Imagine my excitement. Imagine my disappointment.
I was recently given the opportunity to receive a copy of the new cookbook “The French Laundry, Per Se,” by Thomas Keller. Keller is the only American chef to have two restaurants given a top score of three stars by the Michelin Guide, and those restaurants — The French Laundry and Per Se — are always named among the top dining establishments in the country.
Of course, I jumped at the opportunity to get the book. I have heard nothing but the highest of praise for the restaurants, though I have never eaten at either one.
I came close once. The first night of my honeymoon was spent in Yountville, California, at the southern tip of Napa Valley. The plan was to arrive in the afternoon and find a place for dinner. But a slight problem during takeoff (you should have heard the terror in the pilot’s voice as we were speeding down the runway, and he slammed on the brakes and told us we would be returning to the terminal) led to a missed connection.
We ended up arriving in Yountville at, I’m going to say, 10:01 p.m. and asked the folks at the hotel where we could eat. They said that a fairly new place, the French Laundry, had opened a couple of blocks away, and it was absolutely amazing but closed at 10. And so did all the other restaurants in town. The only place that was open was a few miles away, a California-based chain that the clerk compared to Denny’s, which is where we ended up.
So that was sort of like going to the French Laundry.
But I digress. The cookbook arrived, and it was hefty, gorgeous and impressive.
Imagine my excitement. I eagerly thumbed through every page — and my heart sank lower and lower.
Imagine my disappointment.
I’m not a bad cook. I am also neither a fearful nor a lazy cook. I make a mole poblano that has 32 ingredients; I make my own puff pastry from scratch. As I write this, I have dough rising for a loaf of bread that has been three days in the making. I am not culinarily intimidated.
And yet, there is not a single recipe in “The French Laundry, Per Se” that I would even consider daring to attempt.
Let us take, for instance, the recipe for vanilla ice cream. It sounds simple enough, but this particular ice cream requires 18 ingredients including dextrose, something called Trimoline invert sugar and two different vanilla beans, one from Madagascar and one from Tahiti.
You begin by curing three egg yolks in a mixture of salt and sugar at room temperature for a week. This process pulls all of the moisture out of the yolks and makes them shelf-stable. I’ll admit I find the concept fascinating, but what do you do with them?
Well, if you’re Thomas Keller or an employee at one of his restaurants, you grate them over a rod of vanilla ice cream encased in a sheath of essentially uncooked frozen cookie crumbs.
This goes well beyond gilding the lily. This gilds the lily and then grates cured egg yolks on top.
All of the other recipes — and I mean all of the other recipes — are much the same. A recipe for baked lamb neck, which is traditionally a simple, rustic meal, requires 40 ingredients including a sourdough starter, riz rouge (a red rice from the south of France), beet juice and a quart of mushroom essence.
Alaskan king crab is served with a sweet-and-sour kumquat glaze requiring apple pectin, yuzu juice and something called aji dulce chili paste. Even a humble fish and chips calls for a malt vinegar jam made with agar-agar and a batter made with split peas and gluten-free flour, and is finished with crushed freeze-dried peas (why? For all that is good and holy, why?).
I would submit that there is not a home cook in the world who would or even could make any of these recipes. Cooking doesn’t have to be this daunting. In fact, I have another Keller cookbook, “Bouchon,” that is more intricate than most but not frightening enough to keep me from making at least a few of its recipes.
All of which is enough to make me wonder whom this book is meant for. It’s clearly not for ordinary home cooks, or even extraordinary ones. I doubt it is even for run-of-the-mill chefs.
My guess is the book is aimed at the very top level of chefs, in equal parts a sharing of ideas and braggadocio. And for the rest of us grumblers, perhaps it is just a way of explaining why dinner for two at the French Laundry or Per Se costs an absolute minimum of $700.
Considering all of the work and time and ingredients that go into each dish, that sounds about right.