Normally I'm not big on the use of superlatives. The greatest movie. The ultimate culinary treat. The unsurpassable engineering feat.
Or, to put a point on it, the world's best cookbook.
Over the past couple of months, as I read and prepared dishes from the aptly titled "Yum!," I've been forced to back down from that hard and fast position. "Yum!" may not be the best cookbook every written. It might not even be the best cookbook of the year (although I could build a case for that) It is, however, most certainly the best of its breed the pinnacle of its type the apex of its genre.
Are you getting the idea that I like this book?
On the face of it, "Yum!" is just another anthology of recipes from celebrity chefs. And we've been inundated with those the past couple of years. Some of them have been worthwhile, others contributed nothing to the literature on the subject except bulk, and others served no other purpose than as PR tools for the chefs involved---whose celebrity, too often, exists in their minds alone.
What makes "Yum!" different, first off, is the quality of the chefs involved. If you've heard of them, chances are they're represented. The list of contributors reads like a who's who of the American culinary world. Just some examples as I turn to random pages: Suvir Saran, Charlie Trotter, Joanne Weir, Rick Bayless, and Ana Sortun.
What attracted them, perhaps, is the purpose of the book. Although sponsored by Microplane, all profits go to the National Kidney Foundation. Microplane CEO Chris Grace's brother died, young, from that disease, and this is his way of putting something back. But not just his. As editor Julia Pitkin notes in the acknowledgements, "This cookbook represents a tremendous amount of generosity throughout the culinary community. When contributors learned that Microplane would donate 100% of its profits from the sale of this book to the National Kidney Foundation they were more than happy to participate."
Of course there's participation, and there's participation. It's easy for a chef to just toss out a recipe, just to get a publisher off his or her back. But I see none of that in "Yum!" In each case there is full cooperation.
All of the entries follow the same format. There's a recipe, with or without comments from the chef, faced by a four-color photo of the dish. This is backed up by a biography and photo of the chef, and sometimes a picture of his or her restaurant. Accompanying each entry is a box with answers to survey questions asked of each chef.
Frankly, I thought the survey a bit on the "if you were a tree what would you be" type of nonsense. But the answers often provide insights into the chef's worldview. For instance, when asked, "If not for food, where would you be now?" Chef John Shields responded, "living on a tropical island as a retired rock star." My favorite response, though, came from Chef Nick Malgieri who was asked, "If you were condemned to die, what would be your last meal." No doubt the editor expected some sort of culinary revelation by this question. Nick's honest answer: "If I were condemned to die I don't think I would be in the mood to eat."
But when all is said and done, "Yum!" is a cookbook. Here, again, there were choices to be made. The chefs could have said, "oh, sure, here's something you can print." But they didn't. This isn't a collection of toss away recipes. This is a compendium of some of the finest chefs in America putting their best (there's that word again) foot forward. This is Ana Sortun's Ladies Thighs with Red Pepper Broth and Fresh Peas. This is Helene Kennan's Wild Caught Spot Prawns with Butternut Squash Slaw and Blood Orange. This is Nona Nielsen-Parker's Portobello Quesadilla with Grits. It's Suvir Saran's Mangalore Fried Shrimp, and Caprial & John Pence's Pan Fried Oysters with Gingered Crà¨me Fraiche and Peppers, and Norm Van Aken's Sugarcane Barbeque'd Duck.
Is every recipe a winner? I'd be surprised if they were. Indeed, we found Nick Malgieri's Gruyere and Bacon Tart lacking in both flavor and texture---and requiring almost twice the given cooking time. But that's the only one of the half dozen we've tried so far that wasn't superlative.
"Yum!" is the first collection of celebrity chef recipes that I came away from feeling I really knew who these people were from their bios, from their survey responses, and, most of all, from the recipes they provided.
What makes a chef a celebrity isn't appearing on Good Morning America, or writing an article for Saveur, or having a series on the Food Network. Celebrity comes from accomplishment. And in that all the chefs represented in "Yum!" are true celebrities, whose cookery accomplishments are highlighted by the recipes provided.
The totality of this work makes "Yum!" a book worth having.
Reprinted with permission from "Yum! Tasty Recipes From Culinary Greats," copyright 2007 by Microplane Inc., Cumberland House Publishing, Nashville, Tennessee.
LADIES THIGHS WITH RED PEPER BROTH AND FRESH PEAS