Pros: sophisticated, elegant, wide-ranging, unabashedly French haute cuisine by a master
Cons: woefully edited, nearly unusable in many cases
Written by ChrisLehrer
Alain Ducasse is the lion of his generation of French chefs, a master of haute cuisine with elegance and taste. His Grand Livre de Cuisine is an extraordinary statement of what he does, how — perhaps why.
As a cookbook, though, it’s got major problems.
Here are more than 700 recipes, organized by primary ingredient: porcini, then pork, and so on. There is an index, recipe list, and terrible glossary to help navigation. Also in the back are basic recipes (stocks, jellies, doughs), seasonality calendar in France (thanks a lot!), measure conversions, and portion sizes. At 1100 pages this is massive, with heaps of pretty photos.
Skimming for ideas, it’s terrific. Where else would you find 44 lobster preparations?
The recipes have four blocks: ingredients, instructions, presentation, photo. The photos often don’t match the presentation method, but you can usually fill in. Order of ingredients and recipe blocks isn’t chronological, so you make a jus (last in the recipe) to make the sauce (third) to finish preliminary cooking (second). But if you read in advance, this isn’t a big problem.
The problems come when you look closely. It’s ingredients, mostly, but also editing.
I know who Ducasse is and what he stands for, and I don’t fault him using truffles, foie gras, and caviar. It gets excessive, but hey. It’s other ingredients that make many dishes simply impossible for most people.
“Wild rabbit civet with panisses and tender celeriac,” ingredients: rabbit, veggies, wine, seasonings, celeriac, stock, chickpea flour. Here’s the beginning of the recipe:
Skin the rabbits and set the blood aside. Draw the rabbit, keeping the liver, heart and lungs. Separate the shoulders from the forequarters of the rabbits and cut the saddles and the legs in two. Crush the rib cage and the forequarters to make the clear rabbit juice.
Then you marinate the meat for two days. Making the civet takes several hours, using that meat, and finally it’s thickened with the blood.
Acquiring an un-drawn, blood-containing rabbit isn’t easy, and for most Americans it’s essentially impossible. Furthermore, one cannot keep fresh blood sitting around — it’ll congeal. I can add cognac or vinegar, but he doesn’t, so how do I slaughter on Thursday and use the blood on Saturday? What Ducasse means is, on Saturday use a different rabbit’s blood, one just butchered in preparation for serving this dish on Monday, and on around. This is how pro kitchens run. So you can’t do this dish without two rabbits — preferably live ones you butcher yourself.
Once you spot this, it’s everywhere. How can I afford to make a dish with small amounts of 15 different highly perishable ingredients? By using those same ingredients in several more dishes, right away. Home kitchens don’t work like this.
There are dishes you can sanely execute, but think it out — and watch for mistakes. The cream of mussel soup (below) takes planning, but can be made at home with modest skills. Still, there are problems: he wants 80 cl of sole fumet, and there’s no recipe: closest are from the sole goujonnettes (pg. 748) or the rockfish consommé (pg. 1040). Many dishes require dramatic substitutions: Can’t cook sous vide? Gotta tweak many recipes. I generally ignore his constant demand for black truffle, not being made of money.
Small editing problems abound: missing words, inconsistent spelling, misstated quantities. It’s irritating, but mostly correctable. Then you have gross errors, where something in the ingredient list isn’t in the instructions, or the reverse. My favorite is the three quail recipes (pp. 638-43) — none involving quail! In a book of this size and complexity you’re sure to have errors, but there are far too many here.
How do dishes come out? Well, ChefTalk reviewers cook at least two dishes from a book, exactly as written, but “exactly” causes trouble here. The Grand Livre assumes good technique, so it uses shorthand. Thus it’s hard to say whether you’re doing a recipe “exactly.” When it says “thicken the sauce” with something, how much? Enough. Did a dish “work”? If not, who’s at fault? Given the skills and ingredients, yes, they work — barring major editing mistakes. Plating instructions aren’t great, but with the photos you can execute a pretty dish.
I’m not a professional cook, so I can’t fully evaluate this book for pros. I think trying to do dishes exactly this way would make sense only in a high-end kitchen with a large, excellent brigade. But you’ll get lots of ideas — on plating, combinations, and taste.
I don’t so much mean taste on the tongue, but the good taste displayed here. Ducasse isn’t revealing secrets, he’s saying something about French cuisine. For him, it’s local, farm-raised animals and plants, wild game on wing, hoof, or paw. He’ll use the odd thing from afar, but it always comes back to his world — no fusion, no aping someplace else. His pasta is French, not Italian. He gives a sense of beautifully confident elegance. Not “my way or the highway,” but “this is what I believe, who I am, who we are.” And he believes — rightly, I think — that his cuisine speaks for itself.
American foodies habitually trash French haute cuisine as fussy, snobby, elitist. If you think that, you’ll hate this book, which will confirm your suspicions, and then some. If you don’t, you’ll find the book exciting, tasteful, and mouth-watering.
Ducasse’s Grand Livre is an un-pushy manifesto, if that isn’t an oxymoron. Don’t buy it for recipes, but to learn a cuisine from a superlative contemporary master. Study the recipes, think them through, step by step. What you produce won’t be the same, but you’ll learn lots, even if you never cook these dishes. Let’s be honest: a fair number you can’t cook, lacking ingredients or equipment, or shafted by a textual error.
Maybe reading this review you think, “this sounds terrible.” If so, you’re right: don’t pay the hefty price, because you’ll hate it. But if you’re hoping for a magisterial statement about haute cuisine from Alain Ducasse, pulling no punches, this is it.
Just don’t plan to cook much from it.
Cream of Mussel Soup with Saffron
(Crème de moules de bouchot au saffron)
[Note: I chose this recipe because it demonstrates a great many things about this book, for good and ill, and because you actually can make this. The editorial recommendations, using square braces, are not necessary with all the recipes, but it comes up an awful lot. If you make this, the end-result will stun you — if you like mussels, of course. You decide how to take that. All alterations are marked in [square braces.]
1 ½ quarts mussels (1.5 l)
3 1/3 cups dry white wine (80 cl)
1 ½ ounces shallots (40 g)
1 ½ ounces straw onions (40 g)
1 branch thyme
½ bay leaf
3 ribbons orange rind
3 1/3 cups sole fumet (80 cl)
2 3/4 ounces tomato pulp (80 g)
2 teaspoons corn starch (8 g)
½ teaspoon saffron pistils (2 g)
9 ounces whipping cream (260 g)
For the Sole Fumet
[Adapted from the sole consommé on page 748. It’s not really consommé any more, because I omit the clarifying process, and besides, he uses the term fumet at the end of this recipe.]
[Frames and bones of 2 soles, or one whole sole cut in chunks]
1 ounce butter (40 g)
1 1/4 ounce shallots (50 g)
1 1/4 ounce onions (50 g)
3 ½ ounces mushroom trimmings (100 g)
1 sprig thyme
½ bay leaf
1 1/4 cups water (40 cl)
2 cups champagne (60 cl) [note: metric quantities on the water and wine are reversed in the text, and the measurement conversion chart in the back gives 30 cl = 1 1/4 cups and 62.5 cl = 2 ½ cups; I’ve corrected the former and not the latter]
1/4 Espelette chilli [a dried red chile]
[parsley stalks from 1/4 bunch]
fleur de sel
Preparing and Cooking the Mussels
Scrape the mussels, remove the foot, and wash by rubbing them against each other to clean well. Drain in a colander.
Peel, and finely mince the shallots and straw onion.
Tie up a bouquet garni with the parsley stems, thyme, bay leaf, and orange rind.
Place the mussels in a sauté pan fitted with a cover. Add the shallots, onion, bouquet garni, dry white wine, then cover the receptacle and bring as quickly to a boil as possible.
When the mussels have opened just slightly, drain in a colander placed over a stainless steel receptacle.
Delicately take the mussels out of their shells, and remove any frilly lace without damaging them. Set 60 of mussels [sic] aside to bind the soup. Delicately put the others away in a receptacle, covering them with a little cooking juice. [I advise you to reverse this: have 15 mussels per serving in the latter receptacle, and reserve however many remain for the binding.]
Drain the sole fish [sic] bones in a sieve.
Wash, drain, and place the mushroom trimmings on a tamis.
Peel, wash and mince the onions and shallots evenly.
Make a bouquet garni with the parsley stalks, thyme and bay leaf.
Melt the butter in a pot, add the flavor garnish and sweat without browning. Add the sole fish bones and cook gently, without browning, for 5 minutes.
Moisten with cold water and the champagne, add the bouquet garni, the mushroom trimmings and the fleur de sel then bring to a boil. Cook for 20 minutes, keeping it simmering gently, and skimming as often as possible.
As soon as the cooking time is over, remove the pot from the heat, add the Espillette [sic] chilli and rest the sole fumet for 10 minutes.
[Strain the fumet fine.]
Making the Cream of Mussels
Filter the rest of the mussels’ cooking juices through cheesecloth, previously rinsed under cold running water, and pour into a pot big enough to cook the entire soup. Add 3 1/3 cups (80 cl) of sole fumet and reduce by half. Then add the tomato pulp and cook for 3 minutes on the edge of the range, maintaining a slight simmer.
Dilute the corn starch in a little cold water, and thicken the reduction. Add the whipping cream and saffron pistils, and cook for 5 minutes over a low heat.
Liquefy the soup and the mussels that had been set aside to bind it, then pour into another pot, filtering the soup through a fine-meshed chinois. Check the seasoning.
Finish and Presentation
Reheat the rest of the mussels in the cooking juice without boiling.
Liquefy the cream of mussel soup one last time, add a few pistils of saffron, and pour into a hot soup tureen.
Place the mussels in rose shape in the soup dishes, and serve immediately.
[Note: the photograph is quite different. 13 mussels are placed in an even circle in a white soup plate, plus one in the middle. The soup is ladled over all, napping. Around the outside, 13 saffron threads are placed in a circle, aligned with but farther toward the rim than the gaps between mussels. On top of the center mussel goes one last mussel that has been returned to its shell.]