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Chef-Authored Cookbooks

post #1 of 10
Thread Starter 
I have C.Trotter Cooks at Home and Wolfgang Puck Makes It Easy, and find their recipes to be well within reach of my skills as a home cook. Jean-Georges' Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef is more intimidating, and The French Laundry Cookbook scares the he** out of me.

What chef-authored cookbooks are appropriate for non-professionals, and which are best left as casual reading, due to unobtainable ingredients, time considerations, or need for specialty equipment???
post #2 of 10
My #1 choice here would be Alfred Portale, The Gotham Bar and Grill. His other cookbooks are also good, and somewhat easier, but The Gotham does a wonderful job of not only presenting a well-tested recipe for home use, but also explaining what's going on so you learn something beyond how to follow a recipe.

From your post, what you're looking for is a cookbook by a restaurant chef that is actually aimed at home users, doing something other than food porn and inspiration to professionals. But "usable" is based on the level of skill, time, and money you want to put into the thing: I find that Jean-Georges is quite manageable, as a rule. The French Laundry, though intimidating, can be approached with care, time, and careful pre-planning, as Carol Blymire's French Laundry At Home blog demonstrated.

There are certainly beastly cookbooks in which the recipes actually make perfectly good sense. Nobu is a nightmare: you can't get these ingredients at anything other than ludicrous prices, and you don't have the skills to do what he calls for in a great number of cases. It's cheaper to eat the dish at Nobu! Murata's Kaiseki is truly impossible: medium-pricey if you live in Kyoto, and very difficult to execute well, but totally impossible anywhere in America. It probably would be cheaper to fly to Kyoto and eat at Kikunoi than to make a full kaiseki meal according to his recipes, but I have to say that every one of his recipes that I have tried here in Kyoto has come out beautifully (not up to his standards, of course, but that's not the point). Charlie Trotter's series of big glossy books (Meat, Vegetables, Fish, etc.) are stunningly difficult to use in the absence of a great deal of money and a wide range of truly extraordinary specialist vendors; while I enjoy fooling around with them, I have actually attempted very few of these recipes as written.

I think what you need to do is to look through the cookbook well before you buy, and certainly before you attempt anything. What's the point of the book? Is the chef mostly showing off his restaurant (Nobu)? Is he or she trying to teach you anything about cooking (Portale, Keller)? Is it mostly glossy pictures and just a few recipes (Trotter)? Are complex recipes described in such a way that you can easily imagine what's being described at every step (Vongerichten), or does it verge on cook's shorthand (i.e. Le Repertoire de la Cuisine)?

It also depends what you want. If you want to learn more about cooking, you want a good teacher. If you want a few cool recipes for impressing dinner guests, you want clear explanations. If you want food porn, you want pretty photos. And so on. All of these are legitimate choices, but very rarely do they all appear in the same cookbook -- Portale's Gotham being one notable exception that I turn to regularly.
post #3 of 10
Great analysis, Chris. You hit it right on the button.

Just to add to it, though, there are a number of problems with chef-written books, as a class, that newbies especially should be aware of.

1. Most chefs do not take into account the differences between cooking in a restaurant and cooking at home. Or, as Michell Davis, author of Kitchen Sense, put it, "With their staffs of cooks and dishwashers and piles of equipment and access to amasing ingredients, chefs aren't always thinking about what it's like to cook at home."
Even those specifically aimed at home cooks can fail in that regard. For instance, unlike KCZ, I round Charlie Trotter Cooks At Home to be very disappointing.

2. Production errors. Chefs seem to feel that once they've submitted a manuscript their job is done. As a result, the recipes are often filled with errors of ommission and commission because they didn't read the final proofs. I could provide a long list of chef-written cookbooks in which this is true. Add in the fact that fewer and fewer publishers even use copyeditors anymore, and you can easily go astray tring to follow the printed recipe.

3. Food stylists do their own thing. You sometimes wonder if they've even read the recipe that they're setting up for a photo. You read the chef's plating suggestions, then look at the food porn, and they are totally different presentations. So, when you follow the recipe it doesn't look anything like the food porn.

Again, taking them as a class, I use chef-written books as inspiration for my own efforts. But, until I've actually "field tested" it, I don't trust any recipe from one of those books.

It's also why here at Cheftalk we have a rule that a reviewer must prepare at least two recipes from any book being reviewed, and we recommend that more than that are tried.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #4 of 10
I believe this comment is unfair and inaccurate, KY. When food stylists shoot pics for a cookbook-especially one by a chef, we rarely get a finished recipe with plating notes and such. We usually get the recipe in the form of the chef's personal "kitchen shorthand" with missing ingredients or ingredients called for in the deck and missing in the instructions. Most often we shoot the recipe before it's back from the testers or copy editors (if they use either at all). Often the chef and creative team rely on the food stylists and their assistants to test the recipes as we're shooting them.

In addition, food stylists are part of a team of people-the author, the editor, art director, prop stylist and photographer. Believe it or not, I can think of only two cookbook shoots where the chef-author was in attendance at all. All contribute to the process of creating the photo that is eventually used; it's never just the food stylist doing their own thing with a list of ingredients. We have to make the food and photos fit into an overall style that the book is attempting to show. I often hear the comment that food prepared from a recipe never looks like it does in the photo--but have you really looked at it?-from the same angle and in a similar light that's being used in the photo?

I've styled photos for food writers, celebrity chefs, all kinds of magazines, and on and on for the past 15 years. My overall impression is that chefs have a very difficult time of it thinking outside the restaurant kitchen, relating to the expectations and limitations of the home cook and creating "doable" recipes--- and it's reflected in the resulting cookbook. They also often take the attitude that if it tastes good, it looks good, which most often does not follow. There's little point of photographing a dish to make a cookbook enticing if it will look like a pile of brown lumps dropped on a plate-no matter how good it tastes.

Generally, I believe most folks, from chefs to readers, have and inaccurate view of what a food stylist really does and how much influence they have over the resulting photo. I know there are some stylists that use a lot of tricks and fancy effects when preparing recipes to be shot, but they are really the exception. Most of us have a solid background in the culinary arts and letters as well as art design, marketing and communications.

Ninety per cent of the time, we just cook the food according to the recipe. We strive to obtain the most beautiful ingredients, create and preserve the prettiest caramelization and such, as well as arrange the food in the most attractive way to reveal the true nature and purpose of any dish.


Liquored up and laquered down,
She's got the biggest hair in town!



Liquored up and laquered down,
She's got the biggest hair in town!

post #5 of 10
A few notable exceptions to the situation Foodnfoto describes, which prove the rule by the exception:

Portale's Gotham, mentioned in my previous post, talks a good deal about presentation, and in many instances mentions that he adds this or that to the dish to create the plating shown in the photo.

Paul Prudhomme's Lousiana Kitchen: For this, Prudhomme and company created a test kitchen that was structured to function like a home kitchen, and tested recipes rigorously. As a result, the dishes come out exactly as described, every time. I don't know much about the photography for the volume, but it's mostly the dishes as made, served surrounded by various raw or partly-prepared ingredients to make them look cooler.

Murata Yoshihiro's Kaiseki: Believe it or not, these dishes look exactly the same when he serves them in his restaurant. I've eaten there, and had a couple of the things photographed in that book, and believe me, it's like carbon-copy. He tells you how to do what he does, but good luck with that!

The fact that I can think of no other example from my mildly extensive cookbook collection is a sad comment on the dreadful situation Foodnfoto describes.
post #6 of 10
Thread Starter 
Interesting discussion. I live out in the boondocks, which means
---I rarely get to eat out at upscale restaurants so like to make good food at home.
---I rarely get to look at cookbooks myself before ordering them online (local bookstore is enamored of Rachael Ray and Paula Deen).
---recipes with 15 unobtainable ingredients aren't much help to me.

A follow-up question: I assume recipes in books by America's Test Kitchen, Bon Appetit, etc, have all been tested by someone before publishing. Aren't recipes in other cookbooks tested??? KY's comments suggest otherwise.
post #7 of 10
It really depends on the cookbook and the publisher.

My experience is that books by people who primarily write cookbooks for a living have been tested, not always by anyone other than the author. Julia Child's first book, Mastering the Art, was tested incredibly rigorously by herself and her co-authors. Kennedy, Hazan, Tropp -- these people work(ed) very hard to ensure that their cookbooks, written with a home cook in mind from the start, would be approachable and accurate.

When you get into cookbooks where the main listed author is a restaurant chef, you have to be more cautious. Many restaurant chefs simply do not cook at home often enough to have a clear sense of what is and is not the same. For example, most professional kitchen ovens are convection these days, whereas most home ovens are not. This means that roasting something, for example, may be listed to take 20 minutes, but if you did it at home your meat would be very underdone -- you'd need to roast it more like 30 minutes without convection.

Unfortunately, the demand for restaurant chef cookbooks is very high, but production costs are enormous. All those color glossies cost a lot of bucks, and so do the various staff (including the chef), not to mention advertising. If you want a restaurant chef cookbook that has lots of pretty pictures (much of the point, often) and is of a fair size, you have to economize somewhere -- and all too often the economies undermine the recipes themselves.

You will often (though not often enough) see restaurant chef books with a listed co-author who is a cookbook writer. Vongerichten wrote Jean-Georges with Mark Bittman. Lagasse wrote New New Orleans, his first cookbook, with Jesse Tirsch, if memory serves. Here it's the cookbook writer who is primarily responsible for the prose and the home-cook testing. Both these books get high marks on these points, in my opinion. Jean-Georges reads like Bittman hung out with Vongerichten and tried to pick things up, but it's very clear from the actual dishes and results that Vongerichten wasn't just giving occasional advice. New New Orleans reads like Lagasse did everything, but this is before he was a big TV guy and I think he didn't have all that much sense of home cooking -- yet the recipes work very smoothly. Another interesting example is The French Laundry, which Thomas Keller wrote with Michael Ruhlman. It's quite clear that both of them put a lot into the book, and they're both extremely good at what they do -- Keller is one of the best chefs in the world, and Ruhlman is one of the best food writers. The result is an extraordinary cookbook -- if deliberately intimidating.

But you have to remember that restaurant cookbooks have other functions beyond recipes:
  • They advertise the restaurant, and serve as convenient souvenirs of a memorable meal eaten at a fancy place.
  • They inspire other chefs, professionals I mean: you're cooking in the boonies, let's say, but you buy a whole lot of hotshot cookbooks by the latest hip guys in New York and LA and wherever, and you get inspired by dishes, platings, combinations of flavors and textures, techniques, and so on. What you do with this may well be radically different from what the cookbook suggests -- you don't want to just produce second-rate copies of somebody else's dishes, after all -- but the book has done something useful for you.
  • In some cases, they may teach cooking techniques, or present a regional or cultural style; Portale tries to teaching cooking, and Bayless tries to teach Mexican cuisine.
To top it all off, what you can do with a cookbook recipe, what I can do with it, what some of the scary folks around here can do, and so on are all different. If I use a baking cookbook, I hope it's been well tested, because I wouldn't know: I don't bake almost ever. If I am doing a Charlie Trotter or Nobu recipe, on the whole I can usually see if there's a problem, and I can expand the shorthand: if an instruction is pretty terse I still know what it means, more or less. "Make a vinaigrette from the listed ingredients" is fine -- I can do that easy. Similarly, if a cookbook tells me to spend half an hour messing around with pans of simmering water to make a Hollandaise-type sauce, I'll ignore this and do a sabayon in a skillet in 2 minutes, the point being that I don't need the instructions to be precisely accurate because I know what I'm doing technically.

Your mileage may differ: you may need much more step-by-step with main courses, let's say, but be an ace with desserts of all kinds. Maybe you've not made much stock, and don't know how to ensure that it's crystal clear and slightly gelatinous, which in some dishes might well make a real difference. In that case, you're going to want a cookbook that actually teaches you how to make good stock, not something that gives semi-accurate shorthand.

I think the greatest problem is that there are so few sites anywhere that produce detailed cookbook reviews by skilled home cooks (or professionals who can accurately pass for this). ChefTalk has reviews, but the length is in my opinion too short: a reviewer cannot really get into the various complex layers of quality that come into play, for a wide range of readership. KY is dead-on to note that reviewers are required to test at least two recipes, something omitted in a disconcerting number of reviews, without which you really have no idea whether anyone but a professional or extremely skilled home cook can reproduce the dishes.

I'll conclude this yammering by mentioning a TV series Jacques Pepin did with his daughter Claudine. If you watch this, you really see how cookbooks can go wrong. Pepin is both very skilled and an extremely good teacher; his daughter is charming but rather unskilled in the kitchen (her husband is a chef, though, so I imagine she eats well regardless). Watching this, you can see why a restaurant chef is often a poor cookbook author: Claudine will do what she thought he told her to do, but she's sufficiently clueless and slow that the results can get in the way. For both Pepins, that's a big part of the point of this show: they want to demonstrate that you don't have to have excellent technique to knock out very good dishes. But again, he's a very good and experienced teacher, and that's not true of most restaurant chefs, many of whom don't have the greatest technique either. This is I think why so many people complain that this or that cookbook requires that you have an army of assistants. At base, the fact is that a good restaurant chef's primary skill above all else is the ability to do a great many things rapidly and accurately at the same time. What Alfred Portale or Mario Batali can do by himself in 10 minutes may take the ordinary home cook an hour and a lot of frustration -- and the results won't be as good because the home cook is desperately trying to get it done at all, where the chef has sufficient leisure in his 10 minutes to do some tasting and correcting as needed.

Ultimately, there's no magic bullet, no (you should pardon the expression) recipe for success. Your best bet is to ask around on line, to buy things on a whim and try them, and so on.
post #8 of 10
KCZ, I doubt that you live further out in the sticks than I do. Your comment about the local bookstore supports this; we don't even have one of those.

Incidentally, most libraries have amazing cookbook collections. Even small ones have proportionately large cookbook sections. So don't forget to check at the library before ordering a book you've never seen, or one that you'd like to read (and maybe cook from) but not necessarily buy.

I have to make a trip to the nearest big city (Lexington, KY) for any ingredient not found in everyday kitches. I don't mean just the specialized ones. All the things that celebrity chef's like Emeril say, "are available in any supermarket." Our supermarkets aren't part of the rubric "any."

Even within that framework, it's been an on-going, and years-long process to ferret out the specialty stores that regularly stock such ingredients. And even then, the internet is my friend for any truly arcane ingredients.

Ingredients, heck. Even finding something as simple as a quality skillet requires a trip to the city or surfing the web.

All this requires meticulous planning, and a full day in the city, running a round-robin of stores. So it's a matter of priorities. You have to decide how important it is to you to cook the way chefs do. If it's worthwhile, you periodically make the trip. If not, not.

I assume recipes in books by America's Test Kitchen, Bon Appetit, etc, have all been tested by someone before publishing. Aren't recipes in other cookbooks tested??? KY's comments suggest otherwise.

Frankly, I often wonder if even the publications that claim to test recipes really do. Awhile back I cut out some time and went through a 25 year accumulation of cooking magazines. When you go through piles of mags all at once several things become apparent that you might otherwise not notice. One of them was how often magazines lift recipes, in toto, from other publications (almost always without credit). If that recipe has an error in the deck or in the instructions it gets repeated, verbatim, in the new one.

It's obvious to me that there's no way that recipe could have been tested in either the original or copy-cat publication. Or maybe it was tested in the original, and the printed version has errors. But the second magazine could not have tested the recipe the way it appears.

In most cases, experienced cooks have no trouble spotting the error, and adjusting for it. But what bothers me is people new to cooking don't have that skill yet. They follow the recipe as printed. And when it doesn't work out, they blame themselves. "I must have done something wrong," they tell themself. And when that happens time after time their frustration level builds. And they go back to frozen dinners and take out food. And all the time it wasn't their fault.

Something else to consider, when discussing the difference between at-home and restaurant cooking that is often overlooked by chef authors. And that's the equipment line-up. In a restaurant, equipment is never turned off while service is on-going. Ovens are blasting at 500 degrees, the deep fryer is operating, the flatop hot and ready to go.

Even though you may have home equivilents of all this, you don't operate them that way. So if a meal you are planning requires that you use, say, six burners, and the deep fryer, and a warming oven, it becomes a real balancing act even if the recipe is correct. Chefs have a seemingly inexhaustable supply of skillets, and pots, and whisks, and...... You have a limited number of these things. A recipe that requires five different skillets when you only own 2 is a bit hard to make.

There's the matter of prep work as well. In a restaurant, there is a prep line, where all that trimming, and cutting, and chopping is done by people other than the chefs and cooks. There are separate stations for various kinds of work, each of which has it's own operators. Charlie works the fish station, while Jim is on the fry station, and Mary cooks the veggies, and Fred works the grill. At home there's just you.

It can be done, with planning and time. But it's also one of the things that chef-written books often overlook.
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
They have taken the oath of the brother in blood, in leavened bread and salt. Rudyard Kipling
post #9 of 10
hi everyone..

Nice to find the great place...

thanks for sharing all the very useful information....

take care
post #10 of 10
I, as a general rule, never use a recipe to cook an entree, appetizer or anything not lumped into the "baking recipe genre" ie, cookies, cakes, etc. I use cookbooks for inspiration and as a reference to flavor and ingredient combinations. I enjoy reading cookbooks from cover to cover especially from successful chefs/entrepeneurs (sp?) to get insight about their beliefs and styles. My most recent read was "Think Like a Chef" by Tom Colicchio. It was a wonderful read not for the recipes but for the stories and the ideas that Chef Colicchio shares with the reader as to what makes a good chef/cook.

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