Jascha Heifitz did not leap from the womb to the Carnegie Hall Stage. Nor, one might logically surmise, did Joe Montana move from cradle to the San Francisco 49ers huddle without some intervening episodes. In other words, even the most prodigious talents have to start their climb with small steps, and one of this season's most stimulating and instructive cookbooks, Simple to Spectacular, "How to Take One Basic Recipe to Four Levels of Sophistication" (Broadway Books, 2000, $45) inspired by Chef Jean Georges Vongerichten, and put into infinitely readable text by Mark Bittman, used that obvious premise as the core of their second collaborative. The authors present the reader with one of life's opportunities for a lay person or chef to expand culinary interests and expertise by first coming to grips with the most basic approach to preparing a dish and then, with a little of this, a little of that, turning the basic version into something with just a little more panache. Although Bittman is an accomplished food authority in his own right, it is the remarkable career and culinary skills of Chef Vongerichten which largely establishes the singular quality of this tomb. And understandably so. His extensive mix of Asian and French training and experience, makes the volume enormously interesting and a valuable learning tool.
In an interview prior to the publication of the book, Mr. Vongerichten commented that the working title was Simple to Complex. Those words, rather than the actual title, give a clearer description of the direction of the book and the progression of recipes from the simple to the more involved. "My food is simple, 70% of what I create is dependent on ingredients," he declared.
Simple to Spectacular is divided into ten sections and contains 250 recipes. It takes a fascinating approach to every category of food, from soups to pasta, fish and meat, vegetables to desserts. Vongerichten and Bittman lay the foundation for their recipes with a simple dish like gazpacho, sticky rice, roast chicken or sorbet, then add layers of complexity that demonstrate how a chef's creativity can transform the everyday to the extraordinary. Using this system, according to Bittman, a book can serve all levels of people interested in cooking. He describes the books weekly planning sessions by the two men. "We begin by agreeing to do something about roast chicken or scrambled eggs and from that basic recipe would evolve more complex ideas." An important tenet of Vongerichten's food philosophy is to think about food before preparing it and that food must appeal to all the senses. Consequently, as the authors discussed their recipes, they imagined what would a finished dish look like would the fresh vegetables keep their identity did the presentation on the plate entice the diner to eat were the ingredients complementary and pleasing to the tongue or did they compete with each other to confuse the taste buds. Above all, did the meal encourage one to reflect on the meal, appreciate and take pleasure from it.
Most often the authors' exchanges revolved around a seasoning combination or the addition of a few sophisticated ingredients. The book opens with Vongerichten's technique for scrambling eggs over a medium-high flame. The next step up includes tomato and basil. Moving towards an even more sophisticated version, crispy potato and prosciutto is introduced, and finally comes the ultimate in scrambled eggs, caviar, vodka and heavy cream. One is forced to wonder, however, how to eat the scrambled eggs and caviar as photographed. They are pictured stuffed into the fragile shell of an egg sitting precariously in an eggcup and topped with their embellishments. Each of the eight recipes I tested, whether a basic chicken stock or the Tart Vaudoise, which created an exceptional tart in a matter of minutes, to the more time consuming and complex, Roasted Vegetables with Red Pepper Oil was successful. Homemade red pepper oil should be in the repertoire of every cook for seasoning vegetables. Although sidebars and notes in cookbooks are commonplace these days, the descriptive notes of encouragement and caution by Bittman were particularly helpful in this tome. Vongerichten was born and raised on the outskirts of Strasbourg, Alsace in a home where each day mother and grandmother prepared food for the fifty workers in a family business, and thus, presumably, was born the instincts for creating savory dishes for large groups of people in more formal surroundings later on in life.
Beginning training in his teens as part of a work-study program, he went on to study with many of France's top chefs, including Paul Bocuse. From 1980 to 1985, he opened restaurants in Asia where he developed his affection for exotic and aromatic flavors. Bittman, the author of a weekly food column for The New York Times called the "The Minimalist," is also the author of two award-winning books called Fish and How to Cook Everything. Bittman summed up Simple to Spectacular, two years in the writing, by saying, "Scrambled eggs is on the cover because it is the soul of the book. Take an ordinary, simple recipe and make it incredibly good. The key to enjoying cooking is embracing simplicity. Simplicity in food is honesty, warmth, pleasure, modesty, even fairness. Simplicity in cooking is ease and grace."