Cookbook Review: The Big Fat Duck Cookbook: Heston Blumenthal's Adventures in Gastroland
There once was boy named Heston Blumenthal, and he wanted, more than anything, to be a chef. Not one for formal training, he pored over cookbooks by candlelight, night after night, soaking up all the culinary knowledge he could. One day, while journeying through the magical village of Bray, he stumbled upon a small pub of a particularly British variety. Heston purchased the pub and declared it to be called The Fat Duck.
For years Heston slaved away, toiling in the dark kitchen of The Fat Duck, until one day he received word that he had been awarded the most coveted prize in all the land: a Michelin star. Soon another followed, and then the final third. Having achieved the greatest thing a chef could hope to accomplish, Heston took a moment to reflect. He gathered his cooks around him. "Listen closely, as this will not be as easy task," he told them in a hushed voice. "We are going to create the most expensive cookbook ever published..."
What, exactly, does a $250 cookbook look like?
The Big Fat Duck Cookbook (buy at Amazon) weighs a lot. A lot. It is stunning and sturdy; the pages have a matte finish that stands up to fingerprints. Its hefty slip cover is adorned with a gigantic silver plume on either side, and the pages are likewise trimmed in silver. The introduction, by Harold McGee, is brief and to the point — his relationship with Blumenthal goes back some way and his professional admiration shows, although McGee does go out of his way to point out that "although many people have contributed to the book, its voice is unmistakably Heston's."
The book is split into thirds: the first covers History, both of The Fact Duck and Blumenthal himself; the second is Recipes, first the tasting menu, in order, followed by the a la carte menu; the third is devoted to science, with articles on ice cream, perfume and chewing. The structure is revealed by the giagantic pullout table of contents that bisects the book, formatted to represent Blumenthal's brain. The whole thing reads a little bit like a cartoonish dissection of a restaurant.
But really, this is a serious cookbook.
I want to be clear at the beginning: this book is an extraordinary accomplishment. Heston Blumenthal, chef at Britain's Fat Duck restaurant, spins a lovely, detailed, epic yarn that could force the most jaded line cook to love food again. The recipes, each preceded by its own lengthy creation myth, are intricate and yet accesible. At least, most of their components are — I don't know about you, but I don't usually keep liquid nitrogen in the pantry. The science articles that comprise the last third of the book, while varied in tone, are on the whole more Scientific American than MIT doctoral dissertation.
And the illustrations! Heston the teenager, discovering Le Grande Cuisine with his parents in France! Heston the young chef, climbing a mountain with the aid of a carrot and a spear of asparagus! Heston the three-star chef, with a helipad on his bald skull! Illustrator Dave McKean has outdone himself.
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away....
Referencing children's literature throughout, Blumenthal is clearly trying to develop some sort of mythology explaining both himself and his restaurant. The biblical journey through "The Valley of Hell" to L'Oustau de Baumaniere in Provence, the Harry-Potteresque self-training, the dreamlike realization of each coveted Michelin star—these are events that actually happened, of course, but each plays on basic dramatic tropes in such a precise, premeditated way.
In conjuring this magical fable, Blumenthal attempts to remove any laboratory chill that clings to the term molecular gastronomy — and it works, to some extent. The conceit would've worked better had the majority of the book not been written in Blumenthal's first person — the unavoidable tones of narcissism lend an unpleasant metallic aftertaste to an otherwise celebratory chronicle. The self-mythologizing Blumenthal is going for was handled better in Grant Achatz's Alinea by having others tell the story of the restaurant and its food.
Still, once I awoke from the narrative haze of the 125-page "History" section, it did feel a little bit as though my emotions had been manipulated. I gather this is how eating at The Fat Duck is supposed to affect the diner: dishes are designed to evoke emotion and nostagia, and occasionally employ bait-and-switch tricks designed to make the diner smile*.
What role the $250* cookbook?
Now the question: what to do with this monstrous tome? I would normally argue that the expensive, chef-helmed, glossy cookbook's purpose is to give chefs and other students of gastronomy access inside the minds of some of their more accomplished colleagues, usually at less cost than eating at their restaurants. However, this book is above and beyond the normal price tag and — aren't you sick of this phrase by now? — in this economy, that doesn't seem particularly excusable.
It has value as documentation, of course, but would it have been worth it to scale down the scope of the project, lower the retail cost and ensure that the book found itself in the hands of more people? I'm not sure. As I said, the magnitude of what has been accomplished here is pretty awesome, both in terms of information and as an object. I wish that as someone who claims to be interested in the concept of accessibility, Blumenthal could've created a magnum opus that would allow those who can't afford his cuisine to have some access to his concepts and philosophy.
* For example, many of the dishes taste like a smell (a concept I can't fully wrap my head around without experiencing it): leather, rose, frankincense. Others reverse traditional culinary concepts: savory crab ice cream, the Whisk(e)y Gums that contain actual whisk(e)y.
* $250 is the retail price, it sells for $157 at Amazon.
–special EMD contributor Paula