Planning my trip to stage at The Fat Duck restaurant last summer, I had so many questions. How many chefs jackets should I bring? Which knives I would need? How could I possibly escape making a fool of myself in front of the heavy-hitting cooks I would be training under? I also couldn’t help but deliberate over whether to purchase the massive tome of The Big Fat Duck Cookbook, which had been released earlier that year(November 2008). Flipping through a friend’s copy, I fell in love with the words, the history of the place, the imaginative photographs and the bright, playful artwork. I dreamed of bringing the book along with me; having each cook I worked with sign it. (I secretly hopped I would meet Heston Blumenthal, the infamous chef behind the restaurant, and have him autograph the book as well.) At $250, the price of the book dug deep into my Europe spending money and the thought of lugging an 11-pound book around Rome and Paris in my backpack for two months was simply frightening. And so I refrained, deciding to pack lighter instead.
My week at The Fat Duck was a whirlwind of watching some of the world’s best cooks prepare some of the world’s best food. The system of the Fat Duck is one with a million tiny little components; each job done with the up most care. From a perfectly centered sticker on a treat bag to vanilla beans cut into “cherry stems” with an exacto knife to cleaning and pureeing cases of parsley at a time, an army of stages was grease for the machine of cooks who made Blumenthal’s recipes come alive. Near the end of the week, one such stage mentioned the discount we would receive on the book, and the offer to have Blumenthal personally autograph it. At a discount of 70 GBP($113), I forgot about the weight of the book and pre-paid for a copy. Unfortunately it was Saturday, and the office holding the books was closed. I left England on Monday, hoping to arrange a way to recieve my book. After weeks of mis-understandings and my reluctance to pay shipping fees, I sadly left Europe just as I had been when I arrived, without a copy. For the time being, it would simply be a sour note in my European experience story.
And then, this past October 2009, publishing house Bloomsbury decided to re-print a slightly smaller version of the book, presenting The Fat Duck Cookbook. With all the content of the original, at the reduced price of $50, it was like a gift from the cookbook gods. I finely managed to have my very own copy of the volume, albeit sans Blumenthal autograph. Never the less I was thrilled.
The Fat Duck Cookbook is all at once impressive, inspiring, and thought-provoking. Beginning with an introduction by Harold McGee, a genius in his own rite, it is in essence three books: one covering the history of The Fat Duck and Blumenthal, one showcasing the recipes of the restaurant, and one explaining of the science used to create the innovative cuisine. The pages are dotted with bright, flashy drawings from artist Dave McKean and incredible photographs from Dominic Davies. It is a true introduction to the restaurant twice voted best in the world; flipping through its pages you can almost hear Blumenthal’s voice, smell the foods, touch the plates.
For a true gourmand, the details of the beginnings of this unconventional chef and his three-star Michelin restaurant are captivating. A young boy growing up in middle-class England, Blumenthal describes how his early interest in food led to a job trimming large piles of green beans to transforming a village pub into The Fat Duck. As a child, the self-taught chef poured through classic cookbooks, teaching himself technique and flavor. As an adult, he continued to look at books for the answers, only his questions became more complex. Sharing the experiences of building the restaurant, receiving Michelin stars and testing concepts beyond their conventional limits, Blumenthal’s first section of The Fat Duck Cookbook is a full of wonderful insight into the wizard of a chef and the restaurant he created.
Of course, their would be no history of The Fat Duck without the food. These are recipes that take months to develop in a special test kitchen at the restaurant. Reading through the recipes Blumenthal offers, you have the experience of sitting in the dining room and being personally served each dish by the chef himself. The minutia of detail and the thought process behind it is laid before you to enjoy. Every element of the experience is picked apart; from the flatware to accompanying sounds and smells, each is particularly chosen for the dish. Blumenthal explores every curiosity, testing sound, pairing an iPod playing ocean sounds with a sushi course; playing with temperatures, serving a half hot/half cold tea; and testing the mind, serving red jellies that taste like orange and orange jellies that taste like red beets. These may not be recipes you will whip up for Friday night dinner, but Blumenthal’s curiosity comes alive in the explanation of each; they sure are fun to read and understand.
The determined curiosity of Blumenthal is answered by combing science with food. The third section of his book explains the techniques, tools, and ingredients necessary for the scientific chef. Reading the theories of cookery, viewing the laboratory-like equipment, and reading about the chemicals Blumenthal uses, you can really understand the difference in approach this restaurant takes than most others in the world. The section ends with articles written by scientists throughout the world, reporting on the theories of flavor, smell, and taste.
Not only an autobiography of one of the world’s most innovative chefs and restaurants, a cookbook, and a scientific exploration, The Fat Duck Cookbook is also a beautiful piece of art, a mash-up of chef and style. Creative photographs place Blumenthal’s dishes in a mossy woods scene, a dry dessert, or a sky of fireworks. Colorful art swooshes in and out of the prose: a world of birds with human hands for heads and flying chefs is created in the text. Comic strip stories and the drawings of adult and child Blumenthal interspersed throughout the chapters show the chef can let loose and not take life too seriously.
While it may seem a cookbook for food geeks, anyone interested in the history of one of the worlds greatest restaurants, the rise and complexity of innovative cuisine, or simply a lavish, colorful book filled with beautiful photography and artwork, can appreciate The Fat Duck Cookbook. It’s a wonderful book to own, even if it merely sits on your coffee table as a means to spark conversation, and the story it tells is captivating. Totally worth all $250 for the original, this newer version puts it grasp of those on a budget, making it available for almost anyone. At that price, it should be on the shelf of every would-be chef, gastronome, and interested eye.