Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Noma, Celler Can Roca, Bocuse & Co: Culinary Unicorns

Let's go unicorn-hunting

There are rare cookbooks and there are influential cookbooks. But there are very few rare and influential cookbooks.

The reasons are quite straightforward. Normally the more influential   cookbook has, the more widely it is read. This follows a straightforward commercial logic. 1) Chef becomes famous/important. 2) Said chef writes book. 3) Said book becomes famous/important. 4) Said book is subject to numerous reprints cos at the end of the day said chef wants to make a living.

For rare cookbooks the opposite logic applies. 1) Cookbook is published. 2) No one wants to read it. 3) Cookbook falls out of print. End of story. If it ain't good enough to attract a reprint, its unlikely to be particularly significant.

Of course (and there is an "of course" otherwise there wouldn't be much point to this blog post!) there is also a delicious category of exceptions. a small cadre of books do exist which are both mind-bogglingly influential  and incredibly rare.

They have mostly been written in the last thirty years, many by chefs who are household names. For various reasons - cost, obsolescence or simply ignorance - their authors or publishers have let them fall by the wayside, such that they are almost unobtainable today.

These are the culinary unicorns.

Let me show you what I mean:

Joan Roca's revolutionary manifesto

Sous-Vide Cuisine (Joan Roca & Salvador Brugues)
Today the Catalonian restaurant El Celler de Can Roca is part of the culinary establishment. Situated in sprawling new premises in Girona it wears its three stars with pride: A leading light of Spanish gastronomy, a pioneer of sous vide cuisine and a purveyor of an exceptionally good value wine list.

It wasn't always like this. When I first went it was in a slight ramshackle out of town site by a service station (the restaurant originally started off in the basement of the Roca family's Catalan diner, hence the name). The food was good, the wine was a snip and as I was leaving I spotted Sous-Vide Cuisine on sale in reception.

Even back then it wasn't cheap. The book itself cost a hundred Euros (about the same price as the tasting menu!), and at under 200 pages you weren't getting much content for your money. But the information it contained was priceless.

First published in 2003, this was the first cookbook to properly document the techniques of sous-vide cuisine in the high-end kitchen. Although today it is thoroughly ubiquitous, at the time it was the wild west of culinary technique. At the time there were so many unanswered questions about using sous vide in a gastronomic (as opposed to industrial catering) setting - how long to cook different cuts for? What temperatures were safe? How quickly do you need to cool merchandise to avoid giving your customers a nasty case of gastroenteritis? This was the first book to systematically explore and answer these questions.

Part cookbook, part physics manual.
Starting from first principles, the book explains the sous vide method in tremendous detail, from what gas to use to package the food to what equipment to use in the sealing process. This section, while essential, if quite dry. However it kicks into gear from chapter 3 onwards as Roca talks about the application of sous-vide in his own kitchen. His revolutionary insight was using sous-vide not only as a way to prepare food for storing (e.g. tough cuts products above 65c for an extended period to make them tender and fridge-sterilised), but also what he calls "Indirect Cooking" - using sous-vide to cook more delicate foods at a lower temperature, to create entirely new forms of taste and texture. This allowed him to create iconic dishes, such as his Warm Cod with Spinich, Idiazabal Cream, Pine Nuts and PX Reduction, where the cod is cooked sous-vide to a 38-40c internal temp to a melting, gelatinous texture. Or foie gras taken to a 60c internal temperature which not only yields a silky, consistent result but also minimises the dreaded foie-gras fat leakage:

The benefits of sous-vide are lavishly illustrated with before/after images and scary-looking temperature charts. The book also deals with some natural extensions to the sous-vide technique such as using it vacuum sealing to compress ingredients to give a firmer texture, and also its applications for desserts (e.g. using it to infuse green tea into chocolate). The book finishes with twenty-five resturant-class dishes - not many for a standalone cookbook, but more than enough to illustrate the principles at work:

Looking back at this book nearly than a decade after publication (and when mainstream food science has moved on immeasurably) I'm struck but how fresh and comprehensive it still seems. Every single book about sous vide since them - from Thomas Keller's Under Pressure to Modernist Cuisine owes a debt to this volume. (Side-note: One disappointment about Under Pressure is that it complete airbrushes the Roca brothers out of its history of sous-vide, while copiously name-dropping Keller's French equipment manufacturer instead).

However the book itself remains frustratingly hard to find. Partly also its because of the obscenely high sticker price and limited distribution. Partly also I think is the nature of the work. The way the text is arranged and presented reminds me of some of the horribly obtuse chocolate-making books (e.g. anything by Jean-Pierre Wybauw). There are a bunch of fantabulous cheffy recipes a the back but you have to wade through an awful lot of flow charts and exposition before you get to them. I suspect this tends to banish it to the top-shelf marked "professional cookery" rather than the section marked "really interesting cheffy books" in any bookstore.

Anyhow I don't think I've ever seen it in a bookshop, ever. In the US second-hand copies are fetching $180 on Amazon (although strangely the UK site seems to have new copies - a snip at £85). Given the growing interest in sous-vide techniques I think this book deserves - and demands - a wider audience. But until the Roca brothers pull their finger out and arrange a more accessible edition, it will remain the quintessential culinary unicorn.

Bocuse and his friends

Great Chefs of France (Anthony Blake &

Quentin Crewe)
In the age of the 24/7 Food Blog you forget how hard it used to be to find out about three star cuisine. For English speaking foodies, the cuisine and culture of France's three star temples used to be an undiscovered country. Set against that backdrop, Quentin Crewe and Anthony Blake's Great Chefs of France is a monumental work. Published back in 1978, he minutely profiles every French three star outside Paris, describing each chef, their cuisine, their their day-to-day life routines. At the back of the book is also a copy of the carte for each men, which makes fascinating reading thirty years on.

This was the first book to people's eyes in the Anglophone world to what food could really be. Unsurprisingly many of the today's leading chefs cite this as a definite influence. Heston Blumenthal writes:
More than any other volume, I read Quentin Crewe and Anthony Blake's Great Chefs of France, which presented, in words and pictures, portraits of a dozen of France's most influential chefs... I read these words over and over until I knew them virtually by heart.
The genius of this book is its timing. Crewe and Blake were lucky to be writing as a the revolution was taking place. You see time you see Emeril or Gordon or Wolfgang on TV its all down to Paul. In the 1970s Paul Bocuse singlehanded defined the role of the celebrity chef, with sheer force of will accompanied by tureens of black truffle soup. This book captures him and his nouvelle cuisine cohorts - the Troisgros brothers, Michel Guerard, Georges Blanc in the pomp (it is notable that Crewe decided to focus on the non-Parisian three stars - as this was the age when France's regional restaurants really came to the fore).

As well a profiling the nouvelle cuisine muskateers, It also provides a nod to the generation of postwar chefs (many forgotten today) who laid the groundwork of the revolution Pic, Point, Thuiller, Bise. There is no other book in the English language which captures what was taking place. Just as Bob Carlos Clarke's White Heat captured Marco as he defined the rock star chef, Crewe was simply at the right place at the right time.

And there is one last reason why this book should not be missed. It contains one of the few accounts of the great Lyonnais chef Alain Chapel available in English. For those who know of Chapel's stellar reputation (and he counts Ducasse, Keller and Heston among his fans), that's worth the price of admission alone.

Michel Guerard: Culinary revolutionary and fashion terrorist.
But the book itself is frighteningly elusive. I found my copy in a Charing Cross Road basement after a hot online tip (I'd previously made do with a copy I'd spent an evening painstakingly copying on the work photocopier). I guess given the look and the content of the book so clearly rooted in the seventies (check out Michel Guerards flares to the right!), there's little money in a reprint. But if you do ever come across a used copy, seize it with both hands.

Northern Lights

Noma Nordic Cuisine (Rene Redzepi &
Claus Meyer)Source: TasteFood

But of course there is one culinary unicorn which outstrips all of these. A book so mythical that Japanese gourmets have been known to fly thousands of miles just to catch a glimpse of it. A book who's very pages are said to contain the secrets of the unlimited foie gras and pickled herring.

I refer, of course, to the legendary Noma Cookbook.

Note that I am not referring too the Phaidon-published travesty that is Noma: Time and Space in Nordic Cuisine. The less said about that (or anything else by Phaidon), the better. Long before that was even a footnote on a marketing manager's schedule, Redzepi had published his original book Noma: Nordic Cuisine, wayback in 2006.

It's this English edition, of which only a thousand were printed, which is the ultimate culinary unicorn. I don't have a copy, and have never had a sniff of one. I know it only by reputation. If you search hard you can find traces on the web. The introduction (and manifesto for Noma's cuisine) is on the website of collaborator Claus Meyer, here. This blog post (part 2 here) has some pictures and a few recipes (even these authors admit they were only using a borrowed copy). It could be of course that the book is a complete let-down and consists largely of recipes for pickled herring, but somehow I doubt it (the egg yolk cream recipe looks both unusual and promising).

Source: TasteFood
Just like the Crewe book, this book precisely captures the moment - Noma just as it (and Nordic cuisine) was emerging from El Bulli's shadow. Looking back this is a work which should feature front and centre in every bookshop in the land. But it does not.

In fact the opposite is true. A mere seven years after publication the book is virtually unobtainable. One copy is listed on Amazon for a mere £1800 (although be careful - judging by the cover it might be the Danish version). Otherwise I think it's pretty much impossible to find a copy.

The problem is that in 2010 Phaidon published Noma: Time and Place in Nordic Cuisine. Rather than a sequel to the earlier book, it covers much the same ground in a more overblown fashion, outlining Redzepi's culinary philosophy with the help of a few recipes and lot of soft-focus photography. Alas this seems to have been the death-knell for the earlier volume, as there seems little reason for a reprint while the newer book covers the same ground (and is selling so well). To me that is a shame - I rarely have anything good to say about Phaidon cookbooks and this one is no exception. The separation of the photos of the dishes from the recipes they describe smacks of an editor who fetishes how the book looks but doesn't want to understand the food itself. I hope that at some point they see sense and reprint the earlier volume. Until then I think the food world remains much the poorer.

Postscript: Other unicorns

While writing this piece a bunch of former and nearly -unicorns crossed my mind. I thought they were worth mentioning:

La Tante Claire by Pierre Koffmann

Until its recent reprint, Pierre Koffmann's Memories of Gascony would have been first on my list of culinary unicorns, not only as the heartwork of one of London's defining culinary figures (and for that pigs trotter recipe), but also because it is an excellent exemplar of the memoir-with-recipes. I do note however that its sister-volume La Tante Claire (co-authored with Anthony Blake, who worked on Great Chefs of France) remains out of print. This is a shame as it continues the story of Koffmann's journey to Le Gavroche in London, out to Bray to create the Waterside Inn and back to Chelsea to La Tante Claire, where he later won his three michelin stars. The pigs trotter recipe also features, if you missed it the first time round.

White Heat by Marco Pierre White

Like some of the other unicorns, another exercise in Zeitgeist-capture, this time from Marco Pierre White in his sizzling eighties heyday. I've already written about this one before, but just to note that before its 2009 softcover reprint there was a period of 4-5 years where this book out of print and heart-breakingly hard to find. A good example of the publishers seeing sense and doing everyone a service.

Le Grande Livre de Cuisine de Joel Robuchon

As I noted before, the definitive record of Robuchon, at least in his Paris haute cuisine days. Unlike Ducasse's similar books however this one hasn't been translated into English which means it remains much more of a niche item. It can be had on Amazon for around $400, but I suspect as time wears on it will be rarer and rarer.

Pei Mei's Chinese Cookbook

The subject of one of my earlier blog posts, this book used to be readily available second-hand on Amazon, but I note it has become harder to find over the last few years. Partly a historical relic partly a culinary landmark,the user unfriendliness and 1970s styling of the book probably precludes a reprint (unless someone is willing to embark on a fresh translation). It can be had on Kindle but the full fat print version is becoming rapidly hard to find.

Future culinary unicorns

What books readily available now will become future culinary unicorns? Speaking facetiously all of them, if e-books cannibalise print as I think they will. More seriously I think Modernist Cuisine will probably get there - if only because its size and expense limits the scope for reprints; when all copies are gone there'll be gone.

In the UK I suspect if David Everitt-Matthias ever got annointed with a third michelin star, his existing cookbooks (Essence and Dessert) will instantly become collector's items (viz the Noma book when Rene get made Best Chef in the World Ever). Ditto Sat Bains, helped by the fact that his cookbook is pretty much unobtainable already - as far as I can tell its available only direct from the restaurant or the publisher with little or no retail availability (I think its a Face Publishing thing). Also NB DEM has his third cookbook out imminently. Worth looking out for, three stars or no.

And to finish with, entirely different kind of Culinary Unicorn.