Standing the Heat: Women Chefs on Life In­ and Out of the Kitchen

In her new book "Skirt Steak," Charlotte Druckman collects interviews and reflections from seventy-three working female chefs and takes a refreshing departure from other books that focus on the difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated profession: “First order of business: Figure out which are the questions typically posited to the gals of the galley, skip them, and then raise the ones that aren’t asked.” The result is a lively, often conflicting chorus of enthusiastic voices, exploring what it means to be a chef and a woman in a modern kitchen. We rounded up five other recent memoirs by women that explore food, family, restaurants, and relationships. (Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune and Alice Waters of Chez Panisse are invited to our table, too, of course; they're seated over here).

Patricia Volk’s memoir "Stuffed" is the story of growing up in a family that had been in the restaurant business for four generations, in which “you weren’t considered fed unless you were in pain.” The family’s century of getting to New York’s heart through its stomach begins with her great-grandfather’s introduction of pastrami to America, in 1888, and ends with her father’s closing the family's Garment District restaurant in 1988. Volk, also a novelist, gives a vivid account of growing up in a world so dominated by food that it literally colors her perceptions of her world: “Our hallway was the color of ballpark mustard. The living room was cocoa, my mother's wall-to-wall, iceberg green. The floor of the lobby was maroon-and-white terrazzo, like Genoa salami. When our elevator went self-service, the wood was replaced by enameled walls that looked like Russian dressing, the lumpy pink kind our housekeeper, Mattie, made by lightly folding Hellmann's mayonnaise into Heinz ketchup with a fork.”

Dalia Jurgensen starts out not as the petted princess of a restaurant dynasty, but as one of its anonymous laborers. Her memoir "Spicedbursts through the swing doors of a busy restaurant kitchen to expose the pressures of life under the fluorescent lights. After quitting a job in publishing to retrain as a pastry chef, Jurgensen started at the bottom of the ladder at a top-end restaurant, in the male-dominated kitchen at Nobu, making four hundred dollars a week for her daily ten-hour shifts. Jurgensen spends little time on family history (although she does attribute a relaxed attitude to drastic career changes to her Danish parents, and recounts memories of preparing delicacies at the family table) -- instead, she focuses on her climb from ingénue to mistress of her trade.

Lauren Shockey’s "Four Kitchens" is also a story of a culinary coming of age, set against a more exotic backdrop. After graduating from New York’s French Culinary Institute -- where she claims to have learned only three things: how to salt food properly, how not to be afraid of a high heat, and how to pound beers -- Shockey needed on-the-job training. She quickly tired of an apprenticeship at a provincial French restaurant, and instead set off to learn about life in the kitchen in four dramatically different settings: New York City (at Wylie Dufresne’s molecular-gastronomy hotspot wd-50), Vietnam, Israel, and Paris. In her dream year of traveling and cooking, Shockey learns about the culture and cuisine of these diverse places, and conveys their particular atmosphere through stories and recipes like Kimchi Stew, Lamb Meatballs with Cucumber-Yogurt Sauce, and Chili Dogs.

A more personal and searching memoir of a culinary education, told by a more mature narrator, "The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry" is Kathleen Flinn’s story of her time as a student at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris. At the age of thirty-six, the author returned from a vacation to find her corporate job eliminated; at a loss as to what to do, she cleared out her savings to attend the famous school, equipped only with a childhood love of cooking and a “wretchedly inadequate” grasp of French. Her story turns out to be one of finding self-knowledge, fulfillment and love, as much as mastering duck à l’orange.

Molly Wizenberg, author of the food blog Orangette and the memoir "A Homemade Life" is a self-taught cook and food writer, whose book is a combination of recipes and family stories: lyrical, funny, and with a great eye for detail. The book begins with admittedly unglamorous potato salad, a choice explained by reference to her childhood: “...when you grow up under the wing of someone who felt as strongly about potato salad as my father did, your priorities are special.” The story of her mother’s Cour à la Crème is at once an homage to a woman “very skilled in the realm of white chocolate,” and to that once-fashionable 1980s treat, which sadly “went the way of crimping irons and Boy George.” Since writing her first book of family and food, Wizenberg and her husband have opened a restaurant and bar in Seattle; her next book, to be published next year, will tell the story of leaving the family kitchen for a commercial one.