From Nigella Lawson to David Chang, Chefs Narrate the Stories Behind the Dishes

Puttering around the kitchen, I’m almost always listening to an audiobook — often while consulting a recipe. But until recently, I had never listened to a cookbook, which seemed about as enticing as listening to someone read the phone book. Then I pressed play on COOK, EAT, REPEAT (HarperAudio, 11 hours, 42 minutes), by Nigella Lawson, narrated by the author in her plummy BBC English. I was transfixed.

People who think Lawson’s success stems chiefly from her beauty haven’t spent enough time with her writing, which is funny, casually erudite and seductive. It also expresses a generous and irresistible philosophy of life. “Truly, the world is not always rich in occasions of joy,” Lawson says. “I know I might seem soupy when I say that I see every mealtime, every mouthful, as a celebration of life, but … I try to. It’s such a waste otherwise.”

In this meandering, almost stream-of-consciousness book, Lawson leaves no room for food snobbery. “Eating is such a huge and elemental pleasure,” she says, “what a strangely puny act to want to police it.” She describes a humble fish stick sandwich with such gusto that I promptly made one (delicious), and suggests serving a roast chicken on a bed of potato chips, “crisp and crunchy” around the edge of the plate, “gooily sticky and sodden with savory juices” underneath the meat (I’ll be making this soon). Her recipes are conversational, written in a genial prose that brings rote directions to life (“squeeze the cucumber slices in your hands over the bowl to get rid of excess water, leaving a dazzlingly vibrant green pond at the bottom of the bowl”). This is not an audiobook for a road trip, as you’ll question why you’re not back home pouring some “savagely intense, darkly glinting licorice sauce” over a Basque burnt cheesecake, or tucking into a crumble of “sweet-sharp cherries oozing fruitily into the sour pulp of butter-softened apples.”

Few authors have Nigella’s flair for recipe writing, and my mind wandered as John O. Morisano or Mashama Bailey droned prosaic instructions for fixing, say, deviled eggs, in BLACK, WHITE, AND THE GREY (Random House Audio, 12 hours, 33 minutes). Luckily recipes make up but a tiny portion of this audiobook about friendship, race and the restaurant business. In 2014, Morisano, a white entrepreneur from Staten Island, and Bailey, a Black chef from Queens, opened the Grey in a “dilapidated, Jim Crow-era Greyhound bus terminal” in Savannah, Ga. At first, Bailey says, “whites were all placed in the not-to-be-trusted category — until proven otherwise,” and Morisano had his own biases: “No matter how tolerant I believed myself to be, I had unconsciously absorbed the messaging that we should only trust our own.” The fact that neither author narrates like a pro is part of the appeal: It feels as if you’re overhearing a real conversation about the ways their partnership has been tested. Their personalities emerge as much through their voices as through their words, Morisano sounding a bit slick and eager, Bailey more guarded, as together they fitfully map out a small-scale blueprint for racial cooperation.

While the Grey was born of teamwork, the international Momofuku restaurant empire (Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar) erupted from the molten core of David Chang’s tortured soul, as we learn in the chef’s fascinating, unsettling memoir, EAT A PEACH (Random House Audio, 9 hours, 6 minutes). A self-described “egomaniac with low self-confidence,” Chang grew up with a Korean “tiger parent” — a term he thinks “gives a cute name to what is actually a painful and demoralizing existence.” What happens when you live with a dad you can never please? In “Eat a Peach,” the answer is: You become an unhappy workaholic who contemplates suicide, drinks too much and takes out his anger on everyone in sight — but who also, somehow, opens a constellation of world-famous restaurants that “erased the line between what we thought we should be serving our customers and what we wanted to cook for our friends,” by serving ramen bowls and Chick-fil-A-inspired sandwiches. In this unsparingly personal audiobook, Chang expresses justified pride in his accomplishments, but in his delivery there are raw exasperation and bitterness, often directed at himself.

Michelle Zauner, the singer and guitarist who performs as Japanese Breakfast, also grew up with a hypercritical Korean parent: in her case, her mother. “Hers was tougher than tough love,” Zauner says in her wonderful memoir, CRYING IN H MART (Random House Audio, 7 hours, 23 minutes). “It was brutal, industrial-strength. A sinewy love that never gave way.” But while the two fought constantly, there was never any question it was love. When Zauner was 25 and their relationship had just begun to heal, her mother got cancer and, a few harrowing months later, died. It’s a privilege to hear Zauner recount the ordeal in unflinching detail, as if a friend is confiding her most shattering experiences. Zauner processes her grief in the aisles of the Korean grocery chain H Mart — “the bridge that guides me away from the memories that haunt me, of chemo head and skeletal bodies and logging milligrams of hydrocodone.” She learns to cook the kimchi, stews and porridges she grew up with, finding traces of her mother in the rice cakes and dumpling skins within this supermarket. It’s a highly specific yet universal story that Zauner narrates with heartbreaking poise.

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