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Reading Food : Cookbooks Versus Chefs' Books


Jean-Louis Palladin's "Cooking With the Seasons" might be the most beautiful cookbook you can buy. In it, Palladin's food is photographed in such sensuous detail that browsers in bookstores often blush when they're caught staring too long at photographer Fred Maroon's depiction of a lobster mousseline. Foie gras- stuffed duck hearts, larger than life, seem more like postmodernist sculpture than something to eat; puddles of intensely colored sauce appear to float in space. It may be the most useless and, at the same time, influential cookbook to come out in the last few years.

For the home cook, the Palladin book functions mostly as an art book--an impressive, large and pricey show of good taste. This is a book that doesn't even pretend that the person who buys it will be able to recreate the food in it. Where even the most impractical books by three-star French chefs look like cookbooks, Palladin's seems strictly for the coffee table: Recipes are in small type, several to the page, just before the index. Their function is similar to that of the footnotes in a scholarly biography. To eat what one sees in the pictures, a reader must eat in Palladin's restaurant, Jean-Louis, in Washington, D.C.

But to professional chefs, Palladin's conception of color and space on the plate, his aesthetics of food, may serve as inspiration. Chefs read cookbooks differently than the rest of us. They cook differently than we do. And they write cookbooks differently than other cookbook writers, most of whom make their living teaching food, not cooking it in restaurants.

The weekend before last, Alice Waters cooked at home. She planned a multicourse menu, much as she often does at her restaurant, Chez Panisse. But things didn't turn out the way she thought they would. "I never sat down at the table," she says over the phone from her home in Berkeley. "I was just standing at the stove. It was ridiculous!"

Waters first book, "The Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook," included a long chapter of special menus served at Chez Panisse through the years. But she's only now discovered just what a home cook brave enough to attempt, say, "A Dinner for Ridge Winery"--which includes, among other things, an onion tart with a puff pastry crust and chicken steamed with black truffles under the skin--might go through in an ordinary kitchen.

"When I look back on my first cookbook," Waters says, "at the sort of menus we did in the restaurant, I realize how unrealistic the recipes were. I look at them now, and . . . agggh! . . . I'm appalled. The way you think about food for cooking in a restaurant is not the way you think about it for home."

"If I cook at home," Campanile chef Mark Peel says, "I've got a good hour's worth of cleaning up to do because of the habits I've picked up over the years in restaurants. I'll scoop leftover ingredients on to the floor. If I need a spoon, I'll grab a clean spoon, stir it around a little bit, maybe use it to taste the food, then throw it in the sink. If you're a really experienced home cook, you use one spoon and one pot, maybe two. That's it. If you're a restaurant cook you use them like disposables."

Peel and his wife and partner, Nancy Silverton, are in the final stages of writing a cookbook on family cooking. They've tried to create a book with simple, understandable recipes, but it hasn't come naturally.

"We put a recipe for ratatouille in the book, which is pretty easy," Peel says. "But to make it really good, you have to saute all the vegetables separately. That way each vegetable retains its own texture and color and flavor, yet the juices marry. If you stew all the vegetables in one pot, some things are mushy and some things are raw.

"So as I was making the dish for Edon (Waycott, Peel and Silverton's collaborator), she stopped me and said, 'Wait a minute . . . for this one dish you've just used six saute pans.' "

"Even something like washing lettuce can take ten minutes," Silverton says. "You have to take that into consideration."

Five years ago, when Silverton's book, "Desserts," came out, she felt differently. "My cookbook is completely impractical," she says. "The people who love it are pastry chefs. But my attitude at the time, was, well, they want the desserts that I make, so this is what I'm going to give them."

One caramel tart in the book involves 14 complex steps. It took one man, who'd attended a class Silverton taught, eight hours to make. "It was a point of pride for him that he did it," Peel says. Another recipe calls for 35 passion fruits.

"Who would do that?" Silverton asks. "Do you know how much passion fruit costs? They're something like a dollar a passion fruit."

"And when you go to Ralph's," Peel says, "they only have something like 6 of them."

"That cookbook probably wouldn't get done today," Silverton says. "An editor would look at the recipes and say, 'forget it.' "

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