BOOK AND AUTHOR: "A Return to Cooking" by Eric Ripert and Michael Ruhlman (Artisan, 2002, $50). Born in France, where he grew up cooking in his grandmother's kitchen, Ripert has worked in such monuments to French cooking as La Tour D'Argent and under such legends as Joel Robuchon at Jamin in France and Jean-Louis Palladin at the Watergate in Washington. By age 29, he was chef at Le Bernardin, the acclaimed New York City restaurant, where he is now executive chef and part owner.
Ruhlman is the author of "The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America" and the best-selling "The Soul of a Chef" about the culture of restaurant kitchens.
FORMAT: It's tempting to compare this book to "The French Laundry Cookbook" by Thomas Keller, since both Ripert and Keller are masters of their art, since Ruhlman contributed in large part to Keller's book and since both books are big, coffee-table size productions, published by Artisan and costing $50. So let's.
Keller's landmark book drilled into the workings of his kitchen and his purist, perfectionist mind. In series after series of intensely focused courses and recipes, readers could penetrate the walls and the workings of a restaurant at which they probably couldn't get a reservation. Ripert, on the other hand, flees the confines of his restaurant in this book, taking readers on a four-part journey, to four different locales (Sag Harbor, Napa Valley, Puerto Rico and Vermont), with the hope of cooking with local ingredients and "from the guts." Ruhlman, Colombian artist Valentino Cortazar and photographers Tammar and Shimon Rothstein come along, making their own contributions.
Ripert's first-person running commentary -- on cooking in general, specific recipes and reminiscences -- is counterpoint to Ruhlman's observations of Ripert in action; Ruhlman acts as chronicler of Ripert's words, deeds and even emotions. (In Puerto Rico: "Eric awakes from an uncustomary nap after lunch. He is worried. He doesn't have the variety of ingredients he's used to.") Cortazar's paintings accent the book and the photographers' close in on Ripert's finished dishes.
WHO WOULD USE THIS BOOK: Accomplished home cooks could probably follow along with most of the recipes. But the four locales demand often hard-to-find exotic ingredients (substitutions are frequently listed). This is a demanding and challenging book for good cooks, one that requires discipline, time and often a good deal of money if it is brought into the kitchen and not left with the art books on the coffee table.
-- Jeanne McManus