Long before Tom Colicchio became a household name as the rather formidable head judge of Bravo TV's hit series "Top Chef," he was making a name for himself in the very competitive New York restaurant community. Former co-owner and Executive Chef of Gramercy Tavern, and current owner of a half a dozen Craft restaurants, Colicchio was among the first to advocate the simple elegance of New American cuisine.
His first cookbook, Think Like A Chef, is designed to help the home cook achieve the "visceral thrill of transforming great ingredients…..into soulful, uncluttered food". As such, it is a warm and inviting look into the thought process behind great cooking.
What is interesting about this book is that while it does contain many recipes, the author's stated goal is to free the reader from the need to use them. Instead, he provides a method for expanding the user's culinary experience to the point where creativity is the natural result.
The book is divided into four sections. In section one – Techniques – the reader is introduced to basic cooking techniques such as roasting, braising, blanching, and sauce making. Each technique is broken down into steps, and followed by a series of recipes using different proteins or vegetables. With roasting for example, the author includes recipes for roasted chicken, striped bass, sirloin, crab, and salsify. While this may seem repetitive, the finished dishes effectively demonstrate the breadth of textures and flavors which can be obtained from a single technique.
In section two – Studies – Colicchio takes a relatively simple food and uses it in increasingly complex ways. His intent is to encourage the reader to "[think] outward from one ingredient to many dishes". I found this section of the book quite fascinating as I had never really considered the idea of "creating ingredients" before. In one example, a recipe for roasted tomatoes and garlic is followed by five increasingly complex dishes that ultimately lead to a tomatoy twist on apple tarte Tatin. This last is delicious and has the added benefit of moving the reader away from preconceived notions about how a particular product should be prepared.
Section three focuses on "Trilogies;" three foods that are naturally great together because they peak in the same season. Duck, root vegetables, and apples, for example, bring to mind the shorter days and cooler temperatures of fall, while asparagus, ramps, and morels bring forth cheerful thoughts of spring. For many home cooks who shop in the same mega-mart week after week, focusing on seasonality offers a fresh approach to food selection and preparation. To this end, the section contains one trilogy per season and multiple recipes for each. While all are appealing, some items (e.g. ramps) may be difficult for the home cook to obtain.
In the final section – Component Cooking – Colicchio continues his focus on seasonal vegetables, stating that "By and large the protein of the dish… is a fixed component and varies little throughout the year. Vegetables, on the other hand, change wildly from season to season and vastly alter the landscape of the menu". In this section he offers more than thirty dishes designed to enhance and complete the final meal. While I thoroughly enjoyed experimenting with these recipes, it should be noted that many require ingredients created from recipes in the first two sections. This can be a problem if you're not inclined to plan ahead. Fortunately, substitutions are always an option.
Like Colicchio's recipes, the book itself is well balanced. Full color photos lend an element of warmth as do the personal stories of the author. Instructional sections are short, but well written, and a limited number of black and white photos add a nice contrast to the text.
Overall, this is a delightful cookbook for anyone who has a desire to learn to cook without a recipe. The thoughtfulness of the writing combined with beautiful photos and clear instruction make these simple, but elegant foods accessible and inviting. If great cooking is not about a recipe, but about a creative process that attempts to bring out the best in the ingredients on hand, it is safe to say that we all can learn to Think Like a Chef.