Book Review: Notes From A Kitchen

If you are a newly qualified dentist about to open your first practice, a major decision you will be have to make is what type of books will you place in the waiting room.You want your nervous clients to feel like you’ve been drilling teeth for 10 years notthan 10 hours.  Fortunately, Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore have the answer. Their Notes from a Kitchen:A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession is a two-volume set that crosses the scale at a full 14 pounds. Although it might sound like a cookery book, it actually contains no recipes. Rather, its 1000 combined pages are devoted to extended conversations with, commentaries on, and soliloquies by 10 chefs Scott and Beshore judged to be extraordinary. The authors, along with Arizona cult farmer Richard Starkey, were in town last week. Joel Harrington, execuchef of Stephan Pyles and also a “character” in the book, cooked. It was a fascinating evening.

You will want to read this.

Once you muster up the strength to lift one of these to your lap, at risk of contracting deep vein thrombosis, and open the stiff board cover, you discover why each single page weighs over six grams. It is printed on a thick-like-a-card stock. The ink seems to have a visible relief on the page. This is an art book that might have been crafted by Federico Fellini and Francis Bacon. If it had music it would be scored by Roger Waters. The first chef covered is Sean Brock, execuchef at the most uber-cult restaurant in America, McCrady’s. We don’t get his recipes, but we do get photos of his handwritten ingredient lists and his purveyor list for one night’s service. And we learn, on pages 34 and 38, that he uses the ‘f’ word as a kind of farm-to-table exclamation point. A lot of the early text is soliloquy in which Brock tells us why he is so fanatical about cooking, the provenance of ingredients, and his  autarkic menu (“we gotta filter our own water!” he exclaims in one note on p53).

Brock, we find, doesn’t just talk-the-talk, he walks-the-walk. Scott takes his camera on a trip to Thackeray Farms in Wadmalaw Island to capture Brock as he chases and picks out Heritage pigs. He also makes Scott sweat when he takes him to his favorite fried chicken shack in a part of Charleston that is not exactly on the tourist office route and describes the time he was almost mugged there. For 250 pages, Scott gives the reader a sense of how Brock forages, tends the farms he grows, chossoes the heritage seeds he carefully sources, and  how he innovates while preserving purity using liquid nitrogen techniques from molecular gastronomy.

Brock gets half the first volume (and Johnny Iuzzini the other half). If you want an extended journey into the mind of a remarkable chef, this is the book for you. If you just want to cook like them, recipes would be more practical.

Arizona Farmer Richard Starkey

There is a Dallas connection in this book, but it is in volume 2. Joel Harrington, execuchef of Stephan Pyles, is profiled during the time  he was Executive Chef at the Ritz-Carlton in Dove Mountain near Tucson. It appears to be back when he used the ‘f’ word as liberally as Sean Brock. (Of course, he wouldn’t do that now…). We join him whipping up the Catalina Foothills in his Mini Cooper, sunroof open, punk rock playing. He is going meet farmer Richard Starkey, a man who approaches squash, stone fruit, and okra (to name a few of his products) he produces at his farm almost 4,000 feet up a mountain with the fanaticism that a great chef brings to cooking them. Starkey blew off Harrington the first few times he asked to buy his produce for the hotel, but over time the two developed a relationship. With Harrington now in Dallas it is logistically too difficult to get his supplies for  Stephan Pyles’ restaurant so other, local, providers have taken his place. But Starkey still has a waiting list for his vegetables in Arizona.

Starkey, maybe the closest physical reproduction of Burl Ives, was in town this week as one of the guests of honor at a meal prepared by Harrington using Starkey’s squash at Restaurant Stephan Pyles (I was an invited guest). The purpose was to launch the book and both authors were also present. Some of the dishes that Harrington prepared are referred to in the book. Harrington’s conception and execution was flawless and if this one will be able to expect ‘on any given Friday’, so to speak, then he is one of the best chefs in Dallas and his future at the restaurant is going to see distinction.

Notes from a Kitchen… is available now. But take a forklift if you plan on carrying it home.

Menu Drawn Largely From Dishes Referred To In The Book
Nantucket Bay Scallops, Braised Mushrooms, Mustard Greens, Squash Purée, Charred Fennel Crema, Truffle Honey
Big Eye Tuna, Pickled Radish, Cucumber, Coca-Cola Cream, Chili Pop Rocks