I have a stake in two of the big cookbooks coming out this season from multi-starred chefs but before I write about these, attention must be paid to The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, by Heston Blumenthal and his team.
When I saw the price, retail $250 (157.50 from Amazon), it’s size (11 pounds/5 kilos), I thought, What can possibly be the point of this? When the unasked for copy arrived from the publisher, it quickly became clear that this monster cannot be denied.
I showed it to my 13-year-old daughter. Her response: “Who would buy this? It won’t even fit on a shelf. You’d have to have a yacht or jet or something to put it on.”
But as she began to leaf through its pages, the extraordinary illustrations by Dave McKean captivated her, and by the time she got to the food, she was actually gasping and covering her mouth and saying “Oh my god” and “That is so cool.”
More or less my response, too. I have never been so captivated, visually, by a cookbook (my own books excluded, of course), primarily by the illustrations, the playfulness of them, the exuberance of spirit they convey. A brilliant move to include these. The food photography is stunning, I think, because it’s so big and Blumenthal’s food is so dramatic. I haven't tried the recipes so I can't vouch for those–worth a cook-the-book blog if the right voice were to find it.
The first 125 pages of this 448 page book are given over to history (and a fine intro by Harold McGee)—a first person account of Blumenthal’s beginnings, his interests, his being largely self taught, his opening Fat Duck with astonishingly little restaurant experience, and so on, up to the statement on the new cookery with Keller, Adria and McGee.
Part two comprises 50 signature recipes, each introduced by exhaustive, story-like headnotes describing the origins and reason for the dishes. And part three describes all the science and equipment pertinent to Blumenthal and his food.
The table of contents is in the middle of the book, in a big fold-out.
There are so many pictures and illustrations of Blumenthal and his signature android-like countenance (bald head, futuristic glasses), that along with the sheer size of the book, you might be tempted to think this young chef is a colossal megalomaniac. He may well be. But I spent a couple days with him last year and he is nothing but a pleasure—natural, fun, articulate and relentlessly inquisitive.
Big books take a huge teams. I can’t imagine how this one came together, but I’m very glad that it did. I hope culinary schools and libraries will invest in a copy (along with a stand to put it on)—so that the people who can’t afford a $250 luxury item (most cooks, for instance, and, well, come to think of it, writers, illustrators, artists, musicians—in fact the people most likely to value it) can see it. Huge congratulations to Blumenthal and his team for this over the top, way over the top, effort.