Don’t ask Pierre Gagnaire how many ounces of bittersweet chocolate go into one of his desserts, let alone how long to bake it. The notoriously imaginative Paris chef has more important insights to impart.
“Chocolate is imperial,” he writes in “Pierre Gagnaire: Reflections on Culinary Artistry.” “On a plate, you want to define its space, otherwise it simply takes over. To avoid turning this tyrant into a despot, you have to compose a pleasing, entertaining court of elves, fools, acrobats and jesters.”
Daniel Boulud is also thinking out of the recipe box with his latest, “Letters to a Young Chef,” one in a series modeled on Rainer Maria Rilke’s work. A typical modest pronouncement: “The chef’s job -- to employ heat to transform ingredients -- is the closest thing to alchemy I have come across.”
And Paul Bertolli treks up guru mountain in his new “Cooking by Hand.” “Intensity is the hallmark of ripeness, the culmination of growth and experience,” he intones. “But ripeness is not simply a reward for waiting nor is it necessarily guaranteed. The precondition of ripeness is maturity....”
Call it Zen and the Art of Blender Maintenance. Chefs who only a few years ago were content to churn out glossy collections of restaurant recipes with minimal head notes are delving deep into their inner Jungs these days. On one level, the new flurry of books represents a natural progression of chefs from cultural icons into kitchen sages. Already they are seen as role models who shill for blenders and butter, California raisins and Italian wines, and now even toothpaste. They cook on breakfast TV, get bit parts in movies and occasionally even land their own series. Now, they’re out to prove that while they’ve been stirring the pot, they’ve been nurturing a serious life of the mind.
Here’s Eric Ripert of New York’s Le Bernardin in “A Return to Cooking”: “When you have a truffle, you have to be a craftsman to ensure that its superlative flavor pleases the senses of those who eat it. But at the same time, if you’re artistic, you can somehow convey that this is divine, a gift.”
The old cookbooks sold the chefs’ style; the new ones promote their deep thoughts. (Sometimes as if they had been transcribed by “Saturday Night Live.”) Recipes may be part of the package, or remarkably absent. But the message is updated Descartes: I cook, therefore I am.
Gagnaire’s “Reflections” is the most enigmatic of the current Joy of Philosophy crop. Gorgeously photographed and sleekly designed, it contains nothing -- not a single recipe -- but pictures of dishes and prose poems about each. Yet reading this lyrical, whimsical, often wacky writing is like being Pierre Gagnaire: Oddly enough, you get a clear sense of how this wildly original chef conceives of food.
The world in a duck
Alongside what might be bird flesh, Gagnaire writes: “In this dish, you can find the entire philosophy of my work. The duck genuinely evokes a dance. I have put it through everything. I have truly opened it up to release its spirit.... In the end, this dish fades out like a jazz tune -- the music quiets down, the instruments stop shaking their hips.”
Apparently that’s a good thing. His sentiments are clearer alongside a bizarre oyster creation. “All at once, looking at this picture, I am -- how can I say it -- overcome with embarrassment. In this composition (oysters, fava beans, beet gelee, Beaufort cheese), the fava bean sitting on the oyster is like an inquiring eye. The interrogation borders on reproach. ‘What have you done to me?’ the oyster seems to be saying. ‘God only knows!’ responds the fava bean.”
Paul Bertolli is wordier by far. Never has a book used so many acres of type to promote simplicity. A tantalizing recipe for antipasto of shredded eggplant nearly chokes on its head note. “Eggplant too often suffers in the kitchen from forced compliance, as though it is only through companionship or manipulation that it is delivered from blandness.”
Its deeper message goes right to the yoga set: “The ever-evolving taste memory is the internal compass that arbitrates the physical steps, maneuvers and choices a cook makes along the way.” That and 5 ounces of Gorgonzola will lead you to enlightenment in an Italianesque custard called a sformatino, a seriously delicious dish that pops up in an extensive chapter entitled “Twelve Ways of Looking at Tomatoes” (everywhere but in a navel).
Christian Delouvrier, a celebrated New York chef about to open two restaurants, walks a more straightforward line in his “Mastering Simplicity.” He gives recipes for cerebral innovations like his foie gras “burger,” with the liver sandwiched in between Granny Smith apple slices, while ladling out a hefty dose of touchy-feeliness. “I believe that any recipe is simply the literal translation of the personality of the cook. In the restaurant, it is my way of giving a bit of myself to our guests -- a bite of my life experiences as a cook and as a human being.”
Many words, two ideas
In the end, “Mastering Simplicity,” like virtually all other philosopher-chef books, has essentially just two things to say: Flavors should be layered; seasonality is crucial.
But Delouvrier’s recipes tell the story best, progressing from very basic French classics to over-the-top dishes such as langoustines with black truffle mousseline from his high-ticket time at New York’s Lespinasse. Something as simple as crushed carrots makes it clear that chefs’ minds go where few home cooks would dare: half a pound of butter to six carrots as a side dish to lobster poached in beurre blanc.
Like Delouvrier’s, most of these new chefs’ inspirationals are really just glorified cookbooks. But Boulud’s “Letters to a Young Chef” is a peculiar hybrid. He spells out some recipes in the text to make various points (a roast chicken needs potatoes, pancetta and porcini to be worthy of serving to Bill Blass), but this book is not meant to be shelved stove-side. Like a cross between a textbook and a missal, with about as much whimsy as either, it veers between practical if odd warnings (over 30? you’re too old to become a chef) and deep meanderings (“Becoming a chef, like making a good stock, needs unhurried, unpressured time.” “Every living thing is unique and will respond to heat differently ... ").
“Letters” is one in a series of books written by experts to aspirants (Mario Vargas Llosa to young novelists, Dinesh D’Souza to young conservatives), all inspired by the original volume by Rilke, whose letters to a young poet were written in 1903.
Boulud veers toward the philosophical like those writers (“Perfection can be boring,” “The absence of criticism is praise in the kitchen”) but comes back to the finger-wagging, as if he were writing an employee manual (“Leave your jewelry and your ego in the locker room”) or business plan (Make money on wine and dessert).
Boulud even includes his 10 commandments, handed down from his position as kitchen god. But it’s no wonder “Letters” winds up with actual recipes, each marking a stage in his career. Chefs still speak loudest through their food.
Two very different titles probably deserve credit (or blame) for turning chefs into Brillat-Savarin wannabes: Nigella Lawson’s “How to Eat” and Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry Cookbook.” The first presented the novel notion that a recipe is really just a small part of the culinary equation, that reveling in the thought process is Step 1. “It’s possible to love eating without being able to cook,” Lawson wrote, but “I don’t believe you can ever really cook unless you love eating.” The other book, also contemplative but from one of America’s most imitated chefs, has sold close to 250,000 copies, at $50 a pop.
The message was apparently clear: There’s gold in those minds.
Ann Bramson, the publisher of Artisan, took a risk on “French Laundry” and also produced Ripert’s latest book, which illustrates the creative process rather than a restaurant repertoire. While she sees them as very different, she said, they share a reflectiveness and a focus on “internal experience, life experience.”
“All the books we do are the same,” she added. “They need to be much richer than recipe books.”
Ripert had already produced the requisite restaurant roundup of recipes, from Le Bernardin, but his second go-round was entirely different, a literal and spiritual journey to places such as Puerto Rico and Napa Valley to delve into cooking in a different way: with artist, photographer, writer and assistant on board to record his every idea (“this kind of cooking, it’s like a car turning on ice -- you have to find a way to make sure you don’t crash into a tree”) and combination (peaches marinated in grappa, with a high note of basil).
Will they sell?
Gagnaire’s book was translated for American audiences by his publisher, Stewart Tabori & Chang, whose French owner is issuing “Reflections” at the same time in France, in November. A spokesman said they saw the market as primarily chefs and a few photography buffs but were counting on the star power of the chef to move the book out of stores heaped high with 1-2-3 minimalist recipe collections that are all ingredients, no insights into the creator (or, more often, adapter). It will undoubtedly mystify the nonprofessional cook, but it does have potential to become the cookbook equivalent of Madonna’s “Sex,” something to be taken out at dinner parties and passed around in awe if not shock.
We should have seen it coming. Chefs’ books have been inching toward the philosophical high ground for years. Even Bobby Flay’s most recent book went on about how his “recipes are all about flavor.” (There’s a novel idea.) Charlie Trotter has always been a pioneer on the high road, particularly in “The Kitchen Sessions.” Alain Ducasse routinely takes the concept almost to baroque parody.
But these latest books are more upfront and personal. They mean to elevate chefs into models to inspire Rodin.
How much can chefs really tell the world? “I hope they don’t say too much about life,” said Nach Waxman, owner of Kitchen Arts & Letters in New York, the country’s leading bookstore for serious cooks. “I don’t know if they’re more qualified than auto mechanics.”
Actually, maybe they’re as qualified to talk about philosophy as the first philosophers were to talk about food. Confucius thought an honorable man should stay out of the kitchen. Socrates said cooking is not an art but a routine. And look what happened to him.