Monday, November 21, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Eleven Madison Park Cookbook by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara

                Barring the release of the new Mugaritz cookbook (which, might I add, is currently in the works), the Eleven Madison Park Cookbook has been my most anticipated cookbook release ever since I heard Chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara were releasing their recipes and philosophy for the world to view.

                For the uninitiated, Eleven Madison Park is a fine dining restaurant in New York City. It opened relatively quietly with a modest, but still impressive, 2-star review from the New York Times. Since then it's risen substantially to it's current set of accolades which include 4 stars from the New York Times and 3 stars from the Guide Michelin. Having eaten there this past August, I experienced first-hand the virtuoso of Mr. Humm and Guidara. It was a mind-blowing meal; an absolute triumph of kitchen expertise and unfailing hospitality. The Eleven Madison Park Cookbook lives up to the name in every way and solidifies it as easily THE book to buy this holiday season.

                While it was never an intention (leastways, not an intention of record), it seems the EMP (as the restaurant is referred to amongst foodies) cookbook has drawn comparisons to Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook in terms of style, technique, aesthetic and of course the impact it's had (will have) on the culinary community (the French Laundry Cookbook was the revolutionary cookbook of it's time and many continue to vouch for it as one of THE books you absolutely must have on your bookshelf). It certainly doesn't deter comparisons when EMP mimics The French Laundry's all-white cover style (yes, I understand that EMP has been doing the all-white thing on their jars of granola, menus and gift bags for a while, but it's still a funny coincidence, no?). Flipping open the front cover, it's easy to see that the similarities continue as you're bombarded by a plethora of gorgeous photography alongside elegant and inspiring text. A nice touch is the "How To Use This Book" section that details intricacies like "What size eggs are used in this book?" and "What strength is the sheet gelatin used in this book?". Failing solutions such as those, the book thoughtfully provides an email address that readers can contact with their specific questions regarding recipes to hopefully clarify any confusion. Of course a hospitality luminary such as Danny Meyer would come up with an idea like that. Brilliant.

                About two years ago, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara decided to reformat the restaurant's menu so that the guest can have the creative freedom of an a la carte menu while still experiencing a tasting menu's pace and flow. The result was a seasonal grid system where dishes were listed singularly by their primary ingredient. Guests could choose their menus based on their taste for "Lobster" or "Foie Gras" but not know the exact contents of the dish until it's placed in front of them. The cookbook acknowledges this ideal and splits into 4 seasonal chapters which are all preceded by a grid menu that serves as a table of contents for each chapter. Following up all four chapters is a separate section filled with basic recipes for stocks, sauces, purees and oils that get frequent use in numerous recipes. It's a good way to keep the majority of the book flow well with short(ish) recipes and more frequent pictures, but it's a definite 3-bookmark project if you plan on completing an entire dish with all it's components.

                Speaking of recipes, I suppose it's appropriate that I leave a disclaimer that only a professional or well-seasoned home cook will be able to reproduce the vast majority of the recipes in this book. Quite a few techniques also require the use of equipment like immersion circulators, chamber-vac machines, anti-griddles and other toys that may send your wallet running for a box of tissues and a mortgage adjustment if you don't already own them. Am I scaring you? Don't let the recipe difficulty deter you; it's even acknowledged by Guidara and Humm that they expect this to be a coffee-table cookbook for some and functional recipe guide to others. Set it down on a jet-black table; perhaps open it to a particularly attractive photograph. It'll look marvellous, trust me.

                The story goes that when Moira Hodgson of the New York Observer reviewed Eleven Madison Park for the first time after Humm and Guidara arrived on the scene, she said the restaurant, despite it's obvious potential and progress in the right direction, needed "a bit more Miles Davis". Taking that to heart, the restaurant pooled eleven descriptive words of Davis' work and philosophy and they became the mantra of the restaurant's new focus. Likewise, their cookbook brings to paper those inspiring ideals in a brilliant, cohesive and thoroughly vibrant package of culinary innovation and invention. More than just a book of recipes; to read the Eleven Madison Park Cookbook is to immerse yourself and experience the humming (ha!) generator of one of New York's great underdog stories and best restaurants.

Eleven Madison Park Cookbook 
by Daniel Hum & Will Guidara
Hardcover, 384pp, $55.00
Reviewed by Kevin Jeung

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