Is it possible to re-create restaurant dishes at home?

What to eat. What not to eat.
Jan. 21 2009 6:36 AM

Cooking Their Books

Trying to re-create restaurant dishes at home.

(Continued from Page 1)

The following week, I tackled "cumin-crusted salmon with chive mashed potatoes" in Chanterelle, which required five pots, a blender, a food processor, several measuring cups, and an hour and a half to prepare. It tasted great and looked similar to the photograph, with one exception. My potatoes were pale green with dark green specks—not uniformly pea-green. I had prepared the potatoes as instructed, blanching the chives, then chopping them and pureeing them, but my blender proved useless. So I transferred them to a food processor and pureed them before returning them to the blender, still to no avail. I consoled myself by drowning them in the luscious citrus-butter sauce, which, true to restaurant form, required half a pound of butter for four servings.

At Chanterelle the following day, I knew I'd aced it as I ate the salmon, which tasted virtually identical to mine, as did the citrus-butter sauce. However, Chanterelle garnished its salmon with haricots verts and micro chives, and its potatoes were uniformly green. When asked how they were so perfectly hued, my waiter replied that the chives were blanched, then pureed in a blender and added to the mashed potatoes. Clearly, I either need to invest in Chanterelle's blender or hire their sous-chef.

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All of the recipes I tested resembled their originals, but none perfectly recreated the restaurant version—not an entirely surprising verdict. As Kenny Shopsin writes in Eat Me, "My regular customers know that if they order the same thing they got last week, there is a good chance they won't even recognize it. I don't do it differently on purpose. It's just that everything I cook, every time I cook, is an event in and of itself." Variable factors like ingredient quality, temperature, and timing will ensure that a dish is different every time it's prepared, whether at a restaurant kitchen, or a home kitchen, or even from one day to another at the same restaurant.

Why, then, do we still buy restaurant cookbooks? Perhaps because we aspire to be restaurant insiders. Making a pilgrimage to Chicago to dine at Alinea was once considered impressive. These days, a true foodie won't bat an eye unless you can identify every ingredient in every dish—a party trick that requires either an excellent palate or close attention to the recipes in Alinea. Besides this cheat-sheet function, restaurant cookbooks help us tap into a chef's creative genius—they help us understand how a handful of ingredients can be transformed into a restaurant-worthy meal. When we rely on regular cookbooks, we at best become good cooks; with Eat Me or Carmine's Family Style-Cookbook or Chanterelle, we become pseudo-restaurant chefs.

Of course, a restaurant cookbook is still, ultimately, no more than a collection of bound pages. At home, Kenny Shopsin didn't insult me (which is really an integral part of the Shopsin's experience); I missed out on people-watching at Carmine's (enthusiastic hordes devouring heaps of pasta); and while my salmon resembled Chanterelle's, I didn't get to taste the complementary deviled quail egg canapés and homemade rolls with two types of artisanal butter. At home, I had to play the part not only of chef but of waiter and dishwasher, too, with no chance of a tip.

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