Life on a plate

Food - Bee Wilson on what chefs serve up after they leave the kitchen

Eating to live is out. Living to eat is in, if the current spate of culinary autobiographies is anything to go by. From the first taste of infant mashed potato to the first grown-up oyster, the stages of man are now endlessly documented in food. The cleverness of these books is that self and stomach, those twin appetites of our consumer age, get fed at once.

This trend is biggest in the United States, where is stuffed with works on the Proustian qualities of mom's blueberry pie. But Britain's own Nigel Slater has caught the bug, too. His next project, I gather, is to be an elegiac account of the recipes, good and bad, that formed his personality - Nigel's life on a plate.

A subcategory of this genre is the chef's memoir. Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: adventures in the culinary underbelly has caused a stir on both sides of the Atlantic. This is a memoir of filth, sweat, drugs and lewdness among American line cooks. After reading Bourdain, you think twice about ordering shellfish in a restaurant, or even going to a restaurant - any restaurant - ever again.

The heroes of Bourdain's book are the "bad-ass" chefs he remembers from when he started cooking professionally 25 years ago. Pirate-like figures with huge knives strapped to their bodies, they pick up "glowing-hot sizzle platters" barehanded without flinching, and subject each other to an incessant round of obscene, macho game-playing. One of Bourdain's rites of passage comes when making the filling for some Italian crespelle, "stirring mushrooms, diced tongue, ham, turkey, spinach and bechamel with a big, heavyweight, curved Dexter meat fork". When one of his kitchen tormentors makes advances, he turns the meat fork round and sinks the tines into the man's knuckles. Now, at last, "the other cooks began addressing me as an equal".

These colourful episodes are meant to illustrate Bourdain's philosophy that good food is "all about blood and organs, cruelty and decay". But his advice on "how to cook like the pros" is curiously emasculated. Chop some parsley and use for garnish. Put sauces in plastic squeezy bottles to get a neat drizzling effect. Put a "nice sprig of chervil on top of your chicken breast". Add butter for extra flavour. With all that energy expended on perfecting his meaty "cook's talk", Bourdain seems to have little left for the art of meat itself.

The same cannot be said of Michel Roux, whose own autobiography, Life is a Menu, has just been published. Literary reviewers will doubtless rate it lower than Kitchen Confidential, because it has none of Bourdain's swagger. But as an account of what a life wholeheartedly dedicated to the cause of gastronomy actually entails, Roux's memoir is remarkable.

From its earliest beginnings in his grandfather's charcuterie, Roux's life comes across as one of almost total self-abnegation in the name of food. After he and his brother Albert (the shorter, chattier one) came to England to found Le Gavroche, they survived on four hours of sleep a night, not just once or twice, but for 12 years on the trot, to be sure of getting the produce they wanted at the market: courgettes, scallops, red mullet, veal kidneys, even jerrycans of fresh blood.

Roux gives less space to the birth of his children and the breakdown of his first marriage than to the problem of serving raspberry souffle to the Queen. Although he is happy to describe killing a lobster or butchering a cow, he does so not for effect, but for culinary enlightenment.

As for Bourdain-like kitchen fiascos, he will not countenance them, calmly concluding that "when you have three Michelin stars and keep them, it is because catastrophes have been extremely rare". Instead of kitchen dramas, Roux gives us the drama - the madness, even - of filling individual brioches with an elaborate chicken puree, poached eggs and Perigueux truffle sauce, all for no more pressing a reason than that it will taste "sublime".

For Roux, the legacy of his life is in the subtle perfection of his fennel creme brulee. As another Frenchman once said: "L'homme, c'est rien - l'oeuvre, c'est tout."

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich