Friday, May 28, 2010

Tiptoeing through the Chefs’ Cookbooks – Part 1

Okay – I confess. When I started this post, I was going to review my latest find, Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at home. And then,...I decided any review should really pit this book against its truest competitors, i.e., the cookbooks of other great chefs. And since I have quite a few of those, it became another of those what-the-heck moments, and what my husband always refers to as a random strike, when my brain goes off at a full tilt. So of course this process has taken me quite a bit longer than I expected, but I’m getting there. Just as a show of faith, I’m going to give you the first half now. I’ll be back in a couple of days with the rest, which will – I promise – include ad hoc at home.

How do you know when you find a great cookbook? You can’t rely simply on the author being a great chef – I have cookbooks by Daniel Boulud (Daniel, db Bistro Moderne, and Café Boulud) and Georges Perrier (Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia) and Eric Ripart (Le Bernardin), and while I enjoy reading them all, I don’t think of those books as great cookbooks. (I also have A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adrià, but his food is so far out there that I think of the book as more like science fiction, and don’t even shelve it with the others.) The photography in each is luscious enough that you can practically taste the dishes, and it’s fun to imagine what it must be like to inhabit the kitchens of these creative geniuses, to peek over their shoulders or be privy to their thoughts; but these are not where I turn to figure out what to cook for a cozy dinner party unless it’s a really special occasion.

I should add here that all of these chefs except perhaps Georges Perrier have multiple books to their names, so maybe the comparison isn’t fair. But my library is my library – my universe for this task is defined by it.

Boulud’s Cooking in New York City offers a sort of romp through the day at a top-tier NYC restaurant... There’s some fun stuff about the craziness of the kitchen and the shopping and the deliveries, but the recipes are presented in a jumbled mess of type that’s 11-point on some pages and shrinks to 9-point on others. And complex? Tomato Tarte Tatin (can you say that five times fast?) takes up a full page, in six separate procedures: for the pistou sauce, the puff pastry, the tomatoes (no simple peel and chop here), the caramelized onions, the herb goat cheese (which of course you must make yourself – and who is this guy Herb?), and the frisée salad. It’s a dish that promises to be an all-day affair in the making. And this would be for an appetizer. Needless to say, I haven’t found much that I’ll tackle in his book.

Chef Perrier is an amazing artist, and eating at Le Bec-Fin is one of those experiences that stays with you for a long time: like when the wait-staff gathers around your table and removes the lids in one of those all-at-once, ta-da moments. Holy cow. It’s worth making the trip to Philly. At first glance, the cookbook (Georges Perrier le Bec-Fin Recipes) is a bit intimidating. Not a few of the recipes look like they take days. On inspection, however, I realized that’s largely because of the presentation, as quite a few of the recipes are fairly straightforward, and they’re accompanied by “Chef’s Trucs,” charming little bon mots of advice and tricks of the trade. That said, the recipe titles are in French, which always makes me nervous, and the text is in a very fine, 8-point font (get your glasses out!) with a lot of italic script and heavy on the white space. That’s graphic arts jargon for elegant and sophisticated – much like Le Bec-Fin itself. And yet, it borders on stiff and formal, so if you’re trying to attract readers, it may not be the best approach. Ah, well, they didn’t ask me.

Coming up next: Eric Ripert and my two from Thomas Keller. Stay tuned...

1 comment:

  1. I am so relieved that someone else thinks some cookbooks are more like science fiction. I think some can be absolutely overwhelming. I am pulled in by the pictures, but then once I get them home I'm not even sure what section of the grocery store to find some of the ingredients, so I wind up making Dorito Casserole again. Can't wait for the rest of the review.