About halfway through testing the Mackerel Marinated in Orange recipe in Alain Ducasse’s “Nature: Simple, Healthy, and Good” (Rizzoli, 2011; $45) — the hardbound inspiration behind Adour’s new lunch menu — I was glad the cookbook came with a padded cover. Because I felt like bouncing off it.
The recipe informs you that the residual heat from the oven-roasted orange juice will be enough to “cook” the mackerel when you pour the hot liquid over the fillets, wrap the dish tightly and let it sit at room temperature for an hour. Perhaps the technique would have worked if the recipe had imparted some basic information, such as the proper temperature for cooking the orange juice. Clearly, 400 degrees — my best guess — was not hot enough (though it would eventually save the dish). The fillets were still as rosy and rubbery as if they had just been pulled from Florida waters.
As a philosophy of cooking, simplicity is admirable. On the whole, “Nature” looks not only to strip away the complexity of Ducasse’s typical restaurant cuisine but also to undermine the self-congratulatory pretense of many celebrity chef cookbooks. When Ducasse peeks from the pages in Francoise Nicol’s arresting photos, he’s often dressed in jeans and an open-collared shirt, his face dappled in sunlight as if to underscore the book’s title and the chef’s own earthiness.
What’s more, the introduction is not penned by some fawning, overexposed celebrity whose name resonates with American consumers. (Alice Waters would have gushed like a broken fire hydrant in Queens, given the chance!) No, it’s a series of graphic-novel panels depicting Ducasse and nutritionist and co-author Paule Neyrat as they explain the book’s aims. Simple, childlike line drawings are scattered among the more than 190 recipes. “Nature” feels like a post-reading cookbook for a generation distracted by its own wiredness.
The book would have benefited more from Ducasse’s famous attention to detail, which has earned him enough Michelin stars to form his own private galaxy. The amount of radishes (10) called for in the Spring Tartines is about twice as many as you actually need (unless you want your bread buried under radish slices). As written, the cooking directions for the Rice With Marinated Soft-Cooked Eggs leave the sushi grains just short of the tooth-cracking stage. And the only way to save the mackerel fillets is to bake them another 10 minutes in the 400-degree oven.
And yet, when you work through the problems in “Nature” and the dishes come together, you are left with the unmistakable impression that a master chef remains at the root of these recipes, no matter how poorly they’ve been pruned. Ducasse’s skill at coaxing the perfect flavor from each ingredient, then combining it with other exquisite flavors, makes it worth fighting through every recipe here just to see what reward lies at the end.