book smart

Karen Leibowitz | 12.10.2014 | Issue #6/7


Last month, I was browsing at my favorite food-centric bookstore, Omnivore Books in San Francisco, when my phone rang. Omnivore is just one small room, filled to the brim with everything from antique canning manuals to chef’s memoirs, so I stepped outside to answer. As I stood on the sidewalk talking to a food photographer about an upcoming shoot, my gaze wandered back through the window of the bookstore to the front table, which was covered with haute-cuisine cookbooks. From that distance, I suddenly realized how similar they all look. It was a dispiriting landscape of large-format door-stoppers, tastefully wrapped in elegantly minimalist grey.

When did cookbook design become so colorless?

But there, at the edge of the table, was an incongruous volume: Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts. Small, vermilion, and splashed with six unglamorous photos with stark white backgrounds, the book looked like nothing else in the group. In one picture, a black-fingernail-polished hand grips a dripping spoonful of unidentifiable chocolate schmoo; in another, mozzarella curds are stretched into an unwieldy cat’s cradle; one small picture shows a splayed hand with no sign of cooking to be found. As the James Beard Award-winning pastry chef of Del Posto, Headley certainly knows how to make beautiful and delicious food, but Fancy Desserts looks like a parody of the genre.

Still on the phone with the photographer, I tried to translate what I was seeing. Maybe we could venture away from prevailing food styling conventions, I said. Maybe every shot shouldn’t feature a painstakingly plated dish in the foreground resolving into a blurrily neutral background. Maybe we could make something distinctive and cool, like Fancy Desserts. My photographer friend expressed polite, but non-committal interest.

When I went back inside to buy the book, I discovered that the text strayed from cookbook convention as much as the cover. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve written two cookbooks myself, and know how formulaic it can be. This, though, communicates an entirely distinctive world-view. As Steve Albini writes in the foreword, “It’s easy with cooking to be dazzled by the process and to give an uneven amount of credit to the recipe. Or the technique. Or the stick blender. But what you’re eating is actually the totality of the life experience of the cook.” Plenty of cheffy cookbooks attempt to translate the individuality of a restaurant, but I’ve never seen one that radiates as much personality. Part of that comes down to the distinctiveness of Brooks Headley himself.

The guy is not just a pastry chef, but a musician who’s deeply immersed in the ethos and aesthetics of punk. The punk influence extends beyond the headnotes, which include a compelling discussion of Noma as the Dead Kennedys of the restaurant world, and permeates the entire structure of the book. Interspersed among the recipes are homemade flyers for bands Headley has played in, including Born Against, whose flyers included band-member questionnaires labeled as “Profiles in Courage.” Fancy Desserts adapts the style for miniature profiles of Headley’s favorite chefs from Christina Tosi (Accomplishments: Making my parents proud while proving my parents wrong”) to David Kinch (“Ambition/Future plan: To not die in the kitchen”).

The recipes in Fancy Desserts reflect the reference points of a cook who has spent a lot of time foraging for dinner at truck stops.

Instead of the usual introduction, Headley doles out bits of memoir under the recurring title of “Band Tour Food Diary.” As a 20-year-old drummer traveling the country for the first time, he kept a secret diary in which he logged every single thing he ate. “We were all vegetarians, so every meal was a new regional adventure,” he writes. “But it was the most uncool thing I could have done.” The original journal is lost, but the book’s version combines tales of punk-rock adventure with memories of culinary discovery into a narrative that is weirdly revealing, as we catch young Brooks staring at the stainless-steel kitchen appliances in a home where the band has crashed or relinquishing his Whole Foods boycott as he shifts allegiance from one band to another.

Headley got his first cooking job in 1999, between tours, and began a kind of double life, balanced between food and music. “Back then I had no business being in a fine-dining kitchen,” he writes. “But I took the job as performance art. I never spoke to anyone in the kitchen about playing in a band. The cooks and chefs were of the old school variety, and I was a painfully quiet and shy weirdo, there to learn the ways of the fine-dining kitchen.” I have met Headley a couple of times and I can confirm that he’s quiet and shy, plus he was a very good sport about my toddler’s loud commentary during his book-tour appearance at Omnivore. “I wish everyone followed her lead,” he said, or something to that effect. This was after he had arranged for a man dressed as Santa Claus to deliver a pile of Pizza Hut Super Veggie Pan Pizzas to the reading.

The recipes in Fancy Desserts reflect the reference points of a cook who has spent a lot of time foraging for dinner at truck stops. The instructions for Verjus Melon Candy, for instance, suggest that you “combine the sugar and malic acid until the mixture tastes like the coating on Sour Patch Kids.” These candies, by the way, illustrate one of Headley’s favorite tricks of soaking dried fruit in verjus, and he tells a good story about a sous-chef calling “to say he’d found my (maxed-out) credit card on the pastry-station floor. He asked what he should do with it. Before I could answer, he said, ‘Don’t worry, Chef. I’ll soak it in verjus.’” You get a sense of what the candies mean to Headley, but there’s not a whiff of pretension in the headnote or recipe.

I was a little less impressed by the other voices incorporated into the book, like Ian Svevonius’s essay on “The Historic Role of Sugar in Empire Building” and Sloane Crosley’s piece, which begins “Taste buds look like ball sacks,” but maybe that’s just because I was so taken with the way the rest of the book captured Headley’s idiosyncratic, personal approach to dessert.

Even when he is literally coating something in sugar, his portrait of life in the kitchen never feels sugar-coated. The book never panders to its readers “aspirational” desires. Although Fancy Desserts is exceedingly unlikely to spark a new trend of haute/punk cookbooks, maybe it could inspire a little more diversity on the restaurant cookbook table.