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 heady stuff, to say the least.

It also begs the question: Just whom, exactly, was “The Quintessential Art” written for? On one hand, the book assumes a weighty amount of culinary knowledge from its reader. Gagnaire’s recipes are among the most avant-garde you’ll ever read (or taste), with dishes such as Udon with Raw Ham and Cooked Strawberries, or a Ratatouille of Chanterelles, Eggplant and Apricots. The “recipes” themselves are almost presented off-handedly, but with obvious thought and consideration at their core. Devoid of weights, measurements, or cooking times, Gagnaire’s recipes read more like a loose set of instructions, all predicated on an innate knack for cooking (and, alas, not a single food photo in the entire book). As a result, “The Quintessential Art” seems to be geared partially towards professional cooks, yet on the other hand, the book’s dry, philosophical slant caters to an entirely different demographic: namely, philosophy majors.

As a professional cook with an English degree (and a minor in philosophy, no less), I suppose that I’d fall squarely into the target demographic of “The Quintessential Art,” but I’d be a filthy liar if I didn’t admit to catching myself skipping through certain passages of the text. I’m just being honest. But really, what does that mean for those readers who don’t have a built-in predilection for Aristotle or John Stuart Mill, nor enough experience in the kitchen to follow Gagnaire’s vague recipe methods? I think it’s safe to say that most people — even those who might even consider themselves food lovers — simply wouldn’t be bothered to finish “The Quintessential Art.” Frankly, I don’t feel that anyone would be the worse for it. In a nutshell, I suppose the book is just a bit too lofty to be practical. I will confess, however, that reading “The Quintessential Art” did teach me a fancy new term: “gustatory alliesthesia” — it’s the sensory fatigue, or unpleasantness, from eating too much of the same food (or too much food, in general). Somehow, feeling “full” just sounds mundane in comparison.

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