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Les Halles Cookbook
by Anthony Bourdain

Reviewed by Elliot Essman

It would be wrong to state that Anthony Bourdain does not want to be liked. We all like to be liked. Bourdain speaks his mind about food knowing that those who are receptive to his ideas, style, and often irreverent point of view will like him enough to offset the multitude of others who cannot stand the man. Bare iconoclasm, without intelligence and depth, is tedious, but Bourdain has the goods. Yes, he uses foul language. Yes, he drinks an awful lot (or at least says he does). Yes, he rarely misses an opportunity to stress that the meats we enjoy on our table were once adorable critters who have blundered into the hands of knot-muscled men who cut throats for a living.

In his new opus, Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook, Bourdain likes to use a certain word that I might use only if I accidentally mash my finger with a hammer. I’ve never quite seen the point of using this word in less extreme circumstances, but I forgive Bourdain. He’s writing about cooking! He’s writing about potentially great life experiences that so many people, professional and amateur alike, gratuitously botch. He’s writing about a subject that is f… f… fundamentally important! (You see how powerful that word can be when you don’t use it?)

Bourdain greatly respects top culinary artists like Alain Ducasse and Thomas Keller, but his subject is bistro cooking, “the most beloved, old-school, typical and representative [French] cooking, the wellspring of all that came after.” He writes as executive chef of New York’s Les Halles; a brash, Parisian-style bistro. The very word bistro is of Russian origin; legend has it that Russian officers who occupied Paris after Napoleon’s first defeat in 1812 got into the habit of shouting “bistro,” “quickly,” in order to encourage rapid service. Bistro cooks work under the gun. They know how to make the most out of the least. Bourdain’s mission is to position bistro cooking as a truly accessible cuisine for the non-professional cook: “This stuff is EASY!” he shouts. “The ability to make a good steak frites or sole meunière or cassoulet is a skill that any reasonably coordinated person with a good heart and an average work ethic can accomplish,” he tells us, though not, of course, “at high speed, in coordination with twenty or so other tasks—while listening to Mexican rap and nursing a savage hangover.”

Get past Bourdain’s pride at being the tough professional chef you’ll never be, and you’ll really be able to use his book. He’s chosen his sections and recipes with intelligence and care. He starts with general principles (in a nutshell, prepare like a professional and learn to respect seasonality, availability and appropriateness of ingredients). First things first. “Why,” he asks, “doesn’t that dish you painfully re-created from the chef’s recipe taste like it does in the restaurant? What’s wrong with your soups, your sauces, your stews? The answer is almost certainly ‘stock’.” He gives us a good working stock recipe we can do at home. He does the same for mainstays like boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, onion soup and cassoulet. He is outspoken about the basic technique of roasting a chicken. “If you can’t properly roast a damn chicken then you are one helpless, hopeless, sorry-ass bivalve in an apron,” he tells us. “Take that apron off, wrap it around your neck, and hang yourself,” is his advice.  I don’t know about you, but I’m certainly motivated to do justice to my next chicken, even if I might have employed rather a different mode of expression. Julia Child, for example, in her Mastering The Art of French Cooking, tells us that roasting a chicken “does entail such a greed for perfection that one is under compulsion to hover over the bird, listen to it, above all see that it is continually basted, and that it is done just to the proper turn.” Two idioms, same idea, I think.

I’m not going to do Bourdain (and his food) the disservice of listing recipe after recipe (there are more than 100), because I know you, as a serious, principled cook, will certainly zero in on those choice few you can really make your own (and I also do not want to overwork adjectives). There’s nothing like a true motivator, when you really need one; Bourdain serves, though you probably do have to like him at least a little to benefit from his sagesse. Top -- Culinary Reviews Home

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