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French Laundry cooked!

October 24, 2008 |  1:24 pm

Pig2The great French Laundry experiment is over. Carol has cooked Keller. No, not the restaurant, of course. Last I heard you still have to play phone roulette exactly two months to the day before you want to eat there in hopes of snagging one of the 80 or 90 available seats. What I’m talking about is blogger Carol Blymire’s great experiment in cooking every dish from "The French Laundry Cookbook."

As anyone who has even glanced at the book knows, that’s an amazing achievement, and Blymire’s blog French Laundry at Home has captured every step of the way with wit and zeal. See Carol make veal stock; see Carol saw a pig’s head in half (see Carol explain at her neighborhood hardware store what exactly she needs a hacksaw for).

The blog is great reading. Blymire makes a suitably spunky heroine with just enough of a head-in-the-clouds/feet-on-the-ground duality to keep you on her side through even her most obsessive stages. And of these there are many. She’s clearly got something to prove with all of this cooking. One of the blog’s charms is that these culinary experiments are as much about self-actualization as they are about cooking. There’s more than a bit of Everest climbing involved. Carol cooks crazy stuff to prove to herself that she can.

There are also lessons learned along the way and selves improved. And, as almost inevitably seems to happen to those who get to know Thomas Keller (even in print), there is Kool-Aid drunk. (At this point, the standard ethical rider is inserted: Keller and coauthor Michael Ruhlman wrote a column for this paper for a couple of years that I edited and I still consider them both good friends. I, too, have tasted the magical elixir.)

But as much as I enjoyed the blog, on another level, a couple of times it gave me pause.

Maybe it’s the result of having sat through too many dinner parties where well-intentioned cooks attempted the same thing. This is rarely any fun. Let’s face it: You spend three days making dinner and there’s nothing any of your guests can do to make the effort seem worthwhile. This almost inevitably leaves both cook and guests with long nights and even longer faces.

This isn’t to say that "The French Laundry Cookbook” isn’t a good book, or even that the recipes don’t work. Indeed, it’s a miracle among high-end chef books in that if a home cook is obsessed enough, they can actually make any of the dishes (this particular miracle has a name: Susie Heller is the one who translated the restaurant artistry into plain enough prose to make this possible). Indeed, I make bits and pieces from the book all the time -- the gougeres are amazing and I’ve trotted out the sauce gribiche enough times in enough guises that by all rights I owe Keller royalties. In one of Blymire's posts, she includes a list of her favorite, most “do-able” recipes too.

Instead, my problem is that for too many people these days, it seems that this kind of food defines good cooking. Indeed, what got me thinking about this to begin with is a comment Blymire made in her valedictory post: “Without going into a big arm-flailing rant about the current state of mainstream consumer food media, I will say that it has done a terrible disservice to the home cook with its proliferation of emphasizing all things quick, easy, and simple. Why? Because one thing that approach does is instill fear and self-doubt in home cooks when it comes to cooking anything above and beyond the standard fare. ‘Oh, I could never cook out of "The French Laundry Cookbook"... it's too hard.' " To which she replies … well, you can guess. "All it takes is the willingness to try. Chances are, you'll end up feeling really proud of what you've done."

Visions of dinners filled with Oyster and Pearl knockoffs swim before my eyes. Look, I’m not even going to pretend to defend all of those dreadful short-cutty, “almost-as-good-as” recipes. But at the same time, I think the reverse is also true: that focusing on the most creative, technically advanced cooking also instills its own fear and self-doubt -- that fixing anything short of a three-star restaurant’s cuisine means that you’re not really cooking.

That seems to be a common fallacy these days, and one that degrades home cooks and professional chefs alike -– the former because it implies that fixing simple food that is simply delicious doesn’t count, and the latter because it implies that what they do is so simple anyone with a book can do it.

The reality, of course, is that all great cuisines recognize both as being equally valid. Every Frenchman dreams of eating at a three-star restaurant, and every three-star chef longs for his mother’s roast chicken and pommes gratin. One type of cooking informs the other. Good, simple home cooking teaches you what food is about; truly great restaurant cooking teaches you what food can become.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with an ambitious home cook working her way through "The French Laundry Cookbook,” just as there’s nothing wrong with a restaurant serving glorified versions of home cooking (hello, California cuisine!).

Let’s just be sure to give each the credit it deserves. And let’s also remember that the point of cooking for someone else is to give pleasure, not to demonstrate prowess. Some mountains are best climbed in private.

--Russ Parsons

Photo of Carol Blymire by Neil Gelinas, JWM Productions

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