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HAPPY THANKSGIVING: Triple-Dip Book Reviews

I am not opposed to existence of Rachel Ray, as she bestows upon the masses the art of creating edible food via her lovely tenor voice. I feel similarly about the carnivorous Paula Deen, though when her Southern drawl grows to the point of incomprehensible, or when she decides that drowning turkey in a vat of fat makes for an ideal family meal (or, slathering anything flesh-contained with butter, for that matter) I begin to wince. I am however opposed to their memoirs and ghost-written novels, in which they detail how they feed their dogs and what color M&M’s they tend to gravitate towards. So let’s not all band together and bankroll the commercial ventures of these brilliant multi-millionaires. And what an apt time it is to be buying foodie-novels for loved ones anyway. Here are three to consider:

The Soul of A Chef by Michael Ruhlman

FOR THE SERIOUS, HARD-CORE FOODIE

If you’re craving something that’s a little more journalistic you’ll find gold in Ruhlman’s series. Soul of a Chef is his second installment and arguably one of his most relevant despite the fact that it was published  ten years ago. A professional chef by training, Ruhlman’s got the inside scoop on everything and is thus able to ethnographically detail everything from within: the Certified Master Exam at the CIA (The Culinary Institute of America), Michael Symon’s start at Lola and the inception of superstar chef Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry.

Who knew that Symon is actually talented? Food Network was certainly lucky in finding a chef, who’s charismatic, bubbly personality luckily came with serious food skills. Back then, though, Ruhlman had no idea that Symon would come this far, and in detailing his protege-esque mastery so early on in the making, Ruhlman certainly has the eye for spotting future stars.

With The French Laundry, his detail is no less compromised, perhaps frighteningly so. Besides declaring Thomas Keller as the obvious candidate who will eventually go on to achieve his trio of Michelin stars, he’s spotted Corey Lee and Grant Achatz. Back then, Grant Achatz was not the brilliant molecular-gastronomist who would sprinkle agar-agar and cubify molasses sugar. He was Keller’s sous-chef, working the fish-station. And he happened to be quite brilliant. During one dinner disaster Achatz literally invents a new dish on the spot (pan-seared scallops with bacon) that went on to become a permanent menu item at the French Laundry. Ruhlman then praises Corey Lee, who now helms the acclaimed Benu in San Francisco.

Perhaps one minor flaw in this novel is the lack of a distinct writing style. Being a journalistic piece, however, it trades style for juicy details. Symon does not just waltz in to Lola and interviews Symon in one sitting. He works the kitchen, sits in on late-night staff dinners for months before he even gets an idea of what to write of Symon. Conversations may not all be accurate but they nevertheless suffice. One is transported into the world of Symon, much like one can vicariously indulge first-hand what it’s like to experience the 3-hour extravaganza at The French Laundry. On one occasion, Ruhlman recounts a dinner in which he dines with the bromantic couple Eric Ripert and Tony Bourdain, and literally records almost every detail imaginable: the famous “oysters and pearls,” a beautifully composed dish of Pearl Tapioca Sabayon with Malpeque Oysters and Osetra Caviar. Or perhaps a simple carrot soup made with pureed, precisely-boiled carrots that end up being more intense than the carrot itself. We find also that Keller fires one of his line cooks on the spot when he complains about a late walk-in diner, and that he flips expletives at Bourdain when he leaves the 9-course dinner midway for a quick cigarette. An eye-opening perspective, indeed.

Rating: A

Insatiable by Gael Greene

FOR THE HORNY FEMALE FOODIE

My suggestion says it all. Not a book for males (I learned this the painful way) but for the 20-something to cougar-aged females who may fantasize about Tom Colicchio’s bald head on Top Chef. Gael Greene’s latest novel may at first seem like she’s grasping at straws. After being fired from New York magazine as a critic for over 40-years, Greene thinks she can get away with a novel that recounts haute-cuisine’s days of yore, back when Lutèce  reigned supreme in Manhattan, when Le Bernadin was helmed by Maguy and Gilbert Le Cloze.

While the Top-Chef Masters judge does write about the 1970’s, which are more relevant than we should perceive it to be, she manages to convey this information with such a graceful prose and an equal attention to detail. She’s gone from an intrepid small-time reporter to a major critic who counts Craig Claiborne as a close acquaintance, and who is invited to personal dinners by the Troisgrois. She also foists jealousy upon us when she talks about that lovely foie gras, the size of a football, in France – a delicious life in excess indeed.

She also talks about sex. A lot of it. For all we know Greene could succeed as an erotic-fiction writer. It could be that Greene has an abnormally hungry sex-drive. Yes, she boasts about her sexual encounter with Elvis Presley (warning: the chapter on this hits you very early on), but if you are a fan of this and don’t mind her ‘mentioning’ 5-6 sexual encounters in great detail than you might find this addition as cherry on top.

Rating: B+

Waiter Rant by ‘A. Waiter’

FOR THE FOODIE WHO’S EITHER DINES OUT REGULARLY OR HAS WORKED FRONT-OF-THE-HOUSE

The title is indicative of what it is. Author Steve Dublanica was a former waiter at a fairly high-end restaurant and hated it with passion. This novel is thus his complaints, organized chronologically.

For all the complaints he lashes out, one does not feel that he is a whiner more than the fact that being a waiter is not a joyous occasion. Lucrative, at times, but unfair. The real USP of this book, however, is the inside-scoop one gets of what really goes on. Like to send your food back often? Extra ingredients are almost a guarantee. One of which is floor hockey. If you send your burger back citing that it is either too well-done or rare, chefs will first cook a new one, then play “floor-hockey” with the hamburger patty before returning it to the bun. Coffee not decaf? They will never be. The same cup of non-decaf coffee is sloshed around the sink and then put back into the cup. Customers are also not let off the hook easily. If you’re one of “those” customers your hostess will surely bitch about you on a private Open Table forum that can be read by all other restaurant hostesses. So don’t feel offended when you’re shown to a table next to the toilet when you dine somewhere else.

We also find that Mother’s Day and New Year’s eve are the worst days for waiting on customers, so tread cautiously when you find the food less than appetizing.

All things considered Waiter Rant turns out to be a pleasant, gratifying surprise. Purists should also not complain about the writing; it is faultless and on-par with others on the market.

Rating: A-

– Jon Cheng

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