On Cookbook Safari in Oz
Just back from Sydney. As ever, I was out hunting for cookbooks. The bookstock at Dymocks (the Foyles of Australia) was somewhat underwhelming. The surplus bookshop in the St Ives Shopping Village was a bust. But thankfully I was saved when my wife pointed me toward the bibliophile awesomeness of Books Kinokuniya, sprawling across the top of the Galeries Victoria mall.
As you can tell from the name Kinokuniya is a Japanese outfit, packing a decent selection of manga and associated paraphernalia [note to self: stop pigeonholing an entire nation’s literary output in terms of comic books. It’s enough to drive any self-respecting playwright to suicide]. But they also have an outstanding Food & Drink section, sprawling across five generously stocked aisles:
Let’s dive in!
A Taste of Australia
Zumbarons by Adriano Zumbo: My first target is, of course, the Australian Cuisine section. In London we get a fair share of the big name chefbooks coming across (Quay, Origin and anything by Bill Granger), but back at base there are a piles more books which never make the import quota.
A good example is Sydney-based Patissier Adriano Zumbo. A cynical might say he’s a big fish in a small pond, but I find his wacky style quite endearing. His gaudy first volume Zumbo received a low-key release in the UK, which is a shame as if you can get past the nursery-school typography it’s a lot more fun than the stentorian style of Pierre Herme’s ego-liths. And here’s his latest book: Zumbarons, a slim volume which is a credible addition to the how-to-bake-macaron sub-genre. The fun is in the wacky flavours he comes up with for his macarons: Hot Cross Bun, Pancake and Maple Syrup, Gingerbread House or Fig, Burnt Honey & Red Wine. There’s even a Satay-flavoured macaron.
Listen carefully and you can hear Mr Laduree turning in his grave.
Fine Family Cooking by Tony Bilson: If Zumbo is the man of the moment, then Tony Bilson is the utter opposite, a bow-tie toting chef of the old school. He is the Godfather of Sydney fine-dining having trained many of today’s stars, from Tetsuya Wakuda to Quay's Peter Gilmore. So I was pleased to see at least one of his books represented, a recent reprint of his 1995 Fine Family Cooking (although annoyingly there was no sign of his recent autobiography).
I’ll say straight up the presentation of this book is old-school 1980s (viz Raymond Blanc’s original Le Manoir cookbook) and the recipes aren’t much more evolved. But amidst the utter Frenchness of Garbure and Duck Liver Mousse you see hints of what later involved into modern Australian cooking. Coconut Bavarois with Pureed Tamarind. Fillet of Kangaroo with Glazed Shallots. Or Braised Brisket with Star Anise. Bilson reminds me of California Alice Waters / Jeremiah Tower generation. If you read their cookbooks they still talk a lot of Escoffier, but you occasionally see flashes of something new.
Plus there was one recipe that was very interesting – Coddled Salmon with Red Wine Sauce. As I’ve written before – this was the direct inspiration for Tetsuya’s Confit of Petuna Ocean Trout. Salmon is confited at 70c in duck fat (one of the first uses of-temperature cooking in a chefbook) and served (unusually) on a red-wine sauce. I’ll let you decide whether Tony came up with the idea or if he nicked it from Pierre Koffmann…
Kitchen Coquette by Katrina Meynink: But Oz isn’t just about professional chefs – if you want proof of that just look at the unstoppable onslaught of Australian Masterchef. The number of books written by former winners (and non-winners) is absolutely straight-out terrifying. It got to the stage where I would spot to a book and tell it was by a Masterchef contestant without even picking it up:
- Young photogenic author? Tick.- Their only book on the shelf? Tick.
- Vaguely pan-Asian tilt? Tick.
- Reference to “my journey” “my food” “my kitchen”? Tick.
This is what I found in a quick five-minute sweep. I’m pretty sure missed some:
With all due respect, I mostly found them glossy, repetitive and rather pointless. I’m sure their homespun pan-Asian recipes are delicious, but there are only so many versions of crispy Asian-spiced pork belly a man can take. Even me.
Which makes it even more bizarre that the one amateur effort which was interesting was this one: Kitchen Coquette by Katrina Meynink. This book should represent everything I hate about the “prosumer generation” (think: any cookbook written by a food blogger). It’s a first-time cookbook from a vaguely photogenic Aussie foodie. The recipes are group not by course or ingredient but by life event (Recipes for meeting in-laws! Recipes for meeting with your ex!). The food-style is Domesticated Fusion.
But I have to say it’s an excellent cookbook.
It’s very efficiently laid-out with a no-nonsense workbook-style. And the weird recipe categories actually grow on you – case in point Stealth Food: snacks for eating in places like libraries, lecture theatres or art galleries where you aren’t supposed to have food. Actually quite useful…
But above its the recipes which strike a perfect note – she deploys Fusion for the sake of deliciousness rather than for the sake of fusion. Mexican Smoky Pork Cheesies. Pork and Rhubarb Pies (to be served at a Wake!), Drunken Scallops with Ponzu Granita (for “The Make-Up”). For meeting potential in-laws she recommends slipping them Fig, Raspberry, Pistachio and Burnt-Butter Cake with Mascarpone.
This women should go on Masterchef.
And before we leave the Australian section, let’s not forget the revered output of the Australian Women’s Weekly (Tripled-Tested for Guaranteed Success!).
But what I love about Sydney bookstores isn’t just the local stuff. It’s that you also get the best of London and New York thrown in. For one thing, the selection of UK chefbooks is as good or better than London, with hot titles like David Everitt-Matthias’ Beyond Essence, The Square Cookbook and Polpo all on show. For another, there’s also a great line-up of imported US books – something I’ve sorely missed in London since Borders went bust.
In short: There are stores with a better range of UK books and ones with a better range of US books, but I can’t think of any which beat Kunokuniya Sydney for the two combined.
Plus there’s all that Aussie stuff thrown in as well.
Putting the UK books to one side here are a few of the international books which caught my eye. These aren’t necessarily the newest or the trendiest books – just ones that got my cookbook-antennae twitching:
LUDOBITES by Ludo Lefebvre: Classically trained French chef (Gagnaire, Passard, Grand Vefour) hits LA, quits restaurant, starts a pop-up kitchen. Basically it’s the I’ve-Jumped-on-the-Street-Food-Bandwagon-And-Here’s-My-Cookbook cookbook, but by someone who can actually cook. It’s street/dude food with a Hollywood vibe (including jumping on a private jet to lunch at the Fat Duck). But when you have Cabbage-Wrapped Foie Gras with Kimchee Consomee (Alain Senderens meets Momofuku!!), Bouillabaisse Milk Shake and Foie Gras Miso Soup on the menu, who’s arguing?
Mission Street Food by Anthony Myint & Karen Liebowitz: Still on the Street Food theme, recipes from San Francisco’s original gourmet street food collective (you know the idea – multi-course tasting menus and two hour queues). The book is a few years old (though new to me), but it still reads and eats great.
The first half is the fascinating story of the SF food collective which set out to apply haute-cuisine technique to food with a broad appeal (not surprisingly Momofuku co-author Peter Meehan provides a pull-quote). There’s a lot of smart commentary and discussion here which is very applicable today’s Twitter-fuelled-culture “hot” new restaurants (e.g. feature on the “Sportification of Food” – how new restaurants have become a form of entertainment).
The second half provides recipes for how they did it – reinventing Street Food with haute techniques. Burgers for 200 done Heston-style, Peking Duck reinvented from confit meat and duck cracklings, and of course lots and lots of pork belly. If you loved Momofuku you’ll love this.
In the Kitchen with Alain Passard by Christophe Blain: Only the French could turn a haute cuisine cookbook into a bandes-dessine graphic novel [note to self: Again, STOP pigeonholing entire nations literary output on their comics. French novelists also produce excellent novelisations of cheesy musicals :-p]. Basically graphic novelist gets invited to hang out with Alain Passard at this three star restaurant L’Arpege (and associated vegetable garden). In return he renders a bunch of the master’s recipes as comic strips. The Arpege Egg is included here, although unfortunately not the smoked potatoes or 12-spiced tomato dessert.
As I said, only in France…
100 Vintage Treasures from the World's Finest Wine Celler by Michel-Jack Chasseuil: Fabulously well-connected Frenchman amasses 35,000 bottle wine cellar. Writes coffee-table-book headlining up his top-100 bottles. This book should reek of worthless vanity-piece but it’s actually utterly engrossing, particularly in its coverage of pre-war (or even pre-20th century) vintages. Where else can you vicariously enjoy an 1811 Yquem (a wonder-vintage overseen by Halley’s Comet), a 1901 Tokay (from the cellar of Otto of Habsburg), a pre-phylloxeria Constantia and a selection of the legendary stickies from the Tsar’s vineyards in Massandra? Oh and he also has a ’71 La Tache and a ’45 Mouton if you’re into the younger stuff.
Grand Finales Series by Tish Boyle & Timothy Moriarty: To finish a sight I thought I’d never see again: A complete set of the short-lived Boyle/Moriarty Grand Finales series on ridiculously over-plated pro- restaurant desserts. Probably wildly outdated by now but always fun, and very hard to find nowadays (I own a copy of the one of the right).