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Great Recipes, but just a bit less than Pepin and Richard
on September 10, 2007
`A Great American Cook' by the `legendary' chef and restaurateur, Jonathan Waxman has been long awaited, at least by me, for about as long as I have been familiar with cookery books and more specifically the background of celebrity chef, Bobby Flay, who provides a blurb on the well-known fact that Waxman was `My number one mentor'. I call Waxman `legendary' because he comes from that pre-Emeril, pre-Food Network, pre-celebrity chef era of a scant 20 years ago, when the only chef one ever heard of was Wolfgang Puck, and the great culinary writer and editor, Ruth Reichl was predicting the end of celebrity chefs. Well, we all make mistakes! He is also `legendary' in that all the other members of this pre-Emeril club have produced at one or more important cookbooks. Wolfgang has numerous pedestrian efforts, and contemporary Jeremiah Tower (another Chez Panisse graduate) has produced at least two, one of which I consider one of the best chef cookbooks going.
Therefore, my expectations for Waxman's book were very, very high, as I would compare him to the best books from Tower, Zuni Café founder, Judy Rodgers, fellow Chez Panisse alum, Paul Bertoli, and especially the recent excellent works by Jacques Pepin (Chez Jacques) and Michel Richard (Happy in the Kitchen). It is most appropriate to compare it to `Chez Jacques' as both are written from the point of view of recipes the cooks make at home. At least that's what both of them say, and Jacques has a much easier time of sticking to that principle, as he has not headed a professional kitchen for many decades. When I opened Richard's and Pepin's books, I could tell this was something special almost immediately, as I can do with virtually all exceptional cookbooks. These excellent books simply don't mince words and get right down to talking about both facts and inspirations we have simply never seen elsewhere. I did not get that impression on reading through Waxman's 12 introductory pages, or even when I started reading the recipes. Virtually all the tips in `Edicts on Selecting Ingredients and Techniques' was old stuff we have all read in virtually every better cookbook written in the last 20 years.
But then, by the time I got to the third chapter, I started to appreciate two things about the recipes. First, although some originated in one of Waxman's commercial kitchens, virtually all of the recipes were relatively simple. Maybe not as simple as Jacques (who seems to be the master of effortless home cooking), but simple AND special, nonetheless. Second, I noticed that there were virtually no fancy ingredients being used, unless you count Waxman's strictures about not using frozen seafood, especially squid, for the recipes. Instead, Waxman draws from a relatively simple palate, where lots of popular ingredients find their way into many different recipes. The obvious ones are sweet peppers, asparagus, tuna, onion, tomatoes, mushrooms, corn, and shellfish. If one is a fan of any of these ingredients, then Waxman's book is a must, as he gives you enough to keep you happy for several seasons.
One can also see what it is about Waxman's style which may have had a big influence on Flay. While Waxman's primary influences were the California pantry and French cooking techniques, seen through the eyes of Alice Waters, he is clearly in love with southwestern ingredients and cooking styles. And yet, there is very little real grilling going on here. And, if you were adverse to southwestern cuisine, you would probably find these recipes may even change your mind.
Waxman's recipe writing style is very easy on the eyes and the mind (easy to follow, without being overly pedagogical). As dearly as I love Julia Child's recipes, Waxman's writing is far more fun to read and to execute for the experienced chef. He doesn't leave anything out. You will even find his imagery illuminating, as when he tells you to open a slit in a cooked chicken breast as if you were squeezing open a slit baked potato. Similarly, when he tells you how to prepare the perfect roast chicken, the instructions are far simpler than Jeremiah Tower's similar recipe. Finally, while the layout of the procedures is not overly fussy, it is very nicely organized with simple typesetting to distinguish one part of the recipe from another.
This book is worthy for any experienced cook who is not always pressed for time, and while just a bit light on the insights, it's a worthy book for those especially fond of the best chef's books cited above.