For Christmas, Sarah and Evan gave us autographed copies of cookbooks written by some of their San Francisco colleagues and friends. They are all beautiful books, and certainly worth a place of honor on my cookbook shelves. Good and successful restaurants seem to go through the same sort of trajectory. First, there is the nervous anxiety after the opening and before reviews appear. Then, there are professional reviews, almost always glowing. Next come the Yelpers (I call them Whiners) with their smarmy comments: “Why do they charge so much; who do they think they are?” ” I could do better at home on my hot plate.” “They seated someone else at my table even though I was only an hour late for my reservation.” ” When I told them I didn’t like the filet mignon after I had eaten it all, they refused to comp me.” After the whiners, the real customers take over, and the restaurant is wildly popular. Then there are demonstration tours, and finally a thick, beautifully illustrated cookbook appears so that the diner can try making the dish at home – ha.
Coi, Bar Tartine, and Flour+Water are three of the best, most popular, and most successful restaurants in San Francisco, so it is not surprising that they all have beautiful cookbooks. Here are some of my random thoughts on all of them. Coi: Stories and Recipes by Daniel Patterson (Phaidon Press, London and New York) is really more of a memoir than a cookbook, and it is illustrated with lush images of the California countryside along with relatively few food shots. Daniel Patterson is an accomplished writer as well as a Michelin-starred chef. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Lucky Peach, Food and Wine, and the Financial Times among other publications. The photographer, Maren Caruso, clearly knows how to operate a camera. Besides all that, Patterson is gracious in recognizing many of the cooks who have helped to make Coi a success. To be sure, there are “recipes” although they do not appear in the typical format of lists of ingredients and the steps in putting them all together. In my view, you can reproduce some of the dishes only if you study the instructions very carefully and already possess a high level of cooking skill. The most engaging parts of the book are the personal stories and philosophical statements – meditations, really – that accompany each of the recipes. The feeling that the reader comes away with is that of understanding the author as a thoughtful person as well as an accomplished cook. Bar Tartine: Techniques & Recipes by Nicolaus Balla and Cortney Burns with photographs by Chad Robertson (Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 2014) is reminiscent of Chad Robertson’s already classic Tartine Bread except that there is a lot more color. If you have been lucky enough to eat at Bar Tartine, you know that Nicolaus and Cortney have fun with their cooking. It has the same precision that you expect in high-end food, but at the same time it is playful. The chefs delight in using ingredients you may never have heard of, or in ways that you have never thought of. And that’s sort of how Balla and Burns approach their cookbook. There are delicious recipes and gorgeous images aplenty, but the emphasis is on ingredients The first sixteen chapters are devoted to topics like “Drying”, “Assorted Powders”, “Spice Mixes”, “Sprouting and Soaking”, “Oils & Animal Fats”, “Vinegars”, “Pickles & Preserves” along with suggestions about how to use ingredients like dried strawberries (The two love their dehydrator), kefir butter, schmaltz, and even burnt toast. The recipes look accessible but you will definitely need to expand your pantry. For me, the book is more like a beautifully illustrated instruction book than a conventional cookbook, and there are detailed instructions about how to make all of the powders and dried foods that serve as the basis of or as seasoning for the fabulous foods of Bar Tartine. The images by Chad Robertson add greatly to the final product, and in the credits, Balla, Burns, and Robertson also do all of the food and prop styling. The book is beautifully done and truly a labor of love, just like a meal at Bar Tartine. Flour+Water: Pasta by Thomas McNaughton with Paolo Lucchesi and photography by Eric Wolfinger (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA) is a detailed treatise on pasta, but it is fascinating reading and studying. There is a two-page spread immediately after the frontispiece showing the author intent on rolling out a length of pasta dough. From that single image you get the feeling that McNaughton wakes up and goes to sleep thinking of pasta. His descriptions about seemingly arcane topics such as the differences between Italian 00 flour and semolina flour turn out to be fascinating reading. And coupled with detailed, well-organized images, the narrative provides step-by-step instructions that even a tyro is willing to try. There is also an abundance of recipes for what to do with the pasta once you have made it. “Mouth-watering” does not adequately describe the images of some of the spectacular dishes: spaghetti with black trumpet, poached egg, and cured yolk; burrata triangoli with preserved lemon, summer squash, and mint. A bonus is the back story of McNaughton’s pilgrimage to Italy and his long, humbling hours of learning how to make pasta under the tough guidance of a room full of Italian grandmothers. With that, the reader realizes that anything done well requires commitment along with hours, days, and years of practice.