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best books for an aspiring food journalist/restaurant critic

I'm looking for any recommendations except traditional cookbooks--whether it is about ethnic cuisines (I recently read Asian Dining Rules and loved it), cooking techniques, restaurant histories, etc.

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  1. buford's "heat", tower's "california dish", ruhlman's "the making of a chef", rw apple's "apple's europe".

    1 Reply
    1. re: steve h.

      great suggestions...two of my favorite books are Buford's Heat and Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef.

      Maybe add some Bourdain in there to get the grittier side of the back of the house?

    2. The "United States of Arugula" by David Kamp is a nice timeline fo 20th Century trends in dining and ingredients.

      1. Hasn't there been some variant of this thread up here since 1998? Anyway: Joseph Mitchell, ``Up in the Old Hotel''; AJ Liebling, ``Between Meals''; Calvin Trillin, ``Tummy Trilogy''; Brillat-Savarin; at least one old review compilation apiece from Gael Greene, Seymour Britchky and Mimi Sheraton; James Beard, ``Delights and Prejudices''; Evan Jones, ``American Food''; Waverly Root, ``Food of France '' and ``Food of Italy''; Kermit Lynch, ``Adventures on the Wine Route.'' For starters.

        1 Reply
        1. re: condiment

          In a sense, yes, there have been many "best books" threads on this board. I took the OP's question to be a bit more specific: What books would be good for an aspiring food critic or journalist? as opposed to What are some good food books?

          Perhaps what could set this thread apart would be short descriptions of why each book is good for a food writer (not just why the book is good).

        2. anything by ruth reichl, anthony bourdain, ruhlman, buford... there's also a collection of the best food writing published each year by holly something or other. i think that will give you a good cross section of various kinds of food writing.

          8 Replies
          1. re: cpark

            Well no, actually. Bourdain is a one hit wonder, interesting as a symptom of food culture, but not so much a writer. If you read the New Yorker piece that was expanded into Kitchen Confidential, you've pretty much read what he has to say. Reichl's insights on her own life, at least in her memoirs, outweigh what she has to say about food. Ruhlman is a useful hack with a bad case of unquestioning chef worship. Bill Buford is a fantastic writer - his book on soccer hooligans was one of the best sports books ever - but Heat is more useful as a memoir of midlife crisis than it is as an exemplar of food writing. (I did like it though.) And the Best Food Writing series is pretty awful, volume through volume - they could rename it Best Solipsistic Food Writing and nobody, including the contributors, would blink an eye.

              1. re: FED

                one more thought on this: try reading Bourdain AND Ruhlman together. Ruhlman presents chefs as they wish to be seen; Bourdain presents chefs the way they are afraid they are seen.

              2. re: condiment

                i think you are accurate in your critiques of the aforementioned writers, but i think the truth of the matter is that their style of narcissistic writing is the direction that food writing is going right now. and ultimately, those books are the type of writing that the thread starter is most likely interested in, right? i have brillat-savarin, mfk fisher, etc on my shelves but i feel like you don't really see sutff like that anymore. too bad.

                1. re: cpark

                  In his way, Brillat-Savarin was even more of a fathead than Bourdain, but time has a way of smoothing down the edges. And of course no writer in history was more narcissistic than MFK Fisher, who conflated food and sex in ways Gael Greene could only dream of, but she was so good at it...

                    1. re: cpark

                      You might like Gumbo Tales by Sara Roahen, a beautiful memoir of eating in New Orleans in the age of Katrina.

              3. re: cpark

                cpark, I think you mean Molly O'Neill's American Food Writing: An Anthology.

                Second Waverly Root, Calvin Trillin, RW Apple (adore him) and Buford. Also, Gael Greene, Elizabeth David, Curnonsky. Bruni in the NY Times and other critics there, John Thorne, The Art of Eating, lots of periodicals, Laurie Colwin (love her story on Tomatoes), MFK Fisher, Caroline Bates in Gourmet, John McPhee. Perhaps oddly, I'm not that big a fan of Reichl as writer.

                Learn as much as you can about cooking, the classics in cooking, technique, and about proper service, resto management, the flow of a resto, wine, wine service, regional cuisine, etc. You'll need that knowledge to evaluate if something is being done right or wrong, and to what degree.

                1. As others have noted, there have been many threads in the past on great food writing. Focusing specifically on journalism, I used to love Laurie Colwin's column for Gourmet, and her articles have been compiled in several books, including "Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen" and "More Home Cooking."

                  You can't go wrong with the classics. To the recommendations made by condiment above, I'd add M.F.K. Fisher, who is my all-time favorite.

                  I've found that in terms of publications, Gourmet and the New Yorker probably have the best food writing. I was glad to find the David Foster Wallace article "Consider the Lobster" on Gourmet's website--here's a link:


                  1 Reply
                  1. re: DanaB

                    I think from a food journalist's point of view I'd also recommend MFK Fisher, Calvin Trillan and Ruth Reichl's memoire trilogy: Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me with Apples, Garlic and Sapphires. In particular, she talks specifically about what background and experiences led her to being a food journalist, which I think would be helpful.

                  2. Jeffrey Steingarten's The Man Who Ate Everything
                    Jay Rayner's The Man Who Ate the World

                    Hmm... almost the same title!

                    1. buford's "heat" is a wonderful culinary journey seen through the eyes of a top-notch journalist (former editor of granta, former fiction editor of the new yorker). he took on batali and soared from there. he is not a hack. rather, a gonzo journalist in the image of george plimpton and hunter s. thompson.

                      jeremiah tower, "california dish", was at ground zero when california cuisine exploded on the national scene. his personal tale is extraordinary. he tattles, he rants, he never spares himself. truly a remarkable book. excellent journalism, in my opinion.

                      ruhlman, a professional writer, took us through the experience of being a first-year student at the cia. the first half of his book dwells on the basics (knife skills and stuff). he gets it.

                      rw apple is (was) the new york time's rw apple. washington bureau guy, international correspondent guy, big-time food and wine guy. "apple's europe" should be mandatory reading for all journalist/restaurant critic wannabes.

                      all the folk i mentioned share(d) a passion for both food and life. none were one dimensional. maybe that's what made them interesting.

                      1. "How to be a food writer as a second Job"

                        Well, it's not really a book, but given all the downsizing in media right now coupled with the increasing use of freelancers, the opportunity to be a full time critic/writer is shrinking. Not that it can't be done... but in most cities there's only one paper and maybe a couple of other full time gigs.

                        12 Replies
                        1. re: tastyjon

                          Back when Americans would pick up a piece of paper and put pad to pen Clementine Paddleford ran a promotion called "cook young",gathering recipes from young cooks.

                          She received 35,000 letters.

                          In 1953 Time magazine called her "the best known food editor in the United States"

                          She pre-dated the guy who eats odd food on Food Network by 50 years dining on " beaver, buffalo, muskrat, bear, snake and whale" for an article about wartime food rationing.

                          Your food library is a rattling husk without a copy of "How America Eats",a compendium of over 800 of her finest articles.

                          Here's what RW Apple had to say about this estimable woman: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/30/din...

                          1. re: scrumptiouschef

                            I always like.-- Jim Thorne.. writes a lot of interesting short items with his wife... made me go out and find my first bahn mie and make proper baked beans..

                            1. re: grant.cook

                              That's John Thorne, Simple Cooking newsletter and several books. He's a good'un who unfortunatley seems to have faded somewhat from the scene.

                              1. re: FED

                                Yes, Thorne lived in 2 locations very near me and writes about a lot of places I know/knew. Makes it more fun. Calvin Trillain, my other favorite.

                                Besides Giving Good Measure, does Mc Phee have other food oriented books?

                                1. re: Passadumkeg

                                  not a food book, per se (but neither is giving good measure for that matter), but he had a very well-known article many years ago going behind the scenes at a restaurant in Connecticut where the chef was quite passionate and did things from scratch (something that was much more unusual then than now). it was also slightly controversial because mcphee let the chef make some claims about other restaurants (lutece, iirc), that were later found to be untrue. still, it's a good read.

                                  1. re: FED

                                    I thought the restaurant was in the Princeton, NJ area. Mc phee is one of my favorites along w/ Kurlansky; where were you in 1968: The Year of Revolution?

                                    1. re: FED

                                      I have not read it yet, but there's an essay in _Giving Good Weight_ titled "Brigade de Cuisine" that loosely fits your description of the made-from-scratch chef.

                                      A reviewer on amazon.com identifies the chef as Alan Lieb & identifies the location as Shohola, Penn.

                                      1. re: alanstotle

                                        well, then ... never mind. it is a well-written piece, though, but perhaps not his most rigorously reported. (and yes, i know, neither ws my original reply).

                                        1. re: FED

                                          Well...don't quote me on that just yet. I'll probably read it over the Christmas holiday & find out for sure. Plus, the amazon reviewer might be wrong, too.

                                        2. re: alanstotle

                                          Al, thanks, I have wondered for a long time.

                                          1. re: Passadumkeg

                                            Read McPhee's piece on Oranges.

                                            "Who are the great food writers, past & present?"

                            2. I'm a long-time New subscriber so I have probably read most of the articles in the New Yorker's Anthology of Food Writing - you could find the exact title on the magazine's website, I'm sure. Certainly the writing standards for articles published in the NYer are quite high.

                              1. any and everything by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.

                                "Culinary Artistry", Becoming a Chef," What to Drink with What you Eat" etc., etc.,

                                1. Ideal for this particular interest: A Meal Observed by Andrew Todhunter - about Taillevent in Paris under the Vrinats. Excellent description of the running of a world-class restaurant and the experience of dining there (which I am very fortunate to have had - a perfect restaurant experience, from the warm welcome even extended to first-timers, to the divine food).

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: buttertart

                                    I agree on the Ruth Reichl recommendations for the aspiring food critic.

                                  2. Here's another (wacky, out of the box) approach. One of the best books you can get is an atlas or a map. Figure out how far you are absolutely willing to travel and find a page that covers the extent. Find out which continent, country, city, street, etc. is under-represented. Write about that - it will allow you to start with original material. The map will also be useful for traveling there to pound the pavement to do direct on the spot research. Of course you can use the map as a surrogate for cuisines, rather than geographical locales. Let's say you find that no one ever writes about Ghanian food - that's your chance etc...

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: limster

                                      My wife and I keep a note pad in the glovebos of the car. We go on fried clam (and other seafood and fries) safari. We eat the meal, discusss the highs and lows and jot down the notes. When home, transfer to the lap top and file. Our hope to put out a self-published guide to the seafood shacks of mid-coast and downeast Maine. We may may never do it, but we have a hell of a good time. Did I mention the cooler of beer?
                                      "We're on a mission from God!"