Back of the House

New York Chefs Tell of Nightmarish Beginnings

Kimberly Witherspoon and Peter Meehan’s fine new book, How I Learned to Cook, is a collection of first-person accounts of celebrated chefs’ rocky beginnings. Some of the best chapters are by New York cooks: Andrew Carmellini of A Voce, Gabrielle Hamilton of Prune, David Chang of Momofuku and Ssäm Bar, and Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin. In case you have any doubts about adding it to your Amazon wish list, here’s a breakdown of the hometown highlights.

“The Noodle Whisperer,” David Chang
Sketches Chang’s brief apprenticeship with a Yoda-like soba master, which ends when a young and penniless Chang is forced to buy a $2,000 knife, only to be promptly fired.

Sample quote: “I couldn’t be soba, as Akio had put it, and I couldn’t be ramen. I couldn’t be the next [Hearth chef] Marco Canora. But I was crazy about noodles.”

“And The Winner Is …,” Andrew Carmellini
A.C., a young sous at Le Cirque, is summoned to Italy to take part in an olive-oil cooking contest, which turns out to be totally rigged.

“I’m certain that by the time the judges got around to trying my once perfectly creamy risotto, it was close to the texture of spackle. I was disappointed and disgusted with the whole spectacle.”

“It’s All Fun and Games Until …,” Gabrielle Hamilton
The Prune chef recalls the flying beans, burns, and humiliations attendant to opening her East Village restaurant.

“Deep in the middle of the eight p.m. rush, while we were ducking fat bullets flying through the already thick air and squinting so as not to get one in the eyeball, A. looked up and out into the dining room and said, ‘Holy shit, is that Mario Batali at the bar?’”

“Walking on Eggshells,” Eric Ripert
The Ripper recalls his days as a young cook working with a psychotic chef in France.

“He visibly reddened. There was an uncharacteristic silence for a second — and then he erupted. He hurled every epithet in his repertory toward me as he rushed me with his chef’s knife. I dropped the frozen boulder of duck in his path and ran.”

New York Chefs Tell of Nightmarish Beginnings