Cookbook Review: Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home: Deliberately Eating Together

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Photographs: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

Thomas Keller's cookbooks are not known for being accessible. Gorgeous, inspirational, even heavy — but accessible? Doable? Replicable? Not exactly. The French Laundry Cookbook, Bouchon, and especially Under Pressure have all been criticized for being too complicated for home cooks, and while I am a firm believer that sophisticated, professional level cookbooks have their place in the lexicon, it's true that I've only made a handful of dishes from them.

But Keller's latest cookbook, Ad Hoc at Home (Amazon), is based on the food produced in Keller's "casual eatery" in Yountville, California, and purports to "offer a huge collection of recipes for doable and beloved everyday meals." Much in the same way that the restaurant Ad Hoc is a casual complement to the upscale French Laundry and the French bistro Bouchon, so Ad Hoc at Home is a gateway drug to Keller cuisine: accessible, affordable, recognizable, and yet with subtleties in the food and philosophy that give rise to promises of much more to come. Ad Hoc goes out of its way to appeal to a slightly different audience than its older siblings: for example, scattered throughout the book are sidebars with tips and trick, denoted by light bulb graphics. It would all be a little too Food Network — if the food didn't work so well on so many levels.

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Photographs: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

Not Your Mama's Home Cooking

The food in Ad Hoc is simple and elegant: full braised meats, hearty salads, and fruit cobblers. The flavors remind me of an updated version of The Silver Palate Cookbook by Julee Rosso and the late, great Sheila Lukins, but that comparison does not extend to technique. Where Silver Palate prioritized accessible, doable recipes, Ad Hoc's preparations complex, and they take considerably more time and skill than some cooks might want to expend on a simple family dinner. This is company food, holiday and special occasion dishes that take time to make but are worth every minute.

One of the most famous elements of Ad Hoc (the restaurant) is that diners don't get to choose what they eat: there's a daily fixed menu of four courses (salad, entree, cheese, and dessert), and the book reflects that attitude, although somewhat haphazardly. The recipes are arranged into menus of a sort: that is, at the end of each, Keller gives a few ideas for pairings with other dishes, and there's a discrete section on cheese pairings. Given the thought that must go into planning Ad Hoc's menu every night (taking into account the seasonality of ingredients, thematic connections, and general flavor harmony) it is odd that we aren't provided with more formalized menus. That's small beef, though: family meals should really be cook's choice, and everyone can either eat, starve, or feed it to the dog. (Pass on this food, and that would be one lucky dog.)

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Photographs: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

Recipes for Home Cooked Versions of Restaurant Food Based on Home Cooking

To understand what makes these recipes different (and better) than what usually pass as recipes for home cooked meals, one must first understand the restaurant that provided the book's inspiration. Started in order to make use of an empty space Keller had purchased, Ad Hoc was originally intended to be a temporary restaurant serving family style meals reminiscent of Keller's childhood favorites. This being Thomas Keller, however, the food would be done with an attention to detail usually reserved for fine dining establishments. Jeffrey Cerciello, the Director of Casual dining for the Thomas Keller Restaurant Group, had his suspicions when he first heard the plan to sell what was essentially a restaurant staff meal to the public: "He said it was going to be fun. We all wrote back to each other saying, Thomas doesn't do fun. Thomas does complex, refined."

That ends up being the difference. The recipes in Ad Hoc are not a trendily gourmet take on the food you cook at home. There's no foie gras peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or truffled macaroni and cheese. Similarly, they're not dumbed-down versions of Michelin-starred cuisine. These are recipes Keller actually makes for his friends, family, and the patrons of his restaurant, and thus they aren't always as simple, or accessible, as one might hope. There's a recipe for chicken soup with dumplings, for example, that requires the vegetables to all be blanched separately and the dumplings to be shaped into footballs with two spoons like quenelles.

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Photographs: Paula Forbes / Eat Me Daily

In the wrong hands, this preciousness would be unwarranted; this food is supposed to be rustic, after all. The reason it works is the reason the restaurant works; Dave Cruz, chef de cuisine of Ad Hoc, writes in the cookbook: "Often cookbooks talk about bringing restaurant techniques and style to home cooking. Ad Hoc is a reflection of the reverse — applying home cooking to a restaurant — and the result is really good home cooking for everyone." The result of this process is almost magical. The recipes all sound so fantastically delicious: pan-roasted chicken with sausage and sweet peppers, fig-stuffed roast pork loin, saffron rice salad with summer squash and Maine lobster, rainbow chard with raisins, pine nuts, and serrano ham, chocolate shortbread cookies with mint chocolate chip ice cream. There is not a single recipe in this cookbook that I don't want to make. I don't believe I have ever read another cookbook of which the same could be said.

Keller ends his introduction by saying, "When we eat together, when we set out to do so deliberately, life is better, no matter your circumstances." This is a sentiment that is often expressed, and often sounds hollow. In Keller's capable hands, however, it is merely the truth. Ad Hoc contains recipes that are worthy of bringing people together: worthy because they honor the occasion or worthy because they are the occasion. This is food with gravitas.

—Paula Forbes

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9 Comments

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  1. DLD

    How can one review a cookbook without actually cooking from it? I don't get it! I have heard people say this is the greatest cookbook ever. But they have yet to cook anything. I strength of a cookbook to me is based on the success of its recipes. Not because its a Thomas Keller book. I have the Bouchon cookbook and have cooked from it many times with great success. So many times that the cover is no longer attached. That is a great cookbook.

    I actually have this book, and this past weekend I made the chicken pot pie. The crust, which calls for 2 1/2 sticks for butter was excellent. The book tells you to let the pie rest for 10 min before cutting, but that was a mistake because all the sauce escaped. I think it needs to rest at least 30min to one hour. Otherwise, it was a good chicken pie. The jury is still out on this one.
    .

    • Sabayon

      Chillax, dude, she never says she didn't make recipes.

    • Paula

      I did cook from this cookbook; I used the pork brine and made a few of the pantry items, as well as the fancy chicken soup mentioned. I clearly didn't cook everything, but I wouldn't claim that the food and recipes were fantastic unless I had evidence to back it up.

      I agree with you, I think many people do review cookbooks without testing them. Unlike you, I do think that's possible; for example, see my review of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook from last year, or even Helen's review of Coco earlier this week. Those cookbooks are written to give you an understanding of an individual chef's process, not necessarily instructions for recreating the dish. I would never review a cookbook that is clearly intended to be used by home cooks--highly skilled or otherwise--without testing several recipes.

      I'm sorry the recipe you tried didn't work out! Try the chicken soup, dude, it's amazing.

  2. This book is VERY accessible. Keller is quite transparent as well; good ingredients plus good technique yields good food. This book brings his exceptional techniques to the home cook in a way that The FL Cookbook and Bouchon cookbook were not intended. These are familiar flavors with the Keller twist. I will be cooking my way through this book should you want to see how the recipes pan out. http://adhocathome.blogspot.com and on Twitter @adhocathome

  3. simon

    I don't find FL or Bouchon to be difficult at all. Time consuming, detail oriented, labor intensive, yes. But totally doable. I use them all the time.

  4. Mike

    Keller has an amazing attention to detail. He doesn't mind sending a commis out in the garden at midnight with a small flashlight and sharp shears to trim herbs as this is when they are the most flavorful and robust. During the day, the heat makes them too tender. He doesn't mind discarding about a pound of mire poix used in a stew only to replace the exact same vegetables with similar ones but blanched in their own flavor and not cooked to unrecognizable near mush.

    About the only difference that requires special training is..things will never go as planned and it takes a keen eye and a trained hand to know what is about to go wrong, why, and how to correct it.

    Ad Hoc will go on my list because the fact of the matter is, after nearly a decade of cooking lobster and as much time creating braises and stews, every time I work through a Keller recipe, even though it doesn't make sense at first, I eventually go "Oooooh, THATS why he did that!"

  5. Chris

    I have FL Cookbook and Bouchon ( I have Under Pressure - more out of curiosity) and have successfully cooked recipes in both although probably not to his TK exacting standards. I look forward to getting Ad Hoc at Home.

  6. There may be some false expectations built up around Ad Hoc at Home because of the name and our associations with the food. The name calls to mind improvised home-cooking, but this isn't really what it's about. Ad Hoc at Home is another Keller restaurant, and though the food traditional Americana, he demands much of the same rigor of his cooks that he would in any restaurant. I don't actually see much difference between Ad Hoc and Bouchon in aesthetic or difficulty. Both are dealing with rustic food from their respective countries. Both treat those foods with attention to detail that seems at times at odds with the casual nature of the food. The results can be wonderful, but also infuriating. I loved the chicken pot pie, and had no problem with the crust, but I was amused because I think of a pot pie as being a dish that should require only one or two pots. But rather than letting every flavor blend together, Keller insists on cooking each ingredient separately. I felt the same way about his beef bourguignon in Bouchon. I can respect it, even like it, but its not your mother's home cooking. . . unless your mother is a highly functioning OCD patient who has a live-in staff of dishwashers.

  7. I have both FL Cookbook and Under-Pressure. I have made many of the recipes with GREAT success from both books and recently prepared a complete entry using Sous Vide techniques for a progressive dinner. While the techniques are certainly not for the beginner home cook most dishes can be prepared with success depending on time, talent and ingredients availability. I am struggling with some of Thomas Keller molecular gastronomy techniques, like how to produce a Hayden Egg. Hopefully it will come together. I'm looking forward to buying Ad Hoc.

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