Read up on some of 2013's most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.
If the book had not been shrink-wrapped, thus preventing me from taking a look inside, I might have gone running from the bookstore empty-handed. When I got it home, released it from its plastic prison, and opened it, my reaction was, "What is this?”
Here's what it isn’t: a cookbook. Even its author, Daniel Patterson, says so, right in the beginning of the book: “This is not a cookbook. This is the story of Coi written through food.” (Coi, pronounced kwah, is French for "tranquil" and the name of Patterson’s San Francisco restaurant.)
Paging through this large and expensive book, I found lots of pretty pictures of California and cooks and farms, nice enough for my coffee table. And, yes, I also found recipes. Each recipe page is identically formatted with an essay, column-left, in finished-book readable type. The recipe, column-right, is printed in faint, draft-like type, making it seem, quite literally, beside the point. On the facing page is either a photo of the recipe’s deconstructed ingredients or a stark picture of the finished dish. It took me a few minutes to notice what was missing: the ingredient lists. You will find them, as I eventually did, beginning on page 288 of this 304-page book, in the section called “Weights and Measures” that also serves as a sort of index.
I scanned the dishes, looking for something I could cook to meet my obligation to test a recipe. I found only two that I thought I could do without all sorts of hard-to-source ingredients and special equipment: Popcorn Grits, and Carrots Roasted in Coffee Beans. In the end, I decided not to cook anything from this book, because to sample its simplest recipes would not be a fair test, and because few of us will ever attempt the more complex ones. The recipes are there, as Patterson points out, to serve as his personal record of Coi’s dishes (which had never before been documented), as well as for inspiration.
That said, there is much to savor in this eccentric book. Patterson is an engaging and talented writer and the essays are well worth reading. There is also much to learn from the essays and from a section (“The Coi Kitchen”) on ingredients, equipment, and techniques. As Patterson says, “This may not be a cookbook in the traditional sense, but it is very much a book about cooking.”
But in the end, as Patterson himself admits, it's about cooking in a sophisticated restaurant kitchen with equipment you might never have at home and ingredients you won’t easily find. It is also, in my experience, the only cookbook -- and I have a lot of cookbooks! -- that comes with warnings, should you want to attempt to cook from it: “Some of the recipes require advanced techniques, specialist equipment and professional experience to achieve good results.” The words “exercise caution” are repeated three times.
Now, repeat after me, three times: This is not a cookbook. This is not a cookbook. This is not a cookbook.