06 November 2009

Dreams, Books, and Blowtorches

from the Wall Street Journal

Thomas Keller is widely regarded not only as the top chef in the country but as the food world's reigning perfectionist. His restaurants, The French Laundry and Per Se, are among the country's most expensive and exclusive temples of haute cuisine.

Now the chef has written a cookbook for regular folks, with recipes for "everyday staples" such as hamburgers, chicken-and-dumpling soup, and creamed corn, using ordinary kitchen appliances like coffee makers, blenders and slow-cookers. The book, "Ad Hoc at Home," is Mr. Keller's "most accessible," says publisher Ann Bramson of Artisan Books, with the words "family-style recipes" emblazoned on the cover.

The concept is tantalizing: four-star flavor in the comfort of home and with less expense (the prix fixe dinner at Manhattan's Per Se is $275 per person without wine). There's just one problem: After one spends the time and money to buy the ingredients and equipment and then cook through the multiple steps in some of the recipes, dinner at Per Se starts looking like the cheap and easy route.

It's a frustration food fans are likely to encounter as more cookbooks are published that celebrate the unfettered complexity that the world's top chefs bring to their cuisine. These chefs include New York's David Chang, whose book "Momofuku" was released earlier this week, and British star Heston Blumenthal, who this month is publishing a $50, 528-page version of a $250 cookbook released last year. While Julia Child made her career by breaking down classic French cuisine into steps the average cook could execute, these top chefs don't make concessions for home cooks. Instead, they write recipes that require the equipment, ingredients and techniques they use in their restaurants.

"It's my point of view that cooking is a process and something you should enjoy doing. You have to embrace and enjoy that process if you want to become a good cook," Mr. Keller says.

Recognizing that chefs often write recipes over the heads of average people, the Food Network says it no longer seeks out well-known restaurant chefs and has instead changed its business model to promoting home cooks with good personalities, says Michael Smith, Food Network's senior vice president of marketing. Cookbooks from Food Network stars are hugely popular: Of 38 cookbook best sellers last year, five were from Paula Deen, Giada de Laurentiis and Rachael Ray, all Food Network stars, says Simba Information, a media researcher in Stamford, Conn.

But there remains an audience that craves teaching from the industry's top masters. Mr. Keller's books are Artisan's biggest sellers, Ms. Bramson says. Nearly 400,000 copies of "The French Laundry Cookbook" have been printed; the company has ordered 100,000 copies of "Ad Hoc at Home" for its initial run. Overall, cookbook sales have been strong relative to the book market overall, and publishers released nearly 14% more cookbooks in 2008 than the year before.

The recipes in "Ad Hoc" are mostly homey staples, such as chicken pot pie, that are cooked with four-star-restaurant techniques. Mr. Keller's take on a hamburger involves buying sirloin, brisket and chuck and grinding it. "Blowtorch rib roast" is exactly as it sounds: a roast that is browned with a small propane blowtorch, which he suggests buying at a hardware store, before being cooked in the roaster oven. Several recipes require expensive machines such as a Vita-Mix Blender (starting at about $450) or a standing mixer (about $300) and don't offer alternative methods. Mr. Keller definitely prefers other techniques to deep fryers.

One particularly challenging recipe comes with a deceptively comforting title: Chicken Soup with Dumplings. The picture of a thick broth poured over bright green celery and carrots and perfectly shaped dumplings is motivating.

But the recipe takes about two hours of active labor and dirties about 10 pans and bowls and food choppers. It involves such diverse skills as making a parchment lid for a pot, thickening broth with a roux, and making cream puff dough (for the dumplings). That celery is bright green because it is separately cooked in boiling water, then quickly chilled in ice water and later incorporated into the soup. Also, using two spoons to form the torpedo-shaped dumplings known as quenelles might be a challenge for novices.

The Easiest Recipe

Mr. Keller says that people using his cookbook should choose recipes within their skill level. The easiest recipe in the book is probably the grilled-cheese sandwich, Mr. Keller says. The chicken soup is fairly complex, he says. "I always recommend that any cook start with something that you feel you can be successful with," Mr. Keller says. As readers attain more skill and make a deeper commitment to cooking, they can graduate to trickier recipes.

Mr. Keller is part of an industrywide trend in which chefs known for fine dining are migrating into more casual cuisine. The recipes in the book are from food served at Ad Hoc, a three-year-old restaurant in Yountville, Calif. Mr. Keller is opening a third branch of his Bouchon bistro in Beverly Hills around mid-November, and his future plans include opening a hamburger restaurant, if he can ever find the right location, he says.

Elsewhere, Daniel Boulud, of Manhattan's tony Daniel, recently opened a sausage restaurant in the Bowery, once New York's skid row. Marcus Samuelsson, known for cooking at Aquavit, an exclusive Scandinavian restaurant in Manhattan, wrote "New American Table," a tour of American food traditions out this month that includes recipes for breakfast burritos and turkey meatloaf.

The push into more casual fare is a significant shift for Mr. Keller, a chef known for uncompromising standards. He is widely credited with luring American diners to restaurants in which they have no choice of what they eat—they must order the tasting menu.

'Be Warned'

His previous cookbooks, "The French Laundry Cookbook" and "Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide," are notorious for including some of the most laborious recipes in print, spawning daredevil blogs on which people attempt to make the recipes and Amazon reviews such as "Be warned." Most recipes, such as "Butter-Poached Maine Lobster, Tomato Pain Perdu, Celery and 'Russian Dressing'" are in fact a series of recipes, often involving complicated techniques. Simply putting the ingredients together on a plate properly can be an architectural challenge.

Mr. Keller says he has time to make dinner at home only about six times a year. His favorite meal: grilled steak, corn on the cob and a salad from his garden, preferably with ripe tomatoes.

Judging "Ad Hoc" purely on the basis of difficulty misses the point, says Ms. Bramson. The book is a compendium of cooking knowledge, from how to properly truss, or tie, a chicken for roasting to an essay on kosher salt (different brands have different weights), Ms. Bramson says.

"We're grown-ups. If the recipe looks too hard, you don't make it," she says.

No comments:

Post a Comment