|The Big Fat Duck Cookbook|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury, Country: UK|
|ISBN: 9780747583691, Edition: First, Year: 2008|
|BUY ONLINE (click on flag)
|This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.|
It’s 43cm long, 33cm wide, 8cm thick, weighs about five kilograms, has 534 pages, and was one of the most anticipated cookbooks in 2008. From the silver embossed slipcase to the photography and artwork, the writing and the feel of the paper, it would be hard not to notice and admire the Big Fat Duck Cookbook on the shelves of a bookstore.
On initial impressions, perhaps like the restaurant itself, the book appears to be an intimidating creature. Open it and you will be hit by Heston Blumenthal’s passion. Inside is the story of Blumenthal and his restaurant, the recipes and stories behind many of the dishes from the Fat Duck, and a series of essays explaining the science behind the food. Beyond the science, there are journeys into food history, philosophy, personal anecdotes, humour, and the sheer dumb luck that can trigger a great idea. It is a dizzying amount of information in one book. But those who have read Blumenthal’s previous books, his newspaper columns, or seen his TV show will know that he has a gift for explaining complicated concepts in layman’s terms.
Structure of the book
The book has three sections. The first, “History”, covers the story of Blumenthal and the Fat Duck. Strangely, whilst the index lists significant moments in the story, they are not given headings in the essay itself. The second is titled “Recipes” and contains 30 dishes from the restaurant’s degustation menu and 15 dishes from the à la carte menu. The final section, “Science”, is a collection of 25 essays on the science of food. Curiously, the table of contents is on a foldout page in the middle of the book.
About the author
Blumenthal is a self-taught chef and owner of the three-Michelin-star Fat Duck restaurant in Bray, England. He is a columnist with The Times, has hosted television shows, and The Big Fat Duck Cookbook is his fourth book.
How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?
The success of the Fat Duck, el Bulli, and Alinea restaurants has resulted in molecular gastronomy making its way into the popular culture. All three have released books, but where the El Bulli and Alinea books can leave the reader lost about what they do and why, the Big Fat Duck cookbook humanises the science and philosophy behind the food.
After an introduction by Harold McGee comes the section titled “History”. Blumenthal writes about his journey in food, starting from his trip to the three-Michelin-star L’Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence in 1982. Interestingly, he reminisces about the journey to the restaurant, noting the sights, sounds, textures, and smells as his family make their way there. Its significance is that it is these senses, and the human reaction to memory, that Blumenthal works to understand and manipulate in his food. He writes about the impact the dinner had on him, and how it steered him into a life of food. You learn about his development as a chef, from the books he read to the restaurants he ate at, the experiments he conducted and the sacrifices that he and his partner made. His story of the frustrations of starting a restaurant and how close they came to losing everything is an engrossing one, told with a wistful and self-deprecating humour. When he tells of how and when he received his third Michelin star, it’s hard not to feel happy for him. The section closes with a discussion about how he, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adria, and Harold McGee feel about the direction of their cooking, and specifically, the meaning and interpretation of “molecular gastronomy”. He includes their “Statement on the New Cookery”, published in The Observer in 2006.
The section “Recipes” contains 45 dishes. A full page is devoted to the name of the recipe, also giving the year in which it made its debut on the menu. There are then up to half a dozen pages with a photo, and in most cases some eye catching artwork, and an essay about the dish covering anything from the inspiration for it to the science behind developing it. Many essays finish with Blumenthal explaining how the flavours and textures should work in the final dish.
A key to the essays is that they often put the dishes into a context that can be understood by our own eating experiences. Take for example, one of his most infamous creations, Snail Porridge. Blumenthal’s essay starts with a story about him asking one of his chefs about what he ate on a trip to New York. Expecting an exotic answer, he got “fish porridge”, which he admits shut him up, but produced the seed for his dish. He discusses snails as a food dating back to Roman times, the coincidence where he gets the idea of cooking snails and oats, and his thought process of presenting the dish in such a way that diners would embrace it. He writes about the difficulties of not only trying to get the dish right, but also of putting it in a context that diners would understand. In what I think is the one paragraph that summarizes his philosophy, Blumenthal writes,
“For a diner it was a big leap into the unknown that, understandably, would be approached with caution. It’s difficult to enjoy a dish you can’t make sense of. And it’s certainly difficult to make sense of a dish that has no clear cut place in culinary tradition or even in personal food memories. Context seemed to me to be the key to unlocking this. Could I create a comfort zone around the dish, render it in some way familiar and, as such, more approachable?”
Whilst dishes like Nitro-Poached Green Tea And Lime Mousse, Sound Of The Sea, and Nitro Scrambled Bacon And Egg Ice Cream all point to a new direction for food, it would be a mistake to think that science is the only factor in Blumenthal’s vision. The most interesting recipes are concerned with the past, and Blumenthal is just as passionate about what people used to eat. He pays homage to the 19th century ice cream innovator, Agnes Marshall with the recipe “Mrs. Marshall’s Margaret Cornet” and delves back to the food of the royal courts with “Beef Royale (1723)”. He opens up a world of lost food concepts, visionaries from the past, and the “food archaeologists” who are working to document it.
Finally, the recipe is presented. Each sub-recipe is titled, the ingredients listed, followed by the method, and finishing with the final assembly of the dish. The sheer scope of a Fat Duck dish starts to sink in. Amongst ingredients that every home cook has used, rare ingredients and chemical compounds stand out. As you read the cooking instructions, the science lab equipment and the precision measurements make their presence felt. There are plenty of other restaurant cookbooks where you require six to ten preparations to make the final dish, but with the Fat Duck, it is the chemicals and equipment that will trip people up.
The last section, “Science”, contains 25 essays, five of which are written by Blumenthal and involve various aspects of the Fat Duck kitchen. The remaining essays are by different people around the world, each with an introduction by Blumenthal. As you would expect, these essays vary in interest and readability. I found the essay “Synaesthesia” by Jamie Ward to be incredibly interesting and easy to comprehend. By contrast, “Twenty-First Century Gums” by Tom Coultate was almost incomprehensible due to the detailed science and the jargon used. Readers will find most of the essays enjoyable and thought provoking.
The photography of Dominic Davies and Jose Luis Lopez de Zubiria is outstanding, but both are overshadowed by the brilliant illustrations by Dave McKean. His artwork brings a charming humour to the book and is a reminder that food should be fun.
What problems/flaws are there?
People may find the book to be prohibitively expensive. It is a very large volume, and not something that you can lie in bed to read. The table of contents is a fold out page in the middle of the book, which makes it irritating to use. Some readers will look at the size of the text and ask themselves, “Why?”. Finally, I think the production values of the book will divide opinion, so there will be people who feel that the entire package to be self-indulgent.
Who might enjoy/use this book most?
People with an interest in the cutting edge techniques, ingredients, and equipment being applied to cooking, and those who want an insight into how a chef creates a new dish will find plenty of enjoyment in this book. I feel this is a vastly superior book to the Alinea or el Bulli cookbooks simply due to the explanations that Blumenthal provides. The Fat Duck Cookbook will also find a home with those who simply want to read an entertaining story about a chef and his work. For those who are looking to cook something for dinner, you’re better off looking elsewhere.
|: 5. Highly recommended
: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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