Books: Cooking by Cuisine -> Cooking French
A Meal Observed
Published: February 10, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
Todhunter takes a magazine-length idea and turns it into an amusing little book, combining history and experience with a sheaf of helpful culinary notes. The author, who lives in California and has written two previous books on
extreme sports, has chosen as his subject a dinner with his wife at Paris's Taillevent, "a Michelin three-star restaurant considered by many critics to be the finest in France and thus the world." The book's chapters correspond to the stages of the meal,
such as "L'Apritif," "L'Entre," "Le Plat" and "Le Fromage." As dinner progresses, Todhunter reveals his connection to Taillevent: he's been a sort of "reporter-apprentice" on and off for a few months. Thus, he frequently takes breaks from describing the
meal to bring in details from fairly long interviews he's conducted with various Taillevent chefs and the things he's learned in the kitchen. Some of this is fascinating, such as the process by which one chef uses a motorized airbrush to "paint" a
dessert with chocolate mist. Todhunter further plumps up the narrative with digressions on his personal culinary history. Although he claims he and his wife are "nonfoodies," his commentaries reveal otherwise: they have a cheese diary, where his wife
keeps notes on Tomme d'Abondance and Sancerre; and Todhunter undoubtedly knows more than the average Joe about what goes with lobster or how to make a delicious sandwich. Whatever Todhunter's culinary status, however, he is never pretentious and goes to
great lengths to explain the origins of such simple foods as salt and olive oil. By meal's end, when Todhunter staggers home feeling "less stuffed than meticulously packed," readers might well feel the same.
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In this seductive account of a long, luxurious dinner at the venerable Paris restaurant Taillevent, Andrew Todhunter is both the American abroad sharing a rare gastronomic
adventure with his wife and the apprentice-cum-reporter who has spent several months working in the restaurant's celebrated kitchen, learning what goes on behind the scenes. As Todhunter describes it, Taillevent's highly orchestrated kitchen is "less an
atelier than a gun deck on a ship of war, a place of shouts and fire."
On the other side of the kitchen's double doors, in the warm light of the nineteenth-century dining room, the American couple surrenders to the sensual pleasure of a
beautifully wrought and meticulously served dinner-from the amuse-bouche (a warm cheese puff to "amuse the mouth") and the crème de cresson soup, with its sunken treasure of lobster tomalley, to the crowning glory of the fantaisie. In the spirit of A.J.
Liebling's Between Meals, Todhunter layers mouthwatering descriptions of French dishes and their preparation with reflections on his American childhood (when food, like sex and money, was not to be discussed at the table), dips into culinary history and
philosophy, and entertains with asides on everything from olive oil and chestnuts to the science of viniculture and the chemistry of chocolate. Between courses, Todhunter brings us back to the sanctum of the kitchen itself, where he has probing
conversations with chef de cuisine Philippe Legendre and pastry chef Gilles Bajolle, both major figures in the French culinary pantheon, and their assistants. Through these great chefs and their impeccably trained brigade we gain a unique glimpse into
the heart of French cuisine and the love of fine food. Is cooking more an art, a craft, or a science? Are great chefs born or made? Why are there so few women chefs in France? What is the greatest danger for a chef at the top of his game? How is a new
dish developed? What is the future of haute cuisine in France and in the world at large? When we cook for others, for love or for money, what do we give of ourselves?
As richly satisfying as the five-hour meal it describes, A Meal Observed is a
delightful paean to the French and French cuisine, and to the universal love of the table. Bo
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