William Skidelsky

Two recent memoirs reveal how hunger may drive a man to be a chef

Being a chef is not like other jobs. I can state this with certainty, because I used to be one. During and immediately after university, I worked as a commis chef both in London and in America. My career was short-lived, and by no means glorious. I quit after a few months, partly because I had never been certain that cooking was something to which I wanted to devote my life, and partly because my experience of actually working in kitchens led me to conclude that, for sheer physical and mental exertion, no profession is more punishing.

Not only do chefs work abnormally hard, they also suffer from a curiously ambivalent status. Although chefs like to think of themselves as artists, society as a whole has rarely been so charitable. Today, at a time when chefs enjoy greater prestige than ever before, I suspect that many still suffer from chronic low self-esteem and insecurity. Male cooks (who make up the overwhelming majority) are particularly vulnerable in this respect, because of the outmoded idea that cooking isn't a job that any real man would contemplate.

Like other celebrities, today's best-known chefs come under enormous pressure to reveal as much about themselves as possible. In the past month, two well-known chefs have given in to the temptation to publish their memoirs. Nigel Slater, the Observer columnist and bestselling cookbook writer, has written Toast, about growing up in Wolverhampton in the 1960s; and Antony Worrall Thompson, the restaurateur and perennial fixture on several TV cookery shows, has released Raw, about his deeply mixed-up childhood and only marginally less mixed-up early adulthood.

As one might expect, the two books are very different. Slater's is by far the more thoughtful and insightful. He has a natural ear for language, and an unobtrusive way of revealing significant details. Worrall Thompson, although marginally less objectionable on paper than he is on screen, still comes across as utterly devoid of charm. Any sympathy one might feel for him is fatally eroded by his tendency to make a joke out of everything, including his own (at times considerable) suffering. Despite dealing with being a victim of child abuse and his near-criminal neglect by his family, his book reads like a cross between a Jennings novel and a Carry On film; at one point he recalls planting "a stinger" on a friend's nose, and at another refers to someone's "magnificent member". One is tempted to say that it's no surprise the blighter had such rotten luck.

Still, both writers shed light on the kinds of childhoods that can result in a person deciding to become a chef. Neither Slater nor Worrall Thompson ate well as a child. Slater's mother was an appalling cook (there are amusing descriptions of her disastrous Sunday lunches), and Worrall Thompson's mother (he never knew his father) was too busy being a theatrical groupie to spend time in the kitchen. For both boys, it seems, eating compensated for a lack of warmth elsewhere, and cooking became their means to attract attention that was not otherwise forthcoming. Following the death of his mother (whom he loved deeply), Slater was left in the care of his conventional, emotionally distant father. Cooking enabled him to compete with his stepmother for his father's attention, even if it reinforced his father's view of him as a "sissy". Worrall Thompson says he discovered cooking at the age of "three or four" (one of several claims in his book that sound like exaggerations) when the thought occurred to him that if he cooked his mother breakfast, "it might encourage her to get up a bit earlier".

Toast ends with Slater working as a lowly chef in a hotel, having graduated from catering college. As he now makes his living writing cookery books, it is clear that he didn't stick it out as a restaurant chef. This doesn't surprise me; in order to survive as a professional in the kitchen, one probably needs to be as bullish and pugnacious as Worrall Thompson. Worrall Thompson is, by all accounts, an excellent chef - and in all probability a better one than Slater. Still, of the two, I know which one I would prefer to cook my dinner.