Cookbooks - Gaffes for laughs

I found myself grouchily stuck in holiday airport hell last week, and reached into my carry-on to distract myself with the last book I'd planned to read during my vacation: Don't Try This At Home (Bloomsbury, $24.95 hardback). Turns out, this collection of tell-all vignettes by America's finest chefs is an ideal diversion during a three-hour flight delay.

Edited by a food writer and a PR rep for celebrity chefs, the book contains over three dozen anecdotes by top toques confessing all sorts of disasters and illicit scenarios in the kitchen. Foodies can glance at the list of contributors on the back cover and automatically know who to flip to for the juiciest stories: Anthony Bourdain tells a typically hilarious and horrifying tale about working a New Year's Eve shift with a crew who drink and drug themselves silly while waiting for overdue instructions from their overconfident chef. Mario Batali reels off a snarky yarn about a British chef (real name not revealed, dammit) who treated Batali badly as a pup in the kitchen. Malto Mario exacted his revenge by finally storming out in the middle of a shift — but not before ruining the chef's precious sauces with fistfuls of salt.

Not every story grabs you. A few of them ramble in plodding, chunky language about spoiled ingredients or botched cooking that you can sense from the beginning will somehow turn out all right. If there's an underlying theme to the book, Daniel Boulud states it clearly in his ditty about pea soup gone awry: "In my business, failure is not an option."

Still, it's worth the occasional clunker to savor Norman Van Aken recounting his hash-slinging days in Key West, and especially to discover how Michel Richard saved his ass when he ruined a wedding cake on route to delivery (hint: who left the dogs out).

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