The hardest thing to accept about Lucy Knisley's "Relish: My Life in the Kitchen," the lovely new graphic food memoir from the former Chicago cartoonist, is that Knisley grew up to be a cartoonist at all.
In the early pages, we see an adolescent, big-eyed Knisley scribbling in a corner of Bouley, the landmark New York restaurant where her mother worked, being fed truffle mice from chocolatier Larry Burdick; by the end, Knisley is working the cheese counter at Fox & Obel, a new School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduate, in love with the local food scene. Throughout, there are graphic-novel-esque recipes (that look very attemptable), culinary visits to Japan, an extended obsession with re-creating the pastries she ate in a Venice bakery …
And yet, cartoonist.
She spoke on the phone recently from her native New York. This is an edited version of a longer chat.
Q: As a kid, you spent so much time in restaurant kitchens — ever get kicked, banged?
A: Oh, I got beaned by a ton of stuff, but even at a very early age you learn pretty quickly how dangerous a restaurant kitchen can be, and so you instinctively understand how to remain out of the way.
Q: Why didn't you become a chef?
A: Because I realized I was a food nerd primarily, and that I didn't have the physical stamina or the attention to detail that is required of a smart chef. Despite being around food, I have always been more rooted in the arts, temperament-wise.
Even now, I think I have a hesitation to even cook a simple meal for other people. I also think there is a lack of writing about food in comics, and the connection between the visuals of a cartoonist and the visuals of food is such a natural partnership. There are aspects of food, and particularly how people relate to the meals of their past, probably better conveyed in a comic than in anything else.
Q: In the last pages, you definitely get across what Alinea feels like; in fact, it's a pretty spot-on bit of observation.
A: I always wanted to eat there. Then I did and made a comic about it and posted it online. It was seen by Nick Kokonas (chef Grant Achatz's business partner), who invited me to tour the kitchen, which felt like this crazy laboratory. I sketched while I was there, then broke up the page into people, things, impressions, instead of traditional comic panels, giving the reader a feeling of what it's like to see all that, just take it in.
Q: You dedicate an entire page to the restaurants you visited before you left Chicago: Sun Wah, Kuma's, Miko's Italian Ice, Revolution Brewery. Did you sketch during your victory lap?
A: Sometimes, but it usually got in the way of the eating.