ONCE upon a time, it was pretty straightforward. Wildly unimaginative, but straightforward. Old Spice, socks, golf tees, that sort of thing. But did you ever think the day would come when a cookbook would be right up there as one of the more popular choices for Father’s Day presents? Furthermore, unlike the pong or the cheap plastic, Dads are genuinely delighted to receive these cookbooks. And one man did more than most to instigate that change.
It’s roughly 25 years since Marco Pierre White burst out of the kitchen. The personification of his own coinage — ‘cooking is the new rock’n’roll’ — he single-handedly launched the age of the celebrity chef. Ever since, they have been multiplying like minks and while few have anything approaching MPW’s talent, it has not stopped them guzzling greedily on the oxygen of publicity and rewards infinitely more enticing than those available to mere stove jockeys.
Each and every one of them brings out a cookbook. You can hardly blame them or their publishers, the demand is certainly there. In the most recent list, five of the top 10 bestselling non-fiction books were cookbooks, many, no doubt, destined for male readers. Thirty years ago, a serious amateur chef could make do with a comparative handful of tomes and invariably the best were by women writers (Elizabeth David, Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey) because, 30 years ago, cooking was still ‘women’s work’.
But now the shelves are buckling as truckloads of new cooking titles are released annually. The thing is, does anyone bring anything new to the table anymore? Is there anything more to add to the culinary canon? Is it simply a case of throwing enough soufflé up against the wall and hoping some of it sticks?
Transitioning rapidly from failed boy-band member to wannabe celebrity chef-status, one might be inclined to conclude Donal Skehan (Kitchen Hero – Collins) was heavy on celebrity and exceedingly light on chef. But eschewing cynicism and embracing positivity let’s instead look for proof in the pudding — and the starters and main courses, to boot.
There’s no denying his enthusiasm, but a cookbook is all about content — the recipes. Skehan’s are lightweight, a magpie’s trawl through the trendiest recipes du jour from the global kitchen, with little to mark them out from the originals.
If this is what it takes to get a younger generation cooking, well and good, but Jamie Oliver has already produced the definitive tome in that respect with Jamie’s Kitchen (Hyperion). Oliver may also have once been considered lightweight, but he at least served a serious apprenticeship in London’s River Café Restaurant and deserves the highest respect for his genuine sense of mission when it comes to altering and improving eating habits and not just those of middle class foodies. A section devoted to cocktails given pride of place in Kitchen Hero says it all: this is a book for culinary-clueless twenty-somethings attempting their first domestic social soiree. Note, I don’t even bother to say meal.
Unlike Skehan, James Martin (Masterclass – Collins) is a professionally-trained chef but also appears to prefer cooking under studio lights. In fact, any TV seems more than adequate for the blandly toothsome housewives’ choice following a high profile stint on Strictly Come Dancing as well as hosting or guesting on countless cookery shows.
The book itself is a curious affair. Martin — commendably — offers detailed, well-illustrated technical advice — filleting fish or jointing a chicken, for example — but if a home cook is interested in that level of interaction with their food (and should be!), this book is not for them. The recipes, while excellent — thorough, no shortcuts — lack real flair. As Martin’s cooking is very much classical French albeit with an Anglo twist, it’s another — inferior— reinvention of the wheel (Julia Child’s Mastering The Art of French Cooking will give you the above and much more minus the pretty pictures). Perfect for the average cook wishing to master a classic dish or two for showing off at dinner parties.
As Conrad Gallagher (One Pot Wonders & In Three Easy Steps – Kyle Books) may well testify, celebrity status is a double-edged sword, with his travails often garnering more column inches than his cooking. Yet, once upon a time, Gallagher was considered one of the finest cooks to have emerged from this country. What’s more, his cooking had an identifiable and unique personality: solid classical French foundation underpinning a mercurial talent for improvisation, yet it was all wrapped up in a big green flag; his culinary education began at home in Donegal and he never forgot it.
These two volumes are not strictly new releases but paperback re-issues; still very attractive and also a hell of a lot easier on the pocket than many lesser tomes blocking up the shelves. Thing is, both titles are extremely misleading, giving the impression they are for beginners or for those cooking on the cheap. They are neither. For example, the first recipe in One Pot Wonder, Asparagus with Poached Eggs, features black truffle and the eggs required are quail’s. Gallagher does make a case for local, seasonal produce but the ingredients for some recipes can contradict this position. That’s if you can find them. Shopping for some of the more hardcore gourmand ingredients — used liberally — could dishearten a beginner before the first quail’s egg is cracked. He also assumes you have a ‘local chocolatier’ to befriend or neighbourhood ‘specialist ice cream shop’ happy to whip you up a ‘rosemary and honey ice cream’.
Gallagher is entitled to be arrogant about his cooking and isn’t remotely interested in dumbing down for the masses, already presuming quite an amount of knowledge on his reader’s behalf; commendable on one hand but it will, on the other, leave the novice extremely disorientated.
Having said all that, the two books are brilliant, with some of the recipes quite breathtaking. Read in tandem, they illustrate Gallagher’s continually evolving style and eternal curiosity about cooking and ingredients from around the globe. For a pretty confident cook, they really are one pot wonders or insights into the pros’ secret world in three easy steps.
Denis Cotter (For The Love Of Food /Vegetarian Recipes From The Heart – Collins) has achieved international renown for his Cork restaurant, Café Paradiso. He is also one of the few to have made valuable contributions to the global culinary canon in recent times. His second book, Paradiso Seasons won ‘Best Vegetarian Cookbook in the World’ at the 2004 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.
Cotter is not only a very gifted cook who just happens to be vegetarian (as opposed to a gifted vegetarian cook) but can also write. While his three previous books had clear thematic backbones, FTLOF is a little more nebulous, less earthy, less earthbound. Indeed, Cotter admits to no themes at all other than food, love and their multiple permutations. Some of the biographical intrusions have a wistful humour, as when he considers/contemplates his just-completed half-century.
The recipes, as always, are superb, beginning with breakfast. For a man who holds no truck with the ‘30-minute meal’, these are not designed for manic Mondays when running desperately late, trying to get all and sundry out the door before it turns Tuesday. Put it this way, the first recipe, Vanilla & Coconut Risotto with Spiced Mango and Pistachio ain’t exactly Weetabix and soggy sliced-pan toast. A beginner to the limitless potential of vegetarian cooking might be better off with one of Cotter’s previous books. But for lovelorn epicures of all castes, herbivore to carnivore, this is a truly heartwarming pleasure.
I am intensely curious about supper clubs (underground restaurants run from home or other temporary venue), and would love to attend one, better still, operate one, even just once. Yet I was wary of a dust jacket claiming Kerstin Rodgers (Supper Club/Recipes And Notes From The Underground Restaurant – Collins) as ‘one of London’s most influential people’ and wondered would an ever-so-contemporary design incorporating lifestyle pics, archive clip-art and funky fonts be a triumph of style over substance. And then I wound up reading it in one sitting.
Rodgers has run The Underground Restaurant in her London home since January 2009 and this is manifesto as much as cookbook, beginning with a brief history of supper clubs, then her ‘food’ biography followed by an extremely useful DIY guide. So, the place scrubs up well but what’s on the actual plate?
She begins with hors d'oeuvres, nibbles and drinkies for the freshly-arrived, a commitment to best produce obvious, unleashing a Middle Eastern troika that draws the eye, alerts the belly, Baba Ganoush (an aubergine dip), Pitta Breads and Dukkah, all made from scratch. Dukkah is a condiment, usually consisting cumin, coriander, hazelnut and salt, dry roasted and ground. It is commonly sprinkled over food or used as a dip and is utterly addictive. Its inclusion bodes extremely well. Then she throws in a Richard Bertinet-inspired recipe for Foccaccia Drops and we settle in for the long haul. Soups, salads, starters, fish, meat and desserts, her standards never drop. Rodgers is big on themed evenings, Harry Potter nights (getting her in hot water with Warner Bros copyright people) and an Elvis-themed evening, including Deep-Fried Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwiches and 7-Up salad washed down with Coca-Cola, a cholesterol-laden banquet somewhere between hilarious and horrific.
Rodgers is a pescatarian/vegetarian and like many non-meat eaters, isn’t overly influenced by Classical French cuisine, although aware of the fundamentals. Like many a self-taught cook, she has evolved her style, coherent, distinctive and original, from a global melange of cuisines, particularly Asian and Middle Eastern.
Though a non-meat eater, she brings in guest ‘chefs’ with excellent recipes, including a suitably complex but promising Quintessential Chicken from (current ‘Best Restaurant in the World’) Noma Sous Chef Ben Greeno. (Many serious pro chefs use the underground restaurant model to refine menus before opening a restaurant.)
On the home strait, I find myself contemplating a shot at creating the Flower Ice Bowl, which melts away before diners’ eyes.
Great food, great fun, there is certainly room on the cookbook shelf for Kerstin Rodgers.
ELECTRIC, the restaurant-bar that Tastefest Cork founder Ernest Cantillon co-owns with Denis O’Mullane and chef Kevin O’Regan, may have been nominated for Newcomer of the Year at the recent Irish Restaurant Awards, but Cantillon’s relationship with food has been longer in the making.
“I was lucky growing up that both my parents were really into food, I got to go to some good restaurants, and on special occasions we’d sometimes go to the Arbutus Restaurant. I was always fiddling around in our kitchen. Darina Allen’s books were always at home, very easy to follow. I thought back then I wanted to work in hotels but now I know a little more about them, that would be crazy — one of the toughest jobs going.”
Following a commerce degree, Cantillon did the CERT Culinary Arts course — “brilliant” — and managed a bar for a couple of years before opening his own, Sober Lane. “I was always going to open something closer to a gastro-pub as opposed to just a drinking pub. I have always preferred the option of having some food with drink. It was a very steep learning curve, we began with one pizza and then week by week built it up.”
And like most food lovers, Cantillon’s cookbook shelf is ever expanding.
“I just bought Fergus Henderson’s two books - Nose to Tail and Beyond Nose to Tail after eating in one of his restaurants in London.
”I am a massive carnivore, it breaks my heart I don’t like fish more, though I love shellfish. Rick Stein’s fish books have been recommended to cure me.
“I have loads of ‘small plate’ cookbooks, pinxtos and tapas, in the Basque tradition. They’re the biz, It’s my favourite type of food because after two or three bites of a full-size meal, it’s functional, I’m done with it, I’m bored, I want to taste something else.”
Tastefest Cork 2011 takes place on June 23-26, at Fitzgerald’s Park, Cork.
A celebration of Cork food and restaurants featuring 15 top Cork Restaurants serving up their own dishes and demonstrating for the public.
Top chefs Conrad Gallagher, Rachel Allen, right, and Andrew Rudd will give special cooking demonstrations.
There will be full bars offering top selection of beers, wines, champagnes and cocktails.
Live music and children’s entertainment will also be provided.
Thurs, June 23: 5.30pm-9pm
Fri, June 24: 12pm-4pm/5.30pm-9pm
Sat, June 25: 12pm-4pm/5.30pm-9pm
Sun, June 26: 12pm-5pm
See www.tastefest.ie for further details and a full range of ticket options including early bird special offers.