Matthew Kenney's Big City Cooking

by Matthew Kenney and Joan Schwartz

Published by Chronicle Books

176 pages, 2003


Keeping it Clean

Reviewed by Monica Stark

In the world of food, writers and chefs give a lot of lip service to the good ol' days. In that world, widows cooking in derelict castles in Italy, herb farmers in the Gulf Islands and Southerners finding new and different things to do with mustard greens can become celebrities. In these three examples, there is a common theme: getting back to the land, back to basics and away from the hustle and bustle of the smog-filled reality many of us share.

Just when we get all comfortable with this idea -- that things were better in the olden days and, yes, I will have fries with that -- Matthew Kenney has the temerity to come along and tell us that cooking in the city should not just be endured, gotten through and avoided if possible, it should be celebrated. In the introduction to Matthew Kenney's Big City Cooking, the author explains:

Big City Cooking is really a lifestyle food book as much as it is a cookbook. For this reason, I have focused a good amount of attention on finding the right ingredients, storing them, and creating recipes that will not turn your kitchen upside down.

The recipes in Big City Cooking are categorized by cooking method, rather than food type, an interesting idea that works here quite well. And so we begin with "Simply Raw to Barely Cooked" (including recipes like Tuna Sashimi with Avocado, Lime, and Cilantro and Lobster Seviche with Red Chile Dressing) to "Flashes in the Pan" (Pan-Cooked Mussels; Crab Cakes with Lemony Remoulade; and Duck Breast With Pomegranate Baste), "From the Terrace" (including Miso-Grilled Tuna with Savoy Cabbage; Rosemary-Grilled Venison with Grilled Peaches; and Grilled Figs with Lemon Ricotta and Rosemary Syrup), "Roasting Fast and Slow" (Warm Goat Cheese Tarts with Fig Jam and Rosemary; BLT Pizza; Cheddar Meatloaf), "Simmering Stews and Hot Pots" (Five-Spice Squash Pureé; Polenta with Goat Cheese and Rosemary; Tagine of Red Snapper) and finishing up with a section simply called "Menus" where Kenney shows us how to meal it all up.

Big City Cooking is about the book you'd expect from this author on this topic at this juncture in his career. The book is slick and lovely, the photos -- by Australian food photographer extraordinaire William Meppem -- clean, modern and appetizing enough to have fallen right out of one of Donna Hay's cookbooks. (Though Hay doesn't seem to number among Meppem's credits.) The recipes, however, are decidedly un-Hay-like. Break them down and they're simple enough -- Kenney has tried to keep things simple and it shows -- but his penchant for making real sentences and imparting real information mean than some of the recipe descriptions appear cumbersome. If that is your experience, read them more closely: they're not. For instance, the first few lines of description from Kenney's recipe for Pan-Crisped Goat Cheese cost the author a few lines and make it look as though the recipe is more complicated than it is:

Cut the goat cheese crosswise into eight 1/2-inch-thick rounds. To cut through the cheese smoothly, run the knife under very hot water before each cut, wiping the excess cheese from the blade each time. Or use a long piece of dental floss and, holding it taut, pull the floss down through the cheese to make slices (this is the easier way).

Were she describing the same operation, Hay would probably say something like:

Cut cheese into eight 1/2-inch rounds.

The same thing is accomplished with both descriptions. With Hay's, though, we look at the recipe and see that there's very little to do and thus feel encouraged. In Kenney's version, once you realize his detailed directions don't add to prep time, the home chef is actually better prepared. In this way, Kenney imparts tidbits of hard won experience in bit-sized pieces as we need them. It's an interesting way to learn.

The design of the book is lovely. Big City Cooking is visually very appealing, the recipes are clear and exact. I'd be remiss, however, if I didn't mention the book's very special dust jacket: an innovation so clean and elegant I'd be surprised if we didn't see more cookbooks including one like it in future. Big City Cooking's dust jacket is clear, heavy-gauge plastic, not easily removable and some of the book's design elements are printed on it. The result is a very elegant and modern look with the added bonus of being very easy to clean up after kitchen accidents. This is a book clearly intended to spend time in the kitchen with you.

Kenney is the chef-owner of several restaurants including Canteen, Commune NY, Atlanta and Commissary. When Kenney originally left Maine for the Big Apple, he did so to attend law school. From law school to restaurateur might seem like a huge jump, but it also provides a glimmer to the heart of at least part of the reason for Kenney's success. Sure: he's a wonderful chef, but there are plenty of those around. Few of them, however, posses Kenney's sense for business or his instinct for knowing when to make a move. In 1994 Food and Wine included him as one of their Ten Best New Chefs of the year. 1997 saw the publication of his first book, Matthew Kenney's Mediterranean Cooking: Dishes from Tangiers to Toulon for the American Kitchen, a top seller for quite a while. It seems likely that Matthew Kenney's Big City Cooking will do even better than its predecessor. | March 2003

Monica Stark is a January Magazine contributing editor.