While it may not be readily apparent – I absolutely love cookbooks and books about food. My tastes are very narrow though – I only enjoy either food writing in the vein of MFK Fisher such as Provence, 1970 by Luke Barr or absolutely brilliant cookbooks that tell a story, are well designed, and move beyond simply being a collection of recipes. Honestly, with the advent of the Internet – your cookbook had better have sumptuous photography and excellent design for me to even deign looking at it, much less good writing. If I just wanted a list of ingredients and how to cook something, I can look that up on the Internet.
Fortunately, cookbook publishers and authors have started to realize this as well and I’ve seen several cookbooks in the past few years that put some private press books to shame as far as color, design, and photography goes (the presswork is always up for debate). The best cookbook I’ve seen by far in 2014 is David Lebovitz’s My Paris Kitchen which has been described as being a labor of love that took a decade to complete. With the end product in my hands, I can confirm that the love poured into this book makes it stand out heads and shoulders above anything else I’ve seen thus far this year (and several years past as well). It’s probably going to be a 2014 James Beard cookbook prize winner – I honestly can’t see anything knocking it off the podium this year. Let’s start with just the cover itself. It’s a casebound hardback book, which most of you might recognize as the type of binding most often used for textbooks.
However, My Paris Kitchen is no textbook. It’s got a matte finish which helps highlight the stunning photograph of Lebovitz holding a pan of his mustard chicken fresh off the stove in his apartment. This was an ad-hoc photograph, not composed and that’s the appeal of the photography in the entire book. Sometimes the dishes that are photographed for cookbooks are entirely too composed and unrealistic-looking for the home cook to even attempt to replicate. Part of the appeal is that the dishes are somewhat messy throughout the entire book, much like something the home cook would actually attempt to duplicate. Back to the binding – there are both headbands and footbands for the book, which is actually pretty rare to see today, showing the care put into this book’s publication:
I could go on and on about how I hate the design of most cookbooks – they’re shoddily put-together products intended for home cooks to wreck in the kitchen and meant to lay flat, but have terrible bindings that don’t hold up over time. Only the top-notch publishers like Ten Speed actually make cookbooks I’m proud to own and display on my own bookshelf, like the stunningly produced and James-Beard-cookbook-winning Vegetable Literacy by Deborah Madison, also published by Ten Speed Press. The endpapers of My Paris Kitchen tie in with the lovely title page:
This far in and I haven’t even mentioned the quality of the paper itself. It’s a fantastic almost pure white matte paper that’s substantial to the touch and yet still thin enough to just allow a hint of color photograph to be seen on the other side of the page. The text can’t be seen, which is always good news. I would be thrilled if all my cookbooks were printed on this type of paper. On to the actual review of the book itself:
The first part of the book is an introduction to Lebovitz himself (a capsule-style brief of who he is, what he did, and when did he move to Paris). We then segue into a brief discussion about ingredients and techniques that Lebovitz uses in Paris, including a description of his actual kitchen (and inspiring me to someday own a farmhouse sink as well). Lebovitz somehow makes basic descriptions of equipment and food be enchanting and enthralling by weaving a narrative about why they matter to him, building a story of his decade of living in Paris. The reader gets a sense of time and place, as if they were David’s neighbor. Especially if they catch a whiff of whatever delicacy he decides to whip up next (I also love the digression he made about cookbooks themselves and the difference between a French and American cookbook, in how exacting the instructions are for Americans):
More often than not, the recipe is illustrated with a photograph (which is a huge selling point for me for any cookbook). I absolutely abhor cookbooks with 100 recipes and 2 photographs of the finished food. That isn’t the case here. I also enjoy how most of the recipes also come with a story about how they fit into David’s life, furthering my point about the reader becoming like a neighbor (or friend) of David’s. We learn about his idiosyncrasies, the difficulties of finding kale in Paris, and as is to be expected, the journey of transitioning to becoming an American ex-pat living in France. Tidbits and tips about living in France are dispensed throughout the entire book, be it from expecting forms in triplicate and no lines to the over-utilization of petit in everyday terms that the French do.
The book is simply stunning and gorgeously photographed by Ed Anderson. It’s not just photography of the food – you also get glimpses of the French neighborhoods and friends of David himself, giving us a true look at David’s life, making this cookbook intensely personal. That’s also why I expect this “cookbook” to gain a life beyond its times, much like Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking or M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating. And yet My Paris Kitchen is a superb template for the modern cookbook, one that I only hope all future cookbooks adopt.
The recipes themselves run the gamut from appetizers, salads, main dishes, and desserts. It’s hard for me to point out any single recipe as being one that I absolutely have to try – but I will warn the reader that if you don’t enjoy international food or fish, you might find several recipes uninteresting to you. Oh and mustard. There’s an abundance of mustard, as there is in France. You’ll definitely learn a lot about everyday French cuisine, not just haute cuisine.
Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-60774-267-8 (First Edition, 2014)
Photography: Ed Anderson
Design: Betsy Stromberg (huge props there, Miss Stromberg)
I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review. They also sent me another copy by accident, I suppose. So here’s the first giveaway for this blog. Comment on this post and follow @EPursuits on Twitter by August 22nd, 2014 and I’ll select a winner at random and send you the book!
If you’re looking for more information about this book: Random House | David Lebovitz’s own blog post about the making of this book (which actually pretty much confirmed everything I suspected with this book)
Overall Grade – A+
ISBN: 978-1-60774-267-8 (First Edition, 2014)
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Binding: Casebound, rounded with sewn pages & headbands (Excellent)
Paper: Pure white, matte (Excellent)
Affiliate link: My Paris Kitchen: Recipes and Stories (Amazon)