Gastro Obscura by Cecily Wong and Dylan Thuras

What’s the USP? Well, it isn’t a cookbook, for one.

Oh. Right. You do know this is a cookbook review blog, right? The clue is right there in the title. Yes, yes, but Gastro Obscura has earned its place on our shelves too. It’s decidedly cookbook-adjacent.

Insofar as that’s where you’ve put it on your shelves? No – in that it’s a big and beautiful hardback about food that has come out just in time for Christmas. Gastro Obscura is a food-based spin-off to the globally-minded Atlas Obscura website. The original site – and its first book by the same name – is a crowd-sourced collection of weird and wonderful attractions around the world, be they strange museums, unusual folk traditions or unexpected attractions.

And let me guess – Gastro Obscura is the same thing, but for food? You got it. Organised by continent, and then by country, there are almost five hundred entries. From ‘North Korean Diplomacy Noodles’ to Jeppson’s Malört, an almost undrinkable liquor from Chicago, the book touches upon every corner of the globe.

I imagine it makes pretty good bedtime reading? Maybe more ‘cosy late night armchair reading’ – it’s a pretty hefty thing. But it is infinitely explorable. Very much fitting into that mould of intriguing coffee table books that are intended to be dipped into on a whim, I still managed to read the whole thing cover-to-cover in a matter of days.

There’s an element of focus that the food theme provides that gives Gastro Obscura a little more purpose than the original book (which has admittedly sat on our bookshelf, mostly unread, since being gifted to my partner a couple of years ago). Where that first title could be a little hit and miss, everything here brings you back to those inescapably fascinating questions we all have about food – why do we eat what we eat? What is everyone else having for dinner tonight? And, most importantly: can I have some?

‘Can I have some’? Yes! One of the smartest additions to the book is a little paragraph next to each entry that tells you how to go about trying the food in question. This might be a fairly general tip (“The days of cocaine-laced bordeaux are over, but try regular bordeaux – it’s very good.”) or, more frequently, a tip directing you to a direct source. If I ever find myself in Botswana’s Okavango Delta you can bet I’ll be heading to African Horseback Safaris to try their pizza made in a termite hill oven.

This all sounds very out of reach. In many cases, the entries absolutely are. The Siberian sashimi competition at Festival Stroganina sounds remarkably difficult to get to, and I doubt I’ll find myself at any of the Antarctic base stations listed here. But for every genuinely obscure choice, there’s plenty of Gastro Not-So-Obscura options. The section dedicated to the US is huge, and if I ever find myself on the east coast in late September, you better believe I’ll be making the detour to West Virginia’s annual roadkill cook-off.

In fact, there’s plenty of very accessible entries here – sauna sausages in Finland, a full marathon that includes 23 glasses of wine in (you guessed it) France – even a secret subterranean cave bar in my hometown of Nottingham that I had no idea existed. There is also a smattering of recipes – though they are surprisingly tame (Finnish mustard, Korea’s budae jjigae) and frustratingly not listed together in the index, meaning you are left to stumble upon them in the course of your reading.

Should I buy it, then? If you love trying unusual foods, or exploring other cultures, there’s much to love here. But let’s not ignore this book’s true raison d’être: a Christmas present for difficult-to-buy-for relatives. Not everyone is a fan of big hardbacks they’re only going to flick through sporadically – but if you’ve got a friend or family member who is really into their food, this could be the perfect Christmas present for them. I, for one, am in the process of writing an email to everybody I know informing them that, thank you very much, but I already own Gastro Obscura. I know how those buggers think.

Cuisine: Global
Suitable for: Curious foodies
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Gastro Obscura: A Food Adventurer’s Guide (Atlas Obscura)
£32, Workman Publishing

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

Cookbook review round up Summer 2021

East London Food by Rosie Birkett and Helen Cathcart

East London Food

What’s the USP? A second edition of the best selling guide to the restaurants, bars, cafes, bakeries and food shops of East London written by an expert resident.

Who is the author? Rosie Birkett is a food writer with columns in the Sunday Times and Good Food Magazine and the author of A Lot on Her Plate and The Joyful Home Cook. Special mention must go to photographer Helen Cathcart, whose portraits, food and location shots really bring the East London Food world to life.

Why do I need a guide to East London Food? Over the last decade, East London has emerged as the culinary powerhouse of the capital with Michelin-starred restaurants, artisan bakeries and breweries and everything in between.  If you want to expereince some of the best food in the UK, you have to visit East London, and this book is your essential guide.

Can I cook from it though? There’s just a baker’s dozen recipes, the one disappointment of the book. I would have swapped some of the perfunctory one paragraph write ups of some of the included places (most get several well researched and written pages) for more recipes. But you do get things like butternut squash, whipped yoghurt, harissa and crispy sage from Morito in Hackney and Chicken and Girolles Pie from the Marksman pub in Haggerston.

Should I buy it? If you are a restaurant nerd, someone who travels to eat or a Londoner that wants to know more about their cities culinary DNA, it’s a must.

Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
East London Food (Second Edition): The people, the places, the recipes
£30, Hoxton Mini Press

Foolproof BBQ by Genevieve Taylor

Foolproof BBQ Genevieve Taylor

Whats the USP? Barbecue recipes, it’s no more complicated than that.

Who is the author? According to her website, ‘Live fire and BBQ expert, Genevieve Taylor is the author of eleven cookery books including the bestseller, Charred, a complete guide to vegetarian barbecue, The Ultimate Wood-fired Oven Cook book and How to Eat Outside.’ She’s also something of an all-rounder having written books on soup, stew, pie and er, marshmallow (it’s not easy being a food writer, I can tell you. You’ve got to take the gigs when you can get them).

Killer recipes:  Devilled chicken wings with spicy tomato relish; lemon and oregano souvlaki with tzatziki; spicy coconut lamb chops; cajun fish tacos with slaw and line cream.

Should I buy it? If you’re partial to a bit of barbecue and fancy a lively collection of globally inspired skewers, burgers, sandwiches, grilled meats, seafood, vegetables and even desserts, with some delicous sounding sauces, slaws and relishes thrown in for good measure then you won’t go far wrong. Not life changing, but a reliable little volume that will no doubt become a summer regular.

Cuisine: Barbecue
Suitable for:
Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Three stars

Buy this book
Foolproof BBQ: 60 Simple Recipes to Make the Most of Your Barbecue
£12.99, Hardie Grant Quadrille

Super Natural Simple by Heidi Swanson

Super natural simple

What’s the USP? Its, uh, a vegetarian cookbook. In 2021, that rates of course as one of the rarest of all the USPs. Hardly ever see a vegetarian cookbook. Or a vegan one come to think of it. They should publish more of them. Help save the planet wouldn’t it? This one is for when your pushed for time and need simple recipes with only a few ingredients and you’ve misplaced your phone and can’t get a Deliveroo. You know, those times. Again, not many books with simple recipes for when your hectic life doesn’t allow you to spend too much time in the kitchen. I think the idea could catch on.

Who is the author? I have to admit to being ignorant of Heidi Swanson until this book arrived on my doormat, but she is a big noise in America. Voted one of the 100 greatest home cooks of all time by Epicurious.com (I’m not on that list for some reason and I’m seriously good, so that gives you some indication of the quality of that particualr line up), she’s the author of several other New York Times bestsellers with the words Super Natural in the title. She definately isn’t Alison Roman. Or Deb Perelman.

Killer recipes: Ten ingredient masala chilli;  grilled corn salad with salty-sweet lime dressing; grilled rice triangles; spicy chickpeas with kale and coconut; feisty tofu with broccoli, chilli and nuts.

Should I buy it? Look, there really isn’t such a thing these days as a really bad cookbook; the industry has becme so adept at churning them out that you will get something out of this. It looks pretty good in a bright, modish retro sort of way and there’s enough content to warrant the price (you’ll get it cheap on Amazon anyway). I get the feeling that Swanson’s earlier books might have more about them, but I’ve never read them so I can’t be sure. Fans will be delighted by the book no doubt and probably furious at this review, but, that’s life isn’t it? One thing that might influence your decision is that fact that Swansons website has over 700 recipes for free on it. Something to think about.

Cuisine: Vegetarian
Suitable for:
Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating:
Three stars

Buy this book
Super Natural Simple: Whole-Food, Vegetarian Recipes for Real Life
£22, Hardie Grant Books

Book extract: A Vegetarian Monster: Revenge, Betrayal & Berries in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein from A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino

Frankenstein main image
Food humanises Dr Frankenstein’s cobbled-together creation and raises the question: who is the real monster here?

An existential crisis doesn’t sound all that appetising. Nor does a jumble of long-expired body parts, cobbled together to create something resembling a human. And nor do gaping, stomach-churning chasms of icy loneliness. Yet this enduringly classic tale of the created and the creator, nature and nurture, and the pursuer and the pursued is an endless source of discussion worthy of the most salubrious of dinner parties.

The kind that Mary Shelley might have hosted or attended with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, holding court over a table groaning with glazed meats and platters laden with jewel-hued fruits. (Though Shelley may have abstained from the meat; the poet spent long periods as a vegetarian.) Guests glugging ruby wine and contributing bon mots might have included Lord Byron, who was present when the seeds of Frankenstein were sown.

In fact, one of the world’s most famous Gothic novels might not exist at all if it weren’t for Byron. Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (she was yet to marry), Shelley, and his fellow Romantic poet Bryon were among the luminaries holidaying in Lake Geneva in 1816, which “proved a wet, ungenial summer”, according to Mary’s introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. Conversation ducked and scurried down dark, Gothic avenues and, after long discussions dissecting ghost stories and musing on the horror genre, Byron had a proposal: they each pen their own terrifying tale.

After days struggling against writer’s block, Mary – then aged just 18 – created her monster after a particularly terrifying) “waking dream”. It wasn’t (and isn’t) a ghost story in any traditional sense, but it seems safe to say that her story cast a creepy shadow over the others. The novel was published in 1818 and has since been published in more than 300 editions and turned into several movies (perhaps most famously James Whale’s 1931 version, starring Boris Karloff as the droopy-lidded, bolt-necked monster).

Its themes of exile, misery, loneliness and guilt elevate it above a simple horror story and place it firmly in the complex Gothic genre, with a sprinkling of pioneering science fiction. Much discussed, too, are the novel’s parallels with the creation story and the Fall of Man, spelled out when Victor Frankenstein’s creation quotes Satan in John Milton’s epic biblical poem Paradise Lost:

‘all Good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my Good.’

The creature didn’t ask to be created; abandoned, rejected and betrayed by Victor, he morphs into the dangerous monster others already believe him to be. But is he really a monster? Or is Victor the monster for playing God in the most godless of ways: digging up bodies and using science to bring forth life? Their relationship is at the heart of the novel’s moral muddiness (a point on which it was criticised when it was released – The Quarterly Review described its “unmeaning hollowness”).

Common confusion over the eponymous character – with the creature often misidentified as Frankenstein – reflects this ambiguity. Literary critics have pointed out the sympathetic nature, eloquence and even innocence of the so-called monster. There’s a thin, blurred and sometimes invisible line between perpetrator and victim.

Yet there is one aspect in which this line is drawn quite clearly, if you grab a knife and fork and really dig in – and that’s food.

If there’s any uncertainty and moral fogginess when it comes to the creature’s innocence – and perhaps whether he should be considered “human” – then his diet should quash those doubts. He eats, for a start – and familiar foods, at that. He’s a sentient, living, breathing being, and that poses serious questions as to the ethics of Victor’s experiment. He brought the creature into a world that would inevitably reject him.

Mary Shelley doesn’t underplay her character’s vegetarianism; it isn’t incidental to the story’s central themes. On the contrary, she makes much of his choice to eschew the flesh-eating habits of humans. It becomes a device to emphasise his empathy and how connected he is to nature, perhaps more so than his fellow man. She throws in a conundrum for readers to wrestle with: how do you categorise a vegetarian monster?

The creature’s diet becomes even more significant in light of Percy Shelley’s vegetarianism, and indeed that of his friend Lord Byron. In the 1860 edition of his Life, Letters, and Journals of Lord Byron, Thomas Moore recalls the poet asking him, over dinner: ‘Moore, don’t you find eating beef-steak makes you ferocious?’ While Shelley’s 1813 poem, Queen Mab, he blames humans devouring the “mangled flesh” of lambs for “nature’s broken law”.

In Frankenstein, vegetarianism simultaneously highlights the creature’s separation from human society (unlike them, he doesn’t “glut” his appetite with meat) and becomes a symbol of his inherent goodness. Of course, goodness is corruptible.

Banished to the wilderness by Victor, who’s horrified by his own experiment, the creature observes a family living in a cabin in the woods. He gently observes their rituals, mainly revolving around food: preparing breakfast, gathering around the table, building and lighting fires for cooking, foraging for roots and plants. Their diet, he notices, is “coarse but wholesome”. It’s simple; uncomplicated by modern society and technology. Pre-Fall, if you like. The creature mimics their routine and attunes to the changing weather and seasons.

Moved by observing their interactions and sensitive to their poverty, he makes a conscious decision to only eat fruit and nuts. He will not steal from them, he vows to himself, because that would leave them hungry. The softness he shows in these moments endears us to him. And it makes his murderous rampage later in the novel – driven by repeated rejections and injustices – all the more shocking. He metamorphosises from a philosophical, gentle grazer, hungry for friendship, to a furious being consumed by fury and bent on revenge.

His reaction is both human and monstrous. The first kill he makes for food is an act to taunt Victor, gifting him with a dead hare as he leads him to “the everlasting ices of the north”.

In a desperate, final attempt to be accepted and forgiven, the creature uses his diet as a bargaining tool with his creator. If Victor would only “build” him a female companion, and allow him to be free, he could be happy subsisting on foraged acorns and berries. He describes a kind of utopian ideal that once again evokes Eden and the Fall of Man:

‘If you consent, neither you nor any other human being shall ever see us again; I will go to the vast wilds of South America. My food is not that of man; I do not destroy the lamb and the kid to glut my appetite; acorns and berries afford me sufficient nourishment. My companion will be of the same nature as myself and will be content with the same fare. We shall make our bed of dried leaves; the sun will shine on us as on man and will ripen our food. The picture I present to you is peaceful and human, and you must feel that you could deny it only in the wantonness of power and cruelty.’

Sadly, there isn’t such a happy ending for the creature (nor for Victor, nor for anyone for that matter). The creature becomes the monster after all – one who murders from a very human impulse for revenge, out of anger that he has been judged and rejected by a world he skipped into, innocently and happily as a child, or perhaps a lamb.

The creature entered his dysfunctional life drawn to the earth, feeling a deep connection to the soil, flowers and nature. His final, heart-wrenching monologue describes the “cheering warmth of summer” and his wonder at the “warbling birds”. He tells how he was “nourished with high thoughts of honour and devotion”. He longed for companionship, for “love and fellowship”. Spurned, he retaliated against a world that had turned its back on him. There is again a reference to Paradise Lost: “The fallen angel becomes a malignant devil.”

Frankenstein’s creature, hollowed out by hunger and his unsated appetite for human kindness, is utterly, hellishly alone.

Acorn Bread

Frankenstein acorn bread image

Frankenstein’s creature ate them raw, freshly plucked from the oak tree (or foraged from the woodland floor). It seems his stomach was a little stronger than ours, as unprocessed and uncooked acorns contain tannins that can be toxic to humans. They also have a rather unpleasant, bitter taste, so you probably wouldn’t want to nibble on them, anyway. Leave them on the tree for the squirrels (and any wandering, cobbled-together creatures) and instead get hold of some acorn flour to make this dense, crumbly, delicately sweetened bread. It has a similar texture to cornbread, and is perfect for sharing. Omit the spices if you prefer something more savoury – a pinch of chilli flakes will give it a kick, and pair wonderfully with a hunk of cheese.

Makes 1 medium loaf
Ingredients
250g acorn flour
100g caster sugar
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1 tsp ground cinnamon
A little freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
25g unsalted butter, melted
1 medium egg, beaten
250ml milk

Method
1. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 6) and grease a medium (2 lb/900g capacity) loaf tin.
2. Combine all the dry ingredients, including the cinnamon and nutmeg (if using), in a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.
3. Whisk together the milk, egg and melted butter and pour into the well, mixing gradually with a wooden spoon until well combined.
4. Bake for around 20 minutes, until a skewer or sharp knife inserted into the middle comes away clean.
5. Remove from the oven and leave for around 10 minutes in the tin, then tip on to a wire rack to cool. (You might want to tear some off and slather it with butter before it loses all its oven-warm loveliness, though.)

Shepherd’s Breakfast

Shepherd's Breakfast from Frankenstein

While crunching on acorns and foraging berries and roots might not be hugely appealing, the “shepherd’s breakfast” – which the creature “greedily” devours, having unwittingly frightened away its preparer – sounds pretty delicious. It’s a simple platter of bread, cheese, milk and wine. This dish takes those humble plate-fellows and turns them into a warm, oozily baked savoury bread pudding. A warning, though: it can serve six people as a side but, should you be tempted to dig in a spoon just to try a little, don’t be surprised if you get carried away and end up with an empty dish, a full belly and hungry guests.

Serves 6

Ingredients
1 medium loaf of day-old or slightly stale bread, sliced
50g unsalted butter, softened
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Handful of fresh herbs (parsley, oregano, tarragon, rosemary etc), chopped
100g hard cheese (you can use cheddar or a mix), grated
200ml whole milk
2 eggs
200ml double cream
1tsp English or Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

For the caramelised onions:
2 red onions, finely sliced
1tbsp olive oil
50ml or balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp granulated sugar
Glug of red wine
Salt and pepper

Method
1. For the onions, heat the olive oil over a medium heat, add onions and and sauté for a few minutes or until soft. Add vinegar, sugar and wine, increase heat and cook until the liquid has evaporated and the onions are sticky. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Beat together the softened butter and garlic, stir in herbs and add a pinch of salt. Spread this mix over each slice of bread, then quarter each one into triangles.
3. Preheat oven to 180°C/gas mark 4 and grease a large baking dish. Arrange a layer of bread on the bottom, top with a layer of onions and sprinkle with cheese. Repeat the layers until the ingredients are used up, ending with cheese.
4. Whisk together the milk, eggs, cream, mustard and a little salt and pepper. Pour over the bread, pushing down so it soaks up the liquid.
5. Rest for 5 minutes then bake for 25-30 minutes, until puffy and lightly golden.

Berry Bite Squares

Berry bites

Our creature spends his first few days of existence subsisting on berries and the occasional acorn. He was happy (or, at least, willing) to do so, but we wonder if he would have enjoyed these crumbly, moreish fruit crumble squares a little better? Most probably. You can make these with pretty much any in-season fruit, from apples to rhubarbs. Eat for breakfast, afternoon tea, a snack, on a picnic…

Makes around 12 squares

Ingredients

For the crumble:
175g unsalted butter, melted
180g plain flour
125g soft brown sugar
150g rolled oats
1 tsp ground cinnamon
pinch salt

For the filling:
1 large egg at room temp
150g caster sugar
30g plain flour
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
zest of 1 orange
400g berries (blackberries, raspberries, blackcurrants etc)

Method
1. Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F/gas mark 6). Grease and line a 20cm (8in) square tin (or similar).
2. Combine the dry ingredients for the crumble in a bowl, pour in the butter and mix.
3. Tip around two-thirds of it into the tin and press down firmly to make a base.
4. For the filling, whisk together the egg and sugar, then slowly add the flour, lemon zest and vanilla. Stir in the berries so each is coated.
5. Pour this over the base, then loosely sprinkle over the remaining crumble mix.
6. Bake for around 40-45 minutes until golden. Allow to cool completely in the tin before cutting into squares.

working cover

Extracted from A Gothic Cookbook by Ella Buchan and Alessandra Pino, with illustrations by Lee Henry. Find out more here.

Nose Dive by Harold McGee

nose-dive-harold-mcgee

What’s the USP? A deep (nose) dive into the world of smell, exploring what creates the smells around us, and what we can learn from them. From the earliest smells in the universe to thoroughly contemporary stenches, Nose Dive opens up every corner of the sensory world, and takes a big old sniff.

Sounds like a Bill Bryson book…  Harold McGee’s initial premise might recall the bold all-encompassing approach Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Body have taken to their respective subjects, but don’t be fooled. Nose Dive is as academic as it is filled with wonder at the world around us. McGee starts at the very beginning, with early chapters on how chemicals formed in space at the very beginning of the universe, and the sulphurous formation of smells on the newly formed Earth. It’s a neatly chronological approach that the author has apparently used to get his head around the science as he took on what must have been a daunting project, but I found myself longing for some more immediately relatable smells.

Who is the book for? It’s a tough question that I asked myself throughout reading. There is no doubt that McGee has put together a remarkable document on an under-appreciated sense, but little compromise is made for the casual reader. Coming in at just over 600 pages, and unrepentantly scientific in its approach, Nose Dive is not an easy read.

What are you looking to get out of a book on smell? If it’s the nuances in the scent of a good blue cheese, you’ll be wading some five hundred pages in. If you’re excited, however, to learn about why some cat piss smells meaty, and other cat piss displays more distinctly fruity characteristics, then you’ll have a much shorter wait. 

Do I have to read it all in order? Not at all – in fact, McGee claims that the book is intended for dipping into at your leisure. A sprawling index means readers inspired by a particular scent are free and able to selectively read around their curiosities. But that does rather beg the question – how many of us are going to smell the unrelenting stench of manure and then both desire and later remember (as presumably nobody will be carrying a 600 page hardback around on the off-chance that their nose asks a question) to look it up, and learn more about concentrated animal feeding operations?

There are useful lessons to learn here for cooks – which makes sense, given the author’s background in food science writing. But too often it feels as though the average reader might only fall upon them by chance. The book gives roughly the same amount of time to food smells (and those immediately associated with food) as it does to everything else – but the result is unnecessarily unwieldy. Perhaps McGee can take all that he has learnt here and create a second volume, focused more tightly on the smells of the kitchen, and what we can learn from them.

Until then, Nose Dive should be filed under ‘Good Intentions’ – a stunningly researched, occasionally insightful title that will appeal mainly to those who are already in the habit of reading lengthy academically-minded science titles.

Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

Buy this book
Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells
£35, John Murray

Shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2020. See all the shortlisted books here.
andre simon logo

Salmon by Mark Kurlansky

Salmon Mark Kurlansky

What’s the USP? From the man who brought you Cod, a book about cod, now comes Salmon, a book about the history of the social revolutionary organisation Situationist International. I’m kidding. It’s about salmon.

Who’s the author? Mark Kurlansky is an award winning American writer, journalist and sometime playwright who, according to his website, has also worked as ‘a commerical fisherman, a dock worker, a paralegal, a cook, and a pastry chef’.

Is it good bedtime reading? Salmon is not a cookbook but a work of narrative non-fiction that charts the past, present and future of one of the world’s most popular  fish and ‘a barometer for the health of our planet’. Apart from a few recipes the author has collected along the way (see below for more details), it’s all bedtime reading.

Although Kurlansky does have a cookbook to his name (International Night), when writing about food, Kurlansky more usually views it through the lens of a single subject like Milk, or a person such as Clarence Birdseye (Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man) rather than basing his work around recipes.  He has also written numerous books on other subjects including Ready for a Brand New Beat:  How “Dancing in the Street” became an anthem for a changing America and Paper:  Paging Through History and so thankfully, he is not a food writer, per se. We are therefore spared the arch, sub-poetic simpering romanticism that can sometimes besmirch the genre.

Instead Salmon is a factual, historical and journalistic exploration of the subject. From the first page of the book’s prologue, where the author travels to Alaska and goes onboard two very different salmon fishing vessels, Kurlansky uses his not inconsiderable story telling talents to hook the reader like a…(well, you know know what like) and doesn’t let them off until a pensive epilogue ‘It concerns us’ where he contemplates the environmental impact of economic development and asks the question ‘What would it mean to lose a salmon species…that is intimately engaged in the life cycle of tiny insects like a stonefly or large mammals like a brown bear…How many species do we lose when we lost a salmon? And how many others do we lost from losing those.’

It’s not all doom and gloom. Kurlansky wonders at ‘the great mystery’ of the salmon’s return to its place of birth. Anadromous species of salmon are born in rivers then migrate to the sea to mature. They then return to the river to spawn. But not just any old river; they return to their place of birth. ‘The salmon not only finds that river after travelling thousands of miles away, but it returns to the very same stretch of gravel in that same crook in the same stream where it was born some years before’.

That makes sense doesn’t it? You’ve had your wild years out at sea; now it’s time to settle down and have a family. You’re bound to want to go back to the setting for the idyllic days of your youth and where there’s a nice big lake for the kids to swim around in. Except we’re talking about a fish, an animal with a brain approximately one fifteenth the size of a bird. It’s absolutely astonishing. Can Kurlansky explain this jaw dropping phenomenon? You’ll just have to buy the book to find out.  

What about the recipes? Think of them as a nice little side dish to the firm pink flesh of the book; it would be a mistake to buy Salmon expecting to get a lot of new dishes to try out and the recipes seem to have been included more for illustrative purposes than anything else. So we get the beer bread that Hannelore Olsen bakes for her husband Ole and his salmon fishing crew for dinner, and the salmon chowder prepared for Kurlansky by salmon fisherwoman Thea Thomas during a night at sea.

There’s also things like Robert May’s recipe from 1660 for pickled salmon ‘to keep all the year’ (and then throw away because, you know, it’s fish you boiled in wine and vinegar 12 months ago), and salmon al verde written in 1913 by novelist Emilia Pardo Bazán which has stood the test of time about as well as Robert May’s manky old seafood.

There’s a recipe for poached salmon which Kurlansky suggests was served to Jackie Kennedy in the White House, but it’s not clear if it’s the authors version or that of René Verdon, the Kennedy’s private chef  (a White House dinner menu from the time re-produced in the book simply lists ‘medaillons de saumon ‘ which isn’t a lot to go on).

Elsewhere, there’s culinary curiosities including Swedish salmon pudding and Hawaiian lomilomi (flaked salted salmon rubbed together with peeled and de-seeded tomatoes and chopped green onions. It’s the most popular salmon dish in Hawaii. They also love Spam. Let’s all take a culinary holiday in Hawaii after lockdown shall we?). Let’s just say its a curate’s egg of a recipe collection.

Should I buy it? An entire book about one variety of fish might, on the face of it,  appear to have niche appeal. But Kurlansky is such as skilled writer and his scope so wide ranging that anyone interested in food, history, the environment and sustainability will be fascinated.

Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Salmon: A Fish, the Earth, and the History of a Common Fate
£18.99, Oneworld

Shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2020. See all the shortlisted books here.
andre simon logo

Red Sands by Caroline Eden

Red Sands by Caroline Eden

What’s the USP? Ever wondered what the food, people and places of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are really like? Then here’s your chance to find out.

Who is the author? Caroline Eden is a writer and journalist specialising in the former Soviet Union. Her first book Samarkand – recipes and stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus appeared in 2016 and was named Guardian book of the year and won Guild of Food Writers ‘Food and Travel’ award in 2017. He second book Black Sea was awarded the Art of Eating Prize, the John Avery Award at the Andre Simon Awards, Best Travel and Food Book of the Year at the Edward Stanford Travel Writing Awards and Best Food Book at the Guild of Food Writers Awards 2019.

Is it good bedtime reading? It’s probably best to think of Red Sands as a travelogue through Central Asia with recipes rather than a cookbook per se (on her website, Eden describes herself as ‘a writer about places’ rather than a food writer) so you will spend at least as much time with the book learning about Nur-Sultan, the ‘purse proud and machine made’ capital of Kazakhstan as you will cooking dishes like mushroom khinkali (dumplings), something Eden ate at Café Tselinnikov in the city.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? Although you may be new to Central Asian cuisine (I certainly was), the ingredients will be surprisingly familiar. Meatballs are flavoured with paprika and cumin in a soup from Karaganda made with lavash and chickpeas; Laghman, a noodle dish served throughout the region, features lamb, Chinese cabbage, peppers and cumin, and even canned peaches turn up in a sour cream cake from Northern Kazakhstan. You should even be able to find Tvorog, a soft curd cheese similar to quark in your local superstore (but if not head to a Polish shop if you have one nearby) which you’ll need to make a simple and light Zapekanka cake for breakfast.

What’s the faff factor? Basically non-existent. This is simple, homely food with mostly short ingredient lists and easy methods. There are a few dumpling recipes, including steamed pumpkin khunon, which by their nature are a little more complex as you’ll need to make both dough and filling and then shape and fill the dumplings  before cooking, but apart from that many of the recipes would be ideal for beginner cooks.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? The ingredient list for non puju, (a sort of yeasted flat bread topped with beef stew flavoured with Chinese five spice, soy and chilli)  calls for 1/2 handful of coriander which is the epitome of vagueness, but the recipes are so straightforward that the odd handful (or half) is neither here nor there.

Killer recipes: Sultan kurgan tofu; autumnal soup with rice, barley and lamb; Kulich – Russian Easter bread; sweet bread and mung bean pilaf; blushing quince jam; Grand Asia Express samsa (chicken, potato and cumin puff pastry turnovers); pickled cauliflower.

How often will I cook from the book? With accessible and delicious recipes for soups, stews, breads, snacks, pickles, preserves, desserts and breakfasts, Red Sands should prove a useful resource that you’ll return to often.

What will I love? Eden has gone to the ends of the earth (well, sort of) to research the book and writes about her subject with great authority and style. The book is packed with telling details that enliven the prose and put the reader right in the action. For example, in a market in Tashkent, northeast Uzbekistan, Eden watches as ‘one sold out vendor packed his weighing scale back up and, reversing out of the block, licked the fingers of his right hand and counted the banknotes straight on to his ballooned belly.’ Also, what about that stunning cover?

Should I buy it?  Caroline Eden is an outstanding writer and if Red Sands doesn’t win as many if not more awards than Black Sea I’ll be amazed.  An essential purchase for anyone interested in world cuisine and travel. 

Cuisine: Central Asian
Suitable for: Beginners/Confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy this book
Red Sands: Reportage and Recipes Through Central Asia, from Hinterland to Heartland
£26, Quadrille Publishing Ltd

The Relation Between Us by Bo Bech

The Relation Between Us Bo Bech

What’s the USP? Travelogue meets photography portfolio meets philosophy tract meets recipe book (it’s complicated) with the aim of illustrating that ‘we are closer to each other than we think’.

Who is the author? Danish chef Bo Bech (the surname is pronounced ‘Beck’) made his name with his avant garde cooking at the Michelin-starred Paustian in Copenhagen in the early 2000’s and then opened the more casual Geist in 2011 which he left in 2020. He has appeared on a number of food TV programmes in Denmark and is also the author of ‘What Does Memory Taste Like’ and ‘In My Blood. At the time of writing, regarding Bech’s future plans, the bio on his website simply says ‘watch this space’.

Is it good bedtime reading? The majority of the book’s 368 pages are taken up with Bech’s travel photography, but there are also 20 vignettes where Bech ponders subjects such as the conflict between homesickness and wanderlust, the pursuit of the perfect restaurant, how to properly prepare to cook, a life changing meal and the correct kitchen technique.

How annoyingly vague are the recipes? Although the book lists 37 recipes, all with one word titles such as ‘avocado’, ‘pasta’, ‘scallops’ and ‘waffles’, there are no recipes in the book. At least, not what we think of as traditionally formatted recipes with a list of ingredients with weights and measures followed by a detailed method. Imagine being in a room with Bech, or on the phone with him. You’re discussing food and every so often in the conversation he’ll describe how to cook something. That’s what the recipes in The Relation Between Us are like. Many do include measurements but so don’t. You have to go with the flow.

Will I have trouble finding the ingredients? The recipes mostly concern common, easily available items that you’ll be able to find in the supermarket, online or at your butcher, fishmonger or deli. But as Bech says in his introduction, ‘Instead of handing you a a strict recipe to dutifully follow I’m giving you a suggestion for how to best begin your food journey’ so there’s lots of leeway to interpret the dishes and use what’s easily available.

What’s the faff factor? Given the conversation style of the recipes, they are, generally speaking, simple dishes that can be easily explained and executed. Some methods, like pot roasting cauliflower or slowly caramelising pineapple, will take time and attention, but this is food to be made and enjoyed rather than messed around with.

How often will I cook from the book? This is probably not a book you’ll be reaching for every day of the week, but there are plenty of dishes such as baked risotto rice flavoured with lime, soy, ginger, honey and sesame oil that will earn a place in your repertoire and that you will return to often.

What will I love? As previously mentioned, the big draw is Bech’s photographs that draw on a decade of global travels and represent Bech’s ‘peak experiences’ in locations as diverse as Nashville, Colombia, Tokyo, New Orleans, Copenhagen, Montreal, Sichuan, Saint Petersburgh, Bangkok, Cuba and the Faroe Islands (as well as many more). Often the shots are food related, taken in markets and restaurants. They may be of Bech’s fellow star chefs including Sean Brock and Daniel Boulud, or they may be of street food vendors or just local inhabitants. Bech has an eye for colour, composition and an interesting face which makes browsing the book a visual feast.

What won’t I like so much? You may find the format of the recipes off putting, although I personally found them charming and full of character and personality.

Should I buy it? Although it shares similar ideals with Rene Redzepi’s You and I Eat the Same, The Relation Between Us is a genuine one off, much like it’s larger than life author. In a time when few of us can travel much further than the local supermarket, joining in on Bech’s global gastronomic adventures, albeit from the comfort of your living room, is a real treat.  

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Confident home cooks/Professional chefs
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars

Buy this book
The Relation Between Us
£43, Bo Bech

Dirt by Bill Buford

Dirt by Bill Buford

What’s The USP? A food memoir by esteemed American writer and editor Bill Buford about his five-year odyssey to master the art of French cooking. The book contains detailed descriptions of the preperation of some dishes but there are no recipes and it is not a cookbook.

Who’s the author? Bill Buford has been a writer and editor for the New Yorker since 1995. Before that he was the editor of Granta magazine for sixteen years and, in 1989, became the publisher of Granta Books. He is also the author of Among the Thugs and Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker and Apprentice to a Butcher in Tuscany. He was also a contributor to Daniel: My French Cuisine by Daniel  Boulud.

What’s the story morning glory? There are several main threads to the book: Buford’s experiences working in various Lyonnaise kitchens; his wider food related experiences in Lyon and the surrounding region; his academic exploration into the the Italian influence on French cooking, and how the relocation from New York to Lyon affected Buford’s home life with his wife and young twin sons. Along the way, we also meet Buford’s mentors, the late Washington-based chef Michel Richard and Michelin-starred, Lyon-born and New York-based chef Daniel Boulud.

Why do I want to read 400 pages about an old American white bloke indulging his personal obsession for French food? Admittedly, you could hardly call Dirt a zeitgeist read. Its publication in 2020, more than 10 years after many of the events of the book (Buford’s two part BBC documentary Fat Man in a White Hat, which shares much of the same material as the book was released back in 2010. You can watch the whole thing here) and when the conversation around food writing has shifted firmly towards diversity, isn’t great timing. That aside, Buford is a great writer, a master storyteller and attacks his subject with enormous vigour and infectious enthusiasm. You will learn a great deal about the history and techniques of French cuisine and be hugely entertained along the way.

What won’t I love about the book?  There is an awful lot going on. By the end of the book, Buford has spent time in Michel Richard’s kitchen,  relocated his entire family from New York to Lyon, trained at Institut Paul Bocuse, worked at Merer Brazier restaurant and Philippe Richard Artisan Boulangerie, helped slaughter a pig, visited an artisan bakery and mill, gone river fishing, made Beaufort cheese, attended the  Bocuse D’or and Meilleur Ouvrier de France cooking competitions, as well as several gastronomic conferences, made an academic study of the Italian influence on French cuisine and introduced his readers to dozens and dozens of characters including many of Lyon’s major culinary players, even the late-great Paul Bocuse himself.

By the time Buford is hiking up the Grande Montagne de Virieu, Belley to visit the abbey of Saint Sulpice in order to follow in the footsteps of food writer Brillat-Savarin for some bloody reason, I felt exhausted. I’d spent too much time inside the head of someone whose obsession I shared but couldn’t keep pace with.

One of Buford’s greatest assets as a writer is his ability to totally immerse himself in a subject. In his first book, Among The Thugs he got so close to 1980s English soccer hooligan culture that he almost became a hooligan himself. It constitutes one of the most extreme examples of what the New York Times has described as ‘participatory journalism’ and is a must-read. But that Zelig-like quality can also be a liability; Buford becomes so much a part of his subject that he can at times lose objectivity.  The various strands that make up Dirt are obviously equally important and interesting to Buford, but that doesn’t necessarily hold true for the reader. There are some clunky gear changes between personal memoir, reportage, description of cooking techniques and dishes and academic historical study.  It feels like four books in one, but maybe that just means it’s good value.

Should I buy the book? If you’ve read and enjoyed Buford’s previous books, Dirt will not disappoint. If you’re unfamilar with French cuisine, this is an excellent introduction to the subject and even if you’re a Francophile, you will almost certainly learn something new. Buford may be guilty of throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the book (actually, there are kitchen sinks) but it is nevertheless an extremely readable book, albeit one that will probably appeal most to the food and restaurant nerds among us.

Cook Book Review rating: Four stars

Buy this book
Dirt: Adventures in French Cooking
£16.99, Johnathan Cape

What is Cooking by Ferran Adrià and elBullifoundation

What is Cooking Ferran Adria

What’s the USP? This is not a cookbook and there are no recipes. According to the authors, it’s ‘a compilation of the connected knowledge needed in order to answer the question: ‘What is cooking?’. According to me, it’s nothing less than an intellectual land grab by one of the world’s most famous chefs in an attempt to place himself at the forefront of the study of cuisine and gastronomy as a formal academic subject.

Who is the author? Ferran Adrià is one of the world’s most famous chefs. Along with his brother Albert, he is the architect of what is commonly known as ‘molecular gastronomy’ but which Adrià refers to as ‘techno-emotional’ cuisine.

He closed the doors of his restaurant el Bulli back in 2011 and has since dedicated his time to the elBullifoundation, which, the website says is ‘a private, family-run foundation, promoted by Ferran Adrià and Juli Soler. Established on 7 February 2013, it came out of the need to transform elBullirestaurant, with a vision based on the desire to continue promoting innovation and creativity through the language of cooking and to preserve the legacy and spirit of elBulli for society’.

In practice that means publishing books, mounting exhibitions, the production of a documentary series about el Bulli restaurant, consulting services and whole raft of other projects including the development of educational courses. The one project that Adrià has been talking about almost since the day elBulli closed is the launch of elBulli1846, the re-purposing of el Bulli restaurant as ‘an exhibition lab’ for ‘studies, investigation and experimentation to generate knowledge around the theme of efficiency in innovation’. Although the website explicitly says that elBulli1846 is not a restaurant, that has been talk in the past of some food being prepared and served there, but no one seems to know if and when that will actually happen and if it does, who gets to eat it.

Is it good bedtime reading? Put it this way, there is a lot to read but it might keep you awake all night puzzling out just what it’s all meant to be for. To take an example, in the 48 page introductory section (broken down into a pre-foreword statement, a foreword by Adrià himself, a one page summary, a ten-page descriptive index and a 25 page introduction) you will find a flow chart that explains that, if you want to run a business that generates a gastronomic offering you will need a team of professionals from the sector that have a business culture and that they will need resources for different systems including storage tools and plating tools. In other words, if you want to run a restaurant, you need trained chefs who want to earn money and they will need things like fridges, tongs and spoons. The book continues in this vain, finding complex, opaque ways of expressing very simple and common ideas, for much of its 400-odd pages.

For example, in Chapter One: Let’s Start by Understanding Lexical-Symantic Aspects, you’ll ‘discover’ that ‘not all liquid is a beverage’ and that sometimes it’s food in a liquid state. Congratulations, you now know what soup is. You’ll also find out that 19th century food writer Brillat-Savarin ‘devoted his life to the tasting and enjoyment of food in different settings, which suggests a concept of alimentation that was not limited to survival, but that encompassed hedonism and recognized quality’. I hope you were sitting down for the earth-shattering revelation that people sometimes eat for pleasure.

In the same chapter, you’ll also find the definition of a word used no less than 913 times in the book- ‘elaboration’. Adrià would like you to use the word in place of cooking because ‘helps to give a more specific understanding of a stage within the culinary process’, which is a bit like trying to force your friends to call you by a nickname you’ve coined for yourself. However, Adrià is such a respected figure in modern gastronomic circles that he might just pull it off. Start practicing now if you want to be in with the cool kids, ‘I’m just going to elaborate this Aldi frozen minced beef pie in the heat supplying apparatus that is located within the area dedicated to the preparation of elaborations’. See, it’s fun!

Let’s for a moment imagine that it’s acceptable to take up 85 pages of a 464-page book introducing your subject and defining your terms. It might be then not unreasonable to expect that by chapter three you would be getting to the meat of the subject, that the author would be communicating some information, some facts from their research or at least some opinions or philosophy. And yet on page 97 we are confronted with this piece of spectacularly circular nonsense, ‘We can speak of interpretative creativity when the creation corresponds to the skilful interpretation of other, already existing creations. Whether or not this can be regarded as a level of creative outcome is a matter for debate, as it is a very subjective question.’

But there must be some concrete answers somewhere in the book, surely? How about in the section titled ‘We suggest several main criteria to discover the types of cooking a cook or a restaurant does’. Let’s take Adrià’s own dish, Pea Spheres. Here’s some of the things I ‘learned’ from reading about how it’s classified under 17 different criteria: it’s hedonistic food designed to produce pleasure; it’s an elaboration with food use; it’s an elaboration for the savoury world; it’s served in a fine dining restaurant and designed for customers of middle to high class social profiles, the working classes need not apply; it is an elaboration from a professional kitchen but amateurs with a spherification kit could reproduce it; it’s of the highest level of quality, sophistication and refinement, it is no less than creative culinary art. So, what do I do with that information? How do I apply that to the real world? If I use those same 17 criteria to analyse and categorise the fish and chips I’m having for my tea tonight, how will that change anything. I already know its savoury, it’s working class, it’s not particularly sophisticated and I could make it at home, but I can’t really be arsed. The process seems to be pointless.

But surely, Ferran Adrià and his multi-disciplinary team haven’t spent the last decade producing something of absolutely no value, have they? One last chance. Let’s read ‘As an action that is repeated over time, cooking generates consequences’, a chapter that views cooking from an historical perspective. The first line is ‘History is the time frame in which ‘everything’ happens.’ It’s not looking good is it? Anyway, let’s persevere. What does the book have to say about the Neolithic period? ‘With the Neolithic period came permanent settlements, and this sedentariness brought about sedentary cooking. Gradually, as a result, specialization emerged, with different elaborations giving rise to specialized cooking.’ That’s pretty much it. No specific examples of what the different elaborations or specialized cooking might actually be. It’s time for me to stop this. I’ve gazed long enough into the Adrià abyss. I can feel the Adrià abyss gazing back into me.

What will I love? I particularly enjoyed the infographic titled ‘The chef model: cooks, periods, styles and movements in contemporary fine-dining cuisine in western society’ which lists some of the biggest names in western gastronomy since the turn of the 20th century including Escoffier, Fernand Point and Alain Ducasse but reserves the largest font size on the page for the names Ferran and Albert Adria. History is always written by the victors.

That aside, the book looks great, and, er, that’s about it.

What won’t I like so much? In the introduction, the claim is made that ‘In spite of the large number of publications dealing with cooking or cuisine, we were unable to find any that offered a direct response to our seemingly simple question.’ One has to assume that eBullifoundation is including in that rather sweeping statement authoritative works such as the 1350 page Larousse Gastronomique (which in fact does have a page-long entry on the term ‘cooking’), the 900 page The Oxford Companion to Food (it too has entries on the terms ‘cook’ and ‘cooking), Grand Livre de Cuisine d’Alain Ducasse and Le Repertoire to mention just a few. Set alongside those august tomes, the book singularly fails to justify its own existence.

I admit I may have missed the point, that I may not be sufficiently intelligent to understand how the Sapiens methodology works. Other readers, who may well be more sophisticated and erudite may possibly get a great deal from it. At the time of writing, there has been no other meaningful published review of What is Cooking (i.e. where the reviewer has actually read some or all of the book) and I don’t know anyone who has bought a copy and publicly expressed their views. I can’t imagine anything but praise from Adrià’s peers so the critical jury is currently out. You’ll just have to take my word for it at the moment.

Should I buy it? It’s £100. If you’ve got that to spare, if you wouldn’t miss it at all and if you are the world’s biggest Ferran Adria fan, then go ahead. Otherwise think very carefully before you are parted from your money. If you work in the fine dining sector, it’s worth considering whether you will actually learn anything of value by wading through 464 pages of powder dry theory. Will it help you do your job better? Will your understanding of the craft of cooking and cuisine have increased in a way that you can apply in a practical way to your business? Because there is very little pleasure to be derived from What is Cooking. In truth, this review has been an unpleasant ordeal, a tiresome bore and I wouldn’t wish the experience on my worst enemy, of which there are many and to which I’ve probably just added one more.

Cuisine: International
Suitable for: Professional chefs
Cookbook Review rating: 1 star (for the design)

Buy this book
What is Cooking: The Action: Cooking, The Result: Cuisine (FOOD COOK)
£100, Phaidon

John Burton-Race: The Authorised Biography with Michael Cowton

John Burton Race

Where to start with this odd and badly written biography of the former Michelin-starred chef, minor TV personality and tabloid headline-hogger? Well, how about the time Burton-Race returned drunk from a night out with his then wife Kim to find his stepdaughters Olivia and Eve and Eve’s boyfriend with what Burton-Race thought was drugs on the kitchen table. His response? To go to the utility room and unlock the gun cabinet where he kept ‘a Beretta and a special edition Browning worth £7,500’ and return to the kitchen wielding a shotgun. During a struggle, he knocked Olivia to the floor and hit both her and his wife in the face with the butt of the gun.

That may well be all you need to know about Burton-Race, who you may remember from his 2007 appearance on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, but if for some reason you are still considering parting with £20 for this shoddy, thrown-together book then read on. Cowton has based the above anecdote on an interview given by Kim Burton-Race to the Evening Standard in 2007. Cowton writes that Burton-Race himself, ‘was reluctant to talk about it in any great detail’ and that Cowton feels that ‘the incident does not sit well with John. It is something he would sooner forget.’ That Cowton has allowed him to do so gets to the heart of the book’s problem. You will learn as much, if not more about Burton-Race from Googling a few interviews and articles (this one by Jay Rayner from 2008 is particularly good) as you will from reading this biography.

In the second chapter, Cowton describes his first meeting with the chef which partly helps explain why the book is such a mess. ‘Without any prompting, he launches into a stream of anecdotes with no prior considered response to my first question…I suggest it might be appropriate to begin noting our conversation and he agrees. However, trying to get John Burton-Race to rewind when he is in fast forward is an entirely different matter.’ Cowton goes on to claim that ‘As I grow to know John Burton-Race better, and on a more personal level, I begin to slowly unravel the complexities of the man’. If that’s true, he has failed to document his findings. Instead, the impression Cowton gives is that he has been bamboozled by the mercurial chef and has struggled to make anything substantial from that ‘stream of anecdotes’ which are often banal and lacking in any real detail.

At 264 pages, it’s a relatively short book yet Cowton has still found it necessary to bulk it out by taking some utterly bat-shit tangents including a page on the sexism of 1960s-80s era Savoy hotel head chef Silvetto Trompetto and the subsequent achievements of women in the hospitality industry. It should be noted that Bruton-Race never worked for Trompetto or with any of the women listed by Cowton which include Prue Leith and Eugénie Brazier. And then there are the disproportionately lengthy biographies of chefs Burton-Race has actually either worked for or with including Raymond Blanc, Gary Jones (executive chef of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons), Martin Blunos and Nigel Marriage which all include details that have no bearing on Burton-Race’s story whatsoever.

However, important incidents go unexplored. Marriage had an unwanted 15 minutes of fame in the mid-90s when he was secretly filmed physically and verbally bullying a junior chef in the kitchens of Burton-Race’s two Michelin starred restaurant L’Ortolan in Berkshire (now under different ownership). The footage featured in an episode of ITVs The Big Story documentary series exposing abuse within the restaurant industry. It was a major scandal at the time which ruined Marriage’s reputation and did no favours at all for Burton-Race who was also filmed verbally abusing the young chef. Cowton offers no new insight from Burton-Race into the incident, quoting only from reports from the time, again failing to add to the sum of biographical knowledge about the chef.

Cowton’s own deathless comment is that, ‘The situation was not helped when the film crew shot John as this opulent bloke driving in his Porsche, so everybody who didn’t have the money for a bicycle suddenly hated him. All the upper-crusties who thought John Burton-Race was politically correct, brilliantly talented and fun to be with suddenly didn’t like him anymore because they felt he had let them down.’ One suspects that those words were actually spoken by Burton-Race himself, as much of the text which is not in quotation marks reads like transcribed interview re-written in the third person. That maybe a valid approach for a biography, but only when properly considered and edited and with sufficient mediated storytelling from the biographer. Unfortunately, time and again, John Burton-Race: The Authorised Biography reads as if it has been banged out in a hurry with the minimum of care and attention.

Given the number of factual errors and spelling mistakes, it’s surprising to discover via Cowton’s acknowledgements that the book actually had an editor. It’s worth noting at this point that Cowton’s other works include books about Level 42, The Pet Shop Boys and a trilogy on Murders That Shocked the World and that, despite claiming to have a ‘passion for gastronomy’ in his Twitter handle, his unfamiliarity with his subject matter is painfully obvious. Chef Gary Hollihead is referred to as Paul Hollihead on two separate occasions, chef Aldo Zilli is called Aldo Zilley and Gidleigh Park hotel becomes Gidley Park.

Every restaurant in New York visited by Burton Race on a trip in 1994 is misnamed. Daniel is Daniels, Le Cirque is La Cirque and, for some reason, Cowton hasn’t even bothered to Google the name of ‘Robert De Niro’s place in the docks’ (it’s Tribeca Bar and Grill, and it’s not in the docks). In one of the worst sentences ever written in the English language, Peter Luger Steakhouse gets rechristened: ‘Mesmerised by the host of influential quarters, he found himself at the hub of a cosmopolitan gem and visited a steakhouse in Brooklyn called Lugeros.’ I’m sorry, he was mesmerised by what, where?

The book is full of puzzling moments. In a bizarre and difficult to follow anecdote that goes precisely nowhere, Cowton confuses rillette (potted pork), with andouillette, a famously pungent sausage made with chitterlings. On page 143 we learn that ‘John met his second wife Kim in 1996 on a Caribbean island’. On page 144, THE VERY NEXT PAGE, Cowton writes, ‘As John was collecting his Catey Award in 1995, the year also saw him betrothed to Kim’. That’s one year before they met in case you’re having trouble keeping up. More troubling is the head scratching revelation that Burton-Race’s mother and father-in-law abandoned him and his younger sister at some point in his childhood (there is no strict chronology in the early part of the book), leaving them alone in a house in Sarisbury Green in Hampshire and moved to Indonesia with ‘no explanation to the children, no heartfelt goodbyes, nothing – just gone, the taxi’s rear lights flickering and gradually fading into the distance’.

According to Cowton, the children were discovered by chance by ‘an uncle’ and then ‘placed with neighbours’. But then, sometime later (weeks, months, years – it’s impossible to tell), Burton-Race’s mother and father-in-law returned to the UK, took up residence for a brief spell and then returned to Indonesia, this time taking Burton-Race and his sister with them. Given that Cowton says that Burton-Race’s ‘earliest childhood memories are a pile of mismatched fragments’, it’s surprising that Cowton appears not to have tried to verify the exact circumstances surrounding what is obviously an important incident in his subject’s life and which he says ‘had devastating results’ and ‘left both children mentally scarred’. Why would the parents not have been arrested for child abandonment on their return to the UK? Why would they have been allowed to take them out of the country after behaving in such an astonishingly irresponsible manner. Why were the children not taken in by relatives and who were those amazingly generous-hearted neighbours?

A little bit of legwork with public records and the local paper’s archive might have provided some answers, but Cowton seems satisfied to leave his readers with more questions about his subject’s life than when they started reading the book. Much easier to devote pages documenting forgettable TV appearances on programmes like Kitchen Criminals and Great British Menu, which can be called up on YouTube, or interviewing easily accessible chefs such as Michel Roux Junior who has never even worked with Burton-Race but has ‘bumped into him several times at events’ and was willing to contribute a quote or two to fill up a bit of space.

It’s also easier to cram the book full of clichés: at various points in the book Burton Race is ‘never lots for words’, has had a ‘long and distinguished career’ is on ‘a single minded mission’ and ‘a relentless search for perfection’ or has ‘ had to manage the cards he’s been dealt’. There’s plenty of meaningless hyperbole too, culminating with the laughably unsupportable assertion that ‘without question [Burton-Race] has worked monumentally hard to achieve and maintain a level of creative genius unparalleled in his time’ (no one mention Ferran Adria or Rene Redzepi or Daniel Humm or…well, you get the picture).

There’s no question that Burton-Race is a complex figure who has led an interesting life and achieved notable success in his chosen field. In more skilled hands, his story could have made for a rattling yarn (albeit with some unsavoury aspects), instead John Burton-Race: The Authorised Biography makes for a deeply unsatisfactory read. If you want to find out about the life of a flawed British Michelin-starred chef then you’d be much better off with Marco Pierre White’s oddly titled but very readable autobiography White Slave.

Due to a litany of bad business moves and ill health (all documented in the book), Burton-Race’s career is currently at something of a low-ebb with his most recent venture in Torquay, that included John Burton Race hotel and Restaurant, folding within less than two years. From his website it appears that he is currently concentrating on consultancy. If this book is an attempt to get him back into the limelight, he may be in for a disappointment as big as anyone foolish enough to buy a copy.

Cookbook Review Rating: One star

Buy the book
John Burton-Race 2020: The Man, The Magic & The Mayhem
£20, Banovallum Books