Author: Iliana Regan
Summary: A fascinating memoir, enjoyable both for the author’s emotional account of her struggles and for the cool technical details of her career.
Iliana Regan is perhaps best known for her Michelin-starred restaurant, Elizabeth, but I first heard of her as the author of this National Book Award long-listed memoir. The book blurb sells it as searingly honest, which it is. It covers the sort of difficult topics the phrase ‘searingly honest’ conjures, like Iliana’s struggle with alcoholism and her difficulty accepting her sexuality. But her honesty also led to some surprising moments of humor, often through unexpected profanity. Her honesty definitely helped me feel involved in her life, but the primary strength I identified in this book was the author’s ability to tell a good story. As a child, she describes escaping into her imagination and now she says uses her menus to tell stories. That ability carries over to her memoir as well.
This is a book with three distinct parts. The first section focuses on her childhood. Every chapter is anchored by a vivid description of preparing and eating food. The second section is about her struggle with alcoholism. The author worked at restaurants, but food is pushed to the margins in these stories. The final section focuses on the founding of her restaurants. I found the first two sections to be the strongest. They have the feel of an origin myth. Although the author shares her age at the beginning of each vignette, their disconnection from one another made them feel timeless. I had to really focus to remember how old the author was in each one. Each chapter felt pivotal to the formation of the author’s identity. Her ability to identify these formative moments in her history gave the stories a real sense of purpose.
The last section was also enjoyable, but felt more rushed and less purposeful than the earlier sections. I loved hearing about her scientific approach to cooking. Other fascinating topics in this section included: the creative dishes she makes; her experiences learning how to manage people; and how she dealt with sexism in the kitchen. However, we cover about the same amount of her life in this last third of the book as we did in the first two thirds. Sometimes I wanted a lot more about how she got from one point to another or on a given topic. The founding of her second restaurant and her relationship with her wife got particularly little page space. Other chapters at the end felt like a grab-bag of stories from earlier in her life that she hadn’t been able to fit into the (mostly) linear narrative.
While I didn’t think the last section was quite as strong as the first two, it was a satisfying conclusion built on a strong foundation. Having heard about the author’s struggles in moving detail, getting to hear about her successes was really lovely. Unlike another cooking memoir I read recently (Notes From a Young Black Chef), Iliana has achieved enough and crafted her story carefully enough that her memoir had a satisfying arc to it. I could see the strengths she built on, the challenges she overcame, and how they led to her success. It was well written and her honesty drew me in. This was a very strong memoir and I’d highly recommend it. If you’re interested in any of the following topics especially, don’t miss this – growing up in the country; struggling with your gender and sexuality as a child; alcoholism; or working in the restaurant industry.
Last but not least, I’ve managed to avoid seeing the National Book Award shortlist, so I can still make a prediction about whether this will make it. Although I’m giving this five stars and I think it’s a great memoir, I’m going to guess it won’t make the shortlist. Compared to last year’s shortlist, this deals with a much narrower topic. Although Iliana deals with some challenges in her life, she only addresses them as they relate to her personally. She includes little to no research, just her lived experience. That made this much less information rich than the books on last year’s shortlist. It was a great read though, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if it proves me wrong 🙂