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25 September 2011

Keep food writing focused

It seems that every cookbook is the same as the last.

There are the obligatory breakfast recipes that will include a version of çılbır, then a few pages on snacks, perhaps some suggestions for lunch that will include mackerel and then dinner, no doubt split between the quick, post-work-I'm-too-knackered-to-cook suggestion, to the dinner party option, via the thick chunky soup for an autumnal night. 

I recently wrote about Tea with Bea, Bea Vo's attempt to shed some light on how she makes such delicious cakes.  In the book's introduction she says she was initially sceptical about writing a book because she felt so much of it had been written before.  She then realised that cookbooks should be about "a particular chef's point of view".  This struck a chord with me.  So many cookbooks seem utterly pointless.

Then recently, over the last few months, I've read some books and magazines that I've enjoyed and hope has been restored.  None of them included spicy egg and yoghurt recipes, or thick chunky soups.  In fairness, not all of them were cookbooks.  They all had one thing in common, single mindedness. It felt to me as though the author was trying to leave the reader with one point, and every page hammered that home.

Setting the Table: Lessons and inspirations from one of the world's leading entrepreneurs is not a cookbook at all.  Written by Danny Meyer, owner of a slew of well regarded New York restaurants, ranging from the venerable Gramercy Tavern, through 11 Madison Avenue to Shake Shack.  Meyer's point is very simple, restaurants are about hospitality and that's the complicated bit.

Obviously these are the views of just one man, but I would guess others who run restaurant groups might well agree.  Thinking of UK restaurant groups such as Caprice Holdings, Gordon Ramsay Holdings or even the mini Arbutus Restaurant Group, service is of a very particular standard.

If I was a more diligent sort, I'd read a load of restaurant reviews and analyse the frequency and tone that hospitality is mentioned.  But I'm not, so I'll go with instinct instead.  I reckon that if there's bad service it always gets written about - perhaps two paragraphs worth in an average review - and if there's exceptional service, it might get a line and a half.  Most times though, it will barely get a mention in a review because it is solid and is not deemed to merit comment.  

If anyone can be bothered to prove how correct I am (or incorrect, unlikely) then it would seem that reviewers take service for granted because that is what we expect.  

Meyer seems to be saying that if we do take it for granted when rating a restaurant we're missing a trick.  If the hospitality isn't good, then nothing else will be either, however proficient the kitchen.

When reading Setting the Table, I did hanker for a bit more food writing and a bit more of the grit of running a restaurant, but it made a change from some of the self-serving twaddle some UK proprietors foist upon us.  Meyer's success seems to be built on firmer foundations than some of his UK counterparts, which adds legitimacy to what he has to say.  It's all about service kids.

Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work also falls into the single minded category.  Written by Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot (who I interviewed a few years ago) it is a reflection of their years behind the stove cooking together and forever posing simple questions of their ingredients and recipes, along the lines of why? and how?  All this questioning has resulted in a book that builds on their very successful blog.  

The book gives home cooks, even the fairly timid, tools to make their food more interesting and be able to explain why it is better.  They give you building blocks and ideas to ensure you start questioning the norms you associate with food.  

For example, I made their preserved lemons using a freezing and thawing technique.  This required no more hi-tech equipment than a freezer and freezer bag.  But it got me wondering about cell structures of other fruit and veg and how they might react to a similar preserving technique.  What about preserved apples, or would they go too mushy?  How about using the method to flavour and preserve potatoes, could it break down the cell structure sufficiently so you can eat them raw? Perhaps these are culinary disasters waiting to happen.  Perhaps they're little more than intellectual wankery.  Either way it has got me thinking and that is what I want from a book.

Mark Bittman is the author of numerous books about food and a columnist on the New York Times.  He has embraced the digital publishing era with gusto and in particular has started publishing on Amazon's Kindle Single format.  These are basically long articles/short books available on the Kindle or via the Kindle app.  It's an interesting way to publish cookbooks, because not all books are weighty tomes and some suit a smaller format.  I think that Bittman's Kitchen: What I Grill and Why (Kindle Single) is one such example.

In the introduction, Bittman describes the book as 'idiosyncratic' because it is effectively just a compendium of what he loves to cook.  It is therefore an indulgence for him.

Bittman is at pains to say that his book isn't a 'how to'.  But it is, just by stealth and gentle wiping of the reader's brow.  He assures you that your equipment is probably fine.  He gives a few tips on how to ensure what you're serving is properly cooked.  He gives the obligatory list of what you should have in the cupboard.  He then goes on to give some really rather lovely looking recipes, that you know, given his experience, are going to be well written, will work and will taste good.  Being a journalist, he also gives the requisite pre-recipe blurb on why that particular recipe made the cut into the book.

So for the miserly cost of £0.72 you're getting a well researched and written recipe book about just one facet of cooking. You will have decent meal and learn quite a bit about grilling. The same cannot be said for many books currently flooding the market.


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