Great Meals from Cookbook Recipes? Nah.

(A version of this article was originally published in Metro Silicon Valley in September, 2003.)

Is this a too-harsh opinion? Anyone who thinks that cookbooks are always-reliable blueprints for celestial meals has been lucky — or just buys them to look at the mouth-watering photos so prevalent these days.

I own a zillion cookbooks myself and have been cooking seriously since just after learning my first word (“souffle”). Well, close anyway. And I rarely find a recipe that doesn’t need a LOT of help to nudge it into the “great” category. So armed with a suspicious mind, I talked to a handful of some really good chefs to see if either I have strange taste or cookbooks should be taken with a grain of fleur de sel.

This is an early version of an article published a couple of years ago. The publication made me rework the piece to be “less controversial.” Well, hell. Now that I have my own blog, I’m going to let ‘er rip! The piece is long, but if you’re a foodie, you’ll enjoy hearing what the experts say. And I’ve got a few recipes that these chefs gave me that I’m publishing here. Search “recipes.”

So without further ado…..

It didn’t turn out. Why do many home cooks glumly utter this phrase after trying to duplicate a three-star restaurant meal from recipes in a cookbook authored by a famous chef? Gorgeously photographed, with saliva-producing recipe names, these books typically include assurances of how easy it is to “recreate these dishes at home from readily available ingredients.” Uh huh.

According to some of the Bay Area’s most gifted chefs, the likelihood of home cooks easily whipping up restaurant-caliber meals by following recipes in a celebrity-chef cookbook is about as high as being the next discovery on “American Idol.” The reasons are many, they say, such as dumbed-down recipes, intentional omissions, missing descriptions of complex professional techniques, chef-only ingredient sources and a particularly common problem: errors in the recipes themselves. Every chef interviewed for this article agreed that many cookbooks contain recipes that just don’t work. In some cases, spectacularly so.

Some cookbooks didn’t work for the chefs, either

Howard Bulka, former chef of Menlo Park’s Marché and now proprietor of Howie’s Artisan Pizza in Palo  Alto,  recalls an early stint as a beginning pastry chef in a French restaurant, when he made every recipe in the almost-biblical “Desserts and Pastries” by the Abraham of French baking, Gaston Lenotre. “I don’t think there’s a recipe in it that works,” he laughs. “The pastry cream was breaking, (I had) curdling crème anglais.”

pizza-HowieHoward Bulka at Howie’s Artisan Pizza, his newest spot in Palo Alto.

Jim Stump, owner/chef of The Table in Willow Glen and the former A.P. Stump’s in downtown San Jose, had similar frustrations when he was teaching himself cooking concepts years ago by following many cookbooks. “The recipes were coming out terrible,” he recalls, with inadequate recipe testing the likely cause. Today, he reports that “Those European books are the ones that’ll getcha” because of occasionally slipshod measurement translations and ingredient differences. He believes that Food Arts, the lavishly photographed magazine aimed at restaurant professionals, also can contain unreliable recipes.

Even the venerable Joy of Cooking has stumbled at least once, according to chef Gregory Willis, formerly of 231 Ellsworth in San Mateo. Eyeballing the book’s recipe for chicken piccata that his fiancée was struggling to make for him, he saw it called for a lip-puckering half a cup of lemon juice. “That’s wrong,” he states.

However, the chefs report that most of the recipe goof-ups are not in the standard tomes for household cooks but at the other end of the cookbook spectrum – in what Bulka calls the “fantasy cookbooks” written by or for famous chefs who run well-regarded restaurants. The speculation is whether these beautiful books aren’t better left on the coffee table, since it’s questionable whether the recipes are always reliable blueprints for preparing three-star meals.

Cookbook recipes aren’t like those used by the pros

Says chef Daniel Patterson, owner of celebrated Coi in San Francisco and Oakland spots Plum and Haven, “There is almost always a difference between the recipes that a kitchen uses and the recipes for home cooks.”

Daniel Patterson-2Gifted chef Daniel Patterson owns restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland.

Mark Sullivan, executive chef of San Francisco’s Spruce and a partner in several restaurants including the popular Village Pub in Woodside, the Pizza Antica locations and Palo Alto’s Mayfield Bakery & Cafe couldn’t agree more. “Some of the things we do in the restaurant might take four, five, six pages,” which wouldn’t be feasible for most cookbooks, he believes.

Then there’s the bigger issue of professional kitchen practices versus home cooking. Sullivan says that chefs “don’t cook in that way; they don’t cook in a recipe way.” He explains that professionals are constantly modifying as they cook, adapting to the ingredients at hand and their own creative gestalt. In addition, chefs say it can be a forbidding task, particularly for baked goods, to scale a dish down from restaurant quantities to a recipe for four servings that will deliver equivalent results at home. “Eggs whip so much better when you do a big bowl full of them,” explains Bulka.

Mark SullivanChef Mark Sullivan, partner in Bacchus Management Group.

Even a task as basic as measuring ingredients is different in a restaurant kitchen. “We don’t measure – ever – by volume. We go by weight,” explains chef David Kinch of Michelin two-star Manresa in Los Gatos. “By weight is the only truly consistent way of always getting the true amount.” He points out how the weight of a cup of flour, for example, will change, depending on the amount of moisture in the air and the type of flour. To him, “enlightened” cookbooks will include both the weight and volume measurements. “That’s usually a good sign that the recipes have been tested, too,” he adds.

It takes more than a solid recipe

Struggling with a bad recipe, home cooks usually don’t have technique on their side if the dish starts to nosedive during preparation. “(Chefs) can tell by the way something is bubbling or the way something smells whether it’s on track,” says Kinch. The professionals also have knowledge of and access to the best ingredients out there – a critical factor often ignored in restaurant cookbooks that promise celestial results even when provisioning at the local supermarket.

Seeking out the freshest, highest-quality ingredients is part of the job description of top chefs. But this step is equally important for avid home cooks if they expect their efforts to have a fighting chance of being mistaken for something served in high-end restaurants.

The chefs suggested that buyers look for cookbooks that include less-than-cursory information on ingredient sources — and acceptable substitutes. Otherwise, one isn’t likely to find items like shallot blossoms, gooseneck barnacles and Hon-shimeji mushrooms, for example — ingredients included in recipes from Chicago chef Charlie Trotter’s cookbooks — that could be important ingredients in a dish.

Charlie Trotter booksFamous Chicago chef Charlie Trotter has written a slew of gorgeous, complex cookbooks that call for obscure or downright unavailable ingredients.

Fortunately, Bay Area residents are blessed with gourmet grocery stores and farmer’s markets. And ordering hard-to-find items over the Internet these days is a miraculous way of zeroing in on items that would otherwise be un-findable. But some chefs feel there’s still a difference between what’s in their larders and what even the most dedicated foodies can find. Howard Bulka believes that one of the biggest gaps is in seafood. “There is just no place to buy quality fish in the retail market,” he states. Even the best retail offerings miss the boat, so to speak. Says Bulka: “If my vendor sent me that fish, he’d get a nasty phone call.”

Sources, sources, sources

Some restaurant cookbooks now include rudimentary lists of sources. And a few – very few – actually duplicate all the sub-recipes and steps needed to make the dishes served in the restaurants, like Thomas Keller’s beautiful and intimidating French Laundry Cookbook. However, some of the professional chefs wonder just how many cookbook buyers really want to spend several days shopping and cooking to produce one meal, or even just a couple of dishes. Says one lauded chef: “Why would someone want to do that at home? I wouldn’t!”

At least rabid home cooks with lots of time on their hands might have a shot at making something approaching Keller’s complex creations by following his recipes. (As with many other busy chefs, his recipes were captured and tested for the book by collaborator-assistants.) Not true with books from some restaurant chefs. A longtime suspicion among a few cookbook consumers that was confirmed by most of these regional chefs involves restaurant cookbooks that intentionally change or omit ingredients. David Kinch tells the story of a famous French chef at a restaurant near Vézelay he once worked for whose recipes were “tweaked just ever so slightly, not so the recipe would fail but so the recipe wouldn’t be exactly the same as you would get in the restaurant. It was every single recipe,” he says with amazement.

After such memories, it’s no surprise that Kinch is taking great care with his own first cookbook, which will appear in October 2013.  He’s been working with a co-author, a team of assistants and has been doing seemingly endless reviews and proofs of every word and recipe. “Page after page after page after page,” he groans.

CHRISTMAS19_kinch_ph1Chef David Kinch is completing his own first cookbook.

Treating recipes like what Daniel Patterson humorously calls “these sacred relics” evidently is not unique in the world of renowned French chefs. Parisian Alain Senderens is known for trying to copyright his recipes during the late ‘80s. Another famous French chef, Michel Bras, puts a trademark next to some signature items on the menu of his eponymous restaurant in South Central France.

In my own experience, I’ve definitely encountered some boneheaded recipe boo-boos among the 125-plus cookbooks in my library.  A good example is the Provencal halibut recipe in Jean-George Vongerichten’s “Simple to Spectacular,” which calls for a cup and a half of wine and other ingredients to be poured over fish, then baked in the oven for about 15 minutes.  The outcome?  Fish that’s swimming in a bunch of hot wine.  The right way to go about this recipe is to cook off the alcohol and reduce the wine substantially on the stovetop before putting it into the oven.

There’s also a Vongerichten goof in another of his several cookbooks — a divine duck recipe from an early restaurant he owned called JoJo — that calls for sprinking a powerful powdered  spice mixture onto roast duck immediately before serving, which is simply awful. The spices are grainy, too-strong and essentially ruin the dish.  Better: Leave off this step and serve the dish with the accompanying sauce that has been cooked with the spices.

But what if you’re not an experienced cook or just don’t like to experiment outside the established blueprints of a recipe?  I think that can be problematic if great results are your goal, given how many recipes either have errors or are missing some tweaks that would produce a much better dish.

Home kitchens don’t = restaurants

As if simply writing the recipes wasn’t difficult enough. Perfectionist chefs like Patterson, Kinch and Sullivan who have published their recipes admit how tough it can be to translate the steps they take as professionals into something approachable for an amateur cook. In fact, Patterson chose a concept for his first book, “Aroma,” that wasn’t the usual collection of his restaurant recipes. Instead, his cookbook features ways of using natural oils and essences in recipes to explore olfactory sensations. Even at that, his book “is designed for a good home cook. There are not that many recipes that someone who’s completely unfamiliar with cooking will be able to accomplish well,” he informs.

However, Patterson is still making sure these recipes are solid and reliable for home kitchens. “If people don’t follow them exactly, they’ll still come out good,” he says. This is also the mantra of Bradley Ogden, executive chef and co-owner of a handful of restaurants in the Bay Area and elsewhere that includes Parcel 104 in Santa Clara and the various Lark Creek permutations. Ogden’s first cookbook was published in ’91 and was praised for blending simplicity with great-tasting recipes.

As busy as he is, Ogden has no patience for chefs who “farm out their books to other people to put together.” And he laughingly admits that writing the recipes, making the dishes at his home, then testing each one “three or four times” among grateful neighbors is why his books take so long. Ogden’s next book will include some recipes from his restaurants with the instructions clearly explained. Does that guarantee home chefs can duplicate the restaurant’s version? “Not if they use crab that’s been in the freezer awhile instead of the fresh Dungeness called for in the recipe,” he grins.

old vegetablesRasty old vegetables or other sub-standard ingredients don’t belong in any recipe, ever.

What all the chefs agree on is that rigidly following recipes isn’t always the optimal route to achieving restaurant-level results. Jim Stump urges home cooks to emulate chefs by starting with the freshest seasonal ingredients they can find, then pick the recipe. Gregory Willis suggests home cooks make just part of a complicated, multi-component recipe, which reinforces David Kinch’s advice that cookbook readers should go in with their eyes wide open regarding how much work and planning some recipes actually demand.

Like the other chefs, Daniel Patterson and Mark Sullivan hope that consumers who enjoy cooking will change recipes to fit their own preferences and cooking style. As Bradley Ogden recommends, home cooks should treat cookbooks the way professional chefs all use their own considerable libraries. “If a cookbook gives you a different way of looking at something and provokes creative new ideas, then it’s worth it,” he says.

For those who aren’t killer home cooks with great instincts, the least frustrating approach might be to visit favorite restaurants when the goal is eating as a religious experience, where the chefs and squadrons of assistants can make sure a whole meal is perfect. And there’s no kitchen mess to deal with afterward.

Otherwise, Howard Bulka has good advice for consumers who, as he says “cook for sport. If you’re doing it at home, do it for the pleasure of the journey.”

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