Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Grand Livre de Cuisine by Alain Ducasse: How a $200 cookbook is actually incredibly good value

You paid HOW MUCH for that cookbook?

Errr, hope the house insurance covers this lot!

Yes I'm a sucker.

And I blame El Bulli.

I think they were the first guys to start the trend of megalithic $200+ cookbooks with their original 1998-2002 tome (hint - the book itself is actually a giant picture book. All the recipes and important stuff is packed into 159 megs of the accompanying CD-ROM). I was suckered into it, but decided to pass on the subsequent three volumes they released.

After El Bulli blasted their way in their was no stopping them. Mainly I would say the French (its a culinary national pride thing). Uber-patissier Pierre Herme weighed in (literally) with PH10, a 4 kg book of cakes (yes it has the Ispahan; twelve versions of it in fact). Joel Robuchon turned up with his Grand Livre de Cuisine (still on my to-buy list. note it's much cheaper on the site). In the UK our Heston Blumenthal made his entry a couple of years ago with the Big Fat Duck Cookbook (again I was suckered in, and extremely annoyed to find it reprinted a year later in a small format version for a quarter of the price).

Then of course Modernist Cuisine landed last year. But that's another story entirely (yes I was suckered in again. But in my defend I did get 30% of the list price with an Amazon pre-order).

The best of all was the Alain Ducasse Grande Livre series. So far I count five of them (Grand Livre, Bistrots, Desserts, Mediterranne and Tour du Monde) and I've got two of them. Actually two and a half (I brought the original Grand Livre in an incredibly dinky paperback French version years ago, before splashing on the English translation).

Alain Ducasse Grand Livre... and its Mini-Me

But the funny thing is the Grand Livre is probably the best value cookbook in my entire collection. Think about it. The average cheffy book might give you 50-100 recipes (an unscientific flick of Momofuku comes up with just over 70) for $50. The rest of it is taken up by large, glossy and rather pointless pictures of said celeb chef posing with a colander. Grand Livre gives you over 700 different dishes. And not just garnishes or instructions for veal stock (there's a hundred more of those recipes). 700 fully featured is-that-some-more-truffle-or-are-you-just-please-to-see-me-michelin-three-star recipes. I counter 44 different ways with lobster alone (plus another eleven with langoustine). And that's just one letter of the alphabet.

And I stress again its not just a matter of quantity over quality. These recipes are all uniquely different (none of this Escoffier "here's-a-mother-sauce-and-fifty-variations" crap). Every dish has full details on plating and a every dish has a full photo of the garnished plate - a level of consistency I have seen in no other cookbook.

Wine-lovers often bang on about QPR (Quality-Price Ratio). For a cookbook this monster is off the scale on both levels.

Mr Ducasse and his cuisine

A quick word before we continue about Alain Ducasse, the chef who (along with Monsieur Robuchon) has done the most in the last ten years to turn fine-dining from a cottage industry into a global empire. Famously he was the youngest chef to earn three Michelin stars while at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco (in an age where Michelin didn't give hotel restaurants three stars). He then won another three stars in Paris when he took over Joel Robuchon's old stomping ground on Rue Poincare (now relocated to the Plaza Athenee - lovely food crap room). Finally he went global with a constellation of rather naff eateries, including the Spoon chain and a Tokyo restaurant bizarrely name Beige (was "Dull-Off-White" already taken, I wonder?).

Alain Ducasse and mates. Alain is the one who's too rich to bother pulling on his chef whites anymore...

Thankfully this book is nothing to do with Spoon or Beige (there's a whole other bunch of books on those). Rather it focuses on what he does best - the neo-classical take on French cuisine which originally earned him his fame.

So what is Ducasse's cuisine?

Having dined Ducasse in Paris and London, I'd peg it as a minimalist, neo-classical take on grand French cuisine.

By neo-classical I mean you will have no unexpected flavour combinations; everything is deeply rooted in traditional cooking (i.e. mangos are confined strictly to the dessert menu and you can have truffles and foie gras with everything else).

By minimalist I mean that the dishes are admirably simple; rather than the modern-Scandinavian habit of throwing everything-plus-a-random-sorbet onto the plate, Ducasse rarely has more than three or four components in each dish. But each will be exquisitely prepared and perfectly balanced. That is something I very much admire in a chef - often as chefs get better they actually learn to simplify their good (Simon Rogan in the UK's L'Enclume is an excellent example of this).

For a more hands on experience check out Felix's comments on QLI (Paris, MonacoLondon). He captures it better than I can.

Ducasse and his influences

So how does that play out in the book?

For one thing the recipes are deeply rooted in country cooking. If you are just expecting an avalanche of pret-a-porter Parisian restaurant dishes you will be surprised. Yes there are some, but there are also (highly refined) versions of rib-sticking bourgeois classics. From an Estouffade (stew) of beef (p120) to a Lievre a la Royale (hare in blood sauce p332) to Marseillais Pieds et Paquets (sheeps feet and tripe p392) all the classics are here. Ducasse builds on country traditions of bourgeois cuisine, refined for the three star table. No more is this apparent than in the dishes for wild birds - woodcock, thrushes and that most prized (and illegal) of delicacies - roast ortolan (p527).

Yes, that's an Ortolan. And yes, that's its head.

The recipes are also rooted in history and tradition. Lucien Tendret (a famous nineteenth century gastronome who invented a mixed salad of turkey, partridge, truffles, mushrooms, chicory, ham, crayfish and capers - my kind of diet food) gets name-checked numerous times. Historical preparations like Lobster a l'Americaine and Lobster Newburg also turn up (well with 44 lobster recipes he had lots of space to play with). Sometimes it feels like you're reading Larousse. I suspect that's the point.

The recipes are also acknowledge Ducasse's mentors, particularly the Lyonnais chef Alain Chapel whom Ducasse trained with early in his career and to whom the book is dedicated. Chapel was acknowledged as the leader of his generation, but died of a stroke at 52. This book pays him numerous homages including a lobster salad with pigeon and truffle (p471), a simply grilled veal chop (p900) and an exuberant ragout of chicken giblets, crayfish and mushrooms (p306).

Finally the recipes represent Ducasse's own style of cuisine, including the signatures that made him famous. Most notable the chilled langoustines with caviar (p398) and the Barbujans (little vegetable pastries) which are served as an aperitif in Monaco (p262 and p791). (having said that one dish I searched for in vain was Ducasse's turbot matelote, a red-wine-based fish stew) Note that desserts are covered in a separate volume - so no recipe of Baba au Rhum here, alas!

Some other highlights from the book:

  • Interesting for someone who isn't overly molecular, sous-vide gets used quite a lot in the book, mainly for tougher cuts like chicken legs and beef jowls. This is unusual given this book was first published back in 2001, when sous-vide was not a widely-known technique (in Under Pressure the French Laundry's Thomas Keller says he only saw his first immersion heater in 2000...).
  • For another grand classic check out the Beef Wellington (note Ducasse uses the English name, not the French boeuf en croute) on p108. Interestingly he just uses a brioche dough for it, rather than wrapping in mushrooms, pancakes and flaky pastry. Of course there is added foie gras though.
  • There's a wonderfully complex confit rabbit dish on p648 (think Watership Down on a Plate) including sauteed rack, kidney, rolled leg, rilette, liver and shoulder. Glorious!
Okay. Who's going to break the bad news to Fiver then? :-x
  • Interesting recipe for rump steak, swiss chard with a morello cherry and mustard marmalade on p126. A lovely Autumnal combination methinks.
  • A cute little tagine of mallard legs, tongues and brains pops out as a garnish on p244. Sounds like just the thing for your hard-core vegetarian friends...
  • A number of recipes for elvers (baby eels - called smelt in the English version) on p256 (Basque-style) and p740-41.
  • The foie gras comesquis (basically breaded foie gras fritters) on p270 looks luscious, but I think he's swiped it straight from Marc Meneau.
  • There's a rather ghastly looking recipe on p494 where a beautiful Cavaillon melon from Provence is smothered in beef jelly. Just goes to show that no-one's perfect.
  • Lemon-pepper mouclade p514 is an unusual take on a French classic.
  • The porcini and duck foie gras gratin (p578) is my kind of comfort food.
  • The roast suckling pig on p596 includes a DIY recipe for boudin blanc (including chilli?) garnished with apples and pork belly. Mmmm...
  • Ironically probably the longest recipe in the book - stuffed provencal vegetables p994 - is probably one of the simplest and most rustic dishes.
  • The dish of pigeon stuffed with foie gras and cooked sous-vide (p786) is beautiful in its simplicity. Although to be fair, that could be just the food stylist:

Now why doesn't my roast pigeon come out as neatly as that?

Nobody's perfect...

Of course before we get too carried away there are some qualifiers to be made!

This is not a book to cook the Wednesday night supper from. In fact I'm not sure if its even a
book to cook the Saturday night dinner party with a week to prepare. It assumes a great deal of experience and expertise, and for all the breadth of material I'm not sure everything is explained in complete detail. (e.g. having gone through the existential crisis of making focaccia fairly recently, I'm not sure his one-paragraph explanation is entirely comprehensive!). Think of the book more as an idea-bank than a manual.

Alain Ducasse, with truffle.

It's French so it must involve truffles and foie gras. When in doubt, Mr Ducasse's default reflex appears to be to add extra a) foie gras, b) truffles or c) both along with a slug of bone marrow. Apart from the obvious issue about cost and expense it does look a little unoriginal at times (imagine if I published a cookbook where 60% of the recipes used tomato ketchup...). But that appears to be the French way. Most hilariously the scallop section starts with: scallops confit tomatoes and truffles, a scallop-truffle checkerboard, sauteed scallops with mashed potatos and truffles, scallop-studded truffles in a truffle sauce, grilled scallops with endives and truffle and scallops with lettuces and white truffle. Later in the there's another four more scallop/truffle recipes so in total out of fourteen scallop recipes only four don't feature truffles of some description. As I said, it's French so it must involve truffles...

It's translated. Actually the translation isn't that bad. They've pretty much taken a word-for-word copy of the original and thrown in random imperial measures (hint - the original uses metric measures so I suspect they will be the more reliable numbers). There are occassional moments of randomness - haricots blancs are rendered as cranberry beans (errr, "haricot beans" would have been fine), poitrine (belly) of pork becomes brisket, poissons de la peche locale du jour becomes an exuberant "The Morning Catch" (sounds like something you'll find on a holiday-camp lunch menu). Not disasterous, but occasionally comical.

How much did you pay again?

And as you've probably guessed I think this is a great book.

But as Steve Jobs use to say there's one more thing...

As usual after I splashed out for the full English version they went out and released a smaller format reprint for a quarter of the price.

So if it was a great QPR at $200 its even more of a steal now.

Yes, I'm a sucker.

PS All page numbers are from my full size, English edition. The small-format English version should have pretty similar numbers but note in the French version the order of dishes is completely different.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome im glad to see there's more afficionados like me! I have the books you have and then some. Great value especially considering these are mine to keep and hopefully go up in value 10 years from now