Pros: Wild, cool, exciting, brilliant, international haute cuisine
Cons: Badly edited, incoherent, largely useless to home cooks, lots of rare, special equipment and ingredients
Written by Chris Lehrer
CoCo is impossible to review, which is part of what makes it such fun. To put that differently, it’s a lot of fun because it’s so odd, which makes it hard to review.
Am I going around in circles? There’s good reason.
The idea of CoCo is that you’ve got 10 “master chefs,” and each picks 10 less-known hotshots and writes a brief blurb. The hotshots produce a few recipes, presented with pretty photographs. At the end, each “master chef” provides a recipe as well. The result is roughly 400 recipes by 110 chefs. There’s also a useful glossary and a mediocre index.
If you’re expecting the book to be coherent, forget it.
Who are the “master chefs”? Ferran Adrià, Mario Batali, Shannon Bennett, Alain Ducasse, Fergus Henderson, Yoshihiro Murata, Gordon Ramsay, René Redzepi, Alice Waters, and Jacky Yu. So this is a pretty wide-ranging ultra-haute-cuisine sort of thing.
Who are the 100 hotshots? I won’t list them, but some examination is revealing.
First of all, most of the “master chefs” highlight chefs who resemble themselves. Sometimes that’s a national or regional thing: Redzepi, star of the Nordic renaissance, picks Nordic chefs; Henderson picks English, Batali American nouveau-homestyle, Waters green, and Yu Chinese chefs. Adrià, Ducasse, and Murata are admirably unpredictable, though most of their choices fall in the radical Spanish, ultra-haute French, or contemporary kaiseki zones you’d expect. Bennett, as an Australian, picks a lot of people who aren’t in parts of the world everyone else talks about. Ramsay’s choices are in some ways more wide-ranging, but if you know what he likes to cook, you won’t be surprised by these dishes.
But there are some problems. If we’re going to be world-travelers here, let’s note that all three chefs darker-skinned than Jacky Yu are of Arabic descent and cook European food. The only chef anywhere near Africa, assuming we can bar Spain, is Josh Lewis, an Aussie who works in Oman. Only 14 chefs are women, which is a sad comment on the profession.
I’m not saying the book should be politically correct. But this does reveal what CoCo is and isn’t. Despite appearances, it is not a revelation of the really exciting new things going on in high-end professional kitchens all over the world. It is, by contrast, an exploration of a number of established movements and directions in contemporary haute cuisine, revealed through the selections of 10 chefs who may be said with justice to have established (or contributed signally to) those movements.
But don’t think that’s a limitation: this stuff is mind-blowing. I thought Adrià was wild, but these Nordic guys are insane! I’ve eaten at kaiseki places, and fancy Chinese in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but some of what Murata and Yu show is really out there. And Ducasse, well, if you’ve read his Culinary Encyclopedia you’ll only be shocked to find that there are people who are even loonier about fine detail.
Of course, as a ChefTalk reviewer, I had to cook two dishes, which here is something of a pointless exercise. No two dishes could possibly be representative. Ten might be, but what if one chef can’t write a recipe to save his life? And you might think that this would be resolved by the cookbook writer or whatever, but if you look it’s clear that these chefs wrote their own recipes. In very fine print, in the back, there is a list of translators, which further suggests that the recipes are “in the raw,” as it were. And so you get recipes that explain everything, ones that assume vast knowledge, and everything in between.
That’s not a good thing if you hope to make these dishes at home, but you’re probably not going to anyway. If you want to make this stuff at home, you need a lot of skill, patience, and time, and must plan far in advance. The ingredients may be available in the supermarket, but the quality will be insufficient. Often, you can’t get the stuff except by special orders. You will often need special equipment or be forced into halfway measures — equipment like an immersion cooker, vacuum packer, Pacojet, Thermomix, etc. So anything here is a special project, and some beyond even that. Fun, if you’re into such things, but don’t be fooled.
Bear in mind that because there is no real editing here, some problems arise, though less often than you’d expect. The photo of Pascal Barbot’s "roast saddle of lamb with miso eggplant" cannot match the recipe, largely because there’s no lamb in the picture. Didier Elena’s "roast and lacquered loin of suckling pig with melt-in-the-mouth pork belly" is remarkably unlike what’s pictured, though you could probably guess and fill in. And what is that big dollop of red sauce on top of Tom Kitchin’s "roasted tail of Norwegian lobster from Anstruther, served with boned and rolled pig’s head and a crispy ear salad"? There’s a fair bit of this sort of thing, which should remind you that this isn’t really a cookbook in any normal sense — not for home cooks, anyway.
For professionals, this book is terrific. Just dip in and think, “what the heck is this person doing?” Turn it over in the back of your head while you work your shift. Try something, fool around. This book is a library of wild stylistic options executed by very good people. If some of these things shock you, make you laugh, or just leave you deeply confused, good: try making them and then see what you think.
I’ve done ten recipes so far, and even made a meal using four different chefs picked by different “masters.” I had to pass on anything involving spherification, sous vide, liquid nitrogen, and so on, rather less of which is associated with Adrià’s chosen chefs than you’d think. I decided I wouldn’t do kaiseki, having just reviewed Murata’s book. But I found cool things.
For example, I made Lionel Lévy’s “A Sort of Anchoiade.” He’s a Ducasse protegé, and it shows: haute cuisine versions of classic southern French dishes. This one is a mousse of anchovies, garlic, cream, and squid ink (to make it black), served alongside a griddlecake of chickpeas and fennel juice topped with onion cooked in pastis, zucchini, and garlic. It’s great: the mousse is too rich and salty, the vegetables too blandly sweet with the pastis, the cake bitter — but put them together and it’s both delicious and easy to plate beautifully.
I also made Lindy Redding’s pea and mint tartlets topped with feta (Ramsay pick), which was easy, worked perfectly, and could be done by the hundred for a party. I made Jody Williams’ oxtails braised in red wine and bitter chocolate (Batali pick), which was tasty but a little uninteresting. And I made Alberto Herráiz’s strawberries in sherry vinegar dessert (Adrià pick), which is extraordinary, and I’ve included the recipe below. If you think the raw beet or the sherry vinegar mousse are peculiar, it all adds up stunningly well. One of these days I’m going to do one of these Redzepi-picked Nordic things with titles like “At Norwegian Scout Camp” or “The Burning Fields,” but they include ingredients like oak bark and pine needles, and often involve weird equipment, so it may be a while.
Basic conclusions? This is food porn, but it’s fascinating. If you’re a lot wealthier than I am, you might use this as a guidebook for good restaurants on your next round-the-world jaunt, and have your people arrange a reservation with their people. Assuming that’s not an option, what you get from CoCo is ideas about style, plating, and dish construction that will be new to you. Whoever you are, there are new ideas here.
Depressing, I must say, is that Americans seem to have the most boring dishes around. Batali does his best, as does Waters, but frankly the stuff Americans produce seems ordinary. One can always run down Adrià for being too bizarre (e.g. Marcos Morán, with his “muddy” oyster, or mackerel in green moss and crust). But if you’re going to use the same argument to get rid of Redzepi and Ducasse and several of the choices made by Bennett and Yu, this is starting to sound a little thin. The whole argument for “simple food” is dead, and CoCo demonstrates it. What could be simpler than some of these Nordic things, for example? Redzepi has a recipe which is basically stuff on a rock, and it’s more local and fresh and green than you’d believe: some Nordic dish titles include the name of the ship captain who caught the seafood! What about these mad Britons that Henderson picks? Kitty Travers makes nothing but ice cream; Jonathan Jones suggests haggis, mashed potatoes, and rutabaga with a big bottle of Scots whiskey and a drunken Scotsman to attempt an incoherent recitation of Burns! Could it really be simpler?
Turns out that “simple” isn’t what we thought it was. Nor is “complicated.” Even the avant garde creations of Adrià and Ducasse — are they really the same thing, at all? — are simpler than the dull, ordinary, “pasta with some sauce and fish” things produced in American restaurants. Wonderful the food may well be, I don’t doubt it, but here it seems uninspired, unwilling to take chances.
If CoCo is intended as a call to action, I’m for it. I read this book and think how silly a show like “Chopped” looks: the food is the same thing, again and again, with judges sneering down their noses about seafood and cheese. What would they do with Ka Lun Lau serving "mud crab in black pepper and durian cheese sauce"? CoCo is about shocking one’s expectations, and for that I salute it.
Of course, if you think a cookbook should give normal people directions for how to cook something, it’s pretty rotten.
I like it anyway.
Strawberries in Sherry Vinegar (Alberto Herráiz)
For the strawberries
1 kg strawberries
100 g beet, diced
1 bunch mint, finely chopped
Szechuan pepper, to taste
Cut the strawberries into quarters, then add the beet, mint, and pepper.
For the strawberry syrup
300 g strawberries
100 g sugar
Gently heat all the ingredients until the sugar has dissolved, then blend in a blender.
For the sherry mousse
500 g sugar
200 ml sherry vinegar
200 ml water
1 liter heavy (double) cream for every 400g syrup made from the above 3 ingredients
Gently heat all the [first 3] ingredients to make a syrup. Cook to the long thread stage [230F], then let cool. Whip the cream with the cooled syrup.
Mix the strawberries, the mint, pepper, and beet in a bowl. Then add the strawberry syrup and mix. Serve in a glass and cover with the sherry mousse.