Chef Bo Bech's new book, What Does Memory Taste Like?, shares the stories of those involved in his legendary Copenhagen restaurant, Paustian. But "it's not sweet, sugar-coated nostalgia," Bech tells Food and Wine
Stop for a moment and give yourself the pleasure of recalling an incredible restaurant experience. The food comes to mind, most likely. Perhaps the room. Almost definitely the company. But you remember something else, don't you? Something a little harder to put into words—a feeling, that everyone in the restaurant shared, even if they can't quite put their fingers on it. Certain restaurants live on in the collective consciousness for years after they plated their final meal.
There's been an impulse lately to immortalize some of the most notable. Wylie Dufresne's influential, science-driven WD~50 got the full cookbook treatment this past October, three years after the restaurant shuttered. (As he explains in an introductory essay entitled "Timing Is Everything," "The truth is, I wasn't ready.") Homaro Cantu was at work on a revision of the just-published Moto: The Cookbook at the time of his sudden death in 2015. His collaborators finished the book on his behalf, eager to document Cantu's groundbreaking contributions to molecular gastronomy and Moto's lasting legacy. Jeremiah Tower's celebrity-studded Stars shuttered in 1999, but in 2016 viewers of Lidia Tenaglia's documentary film The Last Magnificent could feel as if they were slipping into a seat at the chicest table in the dining room.
Unlike a book, film, song, painting or poem—living art that can be re-ingested ad infinitum—these restaurants can exist only in memory. But who are the keepers of that recollection, and how may they keep it vivid, honest and aflame for those of us who never had the pleasure of a seat at the table?
This is the question at the heart of chef Bo Bech's new book, What Does Memory Taste Like? His restaurant Geist remains one of the central pleasures of Copenhagen dining, and his pop-up Bride of the Fox surfaces in restaurants across New York City from time to time, like some sort of culinary Brigadoon. But it's Paustian—the Copenhagen restaurant that Bech helmed from 2004 to 2010, and which Noma chef Rene Redzepi pronounced as "the most interesting place in Europe to eat"—that's been simmering on one burner or another since.
Documentation is second nature to Bech. He's a relentless traveler, and when a photographer friend suggested that he invest in a decent camera a few years back, he quickly realized that learning to record his varied and inevitably food-centric surroundings gave him the same feeling that cooking did. It's this journalistic impulse that informs how Memory is assembled—less of a cookbook or memoir than a dossier of the recollections of 17 people who were intimately involved in the restaurant at the time, from chefs to front of house, to guests.
"There's no vision from me at all," Bech explained in a phone call. "I'm not at all talking about what my dogma is; this is people digging deep into their hearts and explaining how they remember. It's not sweet, sugar-coated nostalgia. It became very clear to me that wouldn't it be beautiful if you could try and describe the passion, pain, what it means to suffer?"
It's in this ragged honesty that the book finds its unique appeal—especially for restaurant obsessives who live and die by the dining room, but who would have little interest in attempting to make one of the meticulously documented dishes (an iconic avocado preparation alone gets 87—yes, 87—pages devoted to its construction in sketch form). Restaurants are made up of driven, opinionated and imperfect people, which is a story that often gets lost in the gloss of a highly-produced cookbook or TV show. Bech's colleagues and friends are not afraid to call him out on his ego, impulsiveness or the fact that some of the dishes—while highly innovative—were actually not at all pleasant to eat. It is also a visually stunning book. Though Bech's words aren't given prominence throughout the self-published enterprise, his photographs and sketches (laid out with an assist from the design firm All the Way to Paris) do the heavy lifting of conveying the warmth, artistry and madness that made Paustian an essential part of global fine dining culture.
You will never sit down at a table at Paustian. You may never have heard of it before now. You will likely never make any of the recipes in What Does Memory Taste Like? But this book just might slake a hunger you never knew you had.
The book is a limited edition of 5000, available exclusively through www.chefbobech.com.