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Restaurant-based cookbooks - do the recipes allow faithful duplication?

I bought a Korean cookbook a few years ago - it was suppose to be a compilation of signature recipes from LA restaurants famous for a particular dish. I tried 2 of the recipes and they were awful! Some of the recipes I didn't even bother attempting- a little further research showed they had left out ingredients essential to the dish. It made me wonder if the restaurants were loathe to actually give out their famous recipes? In which case, why bother with a cookbook?

So now I have the momofuku cookbook and again, I am slightly suspicious at the simplicity of some of the recipes. When I consider how delicious their pork buns are, I find it hard to believe the pork belly is only cooked with sugar and salt and that the sauce is nothing more than hoisin sauce. Still, I'm willing to give the cookbook a try and am making their famous bo ssam for my husband today as a V-day gift. It's already in the oven, roasting away.. fingers crossed!

I normally don't buy restaurant-based cookbooks so for those of you who cook from restaurant-based cookbooks, how did the recipes fare? Did the cookbook version allow you to replicate the dish you ate at the restaurant? Or did it turn out to be a completely different dish?

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  1. it's a crap shoot, but more often than not, what you see in the cookbook isn't the exact recipe prepared at the restaurant. to be perfectly honest, it pisses me off, which is why i now buy these books only if i'm interested in the geeral content, not because i want to be able to recreate a particular dish at home.

    perfect example - i bought a cookbook this past year that was released by a very popular bakery (not because i wanted to recreate their items, but for quite the opposite reason - i've sampled many of their menu items and thought they were terrible, so i was curious to see what they were actually doing that resulted in such unimpressive product). anyway, some of the recipes were already floating around on the web, and after reading some comments by people who had tried them and discovered that they just weren't turning out right, i wanted to see them rest of them for myself. when i compared the ingredients in the recipes to the ingredients listed for the corresponding items in the bakery, i found a lot of discrepancies.

    1. I'd expect there is some simplification of recipes to suit a home cooking situation, eg. most home cooks wouldn't want to make a sauce made from scratch if it takes hours and lots of prep to make. If a pre-made sauce is relatively close I can see them substituting it in the cookbook.

      1. It definitely depends on the chef. I've had good luck with all of Thomas Keller's books (based on comparison to my meal at The French Laundry and on the ability to make delicious food that looks as great as the pictures). I have also encountered recipes that are laughable when compared to the pictures of the dishes in other books (Alfred Portales and Marcus Samuelsson come to mind as some of the worst offenders). It is indeed a crap shoot, as ghg pointed out. You sort of have to find chefs that you trust not to dumb things down too much for you, and keep going back to them for more great recipes.

        I haven't played with my Momofuku cookbook yet... although I have heard that some things (such as the steamed buns that he stuffs with pork belly) aren't up to snuff. Let us know how you V-day dish turned out... =)

        1. I have thumbed through Thomas Keller's cookbooks and they appear more "authentic" to me because the receipes appear to be long and involved - what I would expect from a 3 star michelin restaurant. I just wouldn't believe it if a Keller recipe said to "Mix XYZ and pop in oven for 2 hours." Sadly, I don't have enough time to cook like he does so have not bought his cookbooks.

          Ok the bo ssam came out delicious except for the crust. First off, the recipe asks for way too much sugar+salt rub, I barely used half and even then, the crust was much too salty. I ended up cutting it away. Also it doesn't require the additional sugar crust glaze at the end - that just caused a lot of smoke in my oven. While the inside meat was delicious, it doesn't taste like what you get at momofuku, and even though I used a slightly smaller amount of pork but still cooked it for the full 6hrs, I feel I could have cooked it even longer to make it even more tender.

          The next recipe I will try is the fried chicken esp. if others have tried the steamed buns and they weren't up to snuff -again, why modify recipes so people can't recreate the dish? Nowadays, there isn't much that the amateur home chef can't buy if they had the space and budget.

          5 Replies
          1. re: SeoulQueen

            is these something to be said about the quality of the base protein as well? I don't know what pork you used but there's a very distinct difference between quality fed pork , supermarket pork and then Kurobota pork.

            1. re: jecolicious

              I use Crisfield's - excellent butcher in Rye, NY that is highly rated by fellow chowhounders. I rang them up beforehand and they got me a nice Berkshire pork. It's rare now to find a proper butcher - when I went to get the meat, the butcher sharpened his knives before trimming it for me. Yay!

            2. re: SeoulQueen

              Seoul Queen: did you see this thread about Momofuku steamed buns:


              apparently they don't make their buns (if memory serves). There is another thread too about either the pork buns or momofuku food but I can't find it . . . maybe there's a reference to it in this one.

              1. re: cinnamon girl

                Thanks for the thread - hadn't read it before. Surprised to read how different the pork bun recipe is in the cookbook vs what he did for Martha Stewart. I'm glad to know the bun recipe doesn't work so I won't waste my time trying to make it, but that again raises the question of why tthen did they include it in the first place? If they outsource their buns, they should just say so and point people in the right direction, ie "We outsource our buns, you too can buy them pre-made in the frozen food aisle of Chinese grocers."

                1. re: SeoulQueen

                  Yes it's lame. There is also another thread on Chow on this topic and it might be explained there. Pressured by publisher or someone. I vaguely remember reading an explanation but it must not have made much of an impression!

            3. books created by restaurant chefs are not meant for "amateur" cooks since there are a lot of details left out. (for example, does the book need to say to pre-heat the oven before putting the cake in ?), also restaurants have different cooking instruments (oven, ... )

              I use them as inspiration and not as a guide.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Maximilien

                My complaint is more often with authors dumbing things down or giving ridiculous instructions than with them leaving out (intuitively obvious) details that a skilled cook would know.

                1. re: Maximilien

                  "books created by restaurant chefs are not meant for "amateur" cooks since there are a lot of details left out. (for example, does the book need to say to pre-heat the oven before putting the cake in ?), also restaurants have different cooking instruments (oven, ... )"

                  I don't get your point. Posters above seem to be saying that essential ingredients are being left out, not that obvious things like preheating your oven or turning the handle on your pepper mill to get pepper out are left unsaid. Amateur or not, if a chef is going to say: this is the xyz from restaurant a, in my opinion, it should actually contain all of the ingredients and all of the necessary steps, to making xyz.

                  1. re: StheJ

                    Agree. If these books are not for "amateurs" why are they being marketed as such? Most of them are shameless cash grabs. The only thing that can redeem them is when they: are loaded with information on methods, explain why certain things are done, include a bit of food science, include something about the origins and regionality of the dish (if relevant), or barring that the inspiration for the dish. Big glossy pictures of bowls of lemons are useless and after you've been buying food writing for a number of years, not appreciated. Especially when they take up precious space on the shelf. Including a dish, but leaving out the one thing that makes it special b/c it's too complicated or time-consuming to write it out, also is not appreciated.

                2. I'd love to hear from anyone who has made anything (to the letter) from the Fat Duck cookbook. I can't imagine any details have been left out, but I doubt anyone can replicate the restaurant food from the recipes.

                  1. I have made a few of recipes from the Korean cookbook you're talking about. I haven't eaten those dishes at the respective restaurants (except for the Beverly Soon Tofu) so I can't make a direct comparison. With Beverly Soon Tofu, the difference in the dishes is because Beverly makes their own soft tofu, not with the sauce. But I haven't found anything I made to be terrible. Since that book is a compilation of recipes from different restaurants, I would say it's hard to say that all of the recipes will suck.

                    And that's the same with other restaurant cookbooks. Some are good. Some aren't. I've got the Bouchon and French Laundry cookbooks -- they seem pretty accurate; I just don't have the technique and tools to pull off some of those dishes. I have the Momofuku cookbook and have eaten at the restaurants. I have made the pork buns -- only the pork part as I have purchased the buns. The recipe for the pork is the same, even though it just calls for a simple sugar-salt brine. The sauce is just plain old Lee Kum Kee hoisin. One issue I've found with the pork belly is that depending on how reduced your stock is, the 1/2 cup of stock may not be sufficient as a super reduced stock can caramelize to a sticky mess, burning the pork belly. I have read reports that the bun recipe wasn't very faithful to the original.

                    It takes a lot of work to write a cookbook. Recipes need to be tested and retested. I think there are many chefs that don't really measure. And chefs tend to work with large volumes. Sometimes (and I don't really know why) the recipes just don't seem to scale down very well. There are some assumptions chefs make when cooking that lay people may not be aware of (this is more apparent when you read magazines like Art Culinaire). And I'm sure you'll have some that purposefully leave out an ingredient or two so the people will have to go to the restaurant. That's why I think that some of the best written cookbooks out there are not restaurant cookbooks (though you'll find some good ones from restaurants). I don't think that's their main focus -- their main focus is to serve customers.

                    1. I think the Korean cookbook is a super dumbed down version aimed at non-Koreans/non-Asians. (I was suckered in by the glossy photos!) Hamjipark's recipe for kimchi jigae says to take store bought kim chi, boil it, add pork, boil some more, add tofu and boil some more. You've got to be kidding -that's college dorm cooking! I grew up in LA and have eaten at half of these restaurants and there is no comparison between the restaurant dishes and what is being offered in the cookbook. I much prefer Marc and Kim Millon's Flavours of Korea - it reminds me of the way my grandmother used to cook.

                      I agree with StheJ and cinnamon girl - if I was a chef and putting out a cookbook based on my restaurant dishes, I would invest the time and make sure the recipes were up to scratch. Most folks will not have the opportunity to eat at momofuku ko so buying the cookbooks and trying out the recipes is their way of tasting these dishes. Seems a bit disingenuous to offer a cookbook where the recipes don't work. Still, I might borrow the French Laundry cookbook from a friend and attempt a dish the next time I get snowed in!

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: SeoulQueen

                        Bill Bufor'ds Heat book about working in Batali's kitchen addressed this point about chef's books. More than that, the book is a good read.

                        Basically, the chefs like Batali aren't involved with writing out the recipes. They're too busy running the kitchen. And, its not like they can just copy the restaurant recipe since the proportions would be too large for a home recipe.

                        So, the book publishers send in people from outside the restaurant to go in and try to recreate the restaurant's dishes. They'd come in, try the dish and maybe even see how the dishes are made. Then, they'd go back to their test kitchen and try to bang something out that recreated the restaurant dish. But, as Buford pointed out, sometimes the book recipe might leave out ingredients that the restaurant used.

                        So, I don't think any differences are from chefs trying to keep something back. Many times, they're not that involved with the book's recipes.

                        1. re: hobbess

                          That book was a good read - I'd forgotten that whole discussion. All the more reason to look very critically at restaurant-driven books before buying. And it buttresses my point that a lot of them are mainly shameless cash grabs. Ultimately, it's the chef's name on the book, so the buck stops with them, since no one put a gun to his/her head to crank it out. Still there are some good ones where some care and thought has been put into them. So it can be done with some effort and commitment to putting out a good book.

                          1. re: hobbess

                            At risk of being pedantic..

                            Chefs like Batali are actually so busy running their empire that they don't have time to run the kitchen. They leave that to their trusted proteges in their respective outposts. As Bourdain has said "Famous chef x is NOT in the kitchen".

                        2. It is hard to generalize, some are actually good to cook from, others are great food pornography, while some are just bad. I think one point we sometimes forget is that no matter how well a recipe is written, there are many factors that goes into the end result. It could be the source of the ingredients, the restaurant equipment, cooking skill, our interpretation of the procedures. We can pretty much attest to that two good cook can take a well written recipe and the food will come out somewhat different. We all wish that we can just take a recipe and duplicate the food served at Babbo, Daniel or The French Laundry..