Cooking the Books #4

2017.Feb.15 Wednesday · 1 comment

in Books & Other Media

Once again, it’s been awhile since I’ve reviewed a group of food books. Let’s dive right in! These are in the order I read them.

ăn: to eat by Helene & Jacqueline An

Not surprisingly, given that this book tackles modern Vietnamese cooking, I loved it. I guess it could have been surprising if it had been badly written, or if you knew nothing about me. But it’s not, and there’s a good chance that you already do (or maybe you don’t, I always hope for new readers on a regular basis). It’s an entertaining look back at the “career” of famed restaurant Crustacean in Beverley Hills, one of, if not the, first restaurants offering up that style of cuisine in the U.S.

It follows the An family (interestingly, their last name, at least with the accent mark above it, means “to eat” in Vietnamese) from their escape from Vietnam as they made their way to the U.S., and over time, their adventures in cooking and dining, gradually arriving at their now acclaimed status. Their story is well drawn, and inserted between a myriad of recipes both from their restaurant(s) and home cooking, and includes tips and tricks for those less familiar with Vietnamese cuisine. And, there are some great sounding recipes, several of which I’ve given a shot at, and, hey, they work! ★★★★

Alinea, by Grant Achatz

Oh boy. Where to go with this one. It’s gorgeous. It really is. It’s a beautifully photographed book. It’s laid out professionally, and it’s simply stunning to flip through and look at the pictures. The narrative is interesting, and well written, both Achatz’ autobiographical stuff and the history of his restaurant, Alinea. It does get a bit, hmmm, whiny, at times, as he indulges in a sort of “poor me” about how badly he was treated as an up and coming cook, starting out relatively young. He manages to badmouth a few icons of the food world along the way.

Haven’t we had enough of chef autobiographies telling us how hard it is to come up through the ranks, how there were chefs who were meanies that yelled at them and made them chop onions or peel potatoes instead of promoting them to second in command at age 15 when all anyone had to do was look at them and know that they were destined for greatness? We got it. Both those of us in the industry and those outside it. Working in restaurant kitchens ain’t a picnic, and you gotta earn your chops.

Back to the book – the recipes, and there are many, are carefully written out and thought out – though, for the majority of readers, including myself, they’re pretty much non-starters, as they involve equipment and processes that most of us will simply never bother with. I realize that the book isn’t an attempt to teach “how to cook modernist food at home”, it’s the way they do things in the restaurant, so I can’t fault him for that, and I don’t count it against the quality of the book. At the same time, that sort of relegates the book to a pretty coffee table ornament. ★★★★

Smoke and Pickles: Recipes and Stories from a New Southern Kitchen by Edward Lee

I guess I was on a kick for a little while of chefs’ own stories. Being in the field, I find it interesting, and I always hope to find stories that resonate personally, as well as inspiration for the future of my own cooking. And, this book hits most of the high notes that I was looking for. Lee’s journey from scrappy, slightly outcast Korean-American kid in Brooklyn to his fame as head chef at 610 Magnolia in Louisville (how is it that I’ve never eaten there when visiting my parents????) is an all-American dream story.

It’s written in a very casual style, I can easily imagine that I’m sitting down with Lee and just having a conversation with him about how he grew up, how he developed his passion for food and style of cooking, and what he’s thinking about next. The recipes sound great, I have to admit I haven’t tried any directly, though I did use an idea from one of his desserts as an inspiration for one of our desserts. All around, a delightful read. ★★★★

Atelier Crenn: Metamorphosis of Taste by Dominique Crenn & Karen Liebowitz

No question this book is illustrated gorgeously, with stunning photography. And, I can’t fault that the recipes are beyond complicated, even for a professional chef, many of them requiring days of work, and multiple people just to put them together – after all, it’s a recipe and story book of what Crenn offers at her restaurant.

What lets the book down for me is a lack of attention to measurements – primarily in the translations between metric and non-metric. A cup of water varies anywhere from 160 grams to almost 300. A cup of melted fat somehow only weighs in at 100 grams. Milliliters don’t translate correctly to liquid ounces, varying by as much as 50% from one recipe to another, and milligrams to ounces of weight suffer the same.

It left me wondering that if there’s so little attention to such simple conversions, which can be done on a basic calculator, or even plugging them in to a website that’s setup for cooking conversions, of which there are many, how many other things in the book are simply tossed in without careful consideration? ★★

The Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard

This one popped on my radar mostly because of the Chef’s Table episode featuring Passard last season. His changeover from a meat driven to vegetable driven restaurant fascinated me, as it’s the direction I’ve taken a lot of my own cooking. I was looking forward to an intriguing story that laid bare the soul searching, the agonizing, the back and forthing, that one would think accompanied such a switch at a highly regarded, Michelin starred restaurant.

But it was not to be. In a sense, it’s not fair of me, because there was no indication that this book would have been that. It’s not touted as a chef autobiography, nor the story of his restaurant, L’Arp├Ęge. So I can’t fairly hold it to my expectations, and have to judge it on what it is. It’s a recipe book. There’s little in the way of narrative, there’s no story to bite into. It’s a collection of recipes for interesting and creative ways to use vegetables in your cooking. On that basis, it’s a well written, useful cookbook, and I can’t fault it. ★★★★

something to food about: Exploring Creativity with Innovative Chefs by Questlove

Questlove is, I suppose, the artist formerly known as Ahmir Thompson, a musician (drummer), musical director and producer, with a passion not only for food, but for those who produce it. I stumbled across him via his Instagram feed, and got caught up in his quest for not only exploring food, but for exploring the world and the personalities of those who make it.

I’m going to say, it’s not an easy read. If you’re not in the music world, there are simply too many references and too much jargon that will send you searching on Google to just figure out what he’s talking about at times. At other times I felt like he was trying too hard to fit the pathway(s) that chefs take and interpret them in a way that would make sense in the music and art world. And while there is an art to cooking and creating food, there’s also a lot of science and logic that don’t necessarily translate to the musical genre, and I think he lost the plot at several points in the book. It’s a bit self-indulgent, but then, it’s his own personal quest, so, why not? It’s still an interesting read. ★★★

I think I’m going to stop here. I’m not remotely caught up with the food books I’ve read over the last few months, but I don’t want to make this too long of a post. More to come!


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