New books give peek into star chefs' home cooking

Jean-Georges Vongerichten's restaurant empire spans the globe. Todd English has won four James Beard Foundation awards. Ferran Adria deploys advanced chemistry in turning meat to foam and salt to air. Heston Blumenthal poaches desserts in liquid nitrogen.

But what do they really want you to know about them? They're regular guys, ordinary cooks, too. Just like you.

"The book is simple cuisine," Adria says of his cookbook, "The Family Meal," whose recipes are theoretically designed to take 45 minutes or less. "Any average cook can carry these recipes off."

Of course, Adria's definition of "average" is someone qualified to apprentice at elBulli, his now-closed mecca of molecular gastronomy in Spain.

But never mind. "The Family Meal" is just one of this season's chef-driven cookbooks targeting weeknight meals and simple family food. French Laundry chef Thomas Keller kicked the genre into high gear with his "Ad Hoc at Home" two years ago, but celebrity chefs are out in force this fall, with personalities from Adria to Mario Batali to John Besh offering their take on comfort foods like mac and cheese, buttermilk pancakes, fried chicken and homey roasts.

"There have always been books from chefs geared toward home cooks, but there have been a lot more as of late," says Renee Schettler Rossi, an editor at online food site Leite's Culinaria.

People have returned to the stove with the waning economy, Schettler Rossi says, and they're back with better access to ingredients than in years past, a greater awareness of celebrity chefs bred by 24-hour food television, and a real need for new ideas. "Home cooks have to put dinner on the table night after night, so in a sense it's a perfect marriage," she says.

But as with any marriage, home cooks will have to find the right partner. Boston-based English targets novice and busy cooks with a photo-filled format in "Cooking in Every Day English." Ground sumac and cippolini onions are the wackiest ingredients in any given recipe, and kid-friendly dishes like butternut macaroni and cheese mean fewer complaints at dinner.

In "My Family Table," New Orleans chef Besh emphasizes using what you have on hand in dishes like "risotto of almost anything" and "creamy any vegetable soup." His advice on planning ahead — a roast on Sunday becomes sloppy Joes or Vietnamese noodles on Tuesday — aims at harried families.

The "family" of Adria's book is his restaurant family, and the meals are those developed to feed his staff. With directions like "clean and gut the fish" and "just before dessert, blowtorch the sugar on the creme catalane," these are not your midweek meals. Ditto for Blumenthal's mushroom jelly with mushroom cream or his fish pie with sea-foam topping in "Heston Blumenthal at Home," which you might attempt on a dare, or perhaps as a blogging stunt.

But even in easier recipes, some experts say translation from chef to home cook will always be a problem. "The restaurant kitchen is as different from the home kitchen as Mars is from Earth," says Christopher Kimball, editor of Cook's Illustrated magazine and the host of public television's "America's Test Kitchen." "The tools are different, the skills are different, the amount of effort you have to do things is different."

Vongerichten concedes that the word "simple" in "Home Cooking with Jean-Georges: My Favorite Simple Recipes" doesn't mean the dishes are quick or easy, but only that they don't come from his restaurants. Created at his weekend house in upstate New York, the recipes often call for ingredients such as juniper berries, yuzu juice and the sweet Indonesian soy sauce called kecap manis.

"This is for people who want to do something different," Vongerichten says. "When people come to my house they expect a little kung fu, something that makes it a little different. If they could come up with the combinations themselves, they don't need me."

And this is exactly what cookbooks are supposed to do, Kimball says. "They offer a fresh way of looking at things," he says. "Some of them are stupid, but some of them are good."

Plus, chef books give the home cook cover. "If you can put something on the table and say 'This is from Ferran Adria,' it gives you an out if it doesn't turn out that well," Schettler Rossi says. "And if it works, you get a little bit of that celebrity rubbed on you for having had the wherewithal. You're the home hero."

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