In Search of Total Perfection
by Heston Blumenthal, Pascal Cariss
Publisher: Bloomsbury, Country: UK
ISBN: 9781408802441, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Heston Blumenthal is known as a gastro-wizard. Not only does he helm the Fat Duck, once considered the top restaurant in the world, but he also has popular notoriety through his In Search of Perfection television series on the BBC. In Search of Total Perfection is the culmination of the TV series put in print (combining his two previous books from the series into one volume), and offers not only the recipes and exploratory work leading to the recipes, but also the behind-the-scenes tales from the studio. And whereas a movie can drop a book’s plot, story lines and even characters to help the story fit into a two-hour reel, this book flips a page and gathers all of the information presented in the series and expands on the shows with useful and fun details. The reader is left as plump and saturated as Blumenthal’s roast chicken. And that’s where we’ll peck away at this book – roast chicken.

Full review

The premise of the series is a focus on Britain’s most beloved recipes, discovering the path to perfection. The recipes include roast chicken with potatoes, Peking duck, hamburger, fish & chips, pizza, and treacle tart, among others. In the roast chicken recipe Blumenthal finds the perfect chicken (Bresse) and the perfect potato (Maris Piper) and through a series of convinced attempts demonstrates that a careful blanching of the chicken followed by overnight drying and ultimately a very low-heat baking, produces the most succulent and moist chicken. But a perfectly crisped skin is part of the perfect roast chicken. Toward this end Blumenthal botches a good ol’ American deep-fry, combusting his bird, and ultimately settled on a quick pan sear. Perfection.

Nothing is left to mediocrity. And more importantly for the reader, nothing is left out-of-reach to the home cook. Unlike so many other cookbooks that I have reviewed over the past year which require gizmos and watchamacallits, Blumenthal explains his ideal, often complicated, technique followed by a more accessible home-friendly technique. Fortunately, in most recipes no conversion is needed as the elaborate technique, while lengthy, is still very doable to every reader. Instructions are patient, clear and easy to follow.

But let’s scratch our way back to the chicken dish. In the televised episode on which the roast chicken chapter is based, the edited narration takes the viewer through the selection of the chicken in less than a minute, meanwhile the book spends pages looking at the various breed options, and ultimately provides the reader with a bit of history and context for the Bresse. The handling of Bresse chickens is unlike any others, and that leads to the realisation that much of the world can’t access a Bresse at their corner market. Blumenthal succumbs to reality and suggests “any good quality free-range chicken” in lieu of the Bresse. The television show simply suggested Bresse or the French highway!

So what does a recipe substitution mean to a book exclaiming “perfection?” My suggestion is to take the title as a marketing technique and leave it at that. Since perfection in food is subjective at best anyway, these step downs should not be considered the loss of perfection. Rather, as the saying goes, “it’s the journey, not the destination.” The seeking of the perfect ingredients, the perfect technique, and the perfect presentation are the penultimate goal of a dish. The outcome is the proof of the pudding, and for any of us who have not owned the best restaurant in the world the outcome will still be a great pudding… even without the Bresse chicken.

In Search of Total Perfection is not a cookbook, although each of the 16 chapters has a series of recipes. None are fast and simple, but perfection rarely is. I found myself taking the knowledge and applying it in part to my daily cooking. I may not have three days to prepare a dinner, but I certainly can integrate a quick brining to improve my roast chicken. That said, I will be committing the time to fully prepare a few of these recipes for special occasions and maybe even daily meals.

Blumenthals’s In Search of Total Perfection is a must-have for anyone who is a fan of the show. If, like me, you had never seen the show, but are a student of approachable food science, then you will also love this book. Slim on pictures and heavy on dialogue, this was one of the more fun reads I’ve had this year.

And as for Blumenthal’s idea of fun…well, be prepared for a lot of bad puns.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 5. Highly recommended
Visual appeal: Okay
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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In Search of Total Perfection, Heston Blumenthal | 2009 | UK, 4.0 out of 5 based on 4 ratings

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