Essay: A new direction for coffee-table cookbooks leaves me wanting more

With the end of 2011 comes a point of cookbook evolution that hadn’t seemed possible: a collection of chefs’ work so cutting edge, so reinvented, that it contains not a single recipe.

I speak of “Notes From a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession,” the two-volume set released Dec. 8 that attempts to capture the essence of Sean Brock of Husk in Charleston, S.C.; Michael Laiskonis, who is about to leave Le Bernardin in New York; and eight other American chefs. According to co-author Jeff Scott, the tone poem to their greatness is selling quite well already, thank you.

“This is probably more valuable than a regular cookbook,” he said while en route to his home town of Austin last week. “It’s about trying to understand a chef’s emotional and creative process. There was no reason to do another book with recipes.”

With that in mind, I suspect “Notes” will land with a thud on the coffee table. And stay there.

As sure as the gift-wrap table is in place at Barnes & Noble, large-format books about food are now being hoisted onto checkout counters. Because they are splashy, pricey odes to cuisines and restaurants, such books tend to bulk up holiday wish lists. To be fair, Scott is a documentary filmmaker who wanted to capture the sublime and visceral, not the step-by-step of victuals. But another big book, “Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook,” has not cracked a lot of top 10s for 2011 thus far. Shouldn’t such a stunner have been this year’s “Noma,” the 2010 plate-as-palate tome that celebrates the Copenhagen restaurant and its chef, Rene Redzepi?


(John Ritter for The Washington Post)

“People like eye candy, of course,” says Rux Martin, senior executive editor at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “I think the pretty books that survive . . . the ones that are relevant 10 or 15 years down the line, are the ones you can cook from.”

“Eleven Madison” has pretty written all over it. Its dishes are composed like art on a pristine canvas — quite literally, because no platters, plates or bowls show up in any photographs. It takes 10 or 12 recipes to bring some creations together, even though the end result might encompass the surface area of a chicken cutlet. “Too pretty to eat” comes to mind, except the 84-seat, five-year-old Manhattan restaurant’s three Michelin stars suggest that flavor is on par with elegant execution.

Co-authors Daniel Humm, executive chef, and Will Guidara, general manager, address the issue of utility. “Will people actually be able to cook from this book?” they ask in its introduction.

Their answer: “Yes-ish.”

“Our goal was to make the book exactly what we do at the restaurant,” says Humm. (Full disclosure: The restaurant does use tableware.) “When we call for liquid nitrogen and sous-vide, we say also how to do the recipe without those things. We translated into ounces and tablespoons to make it more accessible.” You don’t need to do all parts of a multi-part dish, he says, recommending, for example, attempting just the starring ingredient and the vinaigrette of their Beets With Goat Cheese.

Humm says perhaps 50 percent of those who buy “Eleven Madison” will be prompted by fond memories or by a passion for collecting. But he can tell tales of people who already have made, and sent photos of, 16-course tribute dinners and those who are enthusiastic adopters of cooking vegetables in a salt crust. A Connecticut man has begun to work his way through the Eleven Madison Park book, as food blogger and Food section contributor Carol Blymire did with “The French Laundry Cookbook” in 2008 and “Alinea” in 2011. Ultimate challenge cooking, without the fuss or fury.

“Restaurants change, you know,” Humm says, “and it’s hard to remember how it was. A painter or musician brings out pieces that live forever. That’s why this book is such a beautiful thing.” “Eleven Madison” has sold 60,000 copies so far, he says; if that’s the case, few restaurants see their cookbook sales in those numbers unless celebrity chef names such as Batali or Flay are involved.

Reviews have been positive overall — and kind of funny, according to New York food writer Regina Schrambling. “They write the same thing: ‘It’s not as hard as you think.’ But then they run the same simple granola recipe [from the book] . . . . For 20-something years, part of the thing chefs have had to do is put out a cookbook to make themselves legit in the world. They want to impress their peers.”

For Schrambling, a self-described crank, a coffee-table-quality cookbook can be worth its cover price if it imparts even one technique or recipe with a touch of genius, such as the house vinaigrette in Thomas Keller’s 2004 “Bouchon.” (My bar for the money’s worth is set slightly higher, at three.)

Chef-brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio said they felt it was important to make a statement about who they were in “Volt Ink,” their meticulous large-format book released in October. That translated into dishes whose equipment requirements alone represent a challenge for even advanced home cooks: a masticating vegetable juicer, thermal immersion circulator, smoking gun, deli meat slicer. It’s no surprise that the Cinnamon Coffee Cake was quickly sussed as one of the most accessible (akin to Eleven Madison Park’s granola recipe); Volt chef-owner Bryan reports perfect execution at every Williams-Sonoma book signing event.

Yet just as significant as the personal statement, he says, was their goal to include educational elements that would be useful for professional cooks and student chefs, such as detailing the relationships of the “food families” that organize the book.

In the end, it’s useful to remember that people experience cookbooks in remarkably different ways, says Matt Sartwell, manager of Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York, which carries some 13,000 new titles and 5,000 to 6,000 used books. “People don’t read Anais Nin the same way they read Toni Morrison,” he says. “They buy cookbooks with recipes even though they have no intention of cooking any of it. Calling ‘Notes From a Kitchen’ a cookbook is missing the point.”

Which might be why “Notes” could in fact turn out to be a true departure for chef’s books. Several publishers passed on it, Scott says, which is why he and co-author/chef Blake Beshore decided to form a company to publish it themselves. When the next crop of chef superstars surpass their commercial dreams — a TV show, restaurants, a line of kitchenware — will beautifully styled graphic novels depicting their heroic feats be the next big thing?

Bonnie S. Benwick has the job most envied among cocktail-party conversations. If they only knew ... Cook with her each week at Dinner in Minutes: washingtonpost.com/recipes.
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