Letters to a Young Chef

by Daniel Boulud
ISBN: 046500735X

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A Review of: Letters to a Young Chef
by Brian Fawcett

Daniel Boulud is among the marquee French chefs currently working in the United States, the proprietor of three signature French Restaurants in New York City and the author of three celebrity cookbooks. Letters to A Young Chef isn't a cookbook, and it isn't exactly the gastronomic equivalent of Rilke's famed Letters to a Young Poet, which was a collection of real letters to a specific young poet first published in German in 1929. In Boulud's Letters to a Young Chef there are no letters, and no particular young chef. It's addressed, theoretically, to anyone thinking about a career in haute cuisine, and it's really a bit of a puff for Boulud himself, for his restaurants and for French cuisine. The book is a decent read, at least when its author is onto food and its preparation. Unfortunately, it also gives off the distinct aroma of having received considerable assistance and shaping by an agenda that doesn't have a thing to do with food. One gets the distinct impression that whoever was helping him put the book together has spent more time writing corporate management manuals than he/she has hanging around restaurant kitchens. The result is that Boulud's discussion of cuisine and its production is encrusted in brassy corporate management bullshit, with a larding of corporate inspirational slogans sauced across it. As a result, the book has a distinctly schizoid personality in which the corporate inspirational writer is often the louder voice and Boulud's voice, the chef and food lover, sometimes seems to be there only to add colour for the management sloganeering. The advance copy I read has, I note, a cutline on the cover that reads "The Art of Mentoring". This isn't mentioned elsewhere, and didn't appear on the cover of the published edition, indicating that the book may have been developed as part of a mentoring series that was abandoned.
It's an unfortunate marriage, because Boulud is entertaining and knowledgeable about food and how to cook it, but allows a fountain of clichs when it comes to management. Zingers like Respect the chef and always give more than expected.' Become a key part of the team.' This truly will deepen your technique and knowledge or If you are an entrepreneurthere is no limit to how far you can go or how much you can earn.' It takes sacrifice' could apply equally to running a shoe factory. Boulud also shows he's out of his depth whenever he tries to interpret the larger cultural context of cuisine, and prone to the sort of culinary chauvinism that could only come from the French. At one point, he suggests that "Cultures make choices for their definitive statements. The Italians lavished everything on developing their opera and the Russians their ballet. The French chose haute cuisine and haute couture. Today these two hautes have globalized, yet kept their French sensibility." I can think of a few Italian and American chefs and designers who might argue with that thundering generality, and it doesn't sit well with my understanding, either.
More importantly, the management nonsense is out of synch with Boulud's lovingly specific descriptions of cooking, and sharply different from his descriptions of how he goes about the business side of running a serious restaurant, where I'm pretty sure corporate management slogans simply don't apply. At one point, for instance, he provides his own marvelously astute method of conducting job interviews when hiring chefs: he simply challenges the applicant to make him an omelet. I won't reveal what's involved except to note that his requirements are so specific that any poseur-chef or management aspiree-would be exposed by the time he (or she) had gotten the omelet pan onto the stove. Boulud the chef is more likeable than this book is. It's about equally clear that he's a fine chef, and that he's not a writer. And it's the writer that weakens this book, because his (or her) agenda has little to do with gastronomy, and everything to do with management propaganda.

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