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Thursday, August 28, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 60.0° F  Fair
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Cookbook cues: Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell's Kitchen by Mitch Omer and Ann Bauer
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Nowadays, most people associate the words "Hell's Kitchen" with Gordon Ramsay, the ferocious TV chef. After reading this cookbook, though, I had a totally different, much more pleasant association, coupled with a burning desire to drive north to eat at one of Mitch Omer's two Hell's Kitchen restaurants.

Damn Good Food (Borealis Books, $28) is an eclectic collection of recipes that reflect periods in Omer's life. In a chapter titled "Drugs, Sex, and Gluttony," recipes like "Lasagna, Van Halen Style" recall Omer's turbulent, substance-heavy youth (he was a roadie for the band). After getting clean, undergoing gastric bypass surgery, and getting treatment for bipolar disorder, he became the chef at the New French Café in the Twin Cities. The upswing in his career -- and life -- shows in those recipes: lobster risotto with roe and fresh peas, charred tuna with beurre noisette.

The bulk of the book features recipes from Omer's Hell's Kitchen restaurants. His style might be described as comfort food with a side of ambition: scrambled eggs with lobster, Parmesan-crusted grilled cheese, and ham and pear crisp. Technique sections are scattered through the book, offering interesting, simple tips for better food (for a great sandwich presentation, Omer advises cutting sandwiches on a strong bias and turning the cut side out).

The book also gives numerous recipes for basics: mayonnaise, veloute and hollandaise sauces (plus variations), granola, even Omer's "world famous" peanut butter (honey and brown sugar give it a punch). The "cuisine sauvage" chapter includes recipes for trout, antelope, bear, and more. They're fun to read, even if the only bears you encounter are at the zoo.

Many of the recipes sound great, but the book's emotional resonance is its biggest appeal. Omer opens with prized family recipes -- his mom's "Special Occasion Goulash," his aunt's chicken and noodles -- and ends on a similar note in a chapter called "Sacred Rites," which includes unabashedly lowbrow fare like "American Legion Funeral Hot Dish" as well as a host of recipes that Omer cooked for the wedding dinner of co-author Bauer. (Omer also officiated the ceremony.)

I made the wedding cake recipe, vanilla buttermilk layer cake with lemon curd and whipped cream frosting. Though I had some execution issues with the three-layer structure (piece of advice: don't put a broken layer in the middle or you'll end up with a cake-alanche), the cake was one of the best tasting I've ever made, a definite keeper.

There was something flattering about being invited, in a way, to someone's wedding dinner. But really, the entire book feels like that -- Omer's heart comes through in both the stories and the recipes. By the time I was done reading, Damn Good Food was like a new friend that I couldn't wait to get to know better.

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