Whatever induced us to review three cookbooks a week before Christmas? The planning and shopping and actual cooking that have gone into trying to make a fair sampling of these three books have seemed to me, for the past week, another long lap in the great pre-Christmas race.
So I have decided to turn this problem on its axis and assume that this is the ideal way to sample three new cookbooks. For most of us do not in fact approach a new cookbook in a vacuum, with all the leisure in the world. Someone gave it to us as a present, I think--certainly in the case of the kind of celebrity-chef cookbook that is at issue here. And we dip into it at bedtime over a few nights and think perhaps this or that recipe is a good excuse to have that dinner party we've been meaning to have the so-and-so's to ... and either the book takes, the way a new friend does, or it gets consigned to a high shelf. Trying out all three under time pressure, with a tree to be decorated and presents to be bought and other work to be done, may be a fairly efficient way of reducing this process to its essence.
To set the table, what these three books have in common is authorship--or should I say "authors-ship"?--by the chef/proprietors of celebrated New York restaurants: the Gotham Bar and Grill (Alfred Portale, writing with Andrew Friedman); Vong, Jo Jo and Jean Georges (Jean-Georges Vongerichten, writing with Mark Bittman); and Gramercy Tavern and Craft (Tom Colicchio, who credits three co-authors). And all are glossy, oversized books with lots of photos and hefty price tags. But each has a different hook. Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook is packaged by month, according to what's seasonal; Vongerichten's Simple to Spectacular offers recipes with four variations, from fairly elementary forms that are easy for the home chef to emulate to splashier versions that more closely resemble what he does in his restaurants; and Colicchio's Think Like a Chef leads the reader by the hand through various dishes with the aim of actually teaching him or her to cook at a higher level (the teach-a-man-to-fish school of cookbook writing).
I have listed these books, I find, in ascending order, from worst to best--or most to least oppressive. Last year our colleagues Nick Lemman and Corby Kummer had a rousing about this whole school of celebrity-chef cookbook, and I'd like to avoid reprising it other than to say in passing that I share their general dyspepsia about the genre, which seems, in the process of advertising food in its highest forms, to wring everything human out of it. Start with the sumptuous photographs: Surely there's something sadistic about telling readers they can aspire to chefery and at the same time offering them impossibly gorgeous pictures (no doubt worked over by food stylists) of the final result? In the unlikely event that you can make your meals taste like Jean-Georges', I promise that you can't make them look like his. Almost none of the photos in these books are actually instructional. (Come to think of it, the only heavily illustrated, oversized cookbook I regularly use is Julia Child's 1989 The Way To Cook, in which the food actually looks like food and half the photos are frankly utilitarian, showing Julia's wrinkled, powerful hands whamming a chicken breast into submission.)
Anyway, the truth is that I don't especially want to cook like a chef. I'm a reasonably good cook who will happily pocket a recipe from any source at all, but I'm mostly a day-to-day family cook who now and then rouses herself to a big production and then retires to the fainting couch. Most of my cooking these days is done with a 42-pound weight (a 5-year-old) clamped to my left leg, which wonderfully concentrates my views of the ratio between effort and payoff in any given project. And when I want to read about food, as opposed to rummage for a recipe, I care a lot more about whether an author can write than about whether she can cook; I'd far rather read M.F.K. Fisher about the secret pleasure of a tangerine toasted on the radiator of a Strasbourg pension than try to deconstruct the gift of a professional chef.
Perhaps this is why the Colicchio book comes closest to my idea of a good companion in the kitchen--though in some ways it's the quirkiest book. It's hard to imagine an ideal reader who doesn't yet know the first principles of, say, roasting and braising, but who wants to go on from there to make Spiced Roasted Lobster With Pea Ravioli. But I found the spirit of this book the most congenial. (I made up my mind to like Colicchio when I read the magic words in the autobiographical preface, "I discovered I hate to bake.") Colicchio's hope, he writes, is "that you'll leave this book with the confidence to walk through the greenmarket, or grocery, or neighborhood bodega without a recipe, open to what you find there, but with the ability ... to put those ingredients together skillfully and intelligently." And I thought his book was reasonably loyal to this aim.
The two recipes I've tried so far from here were pretty straightforward: I shied away from his more ambitious concoctions mostly because they tended toward ingredients I don't much care for. (This is what I mean about the book's quirkiness. He has a whole chapter devoted to "Trilogies": asparagus, ramps, and morels; lobster, peas and pasta; and duck, root vegetables, and apples. You could say that cooking one's way through these chapters would be an excellent way of learning subtle variation, or you could say that if ramps aren't in season, or you don't do homemade pasta, or you hate duck, you're fresh out of luck.) I did Braised Short Ribs (click here for this recipe and others) and came away feeling that Colicchio's recipe was fine but offered me nothing much I couldn't have gotten from seven or 12 other books on my shelf, and served them with Boulangerie Potatoes--basically, scalloped potatoes baked for a long time in brown chicken stock on a bed of sautéed leeks and bacon. (OK, I used stock from a box. Technically, it wasn't brown. I make stock from leftovers when I've just roasted a chicken, but otherwise not. Sue me!) This one is a real keeper as long as you avoid brooding over the eerie symmetry and caramel-glossy sheen of the potatoes pictured in the book.
As for the other two: I had some success with the Vongerichten (as well as one near-disaster--more anon) and can imagine returning to it to try other recipes I noted in passing. But I found the Portale book actively unlikable.
What took your fancy in this collection?