Sunday, April 27, 2014

Recent French Cookbooks

We have been blessed recently with new cookbooks from David Lebovitz and Patricia Wells, which I have read. While neither is comprehensive like Dorie Greenspan's spectacular Around My French Table or Jacques Pépin's Essential Pépin, they are welcome additions to my cookbook shelf.

David Lebovitz, My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories


Lebovitz started out at Chez Panisse in the late 80s and most of the 90s, and the training he got there shows. He subsequently wrote Ready for Dessert and The Perfect Scoop, the latter of which is my ice cream bible. He has a spectacular blog, where he writes about Paris, where he has lived for ten years, and his travels in France and elsewhere. He also writes about all aspects of food, from sourcing it at Paris' great markets and specialty stores, to cooking, and his recipes are nearly always excellent.

My Paris Kitchen is a wonderful book. First, it has great recipes, which Lebovitz has culled from French classics with his own insights and changes. The introductions to the recipes, giving histories of where he found them as well as possible variations, are very useful, as well as entertaining. I have made only a couple of the recipes -- Artichoke Tapenade with Rosemary Oil and French Lentil Salad with Goat Cheese and Walnuts -- with excellent results, and I have checked off about 60% of the rest as "must tries." This is a very high percentage for me. The recipes are clearly expressed and a special bonus is that they are given with metric weights. I wish all cookbooks would do this, as it takes the guesswork out of many aspects of cooking, especially baking.

Second, the photography, by Ed Anderson, is magnificent. Not just beautiful, but also helpful to the home cook, showing beautiful ways to present the dishes.

Finally, the book offers Lebovitz's insights about France, Paris and cooking in general. He has a style that I find a bit precious but nevertheless is clear and informative. It was Lebovitz who, in a different book, taught me to say Bonjour! upon entering any store -- even a stall at a flea market or at a food market -- and that has stood me in good stead over the years. His new book says that the French consider it bad manners to be less than 20 minutes late when invited to dinner; I plan to investigate this but I suspect it's true.

A must have!

Patricia Wells, The French Kitchen Cookbook


Wells has been writing cookbooks for decades and some of my copies are pretty dog-eared, especially Bistro Cooking and Trattoria. I have also used The Paris Cookbook, Patricia Wells at Home in Provence and Simply French. She also teaches, and has learned to simplify, and her new cookbook is noteworthy for the non-intimidating presentation of a lot of updated French standards as well as recipes from elsewhere in Europe (a classic Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe, for example) and from Asia (Asian Coleslaw with Sesame Soy Dressing, Shrimp in Spicy Coconut Broth, among many others).

The recipes are clearly expressed and, like Lebovitz's, give metric measurements.  I haven't actually cooked from this book yet, but plan to do so, probably often.

Patricia Wells, The Food Lover's Guide to Paris


Wells has lived in Paris forever, and knows the city amazingly well. She has finally gotten around to revising her classic book on where to eat and shop for food, kitchen equipment and related items, and this is welcome news. The fourth edition was my go-to book when we bought an apartment in Paris in 2001, and enriched our Paris culinary experience immeasurably. The new edition has been thoroughly revised, and I am eager to get back to Paris to start using it. The restaurants and bistros listed are often ones that I have never heard of, but I trust her and with her help will seek out new adventures.

An essential for food lovers en route to Paris!

Bobby Jay

6 comments:

Nadege said...

David's book is on my list. I just keep on forgetting to buy it. I think he is at William Sonoma in Santa Monica today.

Bobby Jay said...

Probably. He was in Texas promoting the book and eating and posting on BBQ yesterday.

Do buy the book.

And Nadege, as a French person, what do you think of his 20 minute rule?

Nadege said...

I am not sure about the 20 minute rule. I have lived in the US for 36 years. I left France when I was young and when I go back, I show up in time when invited, maybe with a leeway of 10 minutes. Let me know when you find out.
I have so many cookbooks, I love them all. I don't have a favorite food. So many different choices now a days and it depends on the time of the year. Heavier food in winter with lighter cuisine in summer. But I have a weakness for asian/pacific rim food. I think chefs in California have been amazing at incorporating continental and exotic food together.
I don't know if David is a great cook (I don't think we can call him a chef), but I love his writing and all the wonderful treasures he makes us discover.

Bobby Jay said...

You raise an interesting point: who is a chef and who is a cook?

I think 13 years working various stations as a chef at Chez Panisse qualifies David as a chef, not a mere cook. In addition, I find that his approach is more chef-like than cook-like in that he really works hard to perfect his recipes by constant repetition, and seems to bring a lifetime of technique to bear.

Patricia Wells is definitely a cook, albeit an excellent one. I am not sure about Dorie Greenspan, who is possibly a pastry chef but a cook when it comes to non-dessert dishes.

Some of the greatest cookbooks have been written by cooks, for example Julia Child, Marcella Hazan and Claudia Roden, who have written definitive works in their fields.

What's the distinction, then? I think it's having worked professionally and consistently at a restaurant, pastry shop or other food preparation establishment, repeating the same tasks over and over again until they become second nature. Watch Jacques Pépin and Julia Child cook side by side, and the difference becomes evident. His technical skills are in a totally different league from hers, but they both have lots to contribute.

Nadege said...

Jacques Pepin's biography "The apprentice : my life in the kitchen" shows what it takes to become a true chef. Marcus Samuelsson's book is excellent too. I highly recommend both.
During a writer strikes in LA in the early 80's, I worked at l'Ermitage restaurant for 3 months. The chef who was taking over for the owner who was sick was classically trained but was not very good. So yes, it all depends if you trained well, long and hard with good teachers and maybe "chef" is a loose word now a days.

Bobby Jay said...

Yes, I have read both books and they are excellent. Another book that's interesting is Michael Ruhlman's The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, in which he describes his experience there and what it takes to be a real chef. Ruhlman, an excellent writer with a great blog, is a cook, not a chef, but his training at CIA gave him lots of insights into the profession and the difference. He is also a gifted writer.