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Cook Like a Chef

A new spate of cookbooks promises to free you from recipe dependence and teach you how to think like a chef.

Chefs have their own language. Ask them for a recipe and they'll say, "Take some fish steaks." (What kind? How many?) "Season, sear and roast them in the oven." (How hot? How long?) "Make a beurre rouge." (A what?) "Garnish and serve." It's chefspeak, and it's not meant for us.

They don't just speak this language, they write books in it. Early cookbooks are all by chefs for chefs, and therefore take for granted a professional competence. That was truein the 14th century, when Taillevent offered elaborate spice mixes without a single measurement, and in the 19th century, when Auguste Escoffier wrote recipes (which he called aide-mémoires) that are actually complex cross-references to other recipes.

Because these books assumed a high level of skill in the kitchen, they were definitely not meant for home cooks, who need more hand-holding. I remember the angry response to Pino Luongo's A Tuscan in the Kitchen, published in 1988, which listed ingredients but (like Taillevent and Escoffier) never told how much of anything to use. Luongo, who owns several restaurants, defended himself by saying that precise measurements are an artifact, that good cooks make adjustments depending on the quality of their ingredients. He was right, of course, but readers weren't ready to hear that.

Maybe they are now, because a flurry of new books has come out promising to teach us how to think—and, therefore, to cook—like a chef. These books do offer measurements and cooking times. But they also let you peek inside a chef's head to see creativity at work.

It's both simpler and more complicated than you'd imagine. Of course chefs, like athletes, are masters of technique. Of course they know the great culinary traditions. But most of all, they're intensely aware of taste and responsive to ingredients, and enjoy nothing so much as to play around with these, imagining all the different ways they might, for instance, season salmon—be it raw, smoked, brined, seared or slow-roasted. It's this combination of skill and flexibility that lets a few chefs create dishes that are touched with genius. It may also give you and me new mastery and freedom in the kitchen.

The first indication that something new was stirring came last year with The French Laundry Cookbook, by Thomas Keller (Artisan, $50). Ignored in all the talk about the gorgeous photos, complicated recipes and hard-to-find ingredients (beet juice! pigs' heads! caul fat!) was the way Keller talked about cooking. Slow down, he said. Learn to use salt properly. Listen to the sounds in the pot. Respond to the food. And don't bother too much about recipes, which are tools, rather than blueprints. "There is an inherent contradiction between a cookbook, which is a collection of documents, and a chef, who is an evolving soul not easily transcribed in recipe form," Keller wrote.

The most accessible of the new chefs' books is Simple to Spectacular, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Mark Bittman (Broadway, $40). Vongerichten is the innovator who layers new flavors onto classical French cooking at Manhattan's Vong, JoJo, Mercer Kitchen and Jean Georges, while Bittman is the New York Times' "Minimalist" columnist who strips recipes down to their simplest form. The book they wrote together plays to both men's strengths, with every chapter starting with an easy recipe and then taking it up not one notch but four, offering five dishes that become progressively more complex in flavor.

This is chef's thinking in its purest form, and the great part is that you don't have to go beyond step one to eat well. There's nothing wrong with plain sautéed mushrooms, but the second step, asparagus with mushroom-cream sauce, is incredible. I've had it at Jean Georges, and at home it tasted nearly as good and was a lot cheaper. The book then offers mushroom bruschetta and a gâteau of crêpes stuffed with mushrooms. By the time I got to mushroom spring rolls, the skills were beyond me, but I had had a short happy trip with two creative minds.

Alfred Portale's 12 Seasons Cookbook (Broadway, $45) is based on the notion that there aren't four seasons in the year but 12, one for each month. That's why Portale changes the menu every 30 days at Manhattan's Gotham Bar and Grill, in response to the weather, the market and something he calls the culture. (For example, December and January are both cold, dark months, but we want to eat differently in each.) A trip to Vermont makes Portale think of maple crème brûlée; the onset of summer inspires him to add Mediterranean seasonings to lamb. He often begins with classic French and Italian dishes that he tunes to the seasons, and they're doable even though many look complicated in the photographs. (Portale is, after all, the chef known for "tall food," or vertical presentations.) Many include substitutions ("use shrimp instead of lobster") and "flavor building" ("top each serving with caviar") to show readers that recipes are outlines meant to be varied.

That's also the goal of Think Like a Chef, by Tom Colicchio (Potter, $37.50), chef at Manhattan's Gramercy Tavern. He says he learned how to cook in order to get away from recipes, which are lifeless. This is the most challenging of the chefs' books, possibly because it's the one most committed to inviting us into the creative process. This starts at the market, when Colicchio sees, for example, a glut of late-summer tomatoes. His mind fills with ideas. First he'll roast them, to intensify the flavor. Will he then chop and layer them in lasagna? Add them to a clam ragout? Use them as a stuffing for fish fillets? The book tells how to do all three and also gives directions on sautéing, pan-roasting and braising—the "building blocks" of skills you'll need along the way.

Because meat, fish and poultry don't change much with the seasons, the foods that inspire Colicchio's creativity tend to be vegetables, and he asks for some that are expensive or esoteric: I don't get many ramps in my supermarket. But to say that is to miss the point, which is that if you don't have ramps, you should think like a chef—consult your taste memory—and get leeks or scallions instead.

That's the thinking Gray Kunz (formerly of New York's Lespinasse) celebrates in The Elements of Taste, a book he wrote with Peter Kaminsky that's due out next year from Little, Brown. Kaminsky says chefs "don't create from recipes. They create from tastes. They create in the same way that a composer 'hears' notes in the concert hall of the mind before anyone plays them on the keyboard."

In the end, the question remains: Why are we so beguiled by chefs' books? They're often not easy to cook from—not unless you have a fridge stocked with lobster shells, a sous-chef boning chicken thighs and a purveyor bringing you pea shoots and heirloom tomatoes. I think we love them because we're fascinated by anyone who can do something we do ourselves, but do it much better. We read Thomas Keller the way a weekend golfer watches Tiger Woods: half dazzled by hero worship and half determined to find out just how he does it.

Irene Sax is a restaurant reviewer for the New York Daily News.

Published December 2000
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