Karen Leibowitz | 4.18.15 | Issue #15

These days, it seems as though every successful chef is automatically signed up to write a cookbook.

It’s almost part of the business plan that they’ll start writing as soon as they’ve signed a lease. But who are these restaurant cookbooks really for? Home cooks? Professional cooks? Devotees of Kitchen Confidential?

I ask these questions not only as a lover of cookbooks, but also as an occasional writer of them. I just finished working on a restaurant cookbook, and one of my primary tasks was worrying about the reader. It was my dubious responsibility to make regular folks feel like they could duplicate the work of a two-Michelin starred chef, by translating the terminology, techniques, and equipment of a professional kitchen into the domestic sphere. Some of that work was pretty mechanical—like converting ingredients measured by weight into our clunky American volume measures—but other adaptations became almost philosophical. The pastry chef seemed genuinely perplexed when asked to imagine a kitchen without a Thermomix, and indeed, I wondered if anyone in her right mind would attempt these recipes at home, or if all the alternative directions I’d painstakingly assembled were mere fantasies. My cookbook was caught in something of a double bind: a home cook couldn’t follow these recipes, while a real professional wouldn’t.

For months, I’ve been torn between allegiance to my editor and my chef, with their conflicting demands for accessibility and authenticity, while struggling to mediate between the mass culture of America and the sub-culture of haute cuisine. As a result, I found it quite thrilling to discover two recent cookbooks that refuse to engage in this kind of compromise and instead embrace opposite ends of the professional cook-home cook spectrum. Published within a month of one another, Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune and Cal Peternell’s Twelve Recipes couldn’t be more different in their approaches to the restaurant cookbook genre, and together, they tell us a lot about what we expect to learn from a chef—and who we want to be as cookbook readers.

This book is about peeking into Prune’s kitchen and imagining life as part of Hamilton’s crew; when details are offered, it is for the sake of verisimilitude, rather than culinary education.

Gabrielle Hamilton’s first book, Blood, Bones, and Butter, was not a cookbook but rather a hugely successful memoir that showcased her personality, memories, and hypnotically engaging prose style. With her recent cookbook, Prune, she strips away all of her memoir’s writerly touches and presents the book as a stylized facsimile of the restaurant’s recipe binder, complete with images of three-hole-punch marks in the margins. Some of Prune’s pages are even marked with grease spots, wrinkles, and hand-written notes, but there are no headnotes to be found.

The recipes in Prune are bracingly minimal, and pitched as an open letter from a chef to her cooks, couched in the patois of the kitchen. Though Prune contains virtually no cheffy commentary, the recipes’ unconventional style constitutes a kind of ode to restaurant culture. The recipe for “Bacon and Marmalade Sandwich on Pumpernickel Bread,” for instance, begins “Hold cooked bacon warm near the grill. Toast pumpernickel under sally—both sides” (276). We arrive at the sandwich in medias res, with the bacon already cooked and the rare presumption that the reader already knows how to cook bacon. Furthermore, the author does not hold the reader’s hand by explaining that a toaster will work just fine if you don’t have a “sally”—and really, does anyone keep a salamander at home?

Hamilton loves to flaunt this industry shorthand, as she acknowledged in her memoir:

There is a way, a distinct way, that people who work in the industry speak to each other about food and you can tell, within minutes, that they are part of your extended clan. [...] It’s the way only someone who works in the industry talks about food, by almost not talking about it, but just throwing out a few code words and signals—like a gang member flashing you his sign. (84, Blood, Bones, and Butter)

At times, the in-group orientation can feel a bit stagey, as when the recipe for Smoked Tomatoes cautions, in a line highlighted in purple marker with handwritten asterisks, “Use the same pan we always use so we don’t keep ruining hotel pans, please.” Obviously, this is not meant for us, but that’s the point. This book is about peeking into Prune’s kitchen and imagining life as part of Hamilton’s crew; when details are offered, it is for the sake of verisimilitude, rather than culinary education.

If Prune offers a snapshot of the chef in her element, Twelve Recipes adopts the opposite rhetorical strategy by inviting us into the home of the chef of Chez Panisse. In his introduction, Cal Peternell recalls his anxiety at sending his eldest son off to fend for himself and how their last-minute cooking lessons gave rise to a cookbook: “This is a manuscript sent from father to sons to codify a core group of recipes. It’s the book my sons will turn to when they can’t reach me by phone, and the book everyone else can turn to because they don’t have my number” (5). This sounds very cozy, and indeed, Peternell offers advice not only about cooking, but also about shopping for groceries, managing leftovers, and hosting a dinner party.

I suppose I picked up Twelve Recipes wondering what it would be like to be raised by the chef of Chez Panisse, equipped with a fridge full of leftovers from Alice Waters’s “delicious revolution.” His book is down-to-earth, warm, and informative—and unlike Hamilton, Peternell speaks directly to the public. In spite of his claim that the book is for his sons, Peternell writes about his offspring, not to them:

… now that the first of the boys was moving away and would have to feed himself out there in the world, I wondered if I had been explicit enough, had neglected to codify some of the basics. Surely he knew how salty the water must taste before the pasta went in, but had I warned strongly enough against the danger of burning the garlic for the sauce? (3-4)

Reading these words, I was reminded of a recipe my own father slipped me as I prepared to move into my first apartment. His “Long-Cooked Tomato Sauce with Meatballs” is shot through with his (well-founded) concerns about my common sense. As a parent, he repeatedly warned me against burning the sauce. (For example: “You may think nothing can burn when the pot is filled with water, but it can, it tastes burned, and it is tough to clean the pot.”) While my dad was certainly no chef, this piece of wisdom landed, unlike most of his other fatherly advice.

Peternell’s book, however, does not assume the intimacy or shared reference points of family life, and at times seems to wink at other parents over the children’s heads, as in the headnote on braised duck legs: “The only real demand of this recipe is time; in fact, it’s so easy, and became such a standard in our house, that the kids started complaining, ‘Duck legs again?’ We should all be so abused”(219).

I understand on some level that Peternell’s fatherly concern is primarily a literary conceit, a frame which offers a satisfying emotional hinge and an excuse for a successful chef to write simply—or even simplistically. Peternell makes no pretense that we might be cooks in his kitchen; rather, we are cast as beginning home cooks gleaning a few pointers from a pro. And a lot of his advice is almost poignant in its straightforwardness, like when he suggests that you really can’t go wrong with a pork butt or directs you to “Go, right now, and soak some dried beans in a lot of cold water. I’ll wait here. Tomorrow, when you’re cooking them, you’ll thank me” (7).

In general, the two chefs’ writing styles reflect their cooking styles. The bistro food that Hamilton serves at Prune jibes with her casual-yet-sophisticated recipes, and the market-driven cuisine at Chez Panisse corresponds to Peternell’s idealistic, sometimes paternalistic instructions. Compare Hamilton’s breezy direction to toast bread under the “sally” with Peternell’s introduction to toast:

As with all cooking, the place to start making really good toast is at the market. Buy the best loaf of bread you can find—even if it’s expensive—because you’ll use every crumb. Get a big loaf, or maybe buy two so you can eat the fresh loaf with dinner and then save all uneaten bread in a bag—I keep leftover loaves, or parts of them, in plastic for a few days so they don’t get hard as a rock and dangerous to slice. (19)

And so on. If you are already a grown adult with your own bread storage preferences, this sort of thing can be a bit much, but it’s also more instructive than the crib notes that Hamilton provides.

Each of these chefs creates an authorial persona in their books. As a result, we as readers are wedged into our corresponding roles as Peternell’s children or Hamilton’s line-cooks. Of course, we are neither, though it can be fun to pretend. I’m instinctively drawn to Hamilton’s brazen disrespect for the “rules” of cookbook writing. She had the courage and the clout to produce a pretty singular volume that captures the spirit of a pretty singular restaurant. I admire (or maybe envy) Hamilton’s bravado, though I do think she missed an opportunity: a book that combined Prune’s uncompromising authenticity with the expressive, explanatory power of Blood, Bones, and Butter could have been the Platonic ideal of a cookbook.

At the same time, I have to admit that a book like Twelve Recipes will probably have a deeper effect on its readers than Prune, precisely because it takes the time to explain the reasons for every action. Though an experienced cook may find Peternell’s tidbits of wisdom to over-state the obvious, they do linger in the mind. Just as I think of my dad whenever I stir tomato sauce, I suspect I’ll think of Peternell when I’m standing at the butcher counter and spy a nice pork butt.