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Apr 18, 2005 01:02 PM

I'm getting more and more disgusted with "famous chef" cookbooks

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Earlier today I was looking at a recipe for kim chi that I photocopied a few years ago from the cookbook of a "famous chef", and I was disgusted to see that he'd committed major blunders in this recipe--blunders such that if you followed his recipe, the kim chi just would not taste right.

I happen to know something about kim chi, because I've been making and eating it for years, and I spent 2 frustrating years reading recipes from cookbooks and trying unsuccessfully to make it work. I could not make it work because virtually every recipe I looked at had it wrong. One example: it just will not work right if you do not use *Korean* red pepper.

This author in question specializes in Asian cooking and has a good reputation. This, combined with other things I've read, such as that flap years ago over a cookbook by Sheryl something, lead me to wonder how intelligent, and/or how honest, some of these authors are.

Anyone else feel this way? Or anyone think I'm way off base?

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  1. I like using home grown/church/school cookbooks. The authors of the recipes contribute their "best" recipes, and use locally available ingredients.

    Several years ago, a cousin published a "family cookbook". He was able to get recipes from all of the "Aunties", things we have been eating for all of our lives.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Alan408

      Those can be very good sources for certain types of dishes. If I want a recipe for a cheese ball, a blonde brownie, crab dip, or shirmp creole, I'll go for my collection of junior league-type stuff.

      If I want a velvet-smooth cold corn soup, I drag out Cooking with Daniel Boulud, a book that has been surprisingly friendly to me as a home cook. (made the soup last night and it's simple, and low-fat, and delicious)

    2. Is this a case of chef error? a bad recipe to begin with? or bad/inept editing?

      1 Reply
      1. re: Gayla
        David Feldman

        Ultimately, the fault has to lie with the author-chef (or in some cases, the blame would include the ghostwriter). Yes, a typo can sneak through, but authors have the chance to read corrected copy and uncorrected galleys.

      2. I read "famous chef" cookbooks mostly for inspiration. Chefs cook in larger quantities in restaurant kitchens. When their recipes are edited for home cooking, I'm not sure it always works. And, in fact, I spoke with a person who had worked for a "famous chef" (no names, please) who told me that when the said chef's books were written, the chef's staff messed up the recipes so they would not work. I do not have personal experience of this, which is why I do not want to name the chef.

        At any rate, there are so many recipes from trusted sources -- Julia Child, James Peterson, Mark Bittman, Jacques Pepin, James Beard, etc. -- that it should be relatively easy to find a recipe that "works".

        4 Replies
        1. re: Seattle Rose

          It's another sign of modern life...books are rushed to press without proper recipe testing. Ideally, recipes should all be tested 2 or 3 times at least, under differing conditions. I have a feeling that some never get tested at all.

          I had a cookbook by Sheila Lukins "The All Around the World Cookbook" that had so many bad recipes in it that I finally tossed it out lest some poor thrift-store sucker be plagued by the same bad results that I had gotten.

          By bad recipes I don't just mean things that tasted bad to me. I mean recipes that had proportions that were incredibly out of whack and would have never worked for anyone. That I persisted in following them is a testament to my too-literate brain.

          I did find a bad recipe, for pate a choux, in a James Beard appetizer book. It was all off and really screwed up a planned meal for me. That one was a signed first edition, so I donated it to the library book sale. I hope they corrected it in later editions.

          1. re: Seattle Rose
            Boris Carlitov

            I think it would be more interesting and educational if we _did_ use names. That way we can avoid buying the book - or contradict the belief that a certain chef's recipes are bad.

            Why is it that complements come with names attached but criticisms do not?


            1. re: Boris Carlitov


              post something moderately negative on a food network star and watch how quickly your post disappears. That will answer your question.


              1. re: Jean-Luc

                You're off-base there, mon capitain. It's just that bashing Rachael Ray here on NAF has become SO boring (even to other Ray-haters such as myself) and so, well, really not even REMOTELY related to food, that I perfectly understand why the mods nip that stuff in the bud from now on. You know, someone does have to pay for the bandwith, and the signal to noise ratio was really getting woefully low...

          2. On a positive note, I've been very pleased with the Balthazar cookbook, though that may not quite fall into the category of "famous chef" cook books.

            1. Many factors contribute to 'bad' recipes.

              The time involved. Recipe testing is left to the author (which may NOT be the famous chef). Usually the famous chef does not have time to test the home version of the recipe and relies on the writer. In general a chef will proof the recipe but little things can screw up a recipe and frankly a chef brings a lot of assumptions to the task (skill sets, quality, etc.). And then there is production schedules. I would bet that even if diligent most books do NOT arrive at the publisher as scheduled. The publisher needs to meet a market demand and may rush a book out the door.

              Complexity. Some famous chefs revel in providing accessible food (Jacques Pepin), while others require 4 man days to get to the plating (Keller, Ttrotter...) I would bet that Pepin has few recipe errors because he is diligent and his recipes are far simpler. Actually I think that Keller and Trotter also are pretty diligent and I have not had a recipe failure with them. They also have clout and will not be rushed to print.

              Food quality and consistency. What you get and what a famous chef gets in terms of fresh ingredients can vary wildly. But I assume that you are kvetching about that more about proportions and technique. Although flavor profiles will jump about depending on the taste of your ingredients and thus affect the proportions.

              Equipment. Lots of times this is a base canard (ha ha) used by the famous chef to gloss over his or her failure to test the recipe. But the equipment in a famous chef'skitchen is pretty awesome (check out the Iron Chef kitchen).

              Just pain sloppiness. Goes back to my first point on time.

              I do not buy the argument that his or her staff will sabotage the recipe so you can't make the dish at home. Guess what? You can't make the dish at home. You can come close, but the reason these people have become famous chefs is becasue they have a talent for making really good food (and some just for promoting themselves, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt). Would you think that you can paint like Picasso even if you are an accomplished painter? Or play a violin like Perlman? Famous chefs have nothing to lose to let you know the steps they go through to make their signature dishes. If you got all the stuff they get, and had all their equipment/skills/talent/staff, etc. you still would want to go to the source.

              Finally recipes are easy to come by. famous chefs have years of immersion in food and have develop a 'feel' for what goes together and what doesn't. They toss out recipe ideas all day long. And because of their skills they can make something work even if it seem deficient. So we are back to sloppy.

              Nevertheless I think we buy the books because we want to get inside their heads so that we can expand our 'feel' for our cooking.

              1 Reply
              1. re: Food Tyrant

                'Nevertheless I think we buy the books because we want to get inside their heads so that we can expand our 'feel' for our cooking.'


                This statement totally applies to me. When it comes to star chefs (and I'm NOT talking about most of the FoodTV gang), I mainly buy their cookbooks after I've eaten in their restaurant or read something about them that makes me want to know more...about their philosophy, technique, influences, etc. While recipes should be well-tested and should be designed to work ideally, I am not really buying the book for the recipes. More for inspiration and insight into their philosophy.


                Ate at Frontera Grill in Chicago, bought one of Bayless' books.

                Saw Trotter on Kitchen Sessions on PBS, husband bought his book for me since I was fascinated w/ the guy's intensity.

                Have had a crush on Bourdain since Cook's Tour and reading his books, immed. bought his Les Halles book when it came out.

                Met Marcus Samuellson briefly when I ate at Aquavit in NY, have been coveting his book since.

                Have seen the Balthazar chefs (Lee Hanson, Riad Nasr) on Martha Stewart and ate at their restaurant, so bought their book.

                Hmmm...these are all dudes, but I must say, that I'm in love w/ all of Alice Waters' cookbooks and her gentle writing style rooted in firm beliefs about food.

                I have probably only made a few recipes from each star chef book that I do own, and they usually turn out fine to very good but I'm sure not as good as having it at the restaurant. These are the books that I read like novels (Babbo being the last one that really flowed like a story to me), and I'm certain they have had some influence on my cooking, however intangible.