Normand Leclair cooked in restaurants in his native Rhode Island for more than fifty years. His third self-published book, Culinary Expressions, (Dome Publishing Company, Warwick, RI, 2002 ISBN 1-880603-05-5) is a collection of recipes for the home cook based on his restaurant dishes. But it is actually an expression of much more: It is his love letter to food and restaurants and the people he worked with or served over the years. It is the author's stories of starting, owning, running, and cooking in restaurants, with all the glory and the occasional spilled guts. It is a collection of helpful hints for the kitchen and elsewhere throughout the house (â€œTo freshen your garbage disposal, toss in some baking soda and sliced orange or lemon peels, grind with water running.â€ â€œWrap a clear plastic bag over an open cookbook. It will keep the cookbook clean and keep the book open to your recipe.â€). It is a compendium of quotes about food, entertaining, and life from famous and not-so-famous people in all walks of life (â€œA host is like a general: it takes a mishap to reveal his genius.â€ â€”Horace â€œExperience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific billsâ€ â€”Minna Antrim). And it includes reprints of stories and letters praising his post-restaurant teaching career.
Leclair's main story subject is the trials and tribulations of running a restaurant: The time the four-year-old son of an electrical contractor, who happened to be Leclair's brother-in-law, filled the decorative fish tank with sawdust (all the fish survived). When a group of local teens used the restaurant's basement as an after-hours venue to smoke pot until Leclair locked them in briefly. The busy Mother's Day when a little girl flushed her doll down the toilet, causing the closure of the restaurant's restrooms (not only were customers lined up to get in and eat they had to line up for the tiny office bathroom). The entire Sunday afternoon of filming with actor Peter Graves in the restaurant's wine cellar that resulted in a forty-five-second intro to a show about California wines. The bats unexpectedly flying around the dining room. The mishaps with special cakes for special occasions (the waitress who tasted one while serving, and was found out by the frosting on her chin the dog that ate the fancy wedding cake before it even made it into the restaurant). The time he fired a dishwasher for stealing lobsters and got a call the next day from the dishwasher's mother telling him to give the guy his job back and just take it out of his pay. All the stories are told with good humor and without the slightest trace of anger or bitterness. This is a man who loves the business of feeding people.
The tips and helpful hints start early in the book with notes on ingredients, equipment, and techniques. There are many reminders that cooking, especially for company, can be a lot of work but, ultimately, thoroughly rewarding. Practical hints scattered throughout that accompany most recipesâ€”although not always germane to the recipeâ€”include dealing with fires (â€œIf you have an oven or stove top fire, shut off the heat source, sprinkle baking soda on the fire. Do not try to put out the fire with water.â€) using a salad spinner to dry shredded potatoes for potato pancakes purchasing seafood and using the drink mix Tang to clean stains from the inside of your dishwasher(!). A lifetime of cooking has given Leclair a wealth of knowledge that he freely shares.
The quote sources range widely, too, from Goethe, to Thomas More, to Henry Kissinger, to Fernand Point. One of my own favorites is a little verse from Claude Mermet, a sixteenth-century French poet:
Friends are like melons.
Shall I tell you why?
To find a good one
You must a hundred try.
All the quotes are amusing at the very least, sometimes quite instructive, and often inspiring. Again, Leclair's choices show he is an engaged and engaging person.
But this is a cookbook. How are the recipes? Well . . . Culinary Expressions taught me a terrible truth: I am a food snob. The recipes may have been popular at Leclair's restaurants, but other than the simplest, I cannot imagine makingâ€”much less enjoyingâ€”many of them. It's not that virtually all rely on oven baking (he explains that he lacked a sauté station in an early restaurant, so this makes sense). It's not only the overly large portions (two whole chicken breasts, split and served either just sauced or stuffed with fillings like a half-pound of meat and a cup of ricotta, are meant to feed just two people, as are a full pound of seafood or eight U-10 shrimp, almost a pound). But in many cases, Leclair seems to belong to the â€œmore ingredients equals more flavorâ€ school to the point of concoctions like chicken or sole baked with bananas and grapefruit juice under a topping of crumbs and almonds Gorgonzola and tarragon in a chicken dish (two ingredients that strike me as completely incompatible) chicken with Gorgonzola, provolone, and barbecue sauce, or with provolone, Marsala, figs, and walnuts. Most of these indignities are visited upon chicken the seafood recipes are mostly more straightforward and less busy. Well, maybe not the salmon fillet spread with apple jelly, topped with sliced apples, dill, scallions, and American cheese, wrapped in puff pastry, and baked. In fact, there are few main-course recipes that are not rolled around or topped with sliced or grated cheese before baking. Even a multi-ingredient extravaganza that might actually be quite tasty, like Chicken with Oysters (with a stuffing/topping of mushrooms, spinach, oysters, sour cream, parsley, Pernod, and Parmesan plus crumbs) is crowned with â€œ4 slices cheddar cheese.â€ Oh, dear.
Another problem is that many recipes rely on that salty, gloppy staple, canned cream of whatever soup. This is restaurant cooking? Lobster Thermidor made with canned lobster or shrimp bisque? Chicken rolled around a filling of canned crabmeat, crushed crackers, and Swiss cheese, then baked in cream of shrimp soup? I have no issue with using frozen puff pastryâ€”after all, I used to work for a company that made itâ€”but why, oh why use such an outdated, unnecessary, unhealthy item as cream of X soup?
Finally, I worry that our neighbors in the world might take offense at some of the recipes: since when does the addition of a little chili powder and crushed tortilla or corn chips make something Mexican, or the use of Canadian bacon and a bit of maple syrup (along with more provolone?!) made it â€œCanadianâ€? Leclair subscribes to the belief that one ingredientâ€”often lost in a multitude of unrelated othersâ€”is sufficient to define the ethnicity of a recipe. Authenticity is elusive, but there's no excuse for calling a dish â€œItalian Style Halibutâ€ just because it contains a quarter-teaspoon of dried basil and a cup of marinara sauce. And is covered with provolone, yet again.
Are there positives to any of the recipes? Of course. They may not be written to the standards of a commercial publisher, but they are understandable and I have no doubt most home cooks can follow them with little if any difficulty. The diagrams that accompany many of the dishes baked â€œen papilloteâ€ (in a packet of parchment or foil), or wrapped in lettuce or pastry, are helpful and their repeat means less page-flipping in the middle of a recipe. Just about all the side dishes and desserts are straightforward (no extraneous cheese) and sound delicious. I want to try Leclair's version of Indian Pudding.
Near the end of the book there is a quote from another restaurateur, Richard Perry: â€œI thought opening a restaurant would be fun. If I had known how difficult it is, I probably wouldn't have done it.â€ Normand Leclair's Culinary Expressions left me with the impression that he subscribes to the first statement, knows how difficult it is, and has never regretted a moment of his career. Read it for that.