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Pépin, Pence, and Trotter

(article, Jessica MacMurray Blaine)

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Since working in a restaurant, I get nervy if the food at my own dinner table isn’t plated consistently. (And yes, plating is a word, despite what my husband says.) I’m fierce about niggling details like having all the asparagus stalks face the same direction on the plate. I wipe plate edges until they shine. And I’ve had family members gape at me in horror as I set out warmed plates in a big long line and then distribute steak onto them — with my fingers.

I’ve learned all of these things by watching professionals do what they do best: prep, cook, and present beautiful food. Sometimes those techniques travel easily into the home kitchen, sometimes not. The key is translating the skills and experience of the pro in a way that’s meaningful for the home cook.

Since professional chefs have morphed into celebrity chefs, being a chef is no longer just about the skills, the experience, the long hours, or the food. Now there are lifestyle shows to host, how-to classes to conduct, and books to write. The message in much of all this is simple: Be Like Me.

For the home cook, reading a book in Be Like Me territory, the questions multiply: Do I want to Be Like You? Hey, Pro Chef, does your experience in a professional kitchen transfer into print, and then into my kitchen at home? 

Is your food so imaginative that I just can’t resist trying to Be Like You? Or do you simply offer an approach to food that is accessible to me? Do you inspire me to be creative on my own? Or do you describe techniques so complex and didactic that I’m proud to even have made it to the end without a kitchen fire or tearful fit? 

[%image parsley width=200 float=left caption="Pro chef, do you inspire me to Be Like You?"]

The answers to these questions are as varied as the chefs who paste their smiling faces onto their books.

Three books on my cookbook shelf fall into the Be Like Me category, and each represents a different approach. You can judge each book by its cover — or the face on it, at least. Jacques Pépin is just a darn nice guy who wants you to enjoy a quick, simple meal with him, apron on and sleeves rolled up. Caprial Pence wants you to throw a picturesque dinner party, where you’ve done all the cooking but you’re still relaxed enough to sit with your guests, a smile on your face and a glass of wine in your hand. Charlie Trotter is slick and enigmatic, his photo sharing cover space with artful X-rays of ingredients. Each book is vastly different, and each communicates a different sensibility of Being Like Us.

Pépin’s book, Fast Food My Way, is as straightforward and direct as its title. Pépin is a Frenchman and a veteran of both the professional kitchen and the television screen. He has proven himself a master of communicating simple, tasty French-based ideas to home cooks. The book is organized plainly, with chapters like “Eggs” and “Fish,” and the recipes are accessible and imaginative. Few recipes have more than six ingredients, and no complex techniques are required.

With a book featuring recipes for both lobster bisque and instant vegetable soup, Pépin walks a fine line between sophisticated elegance and insta-cooking speed. For the novice cook, the book makes mushroom velouté with almonds and smoked-salmon timbales suddenly seem possible, while for an experienced cook, the book might spotlight an ingredient or a technique in a new way, stripped down and simply prepared: chickpea ragout, skillet endives, slow-cooked tuna steaks.

[%image toque float=right width=350 caption="Who wears the hat in the kitchen?" credit="Photo: iStockphoto/dissolvegirl"]

Caprial Pence’s book, Caprial Cooks for Friends, focuses less on the food and more on the fun. Pence, another veteran of the small screen and a Portland chef, has proven herself (to Oregonians, at least) to be a solid communicator with a mix of Pacific Northwest, Asian, and Mediterranean flavors in her repertoire. Her book is appropriately first-person and organized in courses, with smatterings of articles about cooking for groups, stocking a bar, and keeping sane with all the moving parts of friends and food whirling around you.

Pence’s recipes vary in complexity, from marinated olives and home fries to shiitake-dredged salmon with mushroom-green-onion compote and chocolate-macadamia-filled wontons with mango-ginger dipping sauce. Throughout, Pence’s style is endearing, with generous advice, warm-and-fuzzy family photos, and personalized recipes: John’s famous barbecued ribs with secret cure, Dad’s baked beans. Her book is a gem loaded with information for making entertaining fun, even for the hardworking cook.

Charlie Trotter, on the other hand, is all business. His book, Charlie Trotter Cooks at Home, is a more literal interpretation of Be Like Me; Trotter stays focused on the food, and his recipes come more directly from a restaurant kitchen. They’re beautifully organized by element, with headings and basic instructions followed by plating instructions for gorgeous presentation.


h1.Featured recipes


Trotter’s approach to quality ingredients borders on reverence, and his cooking influences are nebulous. His food is what it is, and that’s all there is to it. Sweet corn and shrimp chowder. Herb-crusted halibut. Sliced flank steak salad with grilled radicchio and shallot vinaigrette. Veal chops with braised juniper berry-infused red cabbage. It’s all ingredient-driven, interesting, unpretentious food. Trotter sprinkles “insights” throughout — ingredient substitutions, advocacy for an unexpected technique or combination — but he limits his editorializing. If you love his food, you’ll love his book.

Great chefs are often great because of their sensibility with menus, their technical skill, and their vision. But it’s a real challenge to take that chef out of the professional kitchen and successfully translate her voice and ideas into a book. Pépin, Pence, and Trotter all have much to offer to the home cook. The choice, really, just depends on who that home cook wants to Be.

p(bio). [ "Jessica MacMurray Blaine"] is a writer based in Crow, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Gastronomica, Northwest Palate, Oregon Quarterly, and Forest Magazine. She is also part of the management team at Marché, a group of seasonally focused restaurants in Eugene, Oregon.

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