The first thing you have to ask yourself is, why do I want to read a memoir in the first place? Not this particular memoir — Colman Andrews's chronicle of his life in restaurants — but any memoir. What is it you're looking for, exactly? What's your purpose in crawling so intimately into someone else's head?
I suspect that you do it to learn, sure. To see a different world from the inside or, maybe, the same world you inhabit, but through someone else's eyes. You do it for the voyeuristic pleasure that comes from poking through the ashes of someone else's past — of having formative moments brought back to life through words and being there to bear witness. Good memoirs let you ride someone else's shoulders through the paths of their lives. The best ones let you live in the skin of their creators. The worst ones are merely a frame on which to hang dropped names, self-aggrandizing vignettes and lists of who was sleeping with whom, where and when.
The odd thing about Andrews's latest is that it is all of those things at once. Constructed as an autobiographical study revolving around a dozen-odd restaurants at which he passed important moments (or years) of his life, it takes you deep inside Parisian bistros, Italian kitchens, El Bulli's dining room, Hollywood hot spots and neighborhood watering holes, and the American restaurant scene from the days before there really was any such thing.
Thanks to extensive journals, he can recall with freakish precision precisely what he ate and drank on any given night so that, when he speaks of the wedge of brie he had at Café Swiss one Saturday in Los Angeles, or the 1969 Heitz McCrea pinot he washed it down with, you feel as though you're right there on his lap. And he has that food writer's trick of imbuing long blocks of food description with a poet's rhythm, lending a chewiness to the words that makes you want to lick the page.
What's more, there are moments — rare, but visceral — when you can feel him dropping his guard and offering up something deeper than a travel-junkie's itinerary of places visited and plates cleaned. Like this one: "I remember stepping out of a water taxi, driven by a beautiful dishwater blonde with an amber tan and stevedore hands, onto a stony beach framed in tamarisk and myrtle trees and sprawls of rock roses on the Ile de Porquerolles, and turning almost breathless with wonder at the idea that not even twenty-four hours earlier I'd been sitting at my desk on Sixth Avenue in New York City editing an article about common crackers from the Vermont Country Store."
Andrews has lived an odd enough life that he can, with authority, tell stories of L.A. strip clubs and Ed Begley Jr. in a rabbit suit, and a full enough one that he makes an ideal guide through the decades and continents' worth of restaurants at which he's had a usual table.
But, on the downside, there is a guardedness here. A glossing over of nearly everything ancillary to the food, the booze and those he shared it with. Wives come and go. Jobs the same. Colman's timeline has a tendency to bounce around so that, on one page, we're in Rome (or Paris or Barcelona) in the 80's, prowling the streets for liquor and fried squid and, on the next, we're in West Hollywood and it's 1975 all over again.
The man drops names like you wouldn't believe — a historical catalogue of infamous Hollywood personalities and food world celebrities with whom he spent a lifetime corresponding, drinking and eating. I found old friends in here, writ as younger men and women than I ever knew them, which was a strange experience. I met Wolfgang Puck as a journeyman chef, Jonathan Waxman in his early days, Ruth Reichl as a commune-living food writer just finding her voice, and Ron Cooper as a California artist — all of them passing in and out of Andrews's orbit or the dining rooms that he frequented.
So again I ask, why is it you read memoirs? Because in the hands of Colman Andrews, the form goes both broad and shallow, gluttonous and oddly stingy. It becomes a history of American food and international food and dozens of chefs and a hundred-odd specific restaurants (each getting a paragraph or a page rooting them in their place and time). It lavishes attention on tamales and pistou and kidneys in foie gras sauce. It details the decades-old goings-on in California in a way that almost no one else working the food writing beat could, because no one else but Colman Andrews was so central to it all.
And yet, when the last plate has been cleared and the last page turned, the one thing I felt like I missed was getting to know Colman Andrews. I know where he went, what he ate and what he drank, and while he may believe that this, alone, is enough to define him, ultimately I disagree. A man is not his itinerary or his butcher's bill. And while sitting beside him at table was nice enough, I only wish that this consummate magazine man would've opened up a little more, blown the structure, exercised that 1st person voice that seems to spook him throughout, and talked a little bit more from the gut and less from the belly.