What’s the USP? In an act of post-modernist, self-reflexive irony, Phaidon, famous for publishing very serious cookbooks by the likes of Magnus Nilsson of Faviken and Dan Hunter of Brae have published a not entirely serious cookbook and called it A Very Serious Cookbook.
Who are the authors? Two young chefs who run the acclaimed Lower East Side restaurants, Contra, which has a Michelin star, and its wine bar sibling Wildair and who have serious CVs; Fabian von Hauske (formerly of Noma and Faviken) and Jeremiah Stone (who worked for Giovanni Passerini in Paris and helped Ignacio Mattos open Isa in Brooklyn). Stone and von Hauske embody the ‘bistronomy’ movement of fine cuisine served in relaxed surroundings and incorporate many of the tropes of modern progressive cooking including dashi, fermented items and a sense of abandon when it comes to mashing up culinary traditions.
What does it look like? You might call the book design ‘urban chic’ if you couldn’t think of a better phrase. Recipe titles look like they’ve been scrawled on the page with a black sharpie, the text is printed on pink, green and beige (as well as plain white) paper and there’s plenty of double-page kitchen action photography alongside the moody overhead food shots.
Is it good bedtime reading? Underpinning the comedic aspects of the book (see below) is the urge to be honest and tell the relatively short story of Contra and Wildair (opened in 2013 and 2015) warts and all; the personal tensions between the two chefs, a stinging review, the dishes that didn’t quite make it are all included.
Will I have trouble finding ingredients? A number of recipes will demand a fair amount of effort on behalf of home cooks to source ingredients like tuna bones, unseasoned grain vinegar and fresh hearts of palm (all necessary to make ‘Tuna, onion, tomato’) so you might need to make some carefully considered substitutions to make the book work for you.
What’s the faff factor? There are some relatively straightforward dishes like ‘Beef, paparras, umeboshi’ which is basically steak served with pickled Basque peppers and flavoured butter, but many recipes are very process-heavy and more suited to a restaurant rather than the home kitchen.
How often will I cook from the book? Unless you are a professional chef, A Very Serious Cookbook will be reserved for weekend kitchen project cooking or as a source of inspiration for your own simplified dishes.
Killer recipes? Littleneck clam, almond milk, XO; oyster, lapsang souchong; shrimp, yuba (the skin of heated soymilk), turnip; pommes darphin, uni, jalapeno; strawberry, charred milk.
What will I love? There’s plenty of New York attitude that may or may not be played for laughs. A list of ‘things that are important to know about the dessert recipes’ includes ‘No fruit sorbets. Ever’ (von Hauske, who worked as a pastry chef for Jean George Vongerichten, prefers the purity of a granita made with very little sugar) and a claim that ‘people treat microgreens like s**t’. A ‘recipe’ for Stone’s secret XO sauce lacks quantities and a proper method, and an entire chapter called Never dedicated to dishes that have either never appeared on their menus or ‘did once and never again’.
What won’t I like? This is primarily a snapshot of a pair of New York restaurants in 2018; the food, the people and the history and philosophy behind them. It has patently not be created to supply you with ideas for last-minute mid-week meals.
Should I buy it? Distinctive and engaging, the book will be particularly inspiring to chefs who are planning to or simply daydreaming about opening their first restaurant.
Suitable for: Professional chefs/confident home cooks
Cookbook Review Rating: Four stars
Buy this book
A Very Serious Cookbook: Contra Wildair