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Essay on Professional Culinary Thinking. A foodie delight
on December 20, 2003
Tom Colicchio is part of the elite cadre of New York chefs which include Daniel Boulud, Michael Romano, Alfred Portale, and (in the 1980's) Thomas Keller, so he is as qualified as few others are to write a book with this title. Almost all recent books by celebrity chefs have some slant on their presentation of recipes to, I suspect, justify the higher fare for purchasing the book. As the title clearly states, the slant of this book is to help the reader see cooking the way a trained chef sees cooking and develops recipes.
For starters, Colicchio says the typical chef does not start with an endpoint, an idea on what sort of dish they wish to create. Rather, they typically start with one or a few ingredients and apply to them a typical culinary technique such as a braise, roast, or blanche. But how do you braise, roast, or blanche? This gives Colicchio his starting point.
Like all crafts and professions, cooking has it's own lingo. One can listen to a conversation between two chefs and have no idea what kind of end product they will reach based on the words they use to refer to the methods to be used. `Blanching' is one of my favorites. My rudimentary knowledge of French tells me it is derived from the word for `white'. One may guess from that that the object of blanching is to make something white. Oddly, the actual intended effect of blanching is often to make something more vividly green. So there you have it. We have some techniques to learn. Colicchio does just that in the first part of the book and succeeds in giving some of the best descriptions of stock and sauce making I have seen. It also covers the techniques of buerre fondu, which few other books discuss and none discuss as well. (Be warned, Colicchio really likes to use butter.) Several little gems appear hidden from the Table of Contents. The technique for making vinaigrettes and the explanation of how they work is an excellent little lesson all by itself.
From techniques, Colicchio goes on to studies on how to develop ideas about recipes using three different vegetables. And here is one of the more important principles behind Colicchio's thinking. Protein products do vary a bit from item to item and from season to season, but not nearly as much as vegetable products. Fresh tomatoes for example are plentiful and delicious in August and September, and relatively uninteresting for the rest of the year when they come from hothouses or from Florida. For his case studies, Colicchio picks tomatoes, roasted; mushrooms; and artichokes, braised.
In the section on tomatoes, the author begins with a lesson on how to roast tomatoes with garlic. He then uses this preparation as an ingredient in six (6) different dishes:
Roasted Tomato Risotto
Clam ragout with pancetta, roasted tomatoes, and mustard greens
Sea bass stuffed with roasted tomatoes
Seared tuna with roasted tomato vinaigrette and fennel salad
Braised lamb shanks with roasted tomato
Caramelized tomato tarts
If you don't count the time it takes to prepare the roasted tomatoes, most of the recipes are fairly simple, if you also don't count the time it takes to prepare the stocks and other pantry preparations such as the Onion Confit needed for the tomato tarts. Some other recipes are much longer. Mushrooms and artichokes, both being highly seasonal products, are given a similar treatment.
Colicchio then moves on to `advanced' thinking of a style I am finding myself doing more and more often when confronted with a chill chest packed with leftover produce. This section deals with trilogies, groupings of three ingredients, mostly vegetables, and how one can mold the three ingredients into a dish. My main problem with this section is that four of the nine ingredients (ramps, morels, lobster, and duck) in these three trilogies are highly seasonal, difficult to find, expensive, or all three. Not everyone lives or works two blocks away from the Union Square Market. But, the lessons are instructive none the less.
This section is one of the first which reminds one that cooking is hard work, especially if you have the kind of dedication to the demands of your prima materia that Colicchio has. One example is in the cooking of lobster, where Colicchio breaks with the simple dunk into boiling water made so famous by the scene from `Annie Hall'. He requires you to kill the beast with your own two hands, remove the roe and tamale, separate claws from tail, and cook the tail wrapped generously in cling wrap. At $10 a pound or more, I guess live lobster deserves that kind of respect.
The next section is a three movement concerto with each movement being a solo opportunity for vegetables, which are in season in Spring, Summer, and Fall. These recipes are as good or better than those you may find in books specializing in vegetable recipes. They definitely add value to the book and reinforce the lessons of the previous chapters, even if they also tend to dilute the direction of the argument.
The last section is `a few favorites' which are good recipes, long enough to stretch the text to 260 pages.
This is a good book, but it will probably not succeed by itself in getting you to think like a chef. Like chess and unlike physics or math, the only way to really learn how to think like a chef is to work like a chef. This book helps you in doing this. One warning. This is not intended to be a complete book of techniques. For that, go to Jaques Pepin's authoritative book on the subject
Finally, this book is pricy, but recommended for serious foodies. I agree with some other reviewers that it had less than what I expected, but that is because thinking like a chef may not have been what I expected.