Is it the chefs of fame or the fame of chefs that drives innovative changes in cooking and causes them to percolate into popular culture? Whatever motivates change it is famous chefs who define the direction of food preparation. Famous chefs introduce thousands of new dishes each year. And if one happens to strike us all as compelling, it enters popular currency.
Sometimes a trend will take off, then die. This happened with 'Nouveau Cuisine.' For a short time three steamed mini-carrots and two steamed beans organized stylishly on a large blank plate were emblematic of a whole revolution in restaurant cuisine. It was supposed to be lighter, healthier, better. Americans found it simply too insubstantial. My one test of it found it short on flavor, short on substance, short on satisfaction. In short, we all are glad it is gone. We do wish, sometimes, that some of its more moderate sensibilities had found more currency.
Today it is the classic Continental cuisine and food inspired by it that diners expect at the finest restaurants. Yet it is incumbent upon chefs to develop new flavors and presentations to stay ahead of the competition. Sometimes this drives food preparation techniques farther out of reach of the home cook.
Foods cooked by famous chefs are frequently difficult by design. Part of this is due to the way large kitchens function, breaking down preparation processes into steps that can be done ahead of time - especially ones that scale well - and steps that must be completed just before service. This approach means that the time from the start of preparing a dish to its finish can last hours - a rare luxury for the home cook.
Where recipes are not actually difficult, they are designed to seem difficult or elaborate in order to impress. So when it comes to cooking from cookbooks from famous chefs, it's best to have some cooking experience behind you, some time before you, and some motivation within you. Otherwise, finishing well is unlikely.
It was Escoffier who is credited with the official documentation of classical French or Continental cooking. This book is not a book for the casual cook or the beginning cook. The book does belong on the shelf of every serious cook. People formally trained in cooking, especially those familiar with classic French technique will find this to be essential reading.
At the other end of the spectrum in terms of readability is the series of books by Rick Bayless. Quite accessible is Rick Bayless' Mexican Kitchen. His preparations manage to deliver a whole group of flavors, fragrances, and textures that transport one to a breezy veranda in Mexico. He has a clear vision of Mexican cooking and is passionate about communicating it to us. It's foreign, a little strange, but always on target. You do have to be ready to go out of your way to obtain the right ingredients and bear with the recipe.
The Iron Chef Official Cookbook allows us to look at the recipes of some or Japan's giants of cooking - chefs made popular in the Food Television hit "Iron Chef." On that show chefs with five helpers have one hour to prepare three to five dishes that highlight a single ingredient. These recipes, simple or difficult, are at least possible to construct in an hour. Whether the results will bear any resemblance to the dishes cooked by the famous chefs is a matter to discover.
Perrier, Boulud, and Ducasse are French trained chefs at some or the world's most celebrated restaurants. Boulud operates several of New York's most reknown restaurants. Ducasse has accumulated more Michelin stars than any other chef. And Perrier's Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia has been called the best restaurant in the United States.
Ducasse - in a separate volume - argues passionately that if Americans are to start enjoying cooking that approaches the quality of middling French restaurants, there must be a revolution in agricultural practice. Produce must be grown nearer to its point of use. Meat must be processed nearer to its point of use. And the soil must be kept fertile with natural, organic methods rather than conventional chemical ones. Foods must be eaten in season. And restauranteurs must keep demanding higher quality ingredients. This is an arguement that holds equally for the home cook. It is an interesting argument: that American food can never get very good until its production methods are changed. I have eaten in France at middling restaurants; and I believe him.
Thomas Keller owns the French Laundry which is always mentioned when one is making top ten lists of restaurants of North America. If one wishes to comprehend the trajectory of American cuisine, this is probably the most important place to start.
No contemporary chef has left quite so extensive a paper trail as Charlie Trotter. Nor is there a cookbook franchise quite so formidable. He has a whole library of titles to his name: Game, Vegetables, Desserts, Seafood and so on. His most accessable book compares cooking with playing Jazz. One has to understand the fundamental structure of cooking. One has to master its techniques. Then, to make great food one has to live in the moment, bringing all the skills to bear on the cooking task at hand - never thinking about 'the recipe' only thinking about the way the food tastes, smells, feels, and looks.
About many of his books home cooks complain that these are cookbooks by chefs for chefs. They complain that the things in them are hard to prepare and take a staff of dozens and ingredients available only to food buyers for high-priced world-class restaurants. They complain that the books are good only for reminding you of the meal you flew to Chicago to eat at his reknown restaurant. But nobody complains that the food - if you can master it - isn't good or that the illustrations are poor. If you have high ambitions, aim to do better than Trotter. And good luck.
Eat well and prosper.
Copyright S.R. Brubaker 2002 - 2006.