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Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking
By Anthony Bourdain, with José de Meirelles and Philippe Lajaunie
(Bloomsbury USA, October 2004)

Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook

What’s the first thing you notice when you pick up a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s latest book? Is it the rough, recycled brown paper cover, or maybe Bourdain’s sepia image? These details may lead you to think this will be an understated effort, compared to the chef’s previous novels, Kitchen Confidential and A Cook’s Tour.

Look a little closer, at the emblem on his chef jacket…at that suggestion of a smirk on his face. Wait, we haven’t even looked beyond the cover and we’re rushing to judgment. We’re talking about a different Bourdain here, presenting a different type of book…well, sort of. This time, he’s written a cookbook, called Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking. Right away he sets some pretty big priorities, and it’s doubtful he’d want us to cut him any slack.

Of course, Bourdain does not sacrifice his forceful personality and opinions just because this is a cookbook. Funny thing—we thought we’d be annoyed by too much Bourdain and not enough cooking, but his introduction reset our expectations. In his own words, “This book aims to be a field manual to strategy and tactics, which means that in the following pages, I will take you by the hand and walk you through the process in much the same way—and in the same caring, sensitive, diplomatic tone—as I would a new recruit in my restaurant kitchen.” And that’s exactly what we found in his Les Halles Cookbook.

Kitchen Confidential
by
Anthony Bourdain

A couple of years ago, Anthony Bourdain, executive chef of the Les Halles brasserie in New York City, hit the publishing world by storm with his best-selling book Kitchen Confidential. For those who missed out, this is still a classic memoir/survival manual for restaurant diners and a must-read for anyone who has ever worked in or eaten at a restaurant.

In a more practical setting than his memoirs, we get Bourdain’s philosophies on food and cooking. He tells us what we will learn and what matters. He talks to us about the importance of things like mise en place, deep prep, prep and final assembly. About making lists and being organized. About fundamentals like good knives and good stock; and strategies for scoring good ingredients and developing relationships with your butcher and fishmonger. And in his, uh, candid style, he brings bistro cooking down to earth. That means plenty of gutsy, solid food. It’s exciting but not contrived. It satisfies the stomach, palate and soul but eschews fussiness.

After paying close attention to our drill sergeant, Chef Bourdain, we headed right for the Fish & Shellfish chapter where the first item was Skate Grenobloise. Perfect example of bistro fare: Skate has long been considered lowbrow, but it’s amazing what a quick sauté and a finish of butter, capers, croutons, lemon juice and parsley can do for social status. There’s not much to Friture, tiny deep-fried smelts, eaten whole, but Bourdain adds a little color with his description of the evisceration technique. If you know bistro food, then you won’t find many surprises here—Coquilles Saint Jacques with Champagne, Quenelles de Brochet, and Bourride—but we’re not complaining.

Familiarity reigns in all thirteen recipe chapters. Whether it’s Onion Soup Les Halles or Moules Marinières, Bourdain breaks it down, instructs and steps in to help when necessary. The chapter on beef is particularly useful for choosing just the right cut for specific methods. Whoever knew that Bouef à la Ficelle was so easy? Chapters like Veal & Lamb; Pig; and Poultry & Game offer up longstanding favorites including Roasted Veal Short Ribs, Carré d’Agneau au Moutarde, Duck à l’Orange, and treasures like Rôti de Porc au Lait—a beguiling pork roast braised in milk.

The fun really begins with The Big Classics—Bouillabaisse, and Choucroute Garnie, and, the aptly named Blood & Guts chapter where you’ll find pig’s heart, veal kidneys and boudin noir treated with respect.

It would be hard to close the Les Halles Cookbook without dessert, and this is where you will find Îles Flotantes, Crème Brûlée, and Chocolate Mousse. Sure, you seen it before, eaten it before. But there’s always room for a new cookbook if it’s fresh, thorough and useful. Overall, that’s what we found. You don’t have to be a Bourdain fan to appreciate his well-placed efforts at making bistro food accessible and possible in your own kitchen.

Anthony Bourdain’s Les Halles Cookbook: Strategies, Recipes, and Techniques of Classic Bistro Cooking is an incentive to rediscover or celebrate familiarity. It’s competent, fun, and challenging—an attractive book that sticks to its purpose and breathes new life into tradition without overstepping or attempting to redefine the genre. Bourdain seems to know exactly where irreverence is appropriate and where respect is appreciated.

Reviewed by Kevin Schoeler


(Updated: 12/02/08 SB)

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