January 03, 2007

Being Serious

One of the best parts of school vacation is spending time reading cookbooks. Reading a recipe is a lot like score reading. You're looking at instructions for performance, not the work itself. Like score reading, when you do it enough, you start to get a sense of what a recipe will taste like without having to prepare the dish. Also like score reading, while you may get the gist of the flavors, it's no substitute for actually eating.

I'm currently browsing through the book based on the French Laundry. High dining, to say the least. Not something I'll do every night, but it shares some secrets that will work with more pedestrian fare. One thing this book does well is communicate Thomas Keller's attitude towards food and cooking:
Unlike meat and poultry, fish is not regulated for quality and it's not inspected, which is why quality ranges are huge. How can you know when fish wasn't handled right? Was it dumped on the boat, is it bruised and beaten up? How was it caught—did it drown in a net, its gills filling with water, its flesh becoming waterlogged? Once caught, was it properly iced?. . . Our fish is packed in ice or seaweed and stored in our walk-in cooler in the same position it swims—not haphazardly, and not on its side. The flesh is too easily damaged. This is what I mean by treating your products with respect.

Not only does he ask all the questions, but it's essential for him to know all the answers. However, he's no Alton Brown-style food scientist. Alton will get a costumed cohort when he wants to describe the different cuts of meat from an animal. Keller rolls up his sleeves:

One day, I asked my rabbit purveyor to show me how to kill, skin, and eviscerate a rabbit. I had never done this, and I figured if I was going to cook rabbit, I should know it from its live state through the slaughtering, skinning, and butchering, and then the cooking. The guy showed up with twelve live rabbits.

It's not that he thinks it would be fun to do, he considers it part of his personal education. Interestingly, the book is pretty low on arrogance. He seems constantly determined to make the best food he can. Talking about how great he is would just take time away from that.

Finally, Keller's thoughts on "performance practice":

These recipes, although exact documents of the way food is prepared at the French Laundry, are only guidelines. You're not going to be able to duplicate the dish that I made. You may create something that in composition resembles what I made, but more important—and this is my greatest hope—you're going to create something that you have deep respect and feelings and passions for. And you know what? It's going to be more satisfying than anything I could ever make for you.

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