This book is a must buy for two sets of people: the four star Pro/Am cook or the kind of person who really likes obscure coffee table books. For everybody else the subject matter is probably just too intense or rarefied.
Just what is "Atelier"? I have to admit, I had to turn to Webster's to understand the word and then to understand the thrust of the book. To quote, "atelier: a studio or workshop, especially of an artist or couturier". What does that have to do with a cook book from a master chef?
Alain Ducasse is arguably the finest and most successful chef working today. He currently has a number of restaurants, two of which have Michelin Guide Three Star ratings. That is three out of three from a rating service that is very miserly with the stars. Moreover, no chef has ever held six stars simultaneously. Pretty impressive considering the restaurants are on opposite sides of France and his other establishments are on the opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Fantastique! How is it possible to maintain quality across such distance when quality in just one restaurant is so elusive for so many? Here is where the atelier concept becomes so important.
Chef Ducasse freely admits that he is not cooking at any of these establishments, but for him this is positive as he says "...the chef is there to lead the team and not just to sit behind the piano". So he has developed a stable of talent around him, directs and mentors and this allows him the freedom to have multiple quality operations. From the book, "...his atelier concept does allow us to envisage mass reproductions of the art of great chefs, creating a relationship comparable to that existing in the fashion industry between ready-to-wear and haute couture".
So this is really not an ordinary Chef Cookbook where the Great One recites his wisdom from the First Person point of view this is a book about Alain Ducasse and his "studio" of protégés, but not by them. The book seeks to merely document their work. I have a better analogy--this is like a jazz band leader with his players the master lays down the melody and his merry men riff off the masters licks.
The book begins with a breathless intro by a "groupie", but the meat of the book begins with the introduction of five protégés (all current or past alumni of his three star operations) plus a section on Ducasse's favorite products/producers which is essentially the sixth "player" (he is quoted as saying that great food is 40% technique, but 60% ingredient).
The remaining book is spent, chapter by chapter, documenting the interaction of Ducasse and the "band" with his favorite ingredients (olives, asparagus, wheat, white truffle, bass, turbot, lamb, citrus). Each chapter begins with Ducasse's detailed master recipe and then follows with five recipes riffing on that same ingredient from his atelier. The recipes are usefully photographed to include many details of preparation.
It really is fascinating to see how disparate the endings of the "riffs" are when these great chefs all began with the same point of inspiration. For the professional cook, this is a wonderful and cheap way to get in the heads of some of our leading chefs. A serious amateur cook could begin to see how expressive cooking can be and how cooking beyond the recipe book begins.
Most of the recipes, alas, are beyond the talents, kitchens or pocketbooks of most of the readers, but I do not think that is a negative for this project. As previously stated, I see this book as documenting and communicating the talents of these chefs in the same way that a record (CD? ...am I getting old?) documents great musical performers. A recording is not validated by how many listeners form their own bands and this book is not supposed to be a "how to" manual for the Betty Crocker set.