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Can a Restaurant Cookbook Be *Great* If It's Not Home Cook–Friendly?

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A great restaurant cookbook, in my eyes, meets the following criteria: Its subject is a restaurant with a good story behind it, told in a manner that evokes the energy of dining there. It is a gorgeous object. And it contains solidly built recipes that are functional for those up to the challenge.

Chicago chef Paul Kahan’s new cookbook, Cheers to the Publican, checks almost all of these boxes.

Why Cookbooks Matter—Even if You Don't Cook
Why Cookbooks Matter—Even if You Don't Cook

I’ve been waiting for this cookbook for a long time. Back when I started covering cookbooks about a decade ago, it was rare for restaurants outside of New York or maybe San Francisco to get book deals, and Paul Kahan was always my go-to suggestion for a chef who might produce a great Midwestern restaurant book.

Kahan has no shortage of restaurants and bars to write about: his One Off Hospitality Group is responsible for Chicago favorites including Blackbird, Big Star, and The Violet Hour. But it’s the Publican that gets the cookbook treatment. Of course, the Publican is one of those magical restaurants that is simultaneously casual and celebratory, American and worldly, comfortable and electric. I’ve enjoyed my experiences at the Publican tremendously; the food is always killer.

Executive Chef/Publican co-author Cosmo Goss writes that the food at the Publican tastes like “you put too much sweetness, too much salt, and too much acid together and then tried to shove them all through a small hole.” It is a menu that takes inspiration from Belgium and France, with a good dose of flavors not typically found in those traditions. Think frites and sausages and mussels and charcuterie, all of it balanced with sumac or fish sauce or ramps or palm sugar or mirin.

The book—perhaps properly called a tome at over 300 pages—winds its way through the restaurant’s menu, from vegetables to seafood to meat to charcuterie to bread. It’s conversational: picture Kahan and Goss sitting outside the restaurant, walking you through every dish. There are stories galore, nods to chefs that inspire them (Suzanne Goin, Chris Bianco, Alice Waters), and much love bestowed to vendors and producers. There are insights into menu development, product sourcing, and cooking philosophy.

The fact that the Publican bills itself as a beer hall may lead you to think its recipes would be somewhat accessible, and indeed, a quick flip through the book reveals plenty of temptations for the home cook. The vegetable chapter in particular holds a great deal of potential, although it skews heavily towards spring produce. But I have to be honest with you: I had a really hard time finding recipes to test from this book.

There were recipes out of scale with a home kitchen. (Unless you’re the type to “ask your butcher for a 20- to 25-pound piece of 'pork middle,’” have them debone it for porchetta, and keep the bones for pork stock.) There were ingredients that proved impossible to find. (If anyone finds a U.S. source for peach olives, AKA immature peaches that have been cured like olives, please let me know.) And there were days-long projects that maybe I will get around to some day, but were not viable options at the moment.

A New Batch of Cookbooks for Fall
A New Batch of Cookbooks for Fall

Not all cookbooks—particularly restaurant cookbooks—need to be home cook–friendly. I can hear you right now: “What good is a cookbook if I’m not going to cook from it?” But I believe there’s a place for difficult recipes, be they cheffy, complex, esoteric, labor-intensive, full of hard-to-find ingredients, or all of the above. Cookbooks should cater to a wide range of abilities: just like there need to be books for folks who don’t know how to boil water, there need to be books that elaborate on the far reaches of cuisine. And as long as the procedures are thorough and detailed, home cooks can learn from such recipes, even if they don’t actually prepare them.

That is, of course, assuming they work.

Disappointingly, of the five recipes I did try, three of them were pretty flawed. An otherwise delicious cauliflower caponata mentions twice in the headnote how important anchovies are to the dish, but the tiny, salty fish are nowhere to be found in the recipe. The pork country ribs were perhaps the most delicious of all the recipes I tried—and certainly the most home cook-friendly—but they call for you to reserve one third of the marinade...and then never tell you what to do with it.

And then there were the pork pies. Very delicious, very porky, and very British, the pork pies are a slow-baked minced pie, heady with sage and something I had to order online called Vulcan’s Fire-Salt. But unfortunately, the hot water dough recipe just wouldn’t come together: there’s no universe in which just over a half cup of flour combines with 1 ¼ cups liquid (plus an egg!) to create a dough. Heck, this Food52 recipe for a similar hot water dough calls for 3 cups flour to 1 ⅓ cups liquid. I soldiered on, I added more flour, I ate tasty pork pies. But pastry recipes trade on their accuracy, and this one just wasn’t accurate.

Could it be a typo? Sure. Can I forgive a typo? Of course. But in combination with the other errors I encountered, it sure gives me pause when approaching the book’s recipes. Let’s just say I don’t plan on buying 20-25 pounds of pork middle for porchetta any time soon.

Publican lovers, don’t despair. There is a lot for you in Cheers to the Publican. The kitchen curtain is pulled back, through history and vendor tributes and kitchen philosophy. The recipes aren’t inoperable, they’re just a touch sloppy. If you’re the type to cook out of restaurant cookbooks, you’ll likely be able to make them work, and if not, well, the charm of Kahan and the Publican are what you’re here for anyhow.

It’s a book that checks most of the restaurant book boxes. It has verve and heart, it’s beautiful, at times it is wise. It’s good. It’s just not great.

Tags: Cookbooks