The Piglet2012 / Quarterfinal Round, 2012

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef

David McMillan, Frederic Morin, & Meredith Erickson

Get the Book

Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna: Recipes from Cafe Sabarsky, Wallse, and Blaue Gans

Neue Cuisine

Kurt Gutenbrunner

Get the Book

Judged by: David Tanis

David Tanis is the acclaimed author of two modern cookbook classics, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes, chosen as one of the 50 best cookbooks ever by the Guardian/Observer (U.K.), and Heart of the Artichoke and Other Kitchen Journeys, nominated for a James Beard Award. As chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, Tanis has worked with Alice Waters to define the restaurant's groundbreaking style for the better part of 25 years. A great fan of home cooking, he is known for his simple, seasonal, gutsy fare. Tanis writes a weekly column for The New York Times Dining section and is at work on a new cookbook.

Photo by Joe Vaughn

The Judgment

Here we have two restaurant cookbooks by chefs of rather different stripes and inclinations, though if you asked them, they might agree on a number of things. But it's apples and oranges here, really, and difficult to choose a favorite.

An Austrian chef in New York presents traditional dishes, some updated and lightened. A pair of Quebecois chefs offer mostly traditional, hearty French food, in generous portions. Two different styles of restaurant, but both seemingly spot-on, each in its own way. Except it's more than one restaurant each, for both proprietors have little empires. (Must we now refer to multiple-restaurant chefs as emperors, then?)

So, of course, I have heard of Wallse, Cafe Sabarsky, and Blaue Gans, the New York Austrian outposts of Kurt Gutenbrenner, but I have never eaten at any of them. My friend Michael always wants to take me but somehow it has never happened. Similarly, the restaurant Joe Beef (and its spinoffs) has been on my radar for a while, but I haven't been there either. This means that I was both eager to read these cookbooks but could be completely objective, critically speaking.

I will confess, too, that I haven't actually cooked anything from either book. This has never kept me from forming and pronouncing an opinion. I can say that I have taken both books to bed with me for the past several weeks.

Judging from the cover: Neue Cuisine is produced by Rizzoli, a publisher known for art books. This makes sense, given that Cafe Sabarsky is housed in the Neue Galerie, a museum of Austrian and German art and craft. The cool white slick pages contain beautiful examples of table settings from the Wiener Wirtstatte, and here and there paintings of Gustav Klimt or Egon Schiele. There's a lot of praise for the Vienna of 1900, a history of Austria, the story of the founding of the museum, and the chef's personal story, as well as a collection of concise, well-written recipes.

The Art of Living
(immodestly named, perhaps) has an enticing photo cover of Joe Beef — a picture-perfect bistro, not too fancy, with a blackboard menu and bare tables set with checkered cloth napkins and wineglasses. It is published by Ten Speed Press, known of late for interesting, well-produced cookbooks. Inside, there are lots of stories about living the good life with friends in a funky part of Montreal. Here you get Quebecois history, too, and tales of fishing, train trips, and the authors' early food memories, plus notes on regional wines and cheeses.

In a way, they are both lifestyle books, chock full of nostalgia and national pride, valentines to a homeland and culture. However, in one the nostalgia is for a Vienna and an elegant cafe culture that are long past. The other celebrates a lusty life-loving culture of eaters in French Canada from cooks who want to work (but not too much).

There are many dishes I want to make from Kurt Gutenbrenner's repertoire, among them Bavarian Pretzels, Paprika and Herb Cheese Spread, Goulash Soup, Blood Sausage Strudel, Veal Schnitzel Stuffed with Ham and Cheese, Quark Spaetzle, Dumplings in a Napkin, Linzer Cookies, and The Emperor's Pancake — in other words, Austrian classics.

I'm less interested in his modern updates like Lobster with Cherries and Fava Beans, or Chilled Crayfish Soup with Melon, or other dishes that seem cool, pristine, rarefied, and restauranty — even though they are undoubtedly delicious. It's obvious that all of the dishes in Neue Cuisine are delicately prepared by a deft-handed chef with taste buds and skill. Is it just that the tasting portion-sized Beef Goulash looks too elegant? In the end, it's about spaetzle, strudel, and schnitzel — at least for me.

Compare this with The Art of Living's Foie Gras Breakfast Sandwich, Marrowbones Cultivateur, Duck Steak au Poivre, Truffled Eggs with Everything Biscuits, and Hot Oysters on the Radio: you immediately sense a different lifestyle and energy. The Joe Beef boys are hungry, thirsty, and getting jiggy all the way. They're generously in your face.

Nevertheless, I don't want (and don't imagine ever wanting) a Sausage Martini, nor will I be trying the Eclair Velveeta. And I won't make their Marjolaine for dessert (ce n'est pas mon genre), but I will make the Financiers, and most of the variations except the red peanut version.

In the end, it's about two guys having a blast, drinking deep, French pastries, meat, trains, and a whole lot more. Because The Art of Living makes me hungry and has such an infectious joie de vivre, it's more fun to read. So apologies to chef Gutenbrunner. He wrote a beautiful book with great recipes. But the Joe Beef guys have won this round. I'm booking my ticket to Montreal.

And the winner is…

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts

The Art of Living According to Joe Beef: A Cookbook of Sorts

Get the Book

Do you Agree?


The S. February 3, 2012
I loved this review and because it is so thoughtfully written I am totally ok with him having not prepared any dishes. Especially because as an experienced chef I am sure he can guess what he will like and not like.
gluttonforlife February 2, 2012
Never mind getting jiggy, those Joe Beef dudes are getting JIGGLY!
Tippy C. February 1, 2012
I love this review and think that the tone of the Piglet comments section is getting just a wee bit snippy. The Piglet is meant to be fun; these are not the James Beard awards after all.

I admire David Tanis's "Platter of Figs" and will happily accept his experienced take on any cookbook, whether or not he has cooked from it. And let’s face it, all of the books here are high caliber, the question for the judges is simply, which one they think, based on any criteria they choose, should proceed to the next round.

I applaud Food52 for mixing it up a bit with unexpected reviewers like Roz Chast (who cracks me up in any setting). I have been glued to the contest from day one!
Victoria C. February 2, 2012
I am glad to read this comment. This writer's opinion is the polar opposite of mine; however, I find it well-written and thoughtful and must admit it gives me pause. Good one!
mrslarkin February 1, 2012
I'm happy Joe Beef is moving forward. Fingers crossed that Sara Jenkins feels the tug of her Mediterranean roots and cooks something from those two books in the next round.

If you look back over past Piglet years, you'll find reviews where some judges did not cook from the book, so it's not anything new. Maybe we as an audience are simply evolving, and looking for a little more substance in the judging. It feels like some judges aren't taking the tournament of cookbooks seriously. Or, alternately, maybe we the audience are taking the piglet too seriously. Is the purpose of the piglet all just fun and games? If that is the case, let me know, and I'll quit my yapping.
duclosbe1 February 1, 2012
I couldn't have articulated my thoughts better than this, mrslarkin! You read my mind. I think cookbooks are evolving into something more than just recipes, and these two books are prime examples of that shift. I've enjoyed almost all of these reviews, even this one. David Tanis gave great reviews of both books, even without heading to the kitchen. I look forward to the fun of Piglet, not the intense competition. The James Beard Foundation can take care of that.
junglechef February 1, 2012
I am a food-blogger/chef with a lifetime in the restaurant industry, but I am no NAME. Last week I wrote to the editors, volunteering to help write these reviews because I am as disappointed as many of the above commentors in the way the reviewing is going. I was told, quite cursorily, that I could write in and contribute to the ongoing discussions just like the thousands of other readers. It is clear what FOOD 52 wants here, and while they are getting what THEY want, we, the readers are not.
Rivka February 1, 2012
Well, that actually makes sense - I'm pretty sure Piglet judges were sent books far in advance in order to allow time for reading, research, and presumably, cooking. And to be fair, I do think there is some benefit to having the judges be known quantities: you can imagine the opposite scenario, where the judges aren't widely recognized names, they submit their reviews, and F52 readers criticize the outcome along the lines of "who is this person and why does his/her opinion matter?" So there is a method to the madness. A better example of how being less of a known quantity may make the review better is this one:

I love Blue Bottle, but I hadn't really heard of its owners; now that I read their thorough and thoughtful review, I'm more likely to buy their book. Win-win-win.
alygator February 1, 2012
Perhaps it is because Piglet started off so beautifully with Nigella's excellent and thoughtful review that reviews like this (and Ina's - what a waste) are so disappointing. Seriously, Nigella’s review should serve as a guideline for future judges!
alygator February 1, 2012
Perhaps it is because Piglet started off so beautifully with Nigella's excellent and thoughtful review that reviews like this (and Ina's - what a waste) are so disappointing. Seriously, Nigella’s review should serve as a guideline for future judges!
Rivka February 1, 2012
I share some of Victoria's sentiments. This review calls to mind a moment from a recent season of Top Chef, when Tom Colicchio says to a contestant, "This is a cooking competition. You didn't cook anything!" Not exactly parallel, but these are *cookbooks* -- and cookbooks are meant to be cooked from. While I appreciate Tanis' admission that he, in fact, didn't cook from either book, it renders his review less useful. Unless I shopping for a coffee table book (and, to be fair, many cookbooks make great coffee table books), I want to choose books whose recipes are reliable. I want a reviewer to have tried recipes and tell me whether that's the case with the book in question. I assume that Tanis (whose books I own and love) would want readers to judge his books by the quality of recipes contained within, and I'm surprised he didn't extend that courtesy to the books he reviewed.

This is the third review in a row where the judge has passed on a book without giving its recipes a fair chance to shine. I'm starting to wonder whether the lesson learned here is that judges whose names are recognized enough to attract a broader readership are also too busy to do the job well.
krusher February 1, 2012
I too am a devotee of David Tanis. Could not believe that I was in Paris when he finally got to Australia. I totally get what he is saying. My palate is similar to his. When you consider how short life is, you don't want to waste a taste bud on food that is not authentically tailored to one's palate.
Blissful B. February 1, 2012
I think it reflects the American trend that cooking has become a spectator sport & cookbooks are more often read than used. Still, I'm a little surprised a Chef would promote this image.
ChefJune February 1, 2012
If you've never had the Schnitzel and Spaetzle at Cafe Sabarsky, run, don't walk up to the Neue Museum. They're that good!
nancy O. February 1, 2012
This not-cooking-yet-judging is becoming a trend in this year's Piglet, to its detriment. At least Tanis has put some time into thinking about the books and writing his review, but in the end, he has left no room to be surprised in the case that Neue Cuisine's recipes might turn out to produce the better results. It's happened in the Piglet before. Appeal is only one part of a successful cookbook, albeit an important one. Delivering on the promise is what seals the deal.
Inko February 1, 2012
Eek - it should be a minimum requirement that the reviewers try cooking from the books. That's why they are called cookbooks.
Please send him back to the kitchen for a rewrite with recipe testing.
Victoria C. February 1, 2012
I really enjoy reading David Tanis; I have both his books and read his NYTimes column as soon as it appears. I would like to have a chance to hang out with him and would be shocked if I met him and didn't like him.


I don't think it's fair to judge a cookbook based on taking the book to bed for a few nights to peruse, no matter how impressive your credentials as a chef or food writer are, especially if FOOD52 considers The Piglet a serious "competition." It's like judging The Booker on the titles of chapters of the books in the shortlist - in my opinion, ridiculous.

So far, I am more than rather disappointed in these reviews. Perhaps you should have home cooks do this competition next year.

Having said all that, I have Joe Beef and love reading it, and I sent it to someone special as a Christmas present. But as I have not cooked from it, I cannot give you an opinion as to what kind of cookbook it is. I can say for sure that it is a gorgeous book, one well worth perusing, and I plan to cook from it soon. Also the dishes that tempt David Tanis, tempt me, so I am going to look at a copy of Neue Cuisine to see if I would like to own it. But this is really not the point of which is the better COOKbook.

Come on FOOD52, get your act together.