I’m working my way through a stack of books received as Christmas presents, and while different both topically and stylistically, all seem to have one underlying theme; They’re all about chefs.

The United States of Arugula – How We Became a Gourmet Nation by David Kamp is less the history of gourmet food as it relates to the home cook, and more the evolution of fine dining in the US. Kamp traces the progression of the modern restaurant from the first Escoffier-trained French chefs brought to the US to the current trend towards Food Network “celebrity” chefs and the debate over their validity in the kitchen. Touching on every 20th century food icon from Julia Child to Alice Waters (about whom Kamp seems to have little good to say), he intertwines the history with the development of the careers of two major food writers, James Beard and Craig Claiborne. The book gets more than a little dishy at times (oh, those crazy kids at Chez Panisse!), but that’s part of its charm.

Gordon Ramsay’s autobiography Roasting in Hell’s Kitchen (a title change from the UK version, Humble Pie) offers another look at the back of house. With his characteristic cursing (I’m guessing he dictated the text rather than sat down at a keyboard), Ramsay tells the story of his life so far, a rags to riches tale which includes an abusive parent, a drug-addicted sibling, betrayal by a colleague and mentor, and the fallout from some sketchy business dealings. Ramsay offers a lot of personal information and anecdotes, but the reader cannot help but sense an overall tone of reserve. The chef also betrays a level of defensiveness when discussing the various criticisms directed towards his business expansion as well as his behaviour in the kitchen. While Ramsay was brought up through the ranks of an old-school, pot-to-the-head-style method of running a kitchen, he insists that he’s really a big pussycat. Given that the man’s business has expanded partially on the reputation of his temper (Fox has signed him for the third season of Hell’s Kitchen and a US version of the award-winning Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares will be filmed around the same time), I don’t know that he should be protesting too much. A fun read in the vein of Kitchen Confidential or for any Ramsay fans.

Finally, a bit of fiction to finish the mix. Soul Kitchen is the third in a series by New Orleans writer Poppy Z. Brite. Centred around a pair of chefs running a restaurant called Liquor, Soul Kitchen is the story of John Rickey and his partner (both personal and business), Gary “G Man” Stubbs. Brite’s husband is an award-winning chef in New Orleans, so she manages to paint a vivid picture of the restaurant business, from the exquisite creations coming out of the kitchen right down to the shady dealings taking place at the tables out front. Her hilarious and cynical portrayal of the current (and incredibly foolish, in this writer’s opinion) “molecular gastronomy” trend sweeping the food world is more than worth the cost of the book. When lead character Rickey injures his back carrying a sack of oysters, he is led down a path of pain-killer addiction by a prosperous local doctor looking to take advantage of him. Brite herself suffers from chronic back pain which she documents in her LiveJournal, and I found her descriptions of Rickey’s ailments to be particularly well-written. Soul Kitchen is a fun read all on its own, although it’s better when paired with the first two books in the series; Liquor and Prime.