Cookbook Review: Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home: Deliberately Eating Together
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Earlier on Eat Me Daily
- Weighty Issues: The Heaviest Cookbooks Out There
- The Blackberry Farm Cookbook by Sam Beall [cookbook review]
- The Global Culinary Yearbook, 2009: Coco by Phaidon [book review]
- The Eat Me Daily Fall 2009 Cookbook Preview
- Wallpaper Magazine's Global Happy Meal Includes Thomas Keller's Fried Chicken [recipe]
- Thomas Keller's Under Pressure by the Numbers