Ad Hoc at Home
by Thomas Keller, Dave Cruz
Publisher: Artisan, Country: US
ISBN: 9781579653774, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Ad Hoc at Home is the latest cookbook from award-winning chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se, featuring casual family-style dishes. Compared to his previous works, the book is charmingly earnest and the recipes approachable, consisting of mostly American dishes with a touch of French influence, and plenty of helpful hints from Keller. However, Keller’s meticulous nature still comes through, elevating the dishes in terms of flavor and presentation, but at the same time making them time-intensive and at times expensive and unfamiliar. Even with its lavish production, the book still has relatively few illustrations.

Full review

Structure of the book

Ad Hoc at Home, like Thomas Keller’s previous books, is a hefty tome weighing just above 2.6kg (5.8lbs). It has 360 pages, with 10 chapters devoted to recipes (poultry, meat, fish, soups, salads, veggies and sides, “lifesavers”, breads, crackers and cheese, and desserts). Keller has two additional sections about becoming a better cook and the history of Ad Hoc, his casual family-style restaurant that opened in 2006.

About the author

Thomas Keller is the award-winning chef of several restaurants, including the Michelin Guide three-star-rated French Laundry and Per Se.

How is this book interesting/special/new/useful?

In this book Keller offers a collection of “family meals and everyday staples, delicious approachable food, recipes that are doable at home.” In contrast to his previous work in the IACP Award-winning cookbook French Laundry Cookbook and his often-overlooked cookbook of sous vide recipes, Under Pressure, he promises that there will be no immersion circulator required, nor any complicated garnishes. As I was reading, I was charmed by how earnest it was, and approachable from more than just a culinary standpoint, but also from Keller himself. He shares more of his personal experiences, and gamely poses for photographs of silliness as well as preparing food pleasantly.

Shortly after he started writing this book, Keller’s father passed away and the poignancy of the last meal they shared together (which Keller cooked) resonates in every page. This is a book that celebrates the joy of family meals and the powerful ritual of eating together. Unlike recipes from his previous books, these recipes aren’t plated individually and meticulously; for the most part, everything ends with arranging the components on a large platter for sharing.

As the book centers on family meals, the food naturally gravitates toward more familiar fare, at least for Americans (with a touch of French influence in some places). Some of the highly publicized recipes include the Buttermilk Fried Chicken (for which US gourmet shop Williams-Sonoma produced a ready-made mix), chicken pot pie, braised beef short ribs, blowtorch prime rib roast, Maine lobster rolls, chicken soup with dumplings, and chocolate chip cookies. However, this overshadows the fact that for every crab cakes recipe there is a soft-shell crabs with sweet-and-sour cherry gastrique; for every hamburger there is a confit of pork belly. You’re not going to find Keller’s take on your grandmother’s chicken salad. Instead, you’ll find green bean and potato salad with mission figs and Ibérico ham. The only salad that gets a proper update is the iceberg lettuce salad with bacon and blue cheese dressing, and here it’s combined with oven-roasted tomatoes and brioche croutons (homemade, of course).

Whether it’s well-known family food or new, unfamiliar recipes, Keller elevates each recipe with his personal touch, in both flavor and execution. The instructions are clear and very detailed, giving cooking times and the desired characteristics of the components every step of the way. Keller’s scrupulous nature when it comes to cooking comes through, and results in piles of dishes and pans being used up just for preparation (sometimes it can get confusing, and it becomes hard to sense that Keller is asking you to get another dish instead of the one you just used). But the results are often very rewarding: large, well-received dishes with refined twists and imaginative presentations.

What problems/flaws are there?

Ad Hoc at Home sold out quickly and made its way to the bestseller list, but after going through the book, its status becomes puzzling to me. I was shifting between interpretations of the book’s introduction–delicious, approachable food doable at home–and asked myself, were Bouchon and French Laundry at Home not doable at home? Often the recipes in Ad Hoc at Home are just as demanding as those two books. It is approachable, yes, but mostly to the (very happy) eaters, and not to the cook, who instead of finding something to make on a weeknight, has to sacrifice a few hours or prepare a few days in advance (except for a handful of seafood dishes that can be prepared quickly). It isn’t called Keller Makes Quick and Easy Meals at Home, but to think of Ad Hoc at Home as a book of home cooking is a stretch – it’s fantastic weekend cooking at its easiest, and home food cooked restaurant-style at its most difficult.

It takes skill to pull off the recipes but Keller eases you into it with some helpful diagrams (trussing and portioning a chicken, for example), or tips (lightbulb moments such as cooking a piece of meat on a different side of the pan once it’s flipped, where the pan is hotter). Some recipes also can’t be counted as “home cooking” because of a few expensive or uncommon ingredients: aged balsamic vinegar, Piment d’Espelette, morel mushrooms, and monkfish, for example.

The good news is that the results are often worth the hard work, and with each recipe you take away a little bit of Keller’s kitchen wisdom. It’s also important to note that these familiar dishes are Keller’s idea of perfection. For example, a very familiar Southern dish like buttermilk fried chicken might not involve lemons in the brine for many people, nor would the dumplings in chicken soup be made from pâte à choux. Some details didn’t add up (I baked the bread pudding for 90 minutes instead of 60, the oven-roasted tomato sauce didn’t have enough liquid to stand up to the 90 minutes of baking, and his pasta uses 15 egg yolks for only 370 grams of flour), but thankfully, the detailed instructions at least told me what to expect at the end of cooking, so I wasn’t in the dark. Disappointingly for such a large and expensive book, most of the recipes (probably around 70%) don’t have photographs.

Keller recommends his “big four” of countertop appliances for a home kitchen: a Vita-Mix (worth the expense to have a very powerful blender, he says), a standing mixer (the grinder attachment is of particular importance in this book), a food processor, and a good scale. The scale, Keller asserts, is “by far the best way of measuring.” However, because so few US home cooks use a scale routinely, the entire book uses US customary volume measurements, except when it comes to meat. I find it extremely disappointing that Keller abandoned this opportunity to further educate his readers about the wisdom of measuring by weight, at the same time recommending a Vita-Mix and using a chinois in some recipes, which can cost many times more than simple, reliable digital scales. Meanwhile, his cake and cookie recipes use cups of flour and sugar. Does he explain how he measures his cups of flour (spoon vs scoop)? Of course not.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

Ad Hoc at Home is a beautiful and inspiring book that will be enjoyed by ambitious home cooks, professional cooks, fans of Thomas Keller, and anyone who wishes to take food meant for sharing to new heights.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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3 Comments

  1. Posted 28 Apr 2010 at 03:04 | Permalink

    Aargh, I hate when chefs talk about how ingredients should be measured by weight and then don’t offer weight measurements! How hard is it to put a little (xx ounces) note next to the volume measurement?

    That said, now I kind of want this book, but I also know that it’ll sit on my shelf waiting until “I have more time”, and I’ll never have more time, so what is the point? But, yum.

  2. admin
    Posted 28 Apr 2010 at 03:30 | Permalink

    I hear that often, the publisher makes the case for volume measurements. To have measures side-by-side would be ideal. But if I were to choose just one, I’d go by weight. It was annoying, buying produce so I could come up with “a cup of chopped fennel, a cup of chopped leeks, and a cup of chopped onion.”

    The multicomponent nature of many recipes (some simple veg recipes even have you making chive oil and parsley water before you even begin) makes the book something for the weekend, so if you do have the time, give it a try.

  3. Y
    Posted 29 Apr 2010 at 22:30 | Permalink

    Totally agree with your assessment on this book. I love it, but have yet to bake from it because of the cup measures.

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