The French Laundry Cookbook
Reviewed by Beth Vlasich Pav, Fri., April 7, 2000
The French Laundry Cookbookby Thomas Keller, Michael Ruhlman, Susie Heller
Artisan, 325 pp., $50
The French Laundry Cookbook is a stunningly beautiful food pictorial that takes you on a culinary journey through the doors of one of the greatest restaurants in our country, The French Laundry. Thomas Keller, French Laundry's chef and proprietor, acts as the book's chief navigator, graciously inviting you into his "home." He begins by introducing his philosophy of cooking: "When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear; to make people happy. That's what cooking is all about." I believe this. But as a professional chef myself, I must take that a step further and add that as much as you enjoy making people happy through food, you must first enjoy the process of bringing food to people. Throughout this colorful new cookbook, Thomas Keller gives us the opportunity to do just that.
Home cooks may be intimidated by this 325-page hardback that weighs almost six pounds and costs $50. It is the type of cookbook that you find yourself dusting every week on the living room coffee table. However, after I purchased it, I took my pink highlighter and marked the words and recipes that intrigued me. I messed it up some. If you follow my example with a cookbook of this caliber, you'll place it right on the level where it needs to be -- the cook's. It will be ready to take to the kitchen.
The French Laundry Cookbook is cleverly divided into six comprehensive food courses, much like having a dinner at The French Laundry itself. From canapés to desserts, we are able to choose from 150 detailed recipes. This is a true restaurant cookbook; one dish is a cumulative effort for up to four recipes. These are recipes for serious cooks with time and money.
Take, for instance, the chocolate cakes with red beet ice cream and toasted walnut sauce. For a perfect beet ice cream, it took me three hours to make the custard and prepare it for freezing -- and I'm fast! This is only one portion of the recipe, and it is time-consuming. It demonstrates, however, a master ice-cream-making technique you can apply to other vegetables like carrots. I loved the gazpacho recipe and found it was one of the easiest to prepare. As a Texan you might be aghast at the use of thyme in this revered dish and you might wonder what type of tomato juice to use. Even as a seasoned cook, my first thought was, "Should I use V-8?" Scary! Luckily, I looked in my cupboard and found a can of whole tomatoes. I pureed and mashed them through a sieve to separate the seeds. Voila! I had my tomato juice/puree, which was perfect. With a bit of cooking creativity, you won't be disappointed with the smooth, sweet, and tangy outcome.
Throughout the book, there are basic as well as lesser-known techniques to help you as you take your first step toward preparing an ingredient. Some of the more interesting techniques include how to make the infamous French Laundry powders out of beets, oranges, and various other ingredients or even how to extract chlorophyll from green vegetables and herbs. This book covers familiar techniques such as trussing a chicken or blanching vegetables, and I would be remiss if I did not mention the detail given to stocks and sauces -- the livelihood of a French kitchen. There is one page dedicated to vegetable cuts and another for their description. The cutting tips are a great idea, although it's best to observe a live demonstration of the techniques to fully understand the cuts. Keller includes a full page of acknowledgments to those who have played a pivotal role in his life-long food journey. He devotes sections, authored by Michael Ruhlman, to his purveyors.Ruhlman eloquently explains why they are an intregal part of making Keller's vision successful.
Sure this book is huge, heavy, and a bit intimidating. The recipes will be overwhelming to a home or beginner cook, and you may have to invest in some new tools. But think twice before you decide against it. Not only is it a visual feast (no food styling here), but I guarantee you it is the next best thing to being there.