I always like to see the Yankees win the World Series and Tiger Woods win a major tournament. This confirmations that there is someone who is certifiably the best at what they do. For the same reason, after reading the pieces about Thomas Keller and the French Laundry written by Tony Bourdain and Michael Ruhlman, I am happy to believe that Keller is simply the best chef there is in the United States.
Reading `The French Laundry Cookbook' by Keller, Ruhlman, and the French Laundry staff and `family' does nothing to detract from that opinion. Keller's words enhance my opinion of him as the ultimate culinary artist.
Most successful culinary educators from Martha Stewart to Alton Brown to James Peterson deal primarily with technique. Even major successful chefs who write or demonstrate on TV such as Wolfgang Puck, Mario Batali, and Jaques Pepin deal primarily with techniques with a background doctrine of using fresh, high quality ingredients. The occasional references by Mario or Sara Moulton or Emeril to smells and sounds and tastes often get lost in the woods of prep and firing techniques.
Keller is all about smell and taste and what may seem like totally over the edge concentration on respect for materials. One example is when he insists on storing fresh fish on ice in the same position as they swim so the muscles in the flesh are not stressed out of shape. He is all about providing service and pleasure to his patrons by excellence in the kitchen. One professional observer says the French Laundry kitchen is as quiet as a watchmaker's workshop. This simply fits into Keller's need to have an environment where his staff can experience their preparations with as few distractions as possible.
This, for example is one of the things which separates Rocco DeSpirito from Jamie Oliver in their shows on the opening of their respective restaurants. While Rocco was in the front of the house smoozing with customers, Jamie was in the kitchen at the expediter's table keeping tabs on the quality of what was leaving the kitchen. It was a revelation to see the superficially sloppy Oliver exhort his staff to use gentleness in cooking and plating and his focus on tastes and smells. Needless to say, Rocco has redeemed himself when he did a book, which focused on taste. But, with Rocco, it was reduced to a system understandable by the layman. Keller remains the ultimate empiricist.
This book contains the very first aesthetic justification for small portions at high-end restaurants. The theory is that the patron's first taste senses something wonderful. The second bite confirms the initial reaction, but the reaction is less dramatic. The third bite simply confirms that more of the same is on the way. Keller would rather provide a large number of dishes, each of a few bites, and each providing an exquisitely prepared experience. His doctrine with luxury ingredients such as truffles, foie gras, and caviar is to not skimp on the amount placed on each serving. The rationale is that without that second confirming taste of truffle, the patron may not really know what all the excitement is all about. (I have no idea what the French Laundry charges for a dinner seating, but I'm willing to believe it is pretty expensive. From the evidence of this book, I believe it is worth every penny.)
The book contains recipes actually prepared at the French Laundry. They include all of the whimsically titled dishes reported by Ruhlman and Bourdain, including `Bacon and Eggs', `Macaroni and Cheese', and `Coffee and Doughnuts'. In spite of the fact that some of these recipes are some of the longest I have seen in print, Keller says there is no guarantee this is exactly how they prepare them every day. This harks back to his primary doctrine that the soul of cooking is attention to the individual material in front of you and it's qualities, rather than what is written on a piece of paper. That doesn't mean these recipes will not work in a home kitchen. Madame Keller has in fact, tested them in a home kitchen by her own staff. The recipes in fact elaborate on a number of techniques I have seen before and introduce some which are new to me. The most important is the use of the beurre monte emulsion of melted butter in a very little amount of water. The technique and its uses appear very similar to the beurre fondue technique reported by Tom Colicchio. Both are media for holding or conditioning food in the kitchen rather than sauces used during plating. (I guess it's time I finally read Escoffier). Keller's techniques for shellfish are totally new to me as well. His discussion on cooking lobster is a demonstration of extraordinary sensitivity to his raw material. It easily equals the fussiness of Paul Bertolli in his latest book.
The cuisine is almost entirely based on classic French technique, so it will not be totally foreign to someone schooled by Julia Child and Jaques Pepin. While many recipes are daunting, most are doable by a dedicated amateur and even those recipes which may be beyond ones patience will contain useful techniques.
This is an early celebrity chef coffee table book format, and the photography is worthy of the price. The index is very good and the book includes a good list of sources. The editors have also included a complete list of recipes. The publisher did Eric Rippert's book and with this book they did not make the same mistake of using a font too small. The book also contains a lot more than lip service to the restaurant's suppliers, as it includes several two page essays by Ruhlman on some of the French Laundry's more interesting purveyors.
This book is one of the most lucid characterizations I have seen of the chef's art. This is one source for reading about the very best in American culinary thought and skill.