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I cook, therefore I am

The celebrity chef has gone sage, and now cookbooks aren't about cooking.

September 24, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

Don't ask Pierre Gagnaire how many ounces of bittersweet chocolate go into one of his desserts, let alone how long to bake it. The notoriously imaginative Paris chef has more important insights to impart.

"Chocolate is imperial," he writes in "Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry." "On a plate, you want to define its space, otherwise it simply takes over. To avoid turning this tyrant into a despot, you have to compose a pleasing, entertaining court of elves, fools, acrobats and jesters."

Daniel Boulud is also thinking out of the recipe box with his latest, "Letters to a Young Chef," one in a series modeled on Rainer Maria Rilke's work. A typical modest pronouncement: "The chef's job -- to employ heat to transform ingredients -- is the closest thing to alchemy I have come across."

And Paul Bertolli treks up guru mountain in his new "Cooking by Hand." "Intensity is the hallmark of ripeness, the culmination of growth and experience," he intones. "But ripeness is not simply a reward for waiting nor is it necessarily guaranteed. The precondition of ripeness is maturity...."

Call it Zen and the Art of Blender Maintenance. Chefs who only a few years ago were content to churn out glossy collections of restaurant recipes with minimal head notes are delving deep into their inner Jungs these days. On one level, the new flurry of books represents a natural progression of chefs from cultural icons into kitchen sages. Already they are seen as role models who shill for blenders and butter, California raisins and Italian wines, and now even toothpaste. They cook on breakfast TV, get bit parts in movies and occasionally even land their own series. Now, they're out to prove that while they've been stirring the pot, they've been nurturing a serious life of the mind.

Here's Eric Ripert of New York's Le Bernardin in "A Return to Cooking": "When you have a truffle, you have to be a craftsman to ensure that its superlative flavor pleases the senses of those who eat it. But at the same time, if you're artistic, you can somehow convey that this is divine, a gift."

The old cookbooks sold the chefs' style; the new ones promote their deep thoughts. (Sometimes as if they had been transcribed by "Saturday Night Live.") Recipes may be part of the package, or remarkably absent. But the message is updated Descartes: I cook, therefore I am.

Gagnaire's "Reflections" is the most enigmatic of the current Joy of Philosophy crop. Gorgeously photographed and sleekly designed, it contains nothing -- not a single recipe -- but pictures of dishes and prose poems about each. Yet reading this lyrical, whimsical, often wacky writing is like being Pierre Gagnaire: Oddly enough, you get a clear sense of how this wildly original chef conceives of food.

The world in a duck

Alongside what might be bird flesh, Gagnaire writes: "In this dish, you can find the entire philosophy of my work. The duck genuinely evokes a dance. I have put it through everything. I have truly opened it up to release its spirit.... In the end, this dish fades out like a jazz tune -- the music quiets down, the instruments stop shaking their hips."

Apparently that's a good thing. His sentiments are clearer alongside a bizarre oyster creation. "All at once, looking at this picture, I am -- how can I say it -- overcome with embarrassment. In this composition (oysters, fava beans, beet gelee, Beaufort cheese), the fava bean sitting on the oyster is like an inquiring eye. The interrogation borders on reproach. 'What have you done to me?' the oyster seems to be saying. 'God only knows!' responds the fava bean."

Paul Bertolli is wordier by far. Never has a book used so many acres of type to promote simplicity. A tantalizing recipe for antipasto of shredded eggplant nearly chokes on its head note. "Eggplant too often suffers in the kitchen from forced compliance, as though it is only through companionship or manipulation that it is delivered from blandness."

Its deeper message goes right to the yoga set: "The ever-evolving taste memory is the internal compass that arbitrates the physical steps, maneuvers and choices a cook makes along the way." That and 5 ounces of Gorgonzola will lead you to enlightenment in an Italianesque custard called a sformatino, a seriously delicious dish that pops up in an extensive chapter entitled "Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes" (everywhere but in a navel).

Christian Delouvrier, a celebrated New York chef about to open two restaurants, walks a more straightforward line in his "Mastering Simplicity." He gives recipes for cerebral innovations like his foie gras "burger," with the liver sandwiched in between Granny Smith apple slices, while ladling out a hefty dose of touchy-feeliness. "I believe that any recipe is simply the literal translation of the personality of the cook. In the restaurant, it is my way of giving a bit of myself to our guests -- a bite of my life experiences as a cook and as a human being."

Many words, two ideas

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