Reading Thomas Keller's new cookbook is like meeting a supermodel; you have to stare with your mouth hanging open for a while before you actually think about any real interaction. It took me at least a full read-through -- all the while ogling crisply seared skirt steak strewn with translucent salt crystals, or thick, dark slabs of brownies dusted with powdered sugar -- before it dawned on me that I could use this lush, oversized book to help me cook something.
Thomas Keller is best known for his flagship Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry; he published a French Laundry cookbook a few years back. For most cooks, though, the food in Ad Hoc at Home (Artisan, $50) stands a far higher chance of actually being attempted. This book retains the execution Keller is known for, but brings the difficulty level down a notch or twenty.
Keller's Ad Hoc, a casual restaurant, started out around the idea of the "family meal," the food a restaurant staff eats together each day at work. The family meal is meant to be filling and hearty, make use of leftover ingredients, and not take much time away from the work of cooking for customers. In Ad Hoc at Home, Keller applies his trademark precision to dishes like buttermilk fried chicken, meatballs with pappardelle, and mushroom soup with cavolo nero and Yukon Gold potatoes.
There's much here to love. If you want a standby biscuit recipe, it's here. If you want to impress your foodie friends, you can serve them the brioche-and-Gruyere grilled cheese, casually mentioning as you set the plates on the table, "It's actually Thomas Keller's grilled cheese." Or you can just gaze and fantasize. I especially liked the photography in the salads chapter, with bright green leeks, coppery persimmons and crimson peppers floating through a blank white page.
Some recipes are more labor-intensive than others, like the lemon bars, which require a piped-on, oven-browned meringue. But this book is designed to make you want to try a little harder -- the rewards are tempting, and dangled so close to your eyes.
The book also includes solid advice on technique -- composition, knife skills and cooking methods, for example. Which is good. I like the casual tone and the down-home quality of the dishes, but this cookbook is a chance to pick a great chef's brain, and Keller doesn't disappoint.
Ad Hoc at Home celebrates the togetherness that sharing food brings. The first recipe in the book is for the last meal Keller cooked for his dying father: barbecued chicken, mashed potatoes, collard greens and strawberry shortcake. For that meal, Keller instructs us to "Open a bottle of Pinot Noir. If you have a back porch and it's a perfect spring evening, serve it there." It's another way of saying, "Enjoy it." I have no doubt that, come June, I will.