How to read a cookbook
I often find its most informative to read a cookbook starting from the back.
The acknowledgements section can tell you a lot more about a chef than the 14th recipe for pan-seared foie gras + something sweet. You can find out which other chefs they've worked with, who their influences are, and whether thank their restaurant PR (the last one is always a bad sign).
What's more interesting is to find out who the next who the next big thing is. Often next year's stars are toiling away as chef-de-cuisine of someone you know very well.
Do you recognise this chap?
Yup that's our Gordon, famously making a guest appearance in Marco Pierre White's White Heat, a seminal 80-s era photo album masquerading as quite a good cookbook. (amusingly a sheepish Gordon also pops up in this documentary of Marco, from the same era).
How do you spell your name again Angela?
Actually Gordon's own first book, A Passion for Flavour is another good place to look:
That's Angela Hartnett in the middle (please note that's Hartnett with two Ts), who later went on to win a Michelin star for herself at the Connaught and Murano. Amusingly in the acknowledgements poor Gordon (or perhaps his ghostwriter Roz Denny) manages to get her name wrong! I'm sure that didn't go down well in the office...
The biggest sideburns in the (South) West
One last one to finish from John Campbell's Formula's for Flavour, which is a terrible title for an excellent cookbook. But also featuring the exuberantly sideburned Nathan Outlaw, now running his own two-star establishment in the Southwest of England, but back then Campbell's loyal sous-chef:
Anyhow to finish off a few more notes on these books, which are all excellent chefbooks in their own different ways:
Before White Heat came along, cookbooks were dull affairs. Check out Raymond Blanc's Recipes from Le Manoir Aux Quat 'Saisons (fairly recently reprinted) for an example of the genre. Very staid, matronly layout with top-down photographs of the dishes on a wide variety of fine china. Amazingly by today's standards standards, the only photo of the chef is on the cover and barely two inches square.
Well Marco had something to say about that.
Teaming up with celebrity photographer Bob Carlos Clarke, White Heat presented an edgy, deranged chef-as-rock-star. Hunched ghoulishly over the stove Marco looked and cooked nothing like the white-napkin brigade. There are some iconic recipes in there too. The Tagliatelle of Oysters with Caviar, Scallops with Sauce Nero and, of course, Braised Pigs Trotter "Pierre Koffmann" stuffed with Sweetbread and Morels (I've had the pigs trotter at both Marco's Oak Room and Le Tante Claire. It's the best thing you can do with a dead pig that's legal).
Of course the flip side is that this book is Very Eighties (and I don't just mean the picture of Jason Donovan tucking in on page 50). The bolshy pull-out quotes are hilarious at times - imagine being spouted by Ricky Gervais in The Office and you'll know what I mean:
"I'm a man of extremes. I can't stand things that are diluted - only drinks benefit from that. I want a hundred per cent of everything, or everybody or nothing at all".
"I find a lobster a beautiful creature. A lobster is more beautiful to me than most women are. It has this prehistoric gracefulness... but i's a machine for killing. Very mechanical, very quick."
I wonder what his wife at the time (there have been several...) thought of that!
I'll tell you a secret about Gordon Ramsay's books. The best ones are the ones he wrote with Roz Denny, his ghost-writer for the first five. After that they degenerated into hopeless TV tie-ins or lugubarious ego-pieces (I was hugely amused to flip to the back of Gordon Ramsay: Recipes from a Three Star Chef and find it needed a Publishing Director, a Creative Director, a Project Editor, two each for Recipe Research, Food Stylist and Production plus a photographer and a bloke called Tony to write the text. One wonders if Gordon actually did anything for that one).
Anyhow A Passion for Flavour, his first book, is one of the best. The recipes in it are gracious, well balanced and above all delicious. I like the way it has a systematic approach to things, outlining how building blocks like pastas, sauces and pastry are put in place first (a good translation of how mise-en-place works in a professional kitchen. The overall style of the food is very influenced from his time with Robuchon and Guy Savoy in Paris (Savoy provides the foreward).
Some of the best dishes in the book work with vegetables - tomato confit and tomato and basil tarts (a Robuchon-influenced dish) have long been kitchen standbys for me. Also don't miss two closely-related recipes - the Capuccunio of Roasted Langoustine with Lentils and the Lobster Soup with Summer Vegetables. These were signatures dishes at his first restaurant, Aubergine, which have been shamefully forgotten.
Unlike White Heat this is a book which has aged remarkably well. Only one thing to add though - Gordon (or Roz or his editor) has a Really Annoying Habit of going and Needless Capitalising The Names of components and dishes. But that's a small price to pay.
Let me say right out, this is a clunking horrible title for a book. It's trying to make a point that John Campbell was in the avant-garde of molecular gastronomy in Britain (Heston Blumental supplies the preface), but does it in a very awkward way.
Which is a shame because this is one of the best books at translating the precision of restaurant cooking for the home chef. Campbell clearly breaks down the recipes into component parts (which an experience home cook can mix and match as they will), and while he often uses the appliance of science his recipes are never carried away by their own cleverness (Heston's Caviar and white chocolate buttons, I'm looking at you).
In particular the last few pages of notes on "Science and Methodology" (again, snappy titles aren't our John's forte) has a lot of really useful practical kitchen science. In particular his technique for making stocks (leaving them to infuse at a very low temperature for much longer) is with bearing in mind (although it seems to be contradicted by Nathan Myhrvold's more recent Molecular Gastronomy, which calls for zapping them in a pressure cooker).
The recipes are incredibly detailed and through, often stretching across multiple pages with clear step-by-step photos. I've always found this is a book I can cook from feeling absolutely sure the recipe Will Definitely Work at the end (something I also feel with Cook's Illustrated's The Best Recipe).
Standout recipes for me are the Turbot with Braised Ox Tail, Parsley and Lemon Oil, slow cooked Beef Rib with Onion Ice Cream (remember these were the days when savoury ices were a novelty), and an exuberant Terrine of Chicken and Foie Gras who's recipes stretches across six pages. There are also several showy vegetarian recipes in there (Roast Artichoke, Ratatouille, Olive and Basil Dressing; "Cheese, Tomato and Onion") for those of that persuasion.
A neglected classic.