N.Y. star chef’s latest book is defiantly different

  • By Bonnie S. Benwick The Washington Post
  • Thursday, December 4, 2014 10:26am
  • Life

When a cookbook raises as many questions as it answers, will it generate more buzzkill than buzz? With the publication this week of Gabrielle Hamilton’s “Prune,” we’ll find out soon enough.

The chef’s 15-year-old East Village restaurant in New York remains a favored brunch spot, and Hamilton impressed a much broader audience with “Blood, Bones and Butter,” her raw and compelling memoir, almost four years ago. Expectations were high for what the bestselling writer and award-winning cook considers to be its belated companion, in recipe form.

It’s pink, like the restaurant’s trappings. It’s handsome, with images of stunning simplicity. It’s packed with 250 recipes, dishes that make for mouthwatering reading. Its aim is to document how the Prune sausage is made, which is to say that it delivers a whole lot of attitude and restaurant-speak, without a lot of what makes any cookbook truly useful for home kitchens.

Publisher’s Weekly has called “Prune” “one of the most brilliantly minimalist cookbooks in recent memory.” Hamilton’s editor says it’s a game-changer.

“Nobody needs another recipe,” says Pamela Cannon, the executive editor at Random House/Ballantine Books, who has shepherded culinary efforts by Paula Deen, Curtis Stone and Michael White. “There are a bajillion online. The personality or philosophy is what sells. And people have been going nuts for ‘Prune.’ It’s disruptive.”

I’ll give her that. There is no introduction, no list of resources, no glossary. No index! Some ingredients are listed in order of significance (rather than in order of use, as is standard). Random headnotes are directives to the chef’s crew. “Start this project early in the shift as it requires a period of rest in the walk-in.” The yields can be restaurant-size, produced in pans and pots that aren’t exactly at home on a four-burner range. Seasonality’s a non-starter.

Yet Cannon says her author’s goal was to make the book user-friendly, as long as the chef’s sense of culinary truth was not compromised. She says Hamilton thinks that home cooks can execute her dishes perhaps in an even better way, free from the gritty, greasy, hazardous environment that is a restaurant kitchen.

“Prune” comes pre-spattered and Sharpie-notated. Hamilton was keen to keep the readers’ experience authentic, as though we are paging through the kitchen binder for Prune cooks.

Trouble is, you and I — the ones clicking “Add to Cart” on our smartphones — are not those cooks. And the spatters and strips of masking tape, depicted on nice stock between pink linen covers, seem like affectations, albeit novel ones. Are we looking at something deep and meaningful and refreshing in “Prune”? Or has artistic indulgence and a striving for the Next New Thing wreaked havoc on functionality?

Few cookbooks appeal to everyone — even the ones with “Everything” in the title. It takes TV and a social media blitz that reaches worldwide to sell books in the tens of thousands. Hamilton’s reputation alone will attract some of those numbers.

But I wonder what will happen, say, when “Prune” is cracked open by the average home cook. Scratch that: the not-a-novice, comfortable-with-a-cleaver, topnotch-pantry, adventurous/bored home cook. He or she will have to disengage the part of the brain that responds to tradition and order. Mastic crystals might have to be procured. Math skills will be required.

Would I recommend “Prune” to readers, in my role as cookbook reviewer? Honestly, I’m torn. I appreciate Hamilton’s genius with simple ingredients. I also appreciate a well-crafted recipe. So I’d qualify any recommendation with a big “But …”

What I don’t buy is the notion that Hamilton would have sacrificed authenticity if she had delivered the recipes in a more accessible way. (Can you name a chef-restaurateur whose published works are considered to be out of step with the way he or she cooks?) It might have reinforced her vision more forcefully if the Prune rendition of, say, Roasted Capon on Garlic Crouton, appeared alongside the same dish rendered in a standard recipe format: hold the hotel pans, talk of weeds and notes about a rotisserie on a wood-burning hearth; tell us where to find capon and what “peasant bread” means.

“Prune” is the latest darling cookbook outlier, but there are others.

“Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts” (W.W. Norton, 2014) has gotten props as an “exciting read.” The executive pastry chef at New York’s Del Posto strews about four-letter words and pens clever recipe titles and plays loosey-goosey with yields — “A lot of cookies” — which, alone, might be enough to make your typical perfectionist pastry chef’s eye twitch like the chief inspector’s in “The Pink Panther.” Some of Headley’s creations will be difficult for the average baker to pull off, but hey! They’re not all meant for public dispensation, I guess. But they are new, and they are different.

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