Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Thomas Keller has made a very successful career out of cooking with the absolute best ingredients, using the finest, most disciplined technique and maintaining a work ethic that at times doesn't seem human.  Legions of cooks and chefs follow his every move as he personifies excellence in cooking.  His name is synonymous with perfection.   He has arguably influenced more professional cooks than any other chef working in the country today.  How long can you sustain that?  When is it time to exhale?  And, can he, will he ever do a cookbook for the average man?  

Ad-Hoc at Home is that book for Thomas Keller. 

If The French Laundry cookbook was Keller's ground breaking bible on how to make the most precious, perfect cuisine, and Bouchon was his paean to French country cooking, and Sous Vide Cooking showed his expertise for cooking with a technique, not new to the French, but is taking finer establishments by storm on this side of the Atlantic, then with Ad-Hoc at Home he is ready to truly bare his soul as a cook. 

When you open this book for the first time (equally beautiful in design and rich with painterly images of food as any of his other books), you can't help notice the copious pictures of Chef Keller playfully smiling and relaxed.  The book is laid out in categories of foods and with lessons on how to prepare them for anyone who wants to learn them.  The Laundry was just the same, and for that matter, so are the others.   Keller can't help doing what he does best: teach.  His lessons are succinct and relevant.  They aren't tips for cooks- they are concepts.  Building blocks.  Miss one, and you don't stand a chance of ever getting the most out of his recipe or lesson.  And his overall lesson is this:  "Great product + great execution = great cooking." 

I won't cimb up in my ivory tower for this next bit, but at my alma mater, The Culinary Institute of America, whose motto is "preparation is everything", they prepare you to leave their vaunted halls being able to cook absolutely anything.  How much you paid attention, how hard you worked, how much you compromised and how much you were willing to sacrifice determined whether or not you could avail yourself of those lessons later in life.  Keller never attended culinary school.  Part of the legend of Thomas Keller is how much he's achieved without formal training.  But, it just goes to show the power of the human mind and what you can achieve.  Those aren't culinary lessons, they are life lessons.

And so, it seems appropriate that Ad Hoc combines this philosophy of striving for excellence with a passion for preparing (and eating) the finest tasting food possible. 

For those who have read and keep his other books on their own shelf, you'll be pleasantly surprised to see the more human side of Keller.  A CUPCAKE in a Thomas Keller cookbook??  And not a play on words, like Gateau St. Honore cooked in a porcelain coffee cup bain marie with carefully quenelled butter cream icing on a demi-tasse spoon.  I mean plain, no doubt insanely delicious, but simple, white cupcakes.  His Buttermilk Fried Chicken has just seven ingredients.  If you are a lover of salads, he offers about 10 classics that are both pronounceable and can be prepared for your mom and dad.  In other words, salad.  Salads.  It's a salad.  It's.  Salad.

If you learned how to properly and humanely snap the neck of a rabbit in French Laundry, he takes a kinder, gentler approach in Ad Hoc for getting extra meat out of lobster, breaking up a head of garlic and rolling out dough for soup crackers, all with a rolling pin. 

Did I mention the smiling?  It really is something.  For those who don't understand what a break this book is from his past, it is like sharing a beer with your pastor- when you're 16.  He may be the only 3 Star Michelin chef with a recipe for broccolini.  Yes- that hybrid veggie you snub your nose at in the grocery store.  This is one cookbook that's going to get dirty.  You should plan on getting either a cover for it, a cookbook stand or both.  Once you see it, read it, and cook out of it, you'll find yourself buying it for your favorite cook. 

What makes this cookbook so special is what it is not.  It is not pretentious.  It is not precious.  It is not to be put on a pedestal.  You can pick up Ad Hoc not having read any of Keller's other books or even know who he is, and you will find yourself an instant fan.  For the seasoned pro, the delight will be in revisiting all the Keller commandments of cooking, but with a much less authoritative tone.  He still begs you to get rid of your tongs and stop manhandling your food.  He wants you to really understand the importance of salt.  And he restates his love for eggs, as they turn up in various recipes and diverse preparations.  

When you read the first chapter about Keller connecting with his estranged father after years and years, you'll understand the inspiration for a book and restaurant that is about generosity, of food, of portions, of spirit.  When you understand that Thomas was raised by his mother and considers her one of his mentors, you'll see why this feels like a final chapter on the Book of Keller.  

The Chef cooked his father's last meal for him the night before he passed away.  After he did so, he says a lightbulb went on.  The book is laced with "lightbulb" moments, or good ideas; the first sums up how he may have come to such an epiphany that could easily be the theme of his book: 
"The first lightbulb moment I want to offer is one I was lucky to realize in time, and hope that others will, too.  It may seem obvious but it's worth repeating: Take care of your parents."

I've shared more meals with my parents than with probably anyone else.  My life is rich with memories of cooking and eating with them and the rest of my immediate and extended family, and loved ones.  "Obvious", yes.  Common, know.  

I've yet to cook one recipe out of this book.  I haven't even had it for more than 24 hours.  But already, I feel a closer connection to this chef who has at times seemed like a deity.  I suppose it's like meeting your idol and finding that they're just like you.  And with all their frailties, they're human, too.

On page one of the Introduction, last paragraph, just before you take the dive into Ad Hoc at Home, Keller makes one last honest gesture to take any fear out of using this book:

"When we eat together, when we set out to do so deliberately, life is better, no matter your circumstances.  Whether it's a sad or difficult time, whether it's an ordinary-seeming day, or whether it's a time of celebration, our lives are enriched when we share meals together.  And that's what this book is about."
 Thank you, Chef.


R said...

If you're having trouble leaving a comment on this post or any other, please drop me an email; I'll try to get it worked out.

Velva said...

Your book review was great! Just ordered the cookbook from Amazon. Thomas Keller is one of my favorite chefs.

Teenie said...

I've been to Ad Hoc in Yountville - the late night meal we had in the bar area is very memorable.

Great book review! The Bouchon book is great one to have too, if you're a fan of Keller.

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