The Food Porn Hall of Fame

Five irresistible coffee table cookbooks

 


I read cookbooks far more often than I actually cook from them. There they sit, stacked by the bedside, proffering fantasy scenarios wherein I make sweeping Southern banquets with heirloom vegetables, and seafood delicacies that don’t poison anyone. In my cookbook dreams, I use expensive gadgets to create desserts I can’t pronounce, I stack tall cakes that don’t tilt, and I am never caught ditching an ambitious recipe to eat a box of Twinkies.

Since I’m not using them for real-world results anyway, my favorite books are often the restaurant ones, packed with pictures of fancy food and chefs in sparkling toques. When you cook (and, let’s face it, dine) vicariously, it helps to have superlative artists depicting the experience; luckily, the pros who crafted my favorite books capture their subjects in spectacularly satisfying detail. Let’s break out the Twinkies and cozy up with world’s finest hash joints:
1.) A Day at El Bulli, Ferran Adria

El Bulli, in northern Spain, is the high temple of molecular gastronomy, a combo of chemistry + creative cooking that offers a topsy-turvy take on ingredients. Ferran Adria is the king of deconstructing familiar foods and giving them unexpected shapes and textures: liquids become breakable sheets, soups are served as solid little pearls, the blue pills makes clocks run backwards, etc.

Door-stop worthy in weight, A Day at El Bulli is not a cookbook but rather a visit to Adria’s award-winning Wonderland; it’s loaded with more than 1,000 photos of the food, the dining room and the kitchen, and includes great ones of the staff in prep and during service -- broken down by hour (“16:45: Making an olive oil cylinder from caramel.”)

Should you want to attempt Adria’s magic tricks at home, there are “actual” El Bulli cookbooks somewhere on the market. They’re fetish objects for chefs and followers, and are priced accordingly ($200 - $400, depending on where you pick them up). If you get one, please lend it to me.

2.) Under Pressure, Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller lives on the other end of the spectrum from Adria. He’s equally as revered, but for a purist-style adherence to traditional French methods and flavors. His twin chapels of fine cuisine are the French Laundry, in Napa, and Per Se, in New York's Columbus Circle. He makes the best fries in the free world. Keller’s first two cookbooks – French Laundry and Bouchon (his Yountville bistro -- there’s also one in Vegas, and if you’re ever there, see for yourself about the fries) – actually do have recipes you can make at home. They’re beautifully written by Michael Ruhlman, a journalist who first met Keller while researching The Soul of a Chef, a terrific story about life at (and after) the Culinary Institute of America.

“Under pressure” is the English translation of “sous vide” – a French cooking method that involves vacuum-sealing ingredients and cooking them in an immersion bath for a very long time. The book has recipes that are intended for restaurants, and only a handful at that – in New York, at least, you have to have a special license to use the method due to certain bacterial concerns. While they’re impractical to attempt, the recipes provide a fascinating glimpse into a kitchen where old-world meals meet new precision technology, and the photos – oh, the photos! – manage to turn little plastic bags of food into playful, daring subjects.

3.) Alinea, Grant Achatz

Grant Achatz is, literally, a product of the two giants listed above. He launched his career as Keller’s sous chef at the French Laundry, and while he was there, began to have the creative cuisine itch. As chef-lore has it, Mentor Keller took Protégé Achatz to Spain to meet Ferran Adria, and Achatz fell hard for molecular gastronomy. He soon left Napa for Chicago, where he now runs the food fun house called Alinea.

By all accounts (and according to the stunning photos presented here) eating at Alinea is rather like dining on an alien planet. Strange and lovely things happen behind its doors, plenty of which just may change your life; all you have to do is get to Chicago and lay down several hundred bucks. Or, you can summon up the courage (and equipment) to follow any of this gorgeous art book’s 600 recipes. Mozzarella balloons, maybe.

4.) The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, Heston Blumenthal

Blumenthal is the UK’s answer to Adria & Achatz, or perhaps it’s the other way around. The Fat Duck, in Bray, Berkshire, has long had a shockingly creative menu (frozen bacon and the like) that still manages to woo people (critics) who would rather not play with their food. This beautiful cookbook is divided into three massive sections – history, recipes, and science – and the essays included in each are as impressive as the accompanying photographs. Blumenthal’s a charming and engaging writer, and the design of the book itself is so very alluring that you may never want to risk getting it dirty by cooking with or near it.

5.) On the Line, Eric Ripert

The title’s “line” is the one at Manhattan’s La Bernardin, where the food media darling Eric Ripert is the head chef. Less an arty coffee table anchor than the rest of this sumptuous lot, On the Line reads like a tell-all from the ranks of a demanding 4-star kitchen. It belongs on the shelf with Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Bill Buford’s Heat; the essays weaved through the recipes offer an inside look at the rules of running a Michelin-starred house.


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Comments

  • Snooth User: cigarman168
    Hand of Snooth
    227923 333

    Where can I buy those cooksbooks?

    Dec 06, 2010 at 10:05 PM


  • Snooth User: WZS
    430440 6

    Look for Noma's new book.

    Dec 07, 2010 at 2:43 AM


  • When you say "world’s finest hash joints" do you mean Corned Beef Hash???

    LMAO !!!!!!

    Dec 07, 2010 at 12:05 PM


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