The Power of Chef Cookbooks

When he was reviewing restaurants for the New York Times, writer Frank Bruni was in the power seat. But when he tests his skills with new chef cookbooks, he finds himself feeling vulnerable.

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In many ways, I feel I know the chef Jonathan Waxman, because I've paid so many visits to Barbuto, his enduringly popular restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, where the retractable glass walls magically blur the dividing line between dining room and sidewalk and the roasted chicken is a juicy miracle. I know the chef Nancy Silverton, too -- from Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, where she's the queen of blistered dough. Across numerous trips to the restaurant, I've reveled in her work.

So as I recently cracked open a new cookbook by Waxman and an upcoming one by Silverton, I felt like I was reconnecting with old acquaintances. This time around, though, I was radically altering the terms of our relationships. In the past, they had fed me, on their own turf. Now I was asking them to help me feed myself, and inviting them, in a manner of speaking, into my own kitchen. How would that go? And would I see them in a different light?

Those questions could be asked by many home cooks under the tutelage of chefs and their cookbooks. But my situation had its own peculiarity. Most of the times I'd dined at Barbuto and Pizzeria Mozza, I'd done so as the restaurant critic for the New York Times. I'd been testing Waxman and Silverton, with an eye out for their errors as well as their triumphs. Now, at my stove, I was looking to them only for inspiration and a positive outcome. Hope supplanted skepticism, and in a turning of the tables, I was suddenly the vulnerable one.

As an eater, I'm a champ. The way a Real Housewife approaches her next Botox injection, I approach pork belly and penne and the rest of it. But as a cook, I'm flawed. I'm impatient and easily distracted, and my fine motor skills aren't keen, which you'd know if you've ever seen me dice an onion.

During my five-and-a-half years as a restaurant critic, that didn't matter. I ate out six or even seven nights a week; there wasn't much call to roll up my sleeves in the kitchen. But once I stopped reviewing, I wanted to do precisely that. I felt certain that, with a little more effort, I could be an accomplished home cook. I had the food knowledge. I had the food sense.

It was in this frame of mind that I turned to Italian, My Way by Waxman and The Mozza Cookbook by Silverton. Both volumes were among the many cookbooks I was now leafing through, and with these two in particular, I was struck by how fully and faithfully a chef's personality can translate from restaurant to page. Although my experiences at Barbuto hadn't been uniformly enchanting, I'd been impressed by the straightforwardness of Waxman's approach, by the strong, uncluttered flavors he put on a plate. When I thought of Barbuto, I thought of meat and fish given respect, and I thought of pasta dishes with clear and often rustic personalities. When I perused Italian, My Way, all of that was there. I wanted to make the hanger steak, the spaghetti alla carbonara. And of course I wanted to make the roasted chicken. As for The Mozza Cookbook, its lavish presentation of unusually lovely photographs seemed just right. In Pizzeria Mozza's pies, salads, and antipasti, Silverton takes full advantage of California's vivid produce. Her book, like her menus, casts the universe as a luxurious garden.

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Frank Bruni was the restaurant critic for The New York Times from June 2004 to September 2009. He is the author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite. Learn more at bornround.com. More

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His latest book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, is now out in paperback. To learn more about Born Round and ask questions about the book, click here.

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