I always try to evaluate cookbooks with special attention to the audience to which the book is written. I will not think well of a book which claims to present methods for easy cooking or entertaining if the recipe methods are long or the recipes have a high or expensive ingredient count. I also tend to devalue books that mislead the reader's expectations about the subject or emphasis of the book. On the other hand, I raise the number of stars for any book, regardless of audience, which advances my understanding of cooking. I will also raise my evaluation if the book is entertaining. This book sits on the cusp of these two conflicting influences on my rating.
Backed by the star powered Foreword by Patricia Wells, Guy Savoy's title states clearly that the recipes are both simple and designed for the home cook. I suggest that many of the recipes are not very simple and the author's paradigm of the home cook seems to be someone with several hours a day to spend on cooking and shepherding preparations which extend over two or more days. I also get a strong feeling from the ambiance and food styling in the photographs that the `home' environment they picture looks a whole lot like the inside of a professional kitchen. But, there are some redeeming qualities. Let's look at the recipes by chapter.
Even in the opening chapter, `Appetizers', the author gives the game away by giving excellent estimates for prep and cooking time. The chapter starts out on the right foot with the first six (6) recipes giving simple vegetable dishes and salads, but things get darker when we hit recipes such as `Sausage en Brioche' and `Pot-au-Feu Salad' where preparation spans two days, with one or more hour of preparation on each day. These two recipes are not isolated examples, although they are at the upper extreme. Over half the recipes have a combined prep and cook time of 90 minutes or more and about a quarter of the recipes need two days. And, like the `Sausage en Brioche', many of these recipes are things like terrines and mousses I would not dream of cooking at home. They remind me of the characterization of French cooking as being designed for people with bad teeth. The appetizer recipes also tend to use ingredients that may not be easy to acquire, even at an American megamart, for a Wednesday evening dinner. Its needing celeriac, crème fraiche, smoked duck magret, and mimolette cheese devalues an otherwise delightful recipe. I know my local Wegmans will have the first three, but I am really not sure of the last. I have a strong feeling that the home cook to which Chef Savoy is writing lives in Paris, although I give the author (or his translator) high marks for Americanizing the measurements. I also found cases where the photographs and the methods clearly disagree. This is very annoying in any book, but doubly so when the photographs should assist in understanding the methods.
The chapter `Gratins' goes a long way to winning back my opinion of the book. Unlike appetizers, I have no problem seeing long cooking times for gratins. And, I am especially fond of them for packing an enormous amount of taste and nutritional diversity in a relatively easy package. The author racks up major points by giving an insight into making Mac and Cheese (a simple gratin) by `marinading' cooked pasta in sauce for 24 hours to soak up the sauce. Not really in the same class as a Kraft microwave dish, but well worth a try for some wow effect on Saturday night with dinner guests. There are at least two gratin recipes in this chapter that are alone worth the price of the book (at a reasonable discount).
The chapter `Fish' has many good recipes and fish cooking is always pretty fast; however, the choice of fish species, with few recommendations on substitutions tends to spoil the anticipation. The recipes include things like skate, porgy, turbot, and brill, plus trout so fresh that it is impractical to make the dish more than a few yards from a Catskills trout stream.
The chapter `Meat' combines recipes for red meat, game, and fowl. Many of the recipes are variations on fairly standard models such as steak tartare, beef stew with carrots, roasted chicken, rabbit stew, chicken shepherd's pie, veal stew, lamb stew, braised veal rump, and braised pork with chestnuts. Like gratins, I am very fond of braising, although I have all the time I need to do the prep and baby-sit dishes in the oven for hours. Most Americans who cook for families do not have this time. They would be better served by a good book on slow cooker recipes.
The chapter `Cheese' is short, with some standards and some good ideas spoiled by calling for some unusual cheeses.
The chapter `Desserts' is relatively long for the size of a book by a savory chef. If you have no books on desserts, pastries, or baking, this section is an important addition to the value of the book, as it includes both very simple recipes like raspberry clafoutis, poached pears, and rice pudding; some high impact dishes such as crepes with citrus fruit and champagne granite; and some simple classics such as sugar cookies and Madeleines.
All recipes are very well written. There are many uncommon recipes and most versions of old standards have an interesting twist. If you have no French cookbooks, you could do worse than this volume. You will not find the kind of cooking insights you will get from Julia Child or Richard Olney or Patricia Wells' book with Joel Robuchon, but you will find good recipes.
Recommended for those with the time, especially if you like braises, gratins, and simple desserts.