Stacked up in towering displays at the front of the bookstore, it begs to be bought. Wrapped in a brown-paper-bag book jacket, it makes anything glossy look pretentious -- or worse, precious. The handsome, lanky chef presides in handsome halftones on the cover, his arms crossed defiantly over his chest. It’s not just “Les Halles Cookbook.” It’s “Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook.”
Make no mistake. Anthony Bourdain is not just a celebrity chef. He’s not just the author of the mega-selling “Kitchen Confidential” and star of “A Cook’s Tour” on the Food Network. He’s Bourdain. A man’s chef. A literary chef. He’s had a byline in the New Yorker, but he’s macho enough to call a pork a pig. Foul-mouthed and full of bravado, he’s the guy who’s going to take the, well, you know what, out of recipe writing. He’s the guy you go to if you want a little attitude with your steak frites.
The book (Bloomsbury, $34.95) is all the rage in the online foodie forums, where Bourdain enjoys god-like status. When I heard about it I had to have it. I used to eat at Les Halles in New York City when I wanted a decent hanger steak. The restaurant wasn’t, as Bourdain calls it in the introduction, “the best [expletive] brasserie/bistro in the country.” But it was honest and fun and felt almost French. And I imagined that what Bourdain would do in a cookbook might be refreshingly no-nonsense.
I wasn’t wrong. “This is basically a French version of gefilte fish,” he prefaces the quenelle recipe. Or, “Yee-hah! Rack of lamb! Just like they make it on ocean liners....” “And if you can’t properly roast a [expletive] chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, [expletive] bivalve in an apron.”
I started cooking.
Since Les Halles is really a place for meat (with a French-style butcher counter up front), I went for the cote de boeuf. “For your serious meat-eating guests,” writes Bourdain, “this is the way to go. When you approach the tableside with two of these intimidating monsters, and then carve them up in front of your guests, they will tremble with shock and awe, basking in your magnificence and casual impertinence.”
I seared the bone-in rib steaks on the grill pan and finished them in the oven, but first I made the bearnaise sauce. I wasn’t afraid -- despite the note that says, “Know this. If you haven’t made bearnaise from scratch before, you will surely [expletive] this sauce up. Don’t worry. Just do it again. This and hollandaise, more than any other sauces, seem to smell fear and uncertainty.”
I can make hollandaise with my eyes closed. And I have made bearnaise before. If you cook it gently over a double-boiler, it’s not hard.
But what happened here was utterly bizarre. It did seem like an awful lot of shallots and tarragon (1 bunch, leaves only, finely chopped) with the vinegar. I followed the directions, reducing the mixture “until nearly dry.” I placed my egg yolks in a warm metal bowl. Then I added the reduction, a few drops of water, as Bourdain suggests “as a little insurance against curdling” and placed the bowl over simmering water. The instant I started to whisk, the thing seized up in a blob. It was downhill from there.
The meat itself was perfectly delicious, though there was no reason to mess with a grill pan when searing it in a skillet would have been easier and just as good, and the book offered no advice about how to carve the hulking steaks. The bearnaise was so hideous-looking -- grainy, oily and ochre-colored -- that it aroused curiosity; everyone tried it. Then one guest choked on a chunk -- a chunk of sauce! -- and had to leave the table.
I would like to say that the first course had been so good that it mitigated the disappointment of the bearnaise, but it wasn’t. It was a mangled heirloom tomato salad. “If you can’t get a good tomato, don’t make the [expletive] dish,” says the headnote. The recipe specifically calls for heirloom tomatoes, then it has you quarter them, degorge them by salting, let them sit, then brush off the salt and remove the seeds. It wasn’t pretty, and a shame to see all that flavor go down the drain.
Which brings me to Bourdain’s attitude toward ingredients.
Much of his introduction argues that France’s love affair with fine ingredients is a myth. Jacques Pepin, he points out, learned to cook by trawling the markets with his mother late in the morning, then returning to the kitchen “to transform all that limp produce and second-best meat into ... something magical.” That, he tells us, is the essence of French cuisine. " ... It is a shameful lie,” he writes, “when other books on French regional cooking imply that the lush, fire-engine red, vine-ripened tomatoes, perfect white asparagus, prime beef, and tender, young, free-range chickens you see in their heavily styled, near pornographic photo inserts are necessary to a good final product. The implication that every French housewife and traiteur have always been able to slip on their Dockers and their Weejuns, hop in the SUV and roar off to the organic greenmarket to pay some hippie twice the going rate is nonsense.”
Has this guy ever been to France? No, they don’t wear Dockers or drive SUVs, and it’s not easy to find organic produce. But the white asparagus in any grungy little village market blows the stuff we get from Chile out of the water, the vine-ripened tomatoes are indeed fire-engine red, and the Label Rouge chicken you find in any French supermarket is 10 times more flavorful than our best organic birds.
Despite Bourdain’s diminishing authority as I continued reading, I continued cooking.
Surely the man can cook a chicken, I thought, flipping to coq au vin. But here, as frequently throughout the book, Bourdain’s technique is unorthodox to the point of wacky. Coq au vin calls for a whole chicken, marinated overnight in wine, mirepoix (diced onion, celery and carrots), bouquet garni and a lot of black peppercorns. He has us dry it off and brown it in olive oil and butter, still whole. Weird.
Next he wants you to brown the wet mirepoix without draining any of the fat from the pan, then sprinkle flour over it. Pour in the wine marinade, without even cooking the flour, virtually ensuring an icky raw flour taste. In goes the chicken. I’m thinking, maybe order a backup dinner from El Pollo Loco.
But we’re not done yet. Next is cooking lardons (slab bacon), mushroom caps and pearl onions separately and tossing them in at the last minute, so none of their nice flavor goes into the sauce, and none of the nice flavor of the sauce goes into them. The folly continues: There are mushrooms to saute, but not enough bacon fat; pearl onions to simmer, but too much water; a chicken to whack into four pieces, and the doorbell to answer: There’s the Pollo Loco.
No cookbook is perfect. And some less so than others. Bourdain wants you to put raw pork fat on top of rillettes before letting it sit for three days. Trichinosis, anyone? Onions for onion soup aren’t properly caramelized (in 20 minutes? Of course they’re not.) Still, Bourdain can’t resist reminding us that onion soup is “all about the onions” (his italics). A $50 beef tenderloin gets a bath in boiling water that’s barely flavored by those aromatic vegetables that have only just gone in. The result? Suffice it to say that a tenderloin is a terrible thing to waste. If you think I’m going to trust a veal tongue or a wild duck to this fellow, you’ve got another think coming.
One dish did turn out OK: moules marinieres. For once Bourdain gives us the traditional method. And guess what: It works.