This week, two cookbooks from the Big Apple got me thinking
about what it means to write a cookbook, when you're a famous chef.
It's certainly not the first time I've given thought to the
subject--most recently, we looked at the new phenomenon of chefs'
The two I wanted to look at today, however, define the opposite
ends of the spectrum of restaurant chefs' books. On the one
hand, you have books that seek to help you replicate--in a
scaled-down, slightly more informal way--what you're served at a
restaurant. On the other hand, you have books that allow the
chef to make a statement about their personal food identity, as
opposed to what their retail, restaurant persona might
Andrew Carmellini's American Flavor is about
the most un-restauranty book I've ever seen from a chef. It's
filled with classic Americana and immigrant food: cream of
mushroom soup, pozole, fried chicken, pierogies, all sized for a
family dinner. Some of them are tweaked in a chefly direction, and
some of them are straight-ahead renditions. How Carmellini
had time to write it between his duties as an executive chef (at
Locanda Verde and The Dutch) is beyond me, but it hardly
matters--this is one book that will have a spot in my kitchen until
it proves it doesn't belong there.
By contrast, there's a steep
learning curve for Christina Tosi's Momofuku Milk Bar, the
cookbook offspring of the quirky pastry shop that evolved from
David Chang's Ssam Bar. These recipes are not
straightforward even when they seem to be. For
example: Sweet Corn Cereal Milk™ "ice cream" filling (all the
extra punctuation is significant), or a carrot layer cake which has
only five ingredients--but four of those are whole separate
recipes. It's inspiring, in a baroque way, and Tosi's story,
all grit and brains, is compulsively readable. But I'm not
likely to use the book.
That one of these cookbooks is more usable to me than the other
cannot be disputed, but that is not intended as a judgment.
They simply serve different purposes, and indeed, different
audiences. But what I want to know is this: what makes
you buy a restaurant book, or a book by a
restaurant chef? Was it that one dish you needed to know how
to make? Is it because of the chef's unique vision? Is
it because you wanted to go "backstage" at a favorite eatery? Do