Joel Robuchon is arguably the greatest living, working chef in the world. Patricia Wells is arguably one of the leading culinary journalists writing in English. And, Wells has already done a work on the cuisine of Joel Robuchon in the volume `Simply French' that won a James Beard award for best international cookbook in 1992. All this suggests this should be a great book. I also found things in this book that were not in `Simply French' which made this book more interesting to the reader; however, I did not find this a great, inspiring book for the cook. For the little concerns that lessened the overall impact of the volume, I give it only four stars rather than five.
I rate culinary works according to several different criteria, depending on the intended audience. The major accomplishments I value are lots of good, attainable, interesting recipes as in `James Beard's American Cookery'; masterful description of culinary technique as in Thomas Keller's `The French Laundry Cookbook', thoughtful reflections and revealing comments on culinary terroir, history, or culture as in Patience Gray's `Honey from a Weed'; accurate portrait of a regional cuisine as in David Downie's `Cooking the Roman Way', or exceptional presentation of a particular ingredient or branch of cooking as in Sherry Yard's masterful `The Secrets of Baking'. Memoirs such as Ruth Reichl's `Tender at the Bone' and straight journalism as in Tony Bourdain's `Kitchen Confidential' have their own special criteria, most of which is simply based on successfully telling an interesting story.
After all these reflections, I have to rate this volume somewhat below the very highest rank. The book addresses three subjects related to the career and art of Joel Robuchon.
The first subject is a brief chronicle of Robuchon's career, plus some comments on the careers of six of Robuchon's most prominent students. This section is a bit thin, but it does contain some interesting connections. It explains, for example, Robuchon's connection with and appearances on the Japanese produced show `Iron Chef' which appears regularly in translation on the Food Network. It turns out that Robuchon became enamored of Japanese cuisine early his career and he has a restaurant in Tokyo. He was also a very successful competitor in French culinary competitions early in his career. This section also reminds one of the practice of Thomas Keller. Wells describes Robuchon's kitchen as being quiet as a monastery, almost exactly the same description given by Michael Ruhlman of the kitchen at the French Laundry.
The second subject is a catalogue of Robuchon's favorite ingredients and their suppliers. Here is another parallel with Keller's French Laundry book, as Keller insisted that the book include profiles his of most important suppliers. Robuchon's hallmark ingredients are potatoes, caviar, scallops, cepes, sweetbreads, truffles, chestnuts, and almonds.
The third and largest section is a presentation of five or six recipes for each of the eight ingredients. Each recipe is the creation of Robuchon and one of his six disciples. Every recipe is spelled out in exquisite detail rarely seen in the methods of merely mortal chefs. Cooking times are given from exact milestones such as the time at which a pot of blanching water returns to a boil after adding vegetables. I confess some times and instructions are quite surprising to my totally amateur experience. I almost feel I need an explanation for why they poach asparagus for a full twenty minutes. I find asparagus totally limp and unappealing if it spends much more than five minutes in boiling water. Another major surprise is when a recipe puree's cooked scallops to be formed into quenelles on a mushroom puree. This brings back the comment of French cooking as being designed to suit people with bad teeth. In spite of the exquisitely detailed recipes, I did find a missing step here and there, where, for example, the recipe asks that cheese and potato slices be overlapped in a gratin without having given any instructions on how to slice the cheese.
A truly expert photograph of each finished dish accompanies every recipe by Herve Amiard, Robuchon's personal photographer. All are done with the food plated on a white plate, photographed from directly above the dish, with lighting always coming from the upper left (at about 2 o'clock). Dishes requiring special techniques as with grilled wild mushrooms with eggplant caviar are accompanied with detailed photographic montages and instructions to be certain that the reader can understand and follow the technique. This technique alone uses sixteen well-executed photographs.
This book includes two supplementary tables that enhance its value as a collection of recipes. The first is a tabulation of cooking times for each recipe, by ingredient. Don't get any impression that this book is a resource for quick cooking. The average prep and cook time is 90 minutes and some are as long as 10 hours. The second is a detailed table of contents. It is a little odd that these two tables duplicate a lot of information and their objectives could have been accomplished on two rather than on four folio-sized pages.
I am truly impressed by the modesty of the principle subject of the book and his collaborators. I just reviewed a book by a lesser French chef which might have been subtitled `An Advertisement for Myself'. In all, I found less new knowledge in this book than I found confirmation of statements by other great chefs. Robuchon, for example, confirms an observation made by Daniel Boulud that a cornerstone of culinary technique is repetition. You prepare a dish many, many times over until you know your ingredients and your techniques intimately.
Unlike Boulud's `Letters to a Young Chef', I don't think this book is required reading for foodies or professional chefs, but I think it is good stuff. It does several good things, but nothing great.