Book Review: Coco by Phaidon: The Global Culinary Yearbook, 2009

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Photographs: Eat Me Daily

Be warned: Phaidon Press's new book Coco: 10 World-Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs (Amazon) will suck you in. As its neatly descriptive subtitle so concisely notes, this is a book filled with profiles of 100 up-and-coming chefs, as selected by ten "Masters": Ferran Adria, Mario Batali, Rene Redzepi, Alice Waters, Jacky Yu, Gordon Ramsay, Fergus Henderson, Shannon Bennett, Alain Ducasse, and Yoshihiro Murata. Each of the young chefs gets a few hundred words of praise from a Master, a handful of beautiful photographs of them and their work, and a representative menu complete with recipes. And thanks to that massive quantity of information — narrative, visual, and technical — this is a book that you can dip into, flop open to a random page, or read backwards. It's a riot of glorious information.

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This is not a cookbook

But before we go anywhere with this, let's dispense with the notion that this is a cookbook. Yes, the hundred and ten chefs involved have contributed, more or less, about five hundred recipes total. And yes, with enough dedication and background knowledge, the majority of them could be attempted quite successfully by a talented home cook. Still, I'm certain that no one buying this book does so in search of that no-fail dinner party staple or a radiant side dish to impress at Thanksgiving. These recipes aren't written for clarity (and if they are — well, imagine the hair-pulling involved in translating a restaurant recipe for home-kitchen use; multiply that by a hundred chefs, most of whom skew obsessive-compulsive and/or molecular; and pity this book's poor technical editors) so much as they're intended to evoke the sense of a dish. They serve the same role as the questionnaire that runs underneath a Playboy centerfold: it's a way of transmitting the chefs' vital statistics, a vehicle by which we can learn more about them, imagine that we know them, and, ultimately, fantasize about them in more vivid detail.

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A yearbook of contemporary cuisine

So if it's not a cookbook, then what is it? It's a list of names. No more than that, really. It's not like other food books, which tend to take an exhaustive, retrospective stance towards a particular chef, region, or technique; it's just a presentation of data. Here are some chefs, here's why they're interesting, here's what they cook.— think Food & Wine's Best New Chefs list, but infinitely more epic in scope and with zero cheesily posed group shots.

Thanks to this latitudinal approach, Coco is tied inexorably to its publication date. It seems unlikely that in twenty years this'll still be in print, since we're probably not going to still care which ten chefs Alice Waters thought were hot shit back in 2009. But that's part of its unconventional appeal — Coco has all the now-and-later charms of your high school yearbook. It's relevant today as a roll-call of names and faces (so that's that hot chick from the other side of the cafeteria/the Russian wunderkind making cod liver snow with a bread cigar), and then once the narrative no longer applies in the present tense, it'll be fascinating as a document of a particular moment in culinary history.

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Draw your own conclusions

What Coco actually says about this particular moment in culinary history is, as it happens, quite opaque. The fact of the book's raw data puts us readers in a terribly exciting position: we're left to draw our own conclusions. In these pages lies the launching point for uncountable states-of-the-culinary-union, culinary history dissertations, and dinner party arguments. Compare all of Mario Batali's selection profiles against Gordon Ramsay's and see what it is that each values in a young chef. Find a common thread among everyone cooking in South America, or all the chefs doing molecular gastronomy. Why did Fergus Henderson praise both Robert Owen Brown, who runs "a pub; not a glamorous gastro-pub, but a proper pub," and also Mathias Dahlgren, who includes recipes for sea buckthorn sorbet and toast ice cream? Is there tension between chefs with varyingly rustic and refined returns to simplicity? You could spend years teasing out all the significances, tensions, and trends.

An antidote to culinary myopia

Interestingly, the chefs in Coco aren't organized by talent, age, location, or style. That's all stripped away in favor of brusque alphabetizing — which, almost in spite of itself, leads to unexpectedly elegant juxtapositions. David Chang's genre-defying Ameri-Franco-Korean cooking (nominated by Alice Waters) is followed by a profile of Ricky Cheung (Jacky Yu), a chef who was raised on Chinese street food and now makes pitch-perfect French cuisine at Hong Kong's Le Mieux.

No doubt there's a handful of people in the world — and please, if you're one of them, let's be friends — who will recognize every single name in this book, from Acheson to Ziebold. But for the rest of us, or at least those of us who spend most of our time reading and eating in English, this volume is a potent antidote to our geographic culinary myopia. Among the global selection of Masters, they've highlighted an array of young talent that stretches from Singapore to Portugal to Sao Paolo — the Restaurant Directory at the back of the book is just crying out to be the foundation for the world's most envy-inducing (and expensive) checklist blog.

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But wait, there's more!

For any book that's essentially compiled by committee (mysterious "editors of Phaidon Press" selected the ten Masters based on unrevealed criteria; the Masters in turn selected their anointed ones presumably without editorial oversight) there are going to be some question of selection bias. The hundred chefs certainly don't comprise an exhaustive list of young culinary talent — ask another ten Masters and you'll get another hundred, likely with no overlap — and, unsurprisingly, a large proportion of those selected are their Masters' proteges. (A telling moment from Shannon Bennett: "I feel slightly guilty about including Josh in this list," he writes about Josh Lewis, chef at Bennett's Vue in Oman, "as it doesn't include some other very talented chefs who also work for me.")

Though really, whether or not you agree with who's been included (and there've been plenty of noses in slings about that), Coco never actually pretends to be the final word on who matters in the culinary world. It's just a sample of talent, and as such it's one of the most fascinating culinary documents ever published. But it's also incomplete: give us those ten other Masters and their hundred, and another ten with another hundred. Do it every year, at least every decade. Phaidon trumpets it as "the first food book of its kind," and that's certainly true. But it'll be so much better if it isn't the last.

Helen Rosner

A note: Though it's not advertised as such, Coco is part of Phaidon's unofficial series of ten-by-ten books. 10x10 covers the world of architecture, it spawned two followups; Ice Cream and the rest of the Cream series covers fine art as selected by curators; Blink is photography; Areas one and two cover graphic design; for product design there's the out-of-print Spoon and its logical sequel & Fork; and Sample covers fashion. Since so much of what makes Coco interesting is inherent to its organization, it goes without saying that these other books make for seriously compelling reading within their categories as well. –HR

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7 Comments

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  1. The ribbons are totally hot. Must have book accessory of 2009.

  2. There was a big hubbub about this for its lack of any Canadian chefs: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/food-and-wine/canadian-chefs-steamed-by-exclusion-from-book/article1236706/

    This, of course, only serves to feed our Canadian underdog complexes further. We will enact our revenge by way of indie rock. Be forewarned!

  3. amy

    I am SOO getting this book...

  4. michal

    I'm only acquainted personally with one of these chef's, who was my lover many moons ago, but there's another that is on my "must experience once in this lifetime list" - not sexually! - and that is Ferran Adria. Some 10 years ago or so I read a story about him in the NY Times - specifically about blowing up tomatoes with a bicycle pump in his Barcelona hideout - which is his base for the half of the year that he is not in Las Rosas..
    I'm still plotting how to do it..

  5. I received the book last night. Absolutely BEAU-TI-FUL. Just love it!

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