Notes From a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession
Jeff Scott focuses on 10 brilliant, food-obsessed chefs
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., April 20, 2012
By Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore
Tatroux, 932 pp., $150 (two volumes)
In my mind, the most appealing aspect of Jeff Scott's two-volume culinary art book series, Notes From a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession, is the series' focus on a generation of chefs avidly pursuing their culinary passions with seeming disregard for the trappings of the cult of culinary celebrity. While it's likely that many an aspiring culinary student approaches his or her studies with Food Network fame stars in their eyes, I suggest that Notes From a Kitchen would be a much healthier and more sustainable source for inspiration. Owning this series involves no small investment, and it isn't even a cookbook. There are no recipes to follow or formulas to memorize, and not one of the chefs profiled offers tips on how to land a television show or a branded line of cookware. What Scott captures when photographing chefs Sean Brock, Johnny Iuzzini, George Mendes, Emma Hearst, Michael Laiskonis, Jason Neroni, Zak Pelaccio, Joel Harrington, Matt Gaudet, and Neal Fraser is actually much more revealing. His photos and interviews manage to get right to the heart of the matter, revealing what drives and inspires each of these 10 talented young people to be the chefs they are continually striving to become.
After spending a couple of months with these volumes, dropping in on different chefs from time to time, I have renewed hope for the American culinary profession. For most of the 20th century, cooking in America's hotels and restaurants was considered a trade, and what chefs were to be found were often European-born or -trained. The Culinary Institute of America began turning out American-trained chefs in 1946, but it took another 30 to 35 years before the job of chef began to emerge as a respected profession. Expanded restaurant coverage in newspapers and food magazines enhanced respect for the cooking profession, offering a higher public profile for chefs in general – and celebrity for some. The popularity of cooking shows on PBS and the expansion of cable programming eventually gave birth to the Food Network in 1993. Nearly 20 years of cable cooking and culinary travel shows have successfully managed to blur the line between trained chefs and appealing television cooking personalities. Jeff Scott's work in Notes From a Kitchen brings the distinction sharply back into focus. It's not that some of the chefs Scott profiles haven't achieved some degree of public recognition; several have. It's more an exploration of the foundation for that success.
Perhaps the best example of what I'm talking about would be Scott's exhaustive documentation of the work of Sean Brock, the subject of the first half of volume one. Brock is the Southern-born chef/owner of McCrady's and Husk in Charleston, S.C., who has taken "the responsibility upon myself to be the spokesperson for Southern food. We have so many beautiful, wonderful, incredible traditions in the South that aren't being properly respected and recognized. So that's my goal: to preach the gospel of bourbon, cornbread, and grits." Brock's consuming passion for the historically authentic flavors of Carolina low country cuisine has lead him to become an avid seed-saver. He's fanatical about heritage breeds of sesame seeds, corn, okra, tomatoes, hogs, and the legendary Carolina gold rice. His pursuit of authentic ingredients and flavors for the dishes in his restaurants is the basis of his success. Scott aptly captures chef Brock and his staff in the throes of their creative process, best described as the PIE theory: products, ideas, and execution. "We are so product-driven here that it's borderline mental case. The process starts with the products," Brock reiterates, "and when we taste them, the product tells you what else it needs. That's where the ideas start coming in."
Brock's vision for the future of his culinary universe includes chefs working with farmers and foragers to grow or locate the best and most authentic products for their restaurants so they can share their interpretation of those quality ingredients with the dining public. This credo is echoed throughout the profiles in Notes From a Kitchen, with each of the different chefs' personal expressions of their culinary goals reflecting an inherent respect for the food and an insatiable thirst for more learning and sharing. Note to aspiring chefs: Pay attention to the sources of your food, and success is likely to follow.