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Superb Reflections on Cooking. Buy it NOW!
on April 3, 2007
`Chez Jacques, Traditions and Rituals of a Cook' by Cooking teacher extraordinare, Jacques Pepin is one of those culinary books for which foodie readers pray for, and celebrate when they arrive. As a veteran of very high end professional cooking in France (he was personal chef to French president Charles DeGaulle) and the United States; bourgeoisie American cooking as a research chef for Howard Johnson's; teacher to professional chefs at the French Culinary Institute and author of the very best manual of professional techniques available in English; and penultimate teacher to home cooks (second only to Julia Child) on his PBS cooking shows, Pepin may easily be the most important living teacher of cooking in America.
After all that gushing over Pepin's credentials, a brief word of warning is necessary. This is a far more important book on the teaching and the learning about how to cook and about the nature of cooking itself than it is a book of recipes. Thus, if you are reluctant to lie out a premium price for only 100 recipes, check out one of his many other books, especially the delightful `Fast Food My Way' or `Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home'.
One of the most endearing insights I get from Pepin's book is that there is simply no perfect way to write a recipe. There are only good approaches for all the various different cookbook audiences. Pepin's own example of this is his contrast between the 7,500 recipes in the `Repertory of Cooking', all of which consist of little more than a few statements giving the principle features of a dish and the recipes in Julia Child's classic `Mastering the Art of French Cooking', where 15 pages are devoted to the recipe for a French baguette (and I suspect that with all this instruction, it will still take the average amateur more than one try to get it right).
Another of the great validations I get from Monsieur Jacques is the notion that one does not start experiencing real satisfaction as a cook until you can cook without consulting a recipe. I have been working on the task of enjoying cooking for the last five years, and it seems slow in coming. I don't fully relish the task unless I am making a dish for which I have mastered all the steps and need no list of ingredients in front of me. It is at this point where, according to Pepin, we graduate from following instructions to the task of intently realizing a particular taste.
In these and most other regards, Pepin agrees with and even goes beyond the insights in my other favorite books on the nature of cooking, Tom Colicchio's `How to Think Like a Chef' and Daniel Boulud's `Letters to a Young Chef'. Other similar books are Eric Rippert's `Return to Cooking' and Michel Richard's recent `Happy in the Kitchen'. And, the same sentiments with an English accent are in Nigel Slater's `Kitchen Diaries'.
In spite of my warning about the price per recipe ratio, I do not want to give the impression that the recipes are in any way an afterthought or less valuable than Pepin's general ideas about cooking. In fact, virtually every recipe reveals some important insights about cooking in general and the dish in particular. In fact, I once classified recipes according to the Julia Child model, the Elizabeth David model, and the Joel Robuchon model. The first two of these Pepin cites himself (see above). But in this book, he actually writes the third kind of recipe, where the most important aspect is why we do certain things in a particular way. My favorite example is his recipe for the Gratin Dauphinois. I simply love potato gratins, yet I always seem to have some problem with them. Either the dairy ingredients curdle or the potatoes don't get cooked through, of both. Pepin's recipe explains virtually everything we need to know about how to avoid these problems.
Another dimension to Pepin's recipes is those which give entirely new twists to old standards. A chronic problem with clam chowders, for example is tough clams. Pepin's recipe for this dish literally throws the raw clams into the soup before serving, so they are in just long enough to warm up.
The bottom line on the recipes is that these are the dishes Jacques cooks at home, so they are neither fancy nor expensive, and all excellent candidates for dishes to commit to memory.
While this is a superb source of both recipes and culinary insights, it is also something of a memoir; although not quite as engaging as a memoir as Pepin's earlier book, `The Apprentice'. It is also something of a gallery of Pepin's own paintings, and this may be the book's Achilles heel. The paintings are virtually all amateurish, especially the larger oil canvases. The illustrated menus and the painted plates have some primitive interest since they have a connection with the art at which Pepin is a true master. Pepin has no illusions and is quite honest about the fact that he is a far, far better cook than he is an artist.
This book may not be for everyone who buys cookbooks, but for foodies who love to read about the craft of cooking, this is easily one of the most important recent works in the field.