On the Line: How One Great Restaurant Made it to the Top and Stayed There Hardcover – Nov 1 2008
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I own 400+ culinary books and this is one of my top 10 - it exceeded my expectations! Highly, highly recommended.
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Who IS this book for, then?
1) Armchair chefs
Fans of inside-the-restaurant-business books, such as Kitchen Confidential (Bourdain) and The Soul of a Chef (Ruhlman), will enjoy reading about the history and personalities behind Le Bernardin. On The Line is written in a very matter of fact style though, so don't expect anything like the gonzo rants of Bourdain or the hushed and reverential tone of Ruhlman.
2) Anybody interested in how a top-end restaurant operates
Most of On The Line is devoted to an in-depth discussion of the daily operations at Le Bernardin. Comprehensive descriptions of each kitchen station, detailed run downs of how dishes are prepared during service, and a fascinating overview of the business side are highlights of the book. And unlike most books written by chefs, the focus is on the entire restaurant staff, not just the chef, which helps reinforce how running a restaurant is truly a team effort.
3) Accomplished or ambitious home cooks
While On The Line includes a selection of recipes, they are aspirational in that they are scaled down renditions of highly refined and luxurious restaurant cooking. As in The French Laundry Cookbook, one needs access to premium ingredients and a solid repertoire of cooking skills to replicate the dishes successfully.
Bottom line: On The Line is a fascinating and realistic look into the world of running a top restaurant, with the bonus of recipes for actual dishes served at Le Bernardin. Don't expect any flashy writing or chef worship talk though. Four stars, with the caveat that this isn't a book for beginning cooks or those who don't enjoy eating at destination restaurants.
Garlic and Sapphires (Reichl)--the high end restaurant experience from a restaurant reviewer's perspective.
Down and Out in Paris and London (Orwell)--a funny and shocking exposé of what really goes on in hotel and restaurant kitchens, but NOT from the chef's point of view!
I got the book for the second reason. I love reality cooking shows like Top Chef and Hells's Kitchen for the look they provide inside the world of a restaurant chef. I always wonder what it would be like to cook at that level. After reading the book, I can see those TV programs barely scratch the surface. The reality of cooking and serving food of top restaurant quality is so much more involved and labor-intensive than I dreamed it would be.
Le Bernardin is a famous restaurant in New York City that has achieved a 4 star rating from the New York Times and a 3 star (out of 3 tops) Michelin rating. Eric Ripert is the chef and part owner. The restaurant opened while I was living in NYC, but I never ate there. From the name I guessed it was a fancy French restaurant and assumed the menu was full of classic French food (whatever that might be). In fact, the menu is almost exclusively fish and seafood and the recipes are inventive and unusual.
Most of the first half of the book is about the restaurant, starting with the history of both the restaurant and chef Ripert. The next part is about the kitchen, starting with an overview of the various cooks' roles, the kitchen layout and stations, and a glossary of "cook speak." Then there are sections on various roles in the kitchen: the chef de cuisine, the executive sous chef, the saucier (who, as the name implies, makes the sauces), the porter, and the pastry chef. There is a section on how they create new dishes and a description of a night on the line. Despite a large staff, all the cooks and chefs work longer and harder than I ever imagined!
The third part is about the dining experience at Le Bernadin. This part is about the service. It takes an army of waiters and captains to deliver food to the diners and make sure they have a 4 star dining experience. The fourth part is about the business aspect of the restaurant.
The fifth part, and the last half of the book, contains almost 50 of Chef Ripert's favorite recipes. These are not for the beginning cook! None of them are completely beyond a cook who is willing to put in the work, but to make the dishes up to Le Bernadin's standard you'd need a source of absolutely fresh and, in some cases, sushi grade fish and other seafood. It also might help to have help in the kitchen.
There are recipes for cold appetizers, warm appetizers, entrees, and desserts. The recipes give fairly detailed instructions on plating the dishes as well as preparing them. The photos of approximately half of these recipes show exactly what they look like when prepared by the Le Bernardin chefs. The food is visually beautiful; some of the dishes look like little works of art. As far as taste, the combination of ingredients (particularly in the sauces) is like no other fish recipes I have seen.
I am particularly impressed by the photography in this book. In addition to the beautiful photographs of the prepared food, the section on the fish has amazing photography that makes the fish look like they are swimming. Simply gorgeous.
I doubt I will try any of the recipes; my cooking skills are not that developed and it is more difficult to get super fresh fish here in the Midwest. But I was completely fascinated by the descriptions of how a restaurant like Le Bernardin works and what cooking in its kitchen is like. I loved reading it from beginning to end!
It is not, like so many other celebrity chefs books, about the chef or his ego or his prowess or his food 'enlightenment', but refreshingly, about the impeccably demanding and non-stop daily efforts that owners Maguy LeCose and Eric Ripert demand of themselves and their staff in order to keep this high-maintenance restaurant operating at top level.
It is also a behind the scenes look at the hectic yet controlled and precise daily operations of a restaurant of this caliber located in the most hectic of American cities, New York City. As readers, we become privy to information such as the staff hierarchy in the kitchen and dining room, the slang-uage of the kitchen, and to the job of the porter, the person in charge of food deliveries.
In a restaurant world filled with 'good-enough', un-skilled and un-trained cooks and slacking standards ( i.e. the type of dreadful restaurants that Gordon Ramsey wrangles with on his television program Kitchen Nightmares ) it is refreshing to peer into the inner workings of a Eurocentric, Michelin star-rated establishment that constantly polishes its dedication to excellence and the discipline of cooking. Be reassured that here, everything is as it should be.
Here, the rewards and successes of the restaurant come from the hard work and personal values of LeCose and Ripert, and it is apparent from reading this book that they fully understand ( and thrive on ) the yin and yang relationship these concepts have one to another. Underneath the posh glamour of Le Bernadin is an old-school French restaurant, meaning that emphasis is directed towards sourcing the best-quality fresh products no matter the cost, and placing experienced and skilled chefs and sous chefs in the kitchen to assist the on-site Executive Chef/Owner in his desire to please restaurant patrons with beautiful, well-prepared food. ( Note: the word on-site is important here - many celebrity chefs are rightly criticized for their blatant absence from their restaurant kitchens).
This book is significantly different in tone and style from the previous book written by Maguey Le Coze and Eric Ripert titled: Le Bernadin Cookbook: Four-Star Simplicity, (Doubleday, 1998). Where Four-Star features more lavish plating and big gestures, the recipes in On The Line are spare, pared down to precise embellishments used in restrained quantities, which allows the star of the dish - the fish or shellfish - to hold center court.
For the record, let me say here that I have never dined at this restaurant nor do I know either of the two owners. So, with book in hand I made several dishes from this book and was impressed with the results. Each recipe has many parts - sauces, emulsions, flavored broths, garnishes, etc - that comprise the final dish. While the recipes are not difficult, they are a bit fussy and time-comsuming for home cooks who do not have a mis en place of these necessary foundation elements on hand the way that the Le Bernadin kitchen does.
But this is not as much a complaint as it is an observation. For example, I am sure that pureeing the sugar snap peas, green peas, and mint in three separate steps (as is called for in the Sweet Pea-Wasabi Sauce in the Salmon recipe on page 202 ) is a cinch when a reasonable quantity of sauce is made in the restaurant kitchen each night the dish appears on the menu. But for home cooks, the recipe calls for using such small quantities that I had to put all of these ingredients together in my blender just to have enough material in there for my blender to, well, blend.
Which recipes did I choose ?
Crab, inspired by Peruvian Causa: layered crab, avocado, and potaotes spiced with yellow Aji Amarillo pepper sauce
Scallops: ultra-rare charred sea scallops with smoked sea salt ( I used our fantastic Japanese Iburi-Jio smoked sea salt )
Salmon: barely cooked wild Alaskan salmon with daikon, snow peas, enoki salad and sweet-pea wasabi sauce
Banana: banana creme brulee, citrus-pistachio biscuit and beurre noisette ice cream with peanut caramel
All of these recipes were lovely- each dish had layers of flavor and a well-balanced complexity that one imagines is the signature of a Le Bernadin dish. Nevertheless, my favorite was the crab dish, followed by the scallops. The crab was fun to construct and was very jazzy looking ( I wish there had been a picture of the Le Bernadin version in the book ). Several components of the dish - the onion relish, the potatos, and the pepper sauce are tasty mini-recipes that I will certainly put to use in many other dishes.
To see a photo of my finished dish, please visit my blog: An Educated Palate
I served the dish with a nicely chilled, crisp 2007 Sepp Moser Gruner Veltliner, a good counterpoint to the unctousness of the crab and avocado and the spicy bite of the aji amarillo pepper.
If you said yes to at least two of these questions, you will like this book. If you failed to answer yes to any of them, then move on to a different book.
As a normal read for a food network/Hell's Kitchen fan, this was painfully boring and dull. I was looking for juicy stories about the staff, the customers and cooking. Instead I got what seems to be a record of how one restaurant is run--in such detail it seems like an employee manual or time capsule in case everyone quit and it needed to be re-created from scratch.
So why did I give it 4 stars? Because it actually delivers what is tells you it will. My issues were more because of what I THOUGHT the book would be like and less with what it actually is. One of the Amazon "Tag Suggestions" is restaurant management--something I 100% agree this book with provide at least some background into--but for the normal consumer, look for something you will really enjoy more than this dry manual like book.