Wednesday, February 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW: Notes from a Kitchen by Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore

       Despite the media’s recent motion towards dramatizing the life of a chef, in truth the world behind the proverbial double doors is still very much a mystery to those on the outside. While most will never experience life in a professional kitchen, like all artists, one can steal a glimpse into the mind of a chef through the hastily scribbled and raggedly dog-eared pages of their notebooks. It is not a far stretch of the imagination to envision, centuries from now, cooks poring over the notes of a Ferran Adria or Thomas Keller in the same way that others today study the work of Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. 

      Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore take the simple, minimalist style of the notepad and blow it up in artistic proportions in their project, “Notes from a Kitchen”. Carefully selecting from a bounty of the culinary talent in North America, Scott and Beshore document the notes and ideals of ten chefs they believe to be spearheads of radical movements in food. Thorough interviews, thoughtful quotes and even short features on supplies like Anson Mills (from whom many of America’s top restaurants source their corn grits from), the delivery is a fleshed-out, extreme close-up to the creative process.
      The result of such diligent, detail-oriented documentation is a highly personal and intimate look, not necessarily into the soul, but out the eyes of some of the most creative minds in food. Sean Brock (of Husk Restaurant in Charleston) remarked in his passages that he was reluctant to offer up his personal notes for others to see, professing that to do so was to completely expose the vulnerability of the chef, akin to opening the hood of a car to view the engine that drives it. Michael Laiskonis (formerly of Le Bernardin) recalls many a time where he’d stopped mid-meal to scribble down an idea on a napkin. His contributions to this project are astounding in sheer quantity and the surprising clarity with which an idea presents itself in his mind and is then transferred to hard copy. It’s intriguing to examine the note styles of each individual chef; from calligraphy to content.

       Not satisfied with a simple copy/paste job, Scott and Beshore spin the messy chicken-scratch writing of the professional chef into stylistic, glossy pages saturated in vibrancy and hue. At the beginning of each book (there are two volumes), the authors explain the method behind the transformations; layers of inks, varieties of papers create depth and variance to mimic the creative approach a chef takes when plating and conceptualizing. While at first, the sheer volume of information, color and photography can be overwhelming, the reader quickly acclimates to the initial feeling of aloof-ness. Exposure to the fast-paced, quick-minded psyche of a chef may take some getting used to.
       It is often a lonely existence, that of a chef; the constant drive to occupy the pinnacle of cuisine naturally discourages mimicry between parties. As such, to embrace the pressure of thinking creatively all of the time naturally draws one’s attention within. The humble notebook, as a result, becomes a confidant of the chef; the trusty sidekick who stands by his side whilst he races against the ever ticking doomsday clock that counts down to mediocrity. For the first time, an audience has been granted behind the scenes to view the career-long waltz every chef dances with originality.

       Scribbles made upon the oddest instances, perhaps while commuting to work, have the potential to become incredible. Thomas Keller’s signature Oyster and Pearls dish was inspired when he happened upon a box of tapioca pearls at the market. Inspiration comes from anywhere, at any time; it has no set agenda or schedule dictating when it makes an appearance. It comes and goes when it wants and the chef’s best chance at capturing such an elusive property usually comes in the form of two margins, horizontal lines and a ballpoint pen.  
      While one may argue that as a cookbook, Notes from a Kitchen fails in its functionality, is that not where it succeeds as an end of other means? By exposing the thought process and inspiration of professionals to the general public, does this book not improve the cooking knowledge of its readers whilst still forgoing the traditional recipe format? Yes, it’s very unlikely that Notes from a Kitchen will take up residency on your kitchen counter (not to mention the enormity of each volume), yet the inspiration gleaned from its pages are sure to make you a better cook and more appreciative of cuisine.

Review by Kevin Jeung
Notes from a Kitchen by Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore
$225 for the 2 slip cased volumes

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