With food prices up and discretionary spending down, dropping a paycheck on dinner at Le Bernardin seems unthinkable. Purchasing a volume of recipes by its acclaimed chef Eric Ripert, however, is a relatively inexpensive proposition. But can a restaurant cookbook measure up to the real deal? Is it possible to pull off a Le Bernardin specialty like poached escolar in your own kitchen? In the spirit of frugality, and for the sake of experimentation (not to mention my hearty appetite), I put my culinary degree to use by preparing recipes from three recently published cookbooks before sampling each dish at its respective restaurant.
For my experiment, I chose cookbooks featuring recipes from three quintessential—yet very different—New York City restaurants. Eat Me by Kenny Shopsin reflects the food and philosophy of Shopsin's, a tiny restaurant in Essex Market whose extensive menu includes hundreds of items, both standard (burgers) and eccentric (macaroni-and-cheese pancakes). Michael Ronis' Carmine's Family-Style Cookbookfeatures old-school Italian recipes from Carmine's, a cavernous Italian restaurant in the heart of Times Square whose huge portions are popular with out-of-towners. Chanterelleby David Waltuck showcases recipes from the eponymous TriBeCa restaurant, known as much for its impeccable service as for its upscale, French-influenced American cuisine.
I began with Eat Me's "slutty cakes"—oddly named pancakes whose canned-pumpkin-and–peanut-butter filling is supposed to replicate a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. Slutty cakes are a Shopsin's specialty, and Eat Me even has a section titled "Pancakes and the Lost Art of Griddling." Shopsin notes, "If you buy a good griddle, you oil the griddle properly, you heat it as hot as it needs to be heated before you drop the batter, and you cook the pancakes for the correct amount of time, you could use boxed pancake mix or Aunt Jemima frozen pancake batter, and your pancakes would turn out just as good as mine."
Per Shopsin's suggestion, I used Aunt Jemima batter, which, to my surprise, yielded light and fluffy pancakes, nicely browned and dotted with a filling whose flavor was reminiscent of a Reese's cup. The recipe's headnote said the filling would be crumbly, but in reality it was rather gooey. Still, they were perfect for a winter morning. My pancakes even resembled those in the book's photograph. A rousing success, I thought.
That afternoon, my friend Cathy and I visited Shopsin's for lunch, ordering slutty cakes and chicken-avocado soup with mac and cheese. "Fuck you," cried Zack, Kenny's younger son, who works with him, in response to our orders. It would be the first of many "fucks" bellowed by Zack and Kenny throughout our meal. Kenny Shopsin is known for "speaking his mind," including yelling obscenities and expelling would-be diners who don't measure up to his standards. And it seems the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. While this verbal assault was startling, I was far more surprised to discover that Shopsin's slutty cakes only somewhat resembled my earlier effort. His were flatter with nearly perfect concentric circles of peanut butter in the middle of each pancake, topped with pistachios, and accompanied by a tiny bottle of Grade A maple syrup. On re-examining the recipe at home, I discovered pistachios adorning the slutty cakes in the cookbook's photograph, yet they were nowhere in the recipe itself, and the recipe called for Grade B syrup, not A. Was this an editorial oversight? Or does Shopsin not want people to duplicate his recipes?
Next I tried "linguine with white clam sauce," described as "one of [the] customers' first choices" in Carmine's Family-Style Cookbook. The recipe was simple: Steam 24 littleneck clams with garlic, basil, parsley, red-pepper flakes, wine, and clam juice and serve over pasta. I wound up with a far-too-liquid sauce, and the dish looked nothing like the clam-laden linguine in the cookbook's photograph. In taste, my pasta was vaguely similar to the one I tried later at Carmine's, although the restaurant's version used significantly more garlic, thickly sliced, not coarsely chopped as in the recipe, and featured both whole littlenecks and chopped cherrystone clams.
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.
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.