Several people emailed me Kim Severson’s NYTimes story on recipes and the point at which we will close the book on them. This story really riled my friend Mike Pardus, instructor of Asian cuisines at the Culinary Institute of America.
"I understand that certain things are above and beyond most people’s skill levels, purchasing power, equipment investment threshold, etc.," he writes. "That’s why I hire carpenters. I suck at carpentry and I don’t have the proper tools. So – I don’t call myself a ‘carpenter’…
"In each example of a ‘deal breaker’ Ms. Severson refers to a ‘good cook’ an ‘adventurous cook’ …sorry, if you won’t fry, or lard or truss, or can’t butterfly an anchovy you should not be calling yourself a ‘cook’ without some sort of qualifier – like ‘backyard mechanic’ or ‘weekend warrior’ of ‘armchair quarterback.’
"What really sent me over the edge was her description of Keller as ‘the modern King of fussy recipes’…if you’re really a ‘cook,’ you get it … if you’re not – you don’t. To Cooks, Keller is the master technician we all want to learn from and emulate; Ms. Severson makes him sound like a anal retentive crackpot.
"So, you wannabe a cook, or you ARE one? Guess it all depends on how well you can read – and interpret – the sheet music, and how often you’re willing to practice your scales."
Pardus’s job is to teach technique and he truly cares about the craft of cooking, so I understand his ire. I thought Severson’s story interesting and humorous. I share Pardus’s annoyance, though, with her characterization of Keller and know exactly why it sent this excellent instructor of cooks over the edge: the statement implies that she’d rather have it easy than know how to do it correctly.
And this is what annoys me most about chef cookbooks—or perhaps the publishers of chef cookbooks. They all want to simplify great technique so that the chef’s work is accessible to the home cook, which hurts both the chef and the home cook. One of the great values of the French Laundry Cookbook is that the recipes are pretty much exact documents of how those recipes are done at the restaurant. I’ve never made the coronets because I don’t own cornet molds, but it’s a pretty cool tuile recipe—with a little imagination you could bend it to your own desires. And if I want to know how that tuile is turned into a little cone, I can read about it exactly.
I’m midway through Julian Barnes’s Pedant in the Kitchen. Barnes wrote one of my all time favorite novels and is one of Britain’s best writers period, but this collection of columns from, I believe, The Guradian is one long whine about how hard recipes are. His problem, and it’s the same frame of mind Severson describes, is that he insists on following recipes before he understands anything about basic techniques.
Really good cooking is a craft, and those recipes that best describe that craft, whether simple or advanced, move all cooks forward. Those recipes that help you avoid craft, to get around it, set people who want to become better cooks, back.
Do you want fast and simple? Grill a steak. Want a great sauce that doesn’t involve making and reducing veal stock? Mince a shallot and mix it with some soft butter and lemon juice. But don’t get mad at a recipe for a classical Bordelaise sauce.
I understand that some people, most people, want to eat good unprocessed food but don’t have the desire or time to learn to cook or prepare elaborate recipes from America’s most talented chefs. Those are the people who most need to learn the few basic techniques upon which all cooking is based. Those who cook for pleasure won’t progress as cooks until they do that as well. It wouldn’t take long. There are just a handful of them.
UPDATE 6/6: Carole Blymire, author of the French Laundry at Home blog, commented on the word fussy and the recipes generally in The French Laundry Cookbook. No one is more qualified to comment on this subject, and therefore on the subject of difficult recipes, so I’m reprinting them here.
I understand where Kim was going with the piece; that said, the use of the word "fussy" is something I do take issue with.
As someone who is cooking her way through The French Laundry Cookbook, I know I’m biased, but I don’t really find these recipes "fussy." Why? Fussy, to me, implies that there’s something unnecessarily over-the-top or demanding that is being requested by someone who lacks expertise. And, that’s not the case with TFLCookbook.
For me, it’s all about trust. If the chef/owner of 2 of the best restaurants in the land is recommending a certain way to do something to yield the best result, then damn skippy I’m gonna try it. I’m grateful for the book and its amazing sharing of technique and flavor combinations — I’ve gotten an incredible education from cooking my way through it. It’s cracked open so many "Oh, NOW I get it" moments that have changed the way I make a sandwich, pull together a last-minute salad dressing, or cook a steak. And, it’s actually made me smarter, faster, and more creative in the kitchen. Now, I can pull together a really great dinner for 6 in 20-30 minutes, and truly blow my friends away.
I can’t tell you the number of emails I get from my readers who say that they thought the dishes in TFLC were too hard until they actually sat down, focused, and made one. It’s almost like it’s the world’s best-kept secret: these dishes are totally doable; you just have to pay attention to what you’re doing.
I was actually more offended by many of the commenters on the article on the NYT site. Chopping parsley or whisking an egg are dealbreakers? What the fuck is wrong with people? –Carol Blymire