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Cookbook Review: Daniel My French Cuisine by Daniel Boulud

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This book is a celebration for a restaurant and its legendary chef. It’s a successful celebration. And it’s a cookbook that borders on being overwhelming.

I’ve had my copy of Daniel for five months. I have not been procrastinating about this review. I’ve been pondering how to attempt a review and convey my awe of Daniel. This book is a complex explanation of key dishes from the restaurant and a diverse discussion of food philosophy and personal favorites.

This book is huge, its 400 oversized pages filled with photographs by Thomas Schauer that do full justice to the gleaming recipes that stream from end to end.

The book is divided into three sections:

  • Recipes from the Restaurant Daniel
  • Iconic Sessions on Classic Dishes
  • Daniel at Home

A full two thirds of the book deals with the restaurant recipes. Here’s an alert: these are the most beautiful and, at the same time, the most complex recipes I have ever encountered. My first impression was simple: I can’t do any of these. After that panic attack, and after repeated browsing through the book, I can assure you that the book does have dishes for you to personally try. The book is formidable, but that simply raises a question: who is this book for? There are multiple answers:

People curious about the techniques of making exceptional food — Daniel-class food

Gourmet clubs or groups who can take on very complex recipes for a fun and labor intensive night of cooking where you emulate the kitchen army of Restaurant Daniel, in spirit if not in talent

Anyone interested in food styling and photography: the work here is perfect down to the last molecule, the last drizzle of sauce

In his forward, Boulud describes the basic purpose of this book. It is to display the power and promise of technique. For Boulud, technique is everything. It is the foundation for new ideas, textures and presentations. Perfected technique is needed for the selection of ingredients, detailed prep work, the cooking of each component, and the final assembly of each dish.

These recipes are composed dishes, created by assembling multiple components. Each of those components can be a recipe unto itself, an individual thing that a typical home cook would consider a “dish” or at least an accomplishment. As an example, consider the first recipe in the book: the appetizer Peekytoe Crab Rolls.

This single dish has seven major components:

  • Honeycrisp Apple Confit
  • Apple Pickle Coins
  • Apple Cider Gelée
  • Celery Root Chips, Coins, and Puree
  • Pomegranate Reduction
  • Apple Celery Sauce
  • Crab Salad
  • Plus some other items for finishing and assembly

There are 45 ingredients required to generate all these components. For a subsequent dish, Vermont Spring Lamb, the ingredients number 98. I say this in awe, not criticism: this is the first cookbook I have seen where you might need an Excel spreadsheet to guide you through the day’s labor.

I do want to emphasize the positive side here. This is NOT a book to somehow boast about a chef’s skills. It’s not an ego trip. This is a detailed academy in what is required to create the best possible food. Each of these dishes is accompanied by one of the outstanding photographs by Thomas Schauer. There are no tricks in these photos: no clever shadowing or out of focus effects. These are full, direct light, everything-in-focus photographs that let you see the incredible detail and complexity, from end to end and top to bottom.

The multiple components are ever so carefully combined into that final dish. Not just layered, but woven and stroked. The sauces sublimely serving as a foundation. A side composition of fruit or vegetables itself presenting like a Dutch still life. It’s perfect. It’s surely art.

Each recipe has that amazing photograph, followed by pages of text with the full details of crafting that perfection. The real contribution of this book is the education afforded by these restaurant recipes. You first see greatness, then you are told how greatness is generated, and you are invited to try these recipes yourself.

The almost 70 restaurant recipes are divided into four groups

  • Appetizers: 27
  • Fish: 10
  • Meat: 16
  • Dessert: 13

The bevy of appetizers includes not only that complex Peekytoe delight but dishes that the home cook can much more easily attempt. The Creamy Spring Garlic soups and the Chilled White Asparagus soup are good examples. Desserts at a restaurant like Daniel can often seem impossible to attempt at home, but here you’ll find very approachable Poached Rhubarb and Apricot and Lavender Clafoutis.

Section Two of the book, Iconic Dishes, is about those dishes, not how exactly to prepare them. It’s a record of discussions among a distinguished team of cooks about the details, the background and the challenges of each of a dozen historic dishes: Turbot Soufflé, Coulibac [salmon fillets surrounded by rice and encased in pastry], Pressed Duck, … The team spent 18 days in the kitchen of Restaurant Daniel creating these historic dishes and, along the way, deconstructing the details. History is discussed here. Like the Chartreuse: a mold of the beasts of a half dozen wild birds combined with a farce made of shredded cabbage sautéed in pork belly, duck fat and foie gras. That mold is then encased in strips of root vegetables and bacon. It’s impossible to describe, but if you go to page 303, you will see the most beautiful gastronomic rainbow you could imagine.

And the origins of this dish? From the 19th century Le Grand Dictionnaire de Cuisine by one Alexander Dumas. Besides his musketeers, Dumas enjoyed his food.

The third and final section of the book is Daniel at Home. Here are a dozen regional dishes that Boulud cooks for himself at home, and here you find several wonders you can tackle at home. There is a delicious Wild Mushroom Tarte and a rich Cocoa-Dusted Dark Chocolate Bombe.

In fairness, I should note that while he makes these dishes at home, Boulud’s home is 20 feet above the restaurant. Since he has the keys to both restaurant and home, I suppose he is always free to slip down and get a pinch of this or a kilo of that. Still, the at Home dishes are most attractive and “do-able.”

Just remember that Chef Boulud is always concerned with technique. So, you, gather up your herd of ingredients, have everything in its place, proceed with deliberation and patience. And let yourself be forever inspired by Daniel. The book is an instant classic and will be loved and shared for decades. But you should not wait. You should just cook and learn and savor.

 

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