The Big Fat Duck Cookbook
This book is an accomplishment worthy of telling Blumenthal's tale of discovery and evolution. It is in fact exactly what I had been looking for every time I had previously purchased an overgrown coffe-table cook book... usually to be let down by the quality, format or content.
Those three aspects: quality, format and content drive the perfect rating I served up. The book is weighty, with high quality paper so thick you will swear that two pages are between your fingers, not one. I seemingly always have trouble with book bindings that fall apart... not this time: the Fat Duck is quite well bound with marker-ribbons for placekeeping.
The art inside is a blistering barrage of jazz-era, inked sketches of Blumenthal at various stages of discovery superimposed upon vividly colored, intriguingly compelling and sometimes darkly disturbing swaths of imagery. If asked prior to reading the Fat Duck, art in a cookbook would have been the component I consider least important to it's overall success. In contrast, here the art is an essential component, almost like theme music that drives audience emotional investment in a theater performance. The photographs are also of exquisite quality and sharpness, even when comprising the entire page.
The Fat Duck is formatted into three sections: History, Recipes and Science. The history section (~125 pages) is a autobiographical tale that really emphasizes how unique Blumenthal's journey has been. His amazing priority of food exploration and inquisitiveness come across clearly in this section. The conversational, fireside manner of the discussion makes it eminently readable.
The recipe section (~300 pages) has each item prefaced with a background tale of discovery and evolution. I found this to be fascinating snapshots of the creative process; they also provide some continuity if the reader elects to peruse the book from front to back instead of hopping from recipe to recipe. These prefaces were exactly what I had been hoping to find when I purchased the El Bulli cook book (latest one) some time back, only to be left lacking. Fortunately, the Fat Duck does give insight into the recipes, where El Bulli directs the reader to some incomprehensible series of images on a separate CD or to a complicated meal engineering schematic. Again, here Blumenthal's conversational prose and intuitive approach provide something that is lacking from many other cooking texts (I find Thomas Keller to also have a great writing style, if that helps you to gauge what I prefer). The recipes have lots and lots of information, and in this respect Blumenthal certainly lives up to his creed that a great recipe has all the pertinent info splayed out for the cook, so one doesn't have to imagine what takes place between the written steps.
The final section (Science; ~80 pages)is a series of chapters describing in fantastic, but readable, detail such topics as Meat Cookery, Ice Cream Science, Fat Duck Restaurant tools/instruments and ingredients. Next comes a series of vignettes from notables and hoary scientists from the field of food science. In full disclosure, I am a scientist so perhaps I am not the best judge of how approachable these sections are, but I feel its about on the level of "Scientific American" articles; i.e. a reasonably intelligent, but unfamiliar reader will have no trouble. I think it speaks volumes that Blumenthal decided to publish a family/child cookbook as his first attempt; that fundamental priority to educate drives this publication as well.
The table of contents is a fold out four-page peek into Blumenthal's brain (literally!). It isn't to be missed.
Finally, the content: As a fellow who worked in restaurants for >10 years before returning to school and eventually becoming a scientist, I am ecstatic to see my twin loves, food and chemistry, brought together in such an over-the-top book. This book continues a recent trend toward popularizing and demystifying Molecular Gastronomy that includes such works as Grant Achatz' Alinea and Keller's Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide.
In a nutshell, The Fat Duck is a grand attempt to capture a bold persona, a cooking revolution and a sensible approach to flavor design all in one book. In my opinion, it succeeds on every level.