Let's talk books. Not those that list recipes, but books that delve into the depths of restaurants, capturing for readers all the drama, the highs and the heart-aching lows that go into the making of a culinary landmark. Here are some of my favourite books about restaurants; some are insightful, others inspiring and yet others simply a rollicking good read about one of the world's most exciting businesses.
The Art of the Restaurateur by Nicholas Lander
Nicholas Lander is a respected food critic for the Financial Times and was also once a restaurateur, having owned the legendary L’Escargot in London in the 1980s. His book traces the untold stories of 20 remarkable restaurants across the globe -- from Michelin star winners, to vastly popular bistros and stylish cafes. It's also about the highs and lows of the business and what it takes to succeed and be celebrated. This beautifully illustrated book is a keeper.
Memorable lines: “While chefs may use plates for their art, restaurateur’s imaginations work on much bigger canvases. They look at empty spaces – modern, old, on one floor or on several, in bustling parts of town or in down-at-heel areas -- and begin to paint pictures in their heads of what these spaces will look like when they are full and bustling with customers and staff. This exhilarating experience is the most exciting aspect of this noble profession.”
Restaurant Man, by Joe Bastianich
Yes, he's the nasty guy on American MasterChef. He's also the man behind some of New York's most successful restaurants such as Babbo, Del Posto and Eataly. Bastianich also produces a signature line of Italian wines. Vulgar, but vivid is how this New York Times best-seller has been described. Restaurant Man is also the story of a man, who grew up as an alienated immigrant kid in Queens, spent his teens in a drug-fuelled haze and went on to become one of the city's most celebrated food entrepreneurs, eventually making his peace with his past.
Memorable lines: “He (Bastianich’s Father) taught me at an early age the enigma of the business - you need to appear to be generous, but you have to be an inherently cheap f*** to make it work. It’s a nickel and dime business and you make dollars by accumulating nickels. If you try and make dollars by grabbing dollars you will never survive. It’s come down to a simple concept that my partner Mario Batali and I live by in all our restaurants: We buy things, we fix them up and we sell them for profit."
If Bastianich's book was rated highly for its no-holds-barred 'macho memoir' tenor, it's the irrepressible Anthony Bourdain, chef, author and TV star, who set the trend. Part professional story, part behind-the-scenes peek into restaurant kitchens, Kitchen Confidential holds up a mirror to the restaurant business with unapologetic honesty. Bourdain describes restaurant kitchens as intense, unpleasant, sometimes hazardous workplaces staffed by misfits. His account will either have you drawn inexorably into the underbelly of the culinary world or have your running scared, depending on how adventurous you are.
Memorable lines: "For a moment, or a second, the pinched expressions of the cynical, world-weary, throat-cutting, miserable bastards we've all had to become disappears when we're confronted with a something as simple as a plate of food. When we remember what it was that moved us down this road in the first place."
Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer
It's well worth reading what Danny Meyer has to say. He opened his first restaurant in 1985 at the age of 27, and spent the next 30 years building an empire. Meyer now heads the Union Square hospitality group which includes a landmark restaurants like Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, the Modern, Maialino, Blue Smoke and Shake Shack. Danny, his restaurants and his chefs have won a stupendous 25-plus James Beard Awards. Setting the Table is both an excellent business book and the remarkable story of a restaurateur.
Memorable lines: “Understanding the distinction between service and hospitality has been at the foundation of our success. Service is the technical delivery of a product. Hospitality is how the delivery of that product makes the recipient feel. Service is a monologue- we decide how we want to do things and set our own standards for service. Hospitality on the other hand, is a dialogue. To be on a guests side requires listening to that person on every sense, and following up with a thoughtful, gracious appropriate response. It takes both great service and great hospitality to rise to the top”.
Life on the Line, by Grant Achatz & Nick Kokonas
While Anthony Bourdain and Joe Bastianich make you chuckle and, occasionally, shudder at the goings-on in restaurant kitchens, here is a touching story that will overwhelm you with its eye-watering intensity. It's the story of Chef Grant Achatz of the conceptually radical and much-starred Alinea. Achatz was on top of his game, awarded the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year multiple times when he was diagnosed with stage IV tongue cancer. Unwilling to lose his tongue, Achatz opted out of surgery and went in for aggressive chemotherapy and radiation. The treatments resulted in him losing his sense of taste. Achatz then trained his chefs to mimic his palate and learned how to cook with his other senses. This is the story of one man's love affair with cooking, and how he survived terrible odds to keep that love alive.
Memorable lines: “You can’t decide to turn creativity on or off. All you can do is present yourself with interesting problems and try to find solutions.”