essays over the years – is a wonderful insight into just how far passion can take you. A wonderful work that shows just how evocative a meal can be.
Hungry by Jeff Gordinier
I’d happily sacrifice years of my life to be able to roam the world with René Redzepi, so reading this chronicle of the four-year culinary journey that Jeff Gordinier went on with Redzepi his Noma crew filled me with immense envy. And hunger. Gordinier paints Redzepi in a human light in Hunger; he cuts through the fat of the mythos that surrounds the man and, in doing so, gets to the heart of what drives an innovative culinary experiment like Noma. One for the real restaurant heads out there.
Toast by Nigel Slater
Lovely, lovely Nigel Slater wrote his lovely, lovely book Toast in 2003 and we’d recommend anyone who’s even vaguely aware of who Slater is to pick it up. Toast chronicles Slater’s childhood and the myriad trials and tribulations he encountered at dinner tables and kitchens growing up. The combination of delicious prose and narrative that tugs at your heartstrings till they fray is what makes Toast one of my favourite food books of all-time.
Dirt by Bill Buford
Dirt is the latest and greatest book from author and journalist Bill Buford. A follow-up to his 2006 hit Heat, Dirt is centred around Buford’s culinary escapades in the city of Lyon and his personal experience entering into the high-end, high-pressure world of haute cuisine. Buford is an excellent storyteller, a man who can place you directly in a time and place with genial ease, and reading about his attempt to master the art of French cooking might just inspire you to do the same. At the very least it’ll inspire you to buy a baguette.
Eat Up by Ruby Tandoh
A salve in a world where we’re constantly bombarded with Bootea and diet bullshit, Ruby Tandoh is a writer who speaks from her stomach. Eat Up is all about the pleasures of eating. It’s about the anticipatory butterflies you get when you see that your meal is on its way or the endearingly tiny, yet undeniable, spot of marinara sauce that your date failed to notice was on their chin for the entire night. If you’re after a food book to reignite your passion and appetite for eating, you won’t find a better option, MOB.
One More Croissant For The Road by Felicity Cloake
Cycling across France eating flaky pastries sounds pretty good right now, huh? With international travel still off the menu, for the time being, Felicity Cloake’s account of the time she spent working her way through the French countryside in search of the country’s greatest eats is an excellent way to live vicariously through her works. One More Croissant For The Road is a delicious travelogue that’ll also leave you with a firmer grasp of the stark differences between France’s culinary regions.
Notes from a Young Black Chef by Joshua David Stein and Kwame Onwuachi
Kwame Onwuachi’s story is one that needs to be seen (or, er, read) to be believed. This memoir, which recounts Onwuachi’s journey to becoming the acclaimed chef he is today, is told with refreshing honesty and works as a prime example of all the abstract paths that life can take you down before you find your true calling. From selling candy on the New York subway to cooking for the Obamas, Onwuachi has lived a life, MOB. Inspire yourself by picking up a copy of Notes from a Young Black Chef.
A Cook's Tour by Anthony Bourdain
OK, we said that we wouldn’t include Kitchen Confidential on this list but we didn’t say anything about any of Bourdain’s other books, did we? A Cook’s Tour is a sardonic and expressive behind-the-scenes insight into Bourdain’s experience filming the Food Network show with which it shares its name. Bourdain’s writing is as sharp as you’d expect and his awareness of his own Columbusing, a discomfort that teeters at the edge of every chapter, acts as a much-needed ballast against other travel-focussed food books and their overblown descriptions of “foreign” lands and foods.
Counter Intelligence by Jonathan Gold
Jonathan Gold was the first-ever food critic to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and this collection of his best reviews over the years shows you just why he was so deserving of that acclaim. No cuisine is out of bounds for Gold as he traverses the landscape of Los Angeles in his pick-up, seeking out the city’s greatest eats along the way. You can go into Counter Intelligence knowing nothing about Los Angeles and come out of the other side with as much knowledge of the city’s diverse food scene as a lifelong Angeleno. His turn of phrase is mellifluous.
The Art of Eating by M.F.K. Fisher
Dense and, at times, hilariously outdated, The Art of Eating is one of those food books which has remained part of every voracious eater’s canon since it was published back in 1954. I won’t lie to you, MOB, this one is not for the faint of heart but Fisher’s descriptions are full of such verve and life that you can look past any shortcomings when it comes to culinary diversity. This one is for the real culinary nerds out there.
Blood, Bones and Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Trust me when I tell you that Blood, Bones, and Butter will floor you within its first couple of pages. Gabrielle Hamilton’s raw memoir will instil you with a burning desire to cook and simultaneously make you never want to step foot anywhere near a restaurant ever again. Hamilton’s journey to becoming one of America’s most talked-about chefs is astonishing, but it’s her prose that sets Blood, Bones, and Butter alight. An essential.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat
If you’ve consumed anything that Samin Nosrat’s played a part in creating – whether that’s her Home Cooking podcast, her show on Netflix, or one of her many delicious recipes for The New York Times – you’ll know that she brings an unrepentant joy and enthusiasm to all of her work. Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat is no different; it’s a food book that isn’t afraid to get scientific but explains the basic concepts behind what makes things delicious in such affable fashion that it's impossible not to be charmed by Nosrat along the way.
How To Eat by Nigella Lawson
It’s a testament to the staying power of Nigella Lawson that How To Eat is still one of the most popular food books around. Look at the shelves of any self-respecting gastronaut and you’ll be sure to find a marinara-stained copy of How To Eat wedged somewhere between Ottolenghi’s Simple and a David Nicholls novel. OK, yes, maybe I am very specifically talking about my own makeshift library in this scenario, but the point stands! How To Eat is chockful of lovely Nigella-isms and plenty of basic recipes that pare back dishes to their most elemental form. Get this and gobble it up, MOB.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
What should you have for dinner? That’s the seemingly simple question that Michael Pollan tries to answer in The Omnivore’s Dilemma and (SPOILER WARNING) it turns out to be not quite so simple. Exploring the farm-to-table process of how food ends up on our plates from its source, Pollan pulls back the covers on the food systems that currently exist and the long-term implications that upholding these unsustainable methods of food production will have on the planet.
A Half Baked Idea by Olivia Potts
It’s not easy to write honestly and openly about grief and bereavement but that’s exactly what Olivia Potts did when she put pen to paper on this heartwarming and, at times, heartbreaking memoir. Leaving a financially stable career as a barrister to enrol in the Le Cordon Bleu with little-to-no culinary training, Potts risked it all to pursue something that made her feel truly happy. And, perhaps now more than ever, I think that’s a message we could all learn from, MOB.
Table Talk by A.A. Gill
They don’t make them like A.A. Gill anymore. As The Sunday Times' restaurant critic, Gill was responsible for some of the most entertaining food writing to come out of the UK in the last 50 years. Table Talk is essentially a Greatest Hits collection of his reviews and the various food-related features he wrote over the years. Spanning from The Wolseley to a Calais refugee camp, no location was off-limits for Gill and no subject matter too small to write about. A must-read for anyone that wants to be a food writer.
My Last Supper by Jay Rayner
Jay Rayner’s had more hot dinners than you have. The famous journalist and food critic is renowned for his acerbic wit and ability to distil the experience of a meal into a succinct Sunday morning read. This book, which follows Rayner as he attempts to recreate the eponymous eight-course meal that he’d love to eat before kicks the bucket, isn’t just a lascivious bit of food porn but a penetrating look into how food speaks to both our stomachs and our souls. Make My Last Supper the first thing you read this year.
The Man Who Ate Too Much by John Birdsall
James Beard was a complicated figure, to say the least. While you’re likely to be more familiar with the nonprofit organisation named after him than the man himself, James Beard was a hugely influential chef, cookbook author, and food personality who led an eclectic life. John Birdsall’s biography of Beard does an excellent job at portraying Beard’s complexities, never shying away from the more sordid aspects of his life, to help the reader understand what made him tick.
Burn The Place by Iliana Regan
Burn The Place is a particularly poetic food book; a memoir that’s less concerned with the temporal journey of its author as it is with the emotional journey she endures. Regan – a Michelin-starred chef and restaurateur in Chicago – proves herself to be a dexterous a writer as she is a cook and remains a captivating narrator throughout the entirety of Burn The Place. The end-result for the reader is an inspiring tale of culinary and personal endeavour filled with the highest of highs and the lowest of lows.