The Piglet2018 / Quarterfinal Round, 2018

The Pho Cookbook vs. Night + Market

The Pho Cookbook

Andrea Nguyen

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Night + Market

Kris Yenbamroong & Garrett Snyder

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Judged by: Jen Agg

4befefdb 3acc 4343 bdae 081c1f683798  jen agg shot by jenna marie wakani

Toronto restaurateur Jen Agg, the woman behind the popular The Black Hoof, Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, Agrikol and Grey Gardens restaurants, is known for her frank and often hilarious observations and ideas on the restaurant industry and the world around her. Her book, I Hear She's a Real Bitch, is a national bestseller and was shortlisted as a Best Book of 2017 by The Globe & Mail and The National Post.

The Judgment

Editor’s note: Each Piglet judge receives a cheat sheet on how the tournament works—how to approach the judging process, our expectations for a review, and more. One of our asks is that judges cook at least 3 recipes from each book they’re evaluating. As Piglet superfans know, many judges go above and beyond, preparing far more than the 6 recipes asked of them. Today’s judge chose to approach her review in a different way.

I adore cookbooks. I covet them, I collect them, and I appreciate them as guides to the food of other cultures, or other worlds. But I don’t use them—at least, not to cook from.

Even at the outset of this project, I didn’t really have any intention of cooking from these books: I’m renovating my kitchen, travelling a lot and mourning the death of my beloved dad. But the truth is I don’t cook from cookbooks, even when the extenuating circumstances aren’t so destabilizing.

That said, I appreciate what cookbooks can do. Which is partly why I chose to advance the book I did; it doesn’t just introduce you to the food of another culture, it creates its own world, one you’d happily inhabit permanently.

But we’re not there yet. First, you should know that both of these cookbooks are excellent guides.

 

Food writer and educator Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook—pronounced “faww,” in this case (if there were a side hook on the “o,” it would be “fuh”)—opens with a beautiful essay on pho’s origins, weaving class, colonialism, and modernity vs. history into a genesis narrative of the beef and noodle soup, so specific to Vietnam, to a time and a place.

She goes on to offer incredibly detailed instructions for ingredient and equipment preparation (including a reminder to use good water, which I love). All the elements of a great pho broth are given consideration. There’s a how and why for everything, which makes perfect sense: this is a book totally devoted to one thing, from cover to cover. It’s all pho, all the time (which is not a criticism—I am very much of the “do one thing really well” school).

 

Cookbook covers often provide a lot of content clues and the cover of chef/restaurateur Kris Yenbamroong’s Night + Market is no exception. The heavy-flash, blown-out look is a nod to a photographic style popularized by VICE and, no doubt, to the too-bright lighting at its namesake Silver Lake restaurant, Night + Market Song. (TBH, Night + Market’s lighting drove me crazy when I ate there a few years ago, even though I understood it as a specific wink at “authenticity.” But also, fuck authenticity—we are all capable of holding more than one idea in our heads at the same time).

The cover’s high-low mix of a Pét-Nat-ish sparkling wine—label casually turned half-away so as to only connect with it-getters—alongside a basic Thai beer (that probably costs too much once it’s imported) is an instant way to slyly identify yourself as my favorite type of person: the discerning snob who somehow is completely without pretension.

There’s this insane idea that some people have about “cool,” low-budget, (*gulp*) hipster-y restaurants: that they are the height of pretension. It’s an ironic conclusion to draw, considering how little money went into making, say, The Black Hoof (disclaimer: I own the joint), or—I assume—Kris’s restaurants. Thanks to pioneers like David Chang, more than a decade after the restaurant revolution in the mid-aughts, young people opening spots they might actually want to hang out in and can sort-of afford to eat in isn’t a novelty, it’s a category.

Night + Market the book is an exploration of this category—there’s the superfluous plus sign (“for the record, it’s just pronounced Night Market”); the forward by Pok Pok’s Andy Ricker; the author’s intro in black print on mustard-yellow pages (if you have trouble reading it, you’re too damn old). Then there are the stories preceding each recipe, each one funny, detailed, heartfelt, and direct. For example, a headnote begins like this: “Things that were ahead of their time: Nikola Tesla, Twin Peaks, Pets.com, and Golden Triangles.” This appropriately leads into a recipe for Golden Triangles, which Kris describes as “seafood mortadella pancakes,” while acknowledging this as a “weird visual.” It’s a pretty direct call-out to a certain type of person born basically anytime after 1975 and before 1985. As I started reading I fell into Kris’ universe, one that’s informed by the clearly massive influence of his paternal grandma and his having grown up in the family business of restaurants. It’s anchored by a life lived in LA, and a love of chenin.  WHAT IS NOT TO LOVE?

I enjoyed hanging out with a lot of the recipes, but Crispy Pig Tails tickled me in two ways. One, it talks about a few of my fave things: pig tails, Jonathan Gold, and Anthony Bourdain. At the same time, it serves as an illustrative reminder of the importance for a restaurant like this to be “blessed.” The approval of a food writer like Gold and heavyweights of the industry is often the difference between a restaurant that barely survives and one that thrives. You’ll notice that they’re all men. I did. (ALWAYS BE ON BRAND.)

 

Despite being a feminist killjoy, one of the things I most enjoy killing is a bottle of wine. I also really like having fun, and this book brings the fun + great wine suggestions all over the place (you pronounce it “plus” in this context). There’s a Thai Beef Jerky recipe that looks great, a hot tip for why stir-fried packaged ramen noodles are superior to reconstituted, and photography that highlights all the people who make Night + Market (and Night + Market Song) what they are.

By comparison, Andrea Nguyen’s The Pho Cookbook, while a loving ode, is a lot more staid. Everything from ingredients to assembly is (as mentioned) laid out in great detail, the photography is lush and beautiful, and the recipes enticing. I feel it could benefit from a little tongue-in-cheek playfulness. But that’s a minor complaint.

Like I said, both of these are excellent guides. Neither will disappoint readers, research junkies, or food-culture vultures. Kris’s book just spoke to me more, in the sense that there is shared language, a certain sort of approach to restaurants, and a firm understanding that the level of fun achievable in this “world of food” is inversely proportional to how seriously one takes oneself and one’s “cuisine.” It’s a delightful lesson in self-awareness, and a friendly reminder that you probably shouldn’t invest too much ego in something that turns to shit so fast.

Night + Market takes it.

 

And the winner is…

Night + Market

Night + Market

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Do you Agree? (155 comments)

user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Are you channeling your best self with this comment?
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user avatar 23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar
23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

If anyone has read Jen Agg's biography then this review would not be a shock! BTW - she isn't a chef but is brilliant at designing, setting up and running restaurants. I might buy both books based on her comments.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I have not read all of the comments, but I can tell they are mostly negative of Jen's review. Relax people! The Piglet is all in fun. In my opinion, the competition highlights books that might not be on my radar and give a taste of what I might want to consider giving a more in depth review on my own (by going to the library and checking out the book first before I buy it). Testing three random recipes based on what the cookbook judge thinks looks good, wants to try, and based on their cooking ability, is incredibly subjective. Honestly, none of the judge's reviews are substitutes for my own review of a cookbook. My advice, use these reviews to pique your interest, check the book out from the library, read through the entire cookbook without ticking off any recipes, then go back through and choose the recipes you want to try (at least one from each chapter). I learned this method from Food52 and it is a great way for me to decide on a cookbook.

I thought this was an interesting, out-of-the-box review that focused on the "other" elements of a cookbook that elevate it beyond just a collection of recipes. There are have definitely been cookbooks that I enjoyed just reading, but not cooking from and I appreciate that Jen focused on that side how to appreciate a cookbook.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

This is a shameless attempt by Food52 to stir up controversy. Things weren't exciting enough this year I guess. Sad.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I'm sorry you weren't able to give this project much of your attention. I understand how losing a parent is also hard. I think you should have declined to be a judge in this competition as it makes it very obvious you don't respect other people's projects - only your own self promotion.
So the only judgement involved in this review is the Food 52 readership of your attempt at humor. Pretty unappetizing.

4798a9c2 4c90 45e5 a5be 81bcb1f69c5c  junechamp

I'm sorry, but this is unacceptable. If she didn't intend to cook from the books, that should have been made known to you at Food52 up front. And then, when she didn't cook from the books, seems you should have found a substitute judge for this phase. There are plenty of us out here who would have gladly stepped in in the emergency!
I don't know either of these books, but I have to say this is patently unfair.
There must be a way you can prevent this from occurring in the future.
As a longtime member of the Food52 community, a former chef and an avid cook, I'm insulted.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I just wasted my time reading this AWFUL review! Honestly, if you signed up to as a judge, at least cook some dishes from the books. Don't sign up to give me book design comments. This just infuriates me as it is completely unfair to both books and the spirit of the Piglet competition. Ugh.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Ummmm..what?? Sorry, Andrea! You definitely didn't get a fair shake. I've loved the recipes in your pho book and have been using it frequently!

934cf1ae d9a8 40fe 9792 51b29d063a61  stringio

Worst. Cookbook. Review. Ever.

If money was paid, get it back!

This review was an absolute waste of time. Once the writer (I will not dignify the author as a reviewer) decided NOT to follow the guidelines of actually COOKING, the editors should have REJECTED the output.

Shame on the woman who insulted both books, the readers, the editors and the spirit of the Piglet.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Format is important, but do the recipes work? Are they tasty? We still don't know. Shame on the reviewer and shame on Food52 for allowing this. It's not the type of controversy that's good. - Bad.

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the bottom line is that this review didn't help me to know anything important about either book. it was useless.

B3038408 42c1 4c18 b002 8441bee13ed3  new years kitchen hlc only

Reading today's judgment (Kevin Kwan's), I cannot help but think what a better outcome we might have seen with this one, had the judge taken a page from Kwan's book, and recruited several friends to test the recipes and enjoy those meals together. Indeed, I can think of no better way to deal with the sadness of losing someone you love. I've been there: https://food52.com/blog... ;o)

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I loved this as a cookbook design review, but feel like it's awfully unfair to choose a book in a competition about the best cookbook (to cook from) based on looks and writing style. I appreciate Food52's requirement that each judge cook at least 6 recipes, and think that should be strictly adhered to.

8ff9a676 5d6e 4f83 8d3b ed94114a2052  stringio

I’m torn- on the one hand, I appreciate the diverse approaches to cooking reflected in the judging panel and there are plenty of people who appreciate reading cookbooks without cooking from them. On the other hand, this is a competition with rules and I don’t think you should participate in a competition whose rules you have no intention of following. One of the things that irks, perhaps, is her tone of breezy dismissal coupled with absolute authority (she never cooks from cookbooks but still has the expertise to judge them), her focus on restaurant culture rather than the books, and name dropping her own restaurant.

549d9fb3 53ef 4170 b68e 8bae2e055be7  dsc 0048b

Yes!!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

If you can’t read the print on the yellow paper you are too damn old? Wow. I’d say you are too damn immature to be writing a review.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I wonder how Jen would like it if I went to one of her restaurants, gave a sub-par review without eating or drinking anything...

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I am sure you are a life long eater and can tell good food on sight and smell. The ambiance of the restaurant is really what it is about anyway - either you like the vibe or not. So sure. Probably most of us could do it by looking at photos of her restaurants

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

You only eat 1-2 things on the menue anyway so why bother eating anything at all?

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Too funny!!!

A9ec6564 28b2 40cd 88b5 9cd2e185bdaa  fb avatar

Why even go it seems by her review we could do a yelp review by just reading the menu online. No need to actually taste anything....

B0cddc0a 80cb 4b27 afdd 9f26eaad3a4f  eat real 072011 003

A Yelp review based on photos! That's a such a terrific idea. I'm in. :)

549d9fb3 53ef 4170 b68e 8bae2e055be7  dsc 0048b

Today's decision by Rachael Ray, helps illustrate what's wrong with this review from yesterday. Ray gave respect to both books, understanding and explaining to us, the cookbook buyer, in what ways they are different and how each is worthy of purchasing. There too, a restaurant cookbook was pitted against a more writerly book. There too, the restaurant book won. In contrast to that review, in which we end up feeling that Ray thought long and hard about her decision, Jen Agg, grieving or no, seems to have made her decision after about 10 minutes of consideration of each book. She gave little respect to a book written by a long time culinary professional who is an expert in her field. Indeed, the section of her decision about Pho reads like a school book report written by a kid who'd rather be doing almost anything else. It seems to me that Agg was giving more respect to a fellow chef (yes, despite calling out the sexism inherent in that Night + Market was "blessed" by male reviewers, Agg picks the bro-y book over the more "staid" one by a woman). Each decision in the piglet is subjective; what rankles here is that it would have been nice for Agg to give a non-chef food professional more respect.

E1f267c5 c2b2 434f be41 a6f59743572b  shroom

What if this review had been written by a big name male chef? When women break the rules, they’re raked over the coals; when men do it, they’re celebrated. It’s a cookbook contest, and we all know the books are about more than just the recipes. Stop clutching your pearls. Great review, Jen Agg.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Sorry - I am a life long feminist in a male dominated profession and have broken more rules than You have probably lived long enough to. I don’t own pearls. The s was just st bad form and rule breaking for no reason. And sorry - my beloved mother died Sunday and I can still fulfill my obligations. Hear me roar. Yes - I am an old feminist. Learn from the original rule breakers.

0c3567f2 abf0 466e 9b35 fc449a27c83c  headshot

I dunno, I think the Bill Buford review in 2015's final round serves as an answer to that (Buford is not a chef per se, but a big-name male writer who worked alongside a famous male chef). Getting cranky about reviewers not cooking/not cooking much is a proud, longstanding Piglet tradition! ;)

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I'm a lifelong feminist too and Zed I have to disagree with you! I adore rule breakers, Non-conformists, movers and shakers etc Male or female. This was not that. How would Jen like it if I went into one of her restaurants then reviewed it without eating or drinking anything? Would it happen? No, no-one would read it!

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

'We all know' is such a lame attempt to disparage readers who disagree with you. Where are my pearls?

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

Yes Food 52 editors- did you agree to this in writing ahead of time? This is important for us to know. You need to chime on n here and set the record straight please.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

I immediately went to order Jen Agg's book after this review. She's totally right - a recipe book isn't just the sum of its parts (e.g. a bunch of recipes). It needs to come out at the end as more than the sum of its parts - and that's what makes it good, and that's why you don't have to really cook - you have to understand what IT IS you are cooking.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

What??! I have to understand what IT IS you are saying. That's the best BS I've read today.

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

This is the sort of review that tells me nothing of the books, but speaks volumes about the reviewer. In this case, the volumes include pretension, the overwhelming desire to seem cool, and the ultimate conceit that the rules don't apply to her.