Vintage Cajun: “The Justin Wilson Cook Book” by Justin Wilson

justinwilson

Being in my 30s — and not being a native of Louisiana — my first exposure to Justin Wilson was from a Ruffles commercial in the mid-1980s. For better or worse, that was also the first time that I’d ever heard the Cajun dialect, a quirky easygoing patois that now has many associations for me, having lived and cooked in New Orleans since then. During the same few years that Wilson was landing these national ad campaigns, his Louisiana-based cooking series began to appear on California public television stations, and Wilson himself began doing cooking demos on several morning talk shows. At least that’s how I remember it, growing up in Northern California.

As a semi-serious collector of vinyl LPs, I would later discover Wilson’s comedy albums from the early 1960s, languishing in the dollar bins, alongside so many copies of “Staying Alive.” Although I never purchased any of [… read more …]

“Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême” by Ian Kelly

Cooking for Kings

The full title of Ian Kelly’s Antonin Carême biography is “Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme, the First Celebrity Chef.” Frankly, I’m a bit wary of the term “celebrity chef,” especially in the era of the Food Network and its streak of made-for-TV paper tigers. Placing the word “celebrity” in front of the word “chef” almost seems to diminish the latter; I don’t consider Thomas Keller or Ferran Adria to be “celebrity chefs,” even though they’re both reasonably famous. To me, they’re just chefs — albeit great chefs — plain and simple. I suppose that the word “celebrity” almost seems self-serving in some way, which is really the opposite of a true chef’s character. Although it’s certainly important to build one’s “brand” these days — even with television appearances — the world’s greatest chefs never entered the kitchen with television deals in mind. Professional cooking, with all [… read more …]

Book Review: “Au Revoir to All That” by Michael Steinberger

aurevoir

I suspect that in middle America — and perhaps anywhere else the Western world — most people would assume that the French have cemented their reputation as the world’s culinary avant garde. It’s certainly a fair assumption. Not only have the French enjoyed an enviable culinary tradition for the last two centuries, but Western pop culture has reinforced this idea again and again. The notion of sophisticated French cuisine has become an enduring cultural archetype both here and abroad, as seen recently in movies like 2007’s “Ratatouille,” or even going back 20 years prior, to the Danish film “Babette’s Feast.” Within the media, French cuisine has been portrayed as the Western standard for decades now, and pop culture has continued to reinforce this hierarchy. Even one of America’s earliest and greatest culinary icons, Julia Child, had deep roots in French cuisine.

But for those who have been following culinary [… read more …]

Book Review: “Cooking: The Quintessential Art” by Herve This and Pierre Gagnaire

“Cooking: The Quintessential Art” is an odd little book, but with noteworthy pedigree. Co-authors Herve This and Pierre Gagnaire have each earned their stripes in the culinary realm (the former, as a food chemist and one of the pioneers of molecular gastronomy; the latter, as a three-Michelin star chef and an innovator of fusion cuisine). As contemporaries, This and Gagniere have both forged unique careers by rethinking the basic elements of cuisine. In “The Quintessential Art,” the two authors delve into the very meaning of cooking, by analyzing the culinary arts through a surprisingly comprehensive philosophical lens. Replete with references ranging from Plato to Einstein, “The Quintessential Art” tackles the philosophy of cuisine in a chronological history, beginning with the Greeks and Romans, continuing into the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment, and eventually tackling modern territory with folks like the Surrealists and the Bauhaus Movement. It’s awfully [… read more …]

Book Review: “Life, on the Line” by Grant Achatz

Although “Life, on the Line” is packaged as chef Grant Achatz’s culinary memoir, the crux of the book may actually be the existential question it poses: If a three-Michelin star chef loses his ability to taste, is life even worth living any longer? For most of us, this question may seem a bit melodramatic. After all, taste is just one of our five senses, and there certainly must be more to life than food and cooking. But then again, who are we to judge? The passion, the genius, and the dedication of a three-Michelin-star chef is simply beyond the grasp of most people, even among professional chefs. And if food cooked at the highest level can be considered art, then a chef’s sudden loss of taste would prove every bit as debilitating as a musician losing a hand or a painter losing his eyesight. For Achatz, who was diagnosed [… read more …]

Book Review: “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain, Revisited

kitchen-confidential

Although there are very few books that I’ve ever read more than once, I decided to re-read “Kitchen Confidential” this week, just to see how well the book has held up since I had first read it, almost 10 years ago. In this case, revisiting Anthony Bourdain’s 2000 best-seller seemed like a fitting exercise for me: I had just returned to the professional kitchen last month, after a three-year layoff selling wine at Nickel & Nickel. Naturally, with that much time away from the kitchen, I’ve come to view my current job at Étoile as a new beginning, and in many ways, cooking on the line these last four weeks has been almost like starting over, although the timing and the moves are quickly returning. Similarly, I had first read “Kitchen Confidential” back in 2002 when I really was starting over, at a time when I was first contemplating [… read more …]

Book Review: “Everyday French Cooking” by Henri-Paul Pellaprat

Lobster Russian Style: Garnished with hard-boiled eggs and black truffles, though the book allows black olives as a substitute for the latter.

I meant to snap some food pics from Berkeley and the East Bay this week, but my camera battery was drained. Among the missed opportunities: a grilled bockwurst from Top Dog, a falafel pita from Fa-La-La, and a plate of yellow curried rice from Bua Luang. On the upside, I did find several great used cookbooks at Pegasus Books, including “Everyday French Cooking” by Henri-Paul Pellaprat. Originally published in America in 1966, Pellaprat’s book is an obvious response to Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which was first published in 1961. Much like Child’s seminal work, “Everyday French Cooking” aims to assist the American housewife, as the book states in its introduction (the book’s original French title is “Le Nouveau Guide Culinaire,” published in [… read more …]

Book Review: “A Revolution in Taste: The Rise of French Cuisine” by Susan Pinkard

If footnotes indicate anything, I’d argue that Susan Pinkard’s “A Revolution in Taste” is perhaps the best-researched text available on French culinary history. Pinkard has clearly done her homework, and her book is both comprehensive and concise, and for me, it represents one of the great recent surveys of food and culture. Published in 2009, “A Revolution in Taste” may prove a bit scholarly for the casual gourmet, but for the student of Western cuisine, the book offers an approachable and well-documented account of the culinary trends that evolved from the Greco-Roman Era to the French Revolution. Along the way, Pinkard explains how medicine, exploration, philosophy, and an ever-changing social climate helped to forever transform the way people eat. My one criticism with the book, though it may be slightly unfair, is that I wish Pinkard had pressed further into the 19th and 20th centuries. I do understand that, [… read more …]

Review: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” by Jennifer 8. Lee

What most Americans would recognize as “Chinese food” is far more likely to be Chinese-American, than anything truly Chinese. That said, it may seem surprising that there’s no chop suey or General Tso’s chicken in China, at least not as we know them. The staunch food-snob might label these Americanized dishes as a bastardization of the original form, although I feel that “bastardization” is much too strong of a term. Okay, if the food is served from a steam-table, then it probably is a bastardization. But whether it’s a buffet set-up or not, mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants outnumber McDonald’s franchises by two to one in this country, and for me, Chinese-American cookery falls under the jurisdiction of “comfort food,” rendering the notion of “authenticity” a totally moot point (the craving for “authenticity” is cerebral, while the craving for “comfort” is much more primal — the primal craving will always win [… read more …]

Not Quite a Book Review: “The Chinese Festive Board” by Corrinne Lamb

"Gastronomical Map of China" as published in "The Chinese Festive Board." Click the image for more detail…

Originally published in 1935, “The Chinese Festive Board” offers a brief-yet-comprehensive overview of Chinese cuisine, including etiquette, sample menus and an impressively extensive food glossary. The core of the book, however, is its collection of 50 recipes, which addresses the basic foundation of Chinese cookery. The specific edition of “The Chinese Festive Board” that I found was a sturdy paperback from 1985, published by Oxford Press Hong Kong, and featuring the pictogram map presented above (this clever line-drawing provides the design for both of the book’s end-pages). Outside information about the author, Corrinne Lamb, is surprisingly scarce, and she never specifically mentions how she was able to spend 20 years eating through China. Perhaps she was the wife of a dignitary? It’s my best guess. Still, Lamb’s account of Chinese cuisine [… read more …]