Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook

Heston Blumenthal wanted, more than anything, to be a chef. Not one for formal training, he poured over cookbooks, night after night, soaking up all the culinary knowledge he could. One day, while journeying through the magical village of Bray, he stumbled upon a small British pub. Heston purchased the pub and called it The Fat Duck.

For years Heston slaved away, working in the dark kitchen of The Fat Duck, until one day he received word that he had been awarded the most coveted prize: a Michelin star. Soon another followed, and then the final third. Having achieved the greatest thing a chef could hope to accomplish, Heston took a moment to reflect. He gathered his cooks around him. "Listen closely, as this will not be as easy task," he told them in a hushed voice. "We are going to create the most expensive cookbook ever published..."

The Big Fat Duck Cookbook weighs a lot. A lot. It's suggested retail price is $250.

It is stunning and sturdy; the pages have a matte finish that stands up to fingerprints. Its hefty slip cover is adorned with a gigantic silver plume on either side, and the pages are likewise trimmed in silver. The introduction, by Harold McGee, is brief and to the point — his relationship with Blumenthal goes back some way and his professional admiration shows, although McGee does go out of his way to point out that "although many people have contributed to the book, its voice is unmistakably Heston's."

The book is split into thirds: the first covers History, both of The Fact Duck and Blumenthal himself; the second is Recipes, first the tasting menu, in order, followed by the a la carte menu; the third is devoted to science, with articles on ice cream, perfume and chewing. The structure is revealed by the giagantic pullout table of contents that bisects the book, formatted to represent Blumenthal's brain. The whole thing reads a little bit like a cartoonish dissection of a restaurant.

I want to be clear at the beginning: this book is an extraordinary accomplishment. Heston Blumenthal, chef at Britain's Fat Duck restaurant, spins a lovely, detailed, epic tale that could force the most jaded line cook to love food again. The recipes, each preceded by its own lengthy creation myth, are intricate and yet accesible. At least, most of their components are — I don't know about you, but I don't usually keep liquid nitrogen in the pantry. The science articles that comprise the last third of the book, while varied in tone, are on the whole more Scientific American than MIT doctoral dissertation.

And the illustrations are fantastic! Heston the teenager, discovering Le Grande Cuisine with his parents in France! Heston the young chef, climbing a mountain with the aid of a carrot and a spear of asparagus! Heston the three-star chef, with a helipad on his bald skull! Illustrator Dave McKean has done an excellent job.

I gather this is how eating at The Fat Duck is supposed to affect the diner: dishes are designed to evoke emotion and nostagia, and occasionally employ bait-and-switch tricks designed to make the diner smile.

For example, many of the dishes taste like a smell (a concept I can't fully wrap my head around without experiencing it): leather, rose, frankincense. Others reverse traditional culinary concepts: savory crab ice cream, the Whiskey Gums that contain actual whiskey.

Now the question: what to do with this monstrous tome? I would normally argue that the expensive, chef-helmed, glossy cookbook's purpose is to give chefs and other students of gastronomy access inside the minds of some of their more accomplished colleagues, usually at less cost than eating at their restaurants. However, this book is above and beyond the normal price tag and — aren't you sick of this phrase by now? — in this economy, that doesn't seem particularly excusable.

It has value as documentation, of course, but would it have been worth it to scale down the scope of the project, lower the retail cost and ensure that the book found itself in the hands of more people? I'm not sure. As I said, the magnitude of what has been accomplished here is pretty awesome, both in terms of information and as an object. I wish that as someone who claims to be interested in the concept of accessibility, Blumenthal could've created a magnum opus that would allow those who can't afford his cuisine to have some access to his concepts and philosophy.

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