More Than Chump Change
Review © by Burton Kaplan

The Professional Chef
The Culinary Institute of America - 7th edition
John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York
1036 pages, hdbk, US$65
ISBN 0-471-38257

The Professional Chef The opposite of dependency is not independence but, rather, possibility; the opposite of loneliness not union but self; of suffering not pleasure but enlightenment, and of fear not valor but freedom.

Why do I tell you these things you probably know? Is it because I am in an uncertain place that requires me to say these things yet again to myself, only this time through you? Or, is the intention more writerly-to strike an epigrammatic book reviewing mood?

I like to think it is the latter but, more probably, it is a little of both.

However klutzy my attempt to suggest that concision puts truth on a tightrope, you will doubtless understand why a sense of comic irony might delight in making the shortest of all possible commentaries on this, the longest of all possible cookeries.

So I did a little R&D, only to discover that, no matter how sound-bite-ish I might wish to wax, mine was a waning cause, the impossiblest of dreams. The spoiler? Alfred Kinsey, the famous sociologist. His is the paradigm - the unchallenged standard for the shortest comprehensive review of non-fiction ever. Asked to present a full and learned paper on the then newly published sexology of Masters and Johnson, he rose, approached the microphone, used just eight words to characterize the book's several hundred pages of frisson and frottage. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "it is indeed a pleasure."

Go top that, Tacitus!

Having thus been linguistically gelded, so to speak, I am left to spend the remaining words of this review telling you plainly that this comprehensive and lavishly illustrated book not only provides the food-centric with a taste of what the Culinary Institute of America offers its students, but that it also and clearly affords amateur cookaholics the best dissertation in English on culinary technique since Escoffier.

Though it contains nearly 700 largely failsafe recipes for everything from andouille sausage to zucchini, the emphasis here is on correct procedure and mise-en-place - elements that the Culinary was instrumental in establishing as essential to the training of professional chefs in the U.S. Palate poetics is not a strong suit; and discipline - the sort that has liberated the creativity of many of its graduates to the flights of gastronomic fancy seen on menus from Boston to Austin and beyond - is trump.

Beyond the kinderkitchen front- and back-matter (don't cut yourself, measure ingredients, and the like), the book divides into five broad parts. These are themed not according to ingredients but, rather, to the skills and techniques required for the preparation of stocks, sauces, and soups; meats, poultry, fish, and shellfish; vegetables, potatoes, grains, and legumes (including pasta and dumplings); breakfast and garde manger; and baking and pastry. Within each, readers can easily follow and be guided by reliable step-by-step instructions. Tack-sharp color photography enhances the well-wrought graphic presentation and makes, say, filleting a Dover Sole as clear as what might be encountered in a live demonstration class. The book's detailed recipe index (one of two) serves as a useful concordance, giving readers a means to easily cross reference cookery by ingredient.

As if all of this were not good per se, each section closes with something even better: recognized professional standards that detail the objective criteria by which each category of preparation should be judged. This is unique in my cookbook reading experience, and establishes the tome as something of a minor marvel of American culinary professionalism.

The book is chockablock with tips and tricks, revealing such tidbits as: Which sauces work best with the various pasta shapes? (Tube or twisted shapes, for example, are best paired with heavily textured sauces because these trap the gravy); How much is the correct amount of salt in any and every finished dish? (An amount just sufficient to make the taste of salt barely discernable); How to cook breakfast eggs once over lightly without turning them over? (Cook the eggs on low heat in a pan fitted with a cover. When the whites begin to set, sprinkle water on the eggs and cover, allowing the bottom of the eggs to be cooked on direct heat while the tops are steamed).

All of which brings us back to the recipes, which I damned with faint praise a moment ago. What I neglected to point out was that, uninspired though most may be when compared with those of Trotter or Colicchio or Ramsay, each offers the extreme adaptability that provides the practice ground to build up a repertoire of recipes themed to a particular skill or ingredient. This is not to say there are not some really lovely but simple conceits contained in these pages. Several caught my eye, among these pan-roasted fillet of salmon with a smoked salmon and horseradish crust, a poached tenderloin of beef with cabbage-stuffed cabbage balls [sic], and a rice preparation built on the zingy combination of fresh limes and cilantro.

Where the book is least impressive is in the chapter on ingredients and their selection. Though it illustrates the subtle differences of ten types of apples and thirty cuts of lamb and nine sizes of shrimp and eight varieties of mushrooms, and more, other authors have done it better, among them Daniel Boulud, and Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers. But the negative implied here amounts to little more than chump change.

We live in an age in which celebrity chef-authors are seen as artistes when, in reality, they are, for the most part, small talents grappling (unsuccessfully) with oversize egos. Here is a book that swims against the tide of personality that drives contemporary culinary publishing. Its foursquare prescriptions and cloak of editorial je ne sais quoi are unlikely to engender much in the way of the acclaim it so richly deserves. On the other hand, those among us who acquire and read it will understand that the opposite of notoriety isn't anonymity but, rather, respect.

October 2001

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