Chef cookbooks, two ways

This week, two cookbooks from the Big Apple got me thinking about what it means to write a cookbook, when you’re a famous chef.  It’s certainly not the first time I’ve given thought to the subject–most recently, we looked at the new phenomenon of chefs’ home-cooking cookbooks.

The two I wanted to look at today, however, define the opposite ends of the spectrum of restaurant chefs’ books.  On the one hand, you have books that seek to help you replicate–in a scaled-down, slightly more informal way–what you’re served at a restaurant.  On the other hand, you have books that allow the chef to make a statement about their personal food identity, as opposed to what their retail, restaurant persona might be. 

Andrew Carmellini’s American Flavor is about the most un-restauranty book I’ve ever seen from a chef. It’s filled with classic Americana and immigrant food:  cream of mushroom soup, pozole, fried chicken, pierogies, all sized for a family dinner. Some of them are tweaked in a chefly direction, and some of them are straight-ahead renditions.  How Carmellini had time to write it between his duties as an executive chef (at Locanda Verde and The Dutch) is beyond me, but it hardly matters–this is one book that will have a spot in my kitchen until it proves it doesn’t belong there.

By contrast, there’s a steep learning curve for Christina Tosi’s Momofuku Milk Bar, the cookbook offspring of the quirky pastry shop that evolved from David Chang’s Ssam Bar.    These recipes are not straightforward even when they seem to be.  For example: Sweet Corn Cereal Milk™ “ice cream” filling (all the extra punctuation is significant), or a carrot layer cake which has only five ingredients–but four of those are whole separate recipes.  It’s inspiring, in a baroque way, and Tosi’s story, all grit and brains, is compulsively readable.  But I’m not likely to use the book.

That one of these cookbooks is more usable to me than the other cannot be disputed, but that is not intended as a judgment.  They simply serve different purposes, and indeed, different audiences.  But what I want to know is this:  what makes you buy a restaurant book, or a book by a restaurant chef?  Was it that one dish you needed to know how to make?  Is it because of the chef’s unique vision?  Is it because you wanted to go “backstage” at a favorite eatery? Do tell!  

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