I am a devotee of culinary writing. Recipe books and food industry magazines are great tools for learning about trends, improvements in technique and equipment as well as wonderful for gaining insight into a cookbook author's own interest. Of particular significance, I relish a 'local's only' collection of regional fare, even when I am thousands of miles away from being a local. My "down time" reading is almost exclusively food essays, however. I call it leisure reading, with a purpose. These are those books that seem to live on the bottom two shelves at Border's and do not often get much mention at cocktail parties. It always seems that when some social gathering revolves around food, there is the inevitable query as to the origins of the "oohhh this spinach dip is smashing" or the "where on earth did you come across the recipe for this fondue?" Then the chef-dropping begins. "When we were in France, we went to this lovely bistro by the Tower" and "well, we had dinner at Wolfgang's new place in LA" and so it begins. The talk turns to FoodTV, Emeril and Rocco's Restaurant. Nary have I heard mention of MFK Fisher, Calvin Trillin, Jeffrey Steingarten or the Dornenburg/Page team at these gatherings. Then again, I usually get relegated to the kitchen to help with something or the other. A volunteer effort, actually I have never been one for little scraps of cheap pepperoni and cheap talk. I suppose food essayists have the right idea. Get their ideas out and have them read by people that have a realists view of the culinary scene without being scrutinized while the Cheese Poofs get passed around on doily-lined lackluster silver trays.
I can easily get lost for a few hours in a well constructed epic of food trials and tribulations. Just about everybody has read Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential and Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf. I hope.
My wife often fumes "there are no cookbooks around. What are all those books you read, dear?" usually without "dear" and something more creative tucked in.
And so it starts. I explain that the food essays tell captive tales, in one form or another, of where particular gastronomic adventures come from or where they are going. As such, with a well-told story, we have the necessary devices to tell our own story at the table. Historical perspective. Technique and style. Ingredients. Lure. Some of the best cookbooks I have read were not cookbooks at all. With a "sigh" she walks off, muttering something unintelligible, signaling that she has given up looking for the latest Williams-Sonoma cookbook and leaving me to get lost in The New American Chef.
The culinary writing team of Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page has a treatise in The New American Chef. I will not be dishonest with you, dear reader, I was miffed when I first poked through their latest. I caught a sentence or two of Dornenburg's tirade about the ill gotten plan of combining favorite ingredients to create wonderful dishes. I scoffed at this recipe-censorship, if you will. Who can tell me that ingredients I choose cannot sit as one? Where did such audacity come from in such a highly regarded writing duo? Did, perhaps, Andrew Dornenburg hijack the printing of the book at the last moment and sneak in his own agenda? Will he insist that we are all to be grounded in French cuisine to earn entry into chef-dom? He surely fooled the two-dozen or so contributors and endorsers surely, Charlie Trotter, Michael Romano and Todd English must hope to create food from favorite ingredients. I hope. Upon further investigation&
I was the one that was fooled. Andrew Dornenburg skillfully segues into what skills and understanding are necessary before erroneously haphazardly combining ingredients. And, alas, The New American Chef unfolds to tell a righteous tale of creating great food. Page and Dornenburg work well together to explain the relevance of travel, knowing the market and exposure to our multicultural landscape. As if this Beard Award-wining writing duo did not bring enough insight and experience to their tome, the likes of Mario Battali, Paula Wolfert and Daniel Boulud, among others, offer their insight into the technique development driven work.
The premise to The New American Chef as I understand it, is that, simply put, before you get in the car have a map in hand. Page and Dornenburg focus the play on "fusion food" by dissecting 10 cultures' contribution to the American food scene, with the help of an amazing supporting cast. The team reflects back that pretty much all food is a confabulation of food from neighboring and distant lands. So, in order to successfully navigate the new culinary scene, our new chefs must understand the successful use of the foods from around the world. Mind you, with understanding the food from all over comes an appreciation for the purchase of ingredients, relevant understanding of various regions within a culture as well as the technique employed to create such dishes.
The 400+ page whisk around the world calls on top talent to lend their own takes on the dynamics of preparing food for in 21st century America. For instance, Hiroko Shimbo diligently reflects on the importance and food of holidays in Japan. Additionally, Shimbo's asides on the flavorful fish stocks, akin to American chicken stocks, as a perfunctory requirement in replicating authentic Japanese fare. Are but one meaningful lesson in this requisite volume.
I have a new, energized appreciation for this writing duo. Not that they were lacking culinary wherewithal in the past. Instead, The New American Chef has given me a new and concrete perspective at developing my own culinary skills by relying on their "take heed" research as well as the constructive input of their many talented contributors.