The Complete Robuchon: French Home Cooking for the Way We live Now
by JoŽl Robuchon
translated by Robin H. Bellinger
Published by Knopf
832 pages, 2008
The Locavore’s Lament
Reviewed by Diane Leach
Okay, so I’m a coddled, spoiled, Berkeley tree-hugger type of eater. Not only do my vegetables come from a farm, so does my meat. And though I pay slightly less for farm-driven, high-end organic food than I would at the market, that cheaper price comes at the expense of choice. For this year, tomatoes, corn, and fresh fava beans are a memory. The first acorn squash of the season rests in the fridge, awaiting transformation. Likewise, our monthly meat box offers no lamb or vitello (humanely raised calf), but we’re awash in ground beef, steak and two pounds of ground goat.
In other words, I am hamstrung -- albeit willingly -- by seasonality, a commitment to local eating, and the preparation of nightly meals (which often morph into the next day’s lunch).
Cookbooks, of course, are a tremendous source of creativity when faced with a pound of ground goat. So much the better if that cookbook is French. So it was I welcomed Rubochon’s 832 page missive into the house.
I was in for a few shocks to my delicate ecosystem.
Joël Robuchon came up the old way, beginning his apprenticeship in French cookery at age 15. And you can bet he didn’t slumber beneath hypoallergenic down covers during his scant hours of nightly rest. You want French cooking? You got it. Robuchon can cook circles around you and me. And that’s where the problems start.
While the book claims to be “French cooking for the way we live now,” I don’t know about you, but on this Tuesday evening I didn’t have time to prepare (random paging) Hot Oysters with Fennel and Curry (as if I could afford oysters), or Veal Stew with Spring Vegetables (veal...fraught veal. Sigh.). Yes, Salmon Au Champagne requires only an hour and a dip into your investment portfolio, should you still have one, and the Roast Duck looks divine, should you be able to lay hands on a female duck.
Okay, so Robuchon could wave me off as a dumb American who devotes her time to meaningless pursuits, like working, when she could be cooking. He’d be right. I’d much rather be cooking. But his recipes run me aground: this book is truly aimed at a French audience -- people who regard the butcher the way we regard hairstylists; that is, a person we see often enough to have a relationship with. Further, the French have access to cuts we do not -- the choice of sexed game, fresh geese, bunnies, hares and boars. I’m sure there are butchers here in North America who would carry some of these items, albeit at great cost. But if I asked my Berkeley Bowl butchers -- very skilled, overworked gentlemen -- for goose leg separated from the thigh, they would glare. After all, they don’t carry goose leg, or pork throat, or venison. Worse, my requests are keeping 25 number-clutching, cart-jostling, toddler-packing shoppers waiting.
That’s not to say land-bound, Safeway-stuck Nebraskans cannot cook from this book. You can, but you’re gonna have to tweak. You might want to, anyway, because Robuchon’s cooking style is quite different from the Alice/Julia/Marion/Judy mode. For starters, he discourages presalting meats, claiming it dries them out. Prior to reading Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I never salted a thing, and I can tell you my cooking improved enormously when I took her advice regarding presalting meat and poultry. Further, dryness is never a problem. Robuchon also okays bullion cubes, which, so far as I can tell, are little brown or yellow blocks of pure salt. Cabbage, he informs us, does not keep well and should be cooked as soon as possible. In my experience, cabbage politely keeps for weeks: simply peel away the dirty outer layers to reach pristine leaves.
Then there’s the seasonality/ecological thing, or lack thereof. Robuchon’s biographical note states he is now a consultant to a worldwide run of L’Atelier restaurants, leading one to wonder how often he cooks these days -- and how much seasonality is lost when ordering for eateries on a worldwide platform. Tomatoes turn up everywhere, as do all sorts of fish not found on American shores. Fish farming is troubling not for environmental or ecological reasons, but because the results don’t taste that great. His treatment of lobsters (clean while alive, cleave or throw in pot alive) had me remembering David Foster Wallace with fresh pain. As for beef, he recommends Waygu, recent revelations about the treatment of these animals notwithstanding.
The book’s organization is slightly discombobulated: there are the requisite sauces and stocks, a section called “Hotpots, Soups, and Potages,” a section for crudités and hors d’oeuvres but another for starters and salads, two pages devoted to offal and stuffing, and an abysmal five recipes for charcuterie, all calling for premade meats. Nothing about making your own sausage, one measly confit recipe in the duck section.
Confusingly, recipes for Chicken Liver Terrine and Rabbit Rilletes lurk in the crudités and hors d’oeuvres section. Potato dishes pop up everywhere -- endless variations on potato cakes, alone, with vegetables, even sweetened.
The fish section, despite the many hard-to-find and/or expensive species, is comprehensive, and the dessert section, while short, offers recipes even the less talented can attempt without total terror -- fruit soups, mousses, custards.
I realize this may sound prissy. But Robuchon’s competition is stiff. To check myself I paged through Madeleine Kamman’s When French Women Cook. Kamman takes no prisoners -- she tells you American dairy products are lousy, to buy raw butter and cheese, that the stuff you call crème fraîche is skim milk compared to what she grew up eating. But she also gives you critical information with each recipe: cost, season, difficulty level, prep time and possible substitutions for that Rouen Female Duckling you cannot buy for love or money.
From there I went to Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France. Same music -- seasonality, cost, reality. Both books abound in the sort of recipes you will spend all day preparing whilst dirtying every pot. But at least you’re warned. Robuchon does not warn. He assumes your kitchen is stocked like the Williams Sonoma Christmas catalog. I do not have a spider, chinois, grill pan, food processor, or the spit and duck press necessary for Rouen Duck -- killed by smothering, these ducks retain all their blood, critical to their unique taste. Nor do I have a kitchen large enough to accommodate all these items.
I wandered around for a few days mulling over what it was about this book that so bothered me. Finally it hit me: the book is soulless. Robuchon the person is a minimal presence, the majority of recipes lacking headnotes or personal description of any kind. Yes, the recipes are clear, and if you follow them, you’ll have a nice French dish. But you’ll know little about that dish’s history, as you would had you read Elizabeth David or Madeleine Kamman. You won’t know how Robuchon feels about it. You will also have to be willing -- perhaps you are -- to step outside food politics, as Robuchon has.
I voiced my complaints to my sous chef, whose other roles include dish-dryer and spouse.
“But he’s old school,” He said patiently. “He’s not thinking about carbon footprints. His bottom line is: does the food taste good?”
Fair enough. Maybe I am the wrong person for this book, then. Too busy hugging my farm turnips and studying my Monterey Bay Aquarium Guide to sustainable fish.
Enough complaining. Into the kitchen. Since I like test driving recipes on innocent victims, we invited our friend The Flyers Fanatic to dinner. She’s easy to feed, provided she is either watching hockey or getting ready to beat us at Scrabble. I decided on the simple-seeming Chicken with Mushrooms and Tarragon.
“You want help?” Sous Chef asked.
“I don’t think so. It doesn’t look complicated.”
Fortunately, he didn’t listen. Like many of the book’s recipes, Chicken with Mushrooms andTarragon isn’t complicated. It does require numerous steps -- slicing and pre-cooking the mushrooms, reserving their liquid, browning the chicken, preparing a bouquet garni (tied with a leek leaf “if possible”), peeling and mincing garlic, shallots, tarragon and tomatoes. You can do this alone, in steps, or you do what I did and be damned glad your husband was around to help slice and dice as you browned the chicken and stirred everything together carefully.
Then end result was a nice enough chicken, but to quote Laurie Colwin on bread baking “...after spending an entire day in its service, I expected something a little more heroic.”
Flyers Fan agreed. She said it was good, but compared to my usual it was just okay.
Besides being easy to feed, she’s brutally honest.
So do you need this book?
That depends. If you love to cook and already count Elizabeth David, Madeleine Kamman, Paula Wolfert, Judy Rodgers, Julia and Alice among your beloved cookbook companions, then, no, this Robuchon will be a repeat of recipes you already have. If you are just starting out, or not too far into your cookbook addiction, this volume is okay -- it’s basic but will do the job. And if you think all this carbon footprint/locavore stuff is California hokum, more power to ya: you’ll will be able to produce a fine Pot au Feu or Garbure without wincing.
If you are French, or have access to a wonderful French butcher or fishmonger, lucky, lucky you. This book will bring you hours of cooking and eating pleasure.
If you live in Northern California, where geese appear only at holiday time, frozen solid, where fresh duck breast will run you 20 bucks a pound, and your fellow shoppers shoot you dirty looks when they spot Chilean tomatoes in your shopping cart, well, fellow locavore, there ain’t no dilemma. | November 2008
Diane Leach lives in northern California with her husband and cat. When not reading or writing, she regularly burns herself in the kitchen.