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Cooking: The Quintessential Art
By Hervé This and Pierre Gagnaire
ISBN: 0520252950
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: Oct. 2008
Format: Hardcover
List price: $27.50 
Type: Food Philosophy
Sample recipe: Raw and Cooked Asparagus
Intended audience: novice advanced beginner good home cook gourmet professional
Variety: too little too much unusual nice mix just right
# of recipes: <50 <100 <200 <300 ≥300
Practical recipes: <20% <40% <60% <80% ≥80%
# of ingredients: ≤4 ≤7 ≤10 ≤12 >12
Ingredient hunt: 7-Eleven airfare required online pantry supermarket
Recipe complexity: too hard simple medium challenging professional
Instructions: inadequate verbose bare-bones full-figured educational
Time conscious: unconscious outright lies white lies realistic honorable
Cooking time: weekend project takes all day takes time ≥30 minutes <30 minutes
Format/Ease of Use
Layout: ugh cluttered fine considerate work of art
Legibility: unpleasant challenging tolerable clear brilliant
Production quality: cheesy dubious years of service gift quality stunning
Page numbers: non-existent hard-to-find spotty sufficient every page
Table of contents: AWOL frustrating passable useful excellent
Index quality: none tragic adequate good a treasure
Page flipping: upsetting tedious acceptable rare never
Writer: beginner food writer writing cook personality auteur
Cook: unknown self-taught chef teacher celebrity
Fulfills ambitions: falls short almost there satisfactory exceeds home run
Flavor delivered: sad inconsistent tasty delicious exceptional
Overall tone: sterile trying too hard straightforward best friend mom
Value: ouch! a little pricey worth splurging on the money a deal
Overall rating: skip it good very good excellent Ochef Top 100

Comments: Truly, the most unusual food book of this year – and quite likely the next. This, the noted French food scientist, has produced a work of philosophy that tries to classify cooking as an art, giving it its rightful place alongside painting, sculpting, the writing of literature, and the composing of music.

He does this through the discussions and field trips of four fictional characters – a chef, a historian, a businessman, and another man, who knows what he does? – as they discuss cooking and the arts from ancient times to the present. The sayings and writings of every major philosopher, artist, and thinker from classical antiquity to the dawn of the current millennium are quoted and considered, as This tracks the evolution of art and how the evolution of cooking may parallel it.

That the four characters are involved in a subplot involving culinary espionage, and two in a blossoming romance, only adds to the unusual aspects of the book.

In addition, Pierre Gagnaire, the recipient of three Michelin stars for his Paris restaurant, ends each chapter with recipes that are supposed to elucidate the information presented in the preceding chapter. These are chef's creations, without lists of ingredients or clear procedures, and to our thinking, are awfully tenuous in elucidating the philosophical discussions going on in the book. After presenting his own recipes, Gagnaire offers the reader "your turn," and encourages you to imagine or produce a dish that relates to the discussion. Can you, for example, produce an "original pastel recipe, one that isn't just a muffled version of a traditional restaurant dish or recipe that you often make at home?"

The book is a uniquely European product. It seems less of an academic exercise to us, though, after hearing many similar arguments from primarily European chefs and food writers at the recent Madrid Fusion conference. The book is a wonderful example of the European love for debate and discussion.

That, after more than 300 pages of philosophical argument, the book's conclusion – that it is love that transforms cooking from craft to art – doesn't really lay the same burden upon painting, writing, and composing leaves us wondering whether the authors managed to make their point.

If you are expecting food science from Hervé This and recipes from Pierre Gagnaire, this book will leave you unfilled. If, however, you are looking for (or simply open to) art history linked with food and cooking philosophy, wrapped in a romance, wrapped in a mystery, this is the only book in the whole universe for you.


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