Friday, February 8, 2008

Think Like a Chef

In April, I will travel to Las Vegas for a long weekend and have been eagerly anticipating dining at a couple good restaurants. I was pondering about which steakhouse to visit and eventually decided on Craftsteak, one of Chef Tom Colicchio's restaurants. I was thus intrigued when I received a copy of his new cookbook.

Think Like A Chef ($22.50) by Tom Colicchio (with Catherine Young, Lori Silverbush amd Sean Fri) is published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House. Think Like A Chef, previously in hardcover, has recently been reprinted as a trade paperback with 272 pages.

Chef Colicchio is very well known in the culinary world. In 1994, he and his partner, Danny Meyer, opened the famed Gramercy Tavern in New York City. His cuisine was richly praised and in 2000 he won the prestigious James Beard's Best Chef New York Award. Since then, he has opened a number of other restaurants including Craft, Craftbar, Craftsteak and 'wichcraft in New York City, Craftsteak in Las Vegas, Craft Dallas in Texas and Craft LA in Century City. Craft Atlanta and Craftsteak Foxwoods are slated to open in Spring 2008. Chef Colicchio has also been the head judge on Bravo's Top Chef series.

Think Like a Chef, his first cookbook, was originally published in 2000 and won a James Beard KitchenAid Cookbook Award in 2001. His second cookbook, Craft of Cooking, was published in 2003.

Think Like a Chef is not an ordinary cookbook, not just a collection of recipes. It is intended to create a better cook, one not tied down to receipes. Someone who can modify recipes and improvise in the kitchen. It teachs you how to think about cooking, to think like a chef. While in law school, sometimes the subject matter seemed a bit too esoteric, not very practical. But we were often told the that we were being taught to think like a lawyer, which was considered the goal of law school. To ingrain a certain mode of thinking. This is what that cookbook does as well.

The cookbook begins with a fourteen page preface, a basic biography of Chef Colicchio. Then there is a six page introduction which sets out Chef Colicchio's purpose for the cookbook, his philosophy of cooking. The rest of the cookbook is divided into five sections: Techniques, Studies, Trilogies, Component Cooking & A Few Favorites. The first four sections also have subchapters. The cookbook contains over 110 recipes.

In the introduction, Chef Colicchio states that he is most concerned that people learn "how" to cook so that they are able to change recipes if needed or desired. And why would you want to change a recipe? Maybe certain ingredients are not available, or not the freshest, or you simply dislike an item in a certain recipe.

Chef Colicchio goes on to say that "creating begins in the marketplace." He does not start with a recipe and then shops for the specific ingredients needed. Instead, he wanders through the local market or grocery store, to see what looks good to you, what is in season, and then decides which items might pair well together. Maybe the tomatoes look especially good as does the leg of lamb. So what can you create using those two items?

Chef Colicchio wants to teach his readers some basic cooking techniques and terms, to give them the tools they will need as a cook. And once they possess those tools, they can use them to alter recipes or create their own. So the recipes he provides are but examples of how to think like a chef and create your own dishes. They are examples and not intended to be slavishly followed.

The Techniques section is broken down into five chapters: Roasting, Braising, Blanching, Stock-Making, and Sauce-Making. Each chapter begins with detailed instructions on the cooking technique and then provides sample recipes using those techniques. For example, the Roasting chapter has recipes for such items as Roasted Chicken, Striped Bass, Sirloin, Leg of Lamb as well as other dishes. Most of the recipes have small sidebars with additional information on ingredients and techniques. I think this section does an excellent job presenting in a clear and easily understood manner some of the basic techiniques of cooking.

In the Studies section, there are three chapters: Roasted Tomatoes, Mushrooms, and Braised Artichokes. The basic idea here is to show how a cook can build upon a single ingredient to create a myriad of recipes, from simple to complex. For Chef Colicchio, his initial building block is usually a vegetable. They are what is seasonal, which best can exemplify the time. From there, he begins to consider the various techniques, how they can bring out the best in the initial ingredient and then what other ingredients would go well with that idea. So Chef Colicchio shows you what could be done with three different ingredients as the basis for a recipe.

For example, he starts off with the Tomato as the initial ingredient and Roasting as the Technique. The recipes then could be as simple as Roasted Tomatoes and Garlic or more complex like a Roasted Tomato Risotto. Or try a Sea Bass Stuffed with Roasted Tomatoes. And all these ideas began with a simple tomato.

The next section, Trilogies, has three chapters: Asparagus, Ramps & Morels; Lobster, Peas & Pasta; Duck, Root Vegetables & Apples. The basic idea here is to use only three major ingredients, all seasonally in context together, and to create a number of different dishes. This certainly keeps things simple yet also allowing much flexibility. Each of the chapters provides some sample recipes showing what can be done with the three ingredients. I especially enjoyed the Duck chapter. The photo of Duck Ham, Duck Confit and Duck Rilletes is quite enticing.

The fourth section, Component Cooking, is broken down into three chapters: Spring Vegetables, Summer Vegetables, and Fall Vegetables. The basic concept here is how to mix and match ingredients on a plate, especially through small vegetable side dishes. The key is relying on what is fresh and pairing ingredients that go well together. There are plenty of recipes here as examples, from corn relish to pepper chutney.

The final section, A Few Favorites, is a compilation of eight of Chef Colicchio's favorite recipes, ones he uses over and over again. And they generally transcend the seasons so can be created anytime. From Lentils to Foie Gras Terrine, from Pan Fried Oysters to Chicken Soup.

Generally these recipes are of easy to moderate complexity to prepare. Most of the ingredients should be readily available in large grocery stores. The book does provide a Resources page listing where some of the less common ingredients can be found.

I think that this is an excellent cookbook with an intriguing philosophy. Many people would benefit from the lessons in this book, from new cooks to even experienced ones. If you feel that you are tied to recipes, unable to improvise or modify, then you should check out this cookbook. There are also plenty of enticing photos of the foods and they add to the appeal of this cookbook. I would highly recommend Think Like A Chef.


belt pouch said...

think like a chef is not that hot to the market maybe because the author is not that know.

criticpapa said...

whoa!!!, you had a passion in blogging, thumbs up for yourwork of love.. Hehe very inspiring ideas,

anyway I'm william
mind if I put a link back to you?

(clickable) ------> Top Coats

CatCat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
UK said...

I LOVE THIS BOOK! I loved how Tom walked through all the professional terms and jargon and explained it all well. He also discribed the techniques that chefs use to get the amazing flavors of the resturant. I've followed his method many times.