This excellent book by Judy Rodgers is an addition to the growing body of works by prominent American chefs who learned their craft in France and whose doctrine on food and cooking has been reinforced by the writings of Richard Olney and transformed by the California doctrine of using fresh local foods. The foremost of these writer chefs are Thomas Keller, Alice Waters, Jeremiah Tower, Paul Bertolli, and Judy Rodgers herself. The Italian wing of this group is represented by Tom Colicchio and Mario Batali (In spite of Mario's antagonism to the 'F country', he is a true student of this group, having been a chef at Stars under Jeremiah Tower).
This book won two James Beard awards and Rodgers garnered a third Beard Award for best chef last year, making it a true hat trick for Rodgers and the Zuni Café. From what I have seen in this book, it earned every bit of recognition it has garnered.
The only recent American book I know which is comparable to this book in the quality of its lessons is 'Jeremiah Tower Cooks'. This book succeeds at an even higher level than Tower since the older writer has some strong opinions on some not entirely universally held opinions. Tower redeems himself by making his book just that much more engaging by so energetically endorsing these controversial opinions.
Rodgers engages in no controversy. Her lessons in cooking follow the straight and narrow of French technique mellowed by her beautifully plain doctrines about using simple equipment. Before I get too far, I must warn the reader that what people like Rodgers and Colicchio mean by simple is much different from what the fast cooking maestros such as Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and Ann Byrn mean. Rodgers and Colicchio are talking about simplicity within the world of haute cuisine as defined by Richard Olney in 'Simple French Food'. Basically, simple to this school means using well-understood techniques without excessive or overly architectural ornament. This style still requires many years of training to become familiar with one's materials and techniques.
There is at least one pleasantly surprising joining of opinions between the haute cuisine Rodgers and the English popular food writer Nigella Lawson. Both make the point, that to really know your materials and procedures, it is essential that you repeat the same few dishes rather than doing something different every time you turn on the range. While Lawson uses this principle to recommend a list of recipes she considers important to master by repetition; Rodgers gives a more methodological approach by advising us how to make little variations in one's practice to teach oneself the variations in your prima materia.
The instructions and explanations on stock making alone are worth the price of the book. Here, Rodgers is following Olney's lead by explaining why you do things this way rather than that way. The explanations are leavened by anecdotes on Rodgers experiences in training and in her kitchen at Zuni. Especially delightful is the tale of a pig's head being used to make a pork stock. Among the stories are some experiences in the kitchen of the Troigros brothers in France. These legendary chefs are often mentioned together with other modern greats of the French kitchen. This is the first look I have seen into the basis of their renown.
Among the very many lessons about basic cooking techniques, the most dramatic and most useful is in the application of salt to food. While Food Network junkies may not find this lesson too dramatic, it does give one a new respect for this most simple of culinary techniques.
Every chapter in the book dishes out not only Zuni Café recipes, but also a California gold mine of techniques and explanations on why these techniques work. Even the single page on vinaigrettes offers ucommon wisdom on a very common subject, such as the relevance of the dish to be dressed on the ratio of oil to acid in the vinegrette. The star of the latter portion of the book is 'A Lesson in Sausage Making', comparable to some of the more lovingly detailed chapters in Bertolli's 'Cooking by Hand'.
This book should be on every foodie's short list of must reads. Unlike excellent books on various methods and materials, this is a book you will want to read from cover to cover. The attitudes and knowledge will infuse and improve all your thinking and working with food.
If you are the book buying public, you can tune out now so I can talk to the book designers at W. W. Norton.
After the most beautifully composed photograph on the dust jacket, you seemed to drop the ball in laying out parts of the inside of the book. The photographs are too close up and are taken from an angle which does not present the food in the best light. The Table of contents is very poorly done. It is just about the worst I have ever seen in the way it is layed out. And, the tiny black and white photos used on the chapter title pages are simply a waste of money and space. One has absolutely no idea of what they are. The pictures on the 'Stocks' title page could be from a restaurant, a hospital, or a laboratory. To your copy editors, I warn that Harold McGee is probably cringing at the many uses of 'dissolve' where you really should say 'bring into suspension' or simply 'incorporate'.
To all foodies, this is a must have book.