Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution

The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution
Author: Alice Waters (
Publisher: Clarkson Potter Publishing (2007) (

This book is, without a doubt, one of the most talked about culinary works of the past year. One of the original locovores, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame, uses a classic, almost archaic look to broadcast her message: simple food can, in fact, be extraordinary when allowed to shine.
Divided into two “volumes”, in a sense, this work is designed to both inform and stimulate the novice chef in their home kitchen, without the need for fancy equipment, ingredients, or training. In the first part (aptly titled “Starting from Scratch”), the reader is (re)introduced to their kitchen – with discussion regarding ingredients, pantry staples and equipment. Ingredient preparation and menu planning are also touched on, with everything from the casual picnic to dinner party fare covered. Pure, simple and practical advice is provided for those unused to cooking for a group: “interview those that share your table and kitchen. Use this information to slowly expand your repertoire, revisiting old favourites with different flavours or refined techniques…”(33). Simple, yes. And that’s the point. In terms of recipes, everything for the beginner cook is covered: salads, bread dough, soup, beans, grains, meats and desserts. For any cook who has even the most basic of training (by their mother’s side as a child or in Home Economics class in junior high), the majority of the methods and recipes Waters discusses will be old news, even tiring to read. However, these are the recipes readers will return to again and again, if not to copy verbatim, to check the roasting time of a chicken or the basic ingredients for a rice pilaf.

The second part of Simple Food is focused on everyday cooking for those more confident in their kitchen skills. Again, the same basic categories are covered, but this time miraculous transformations occur with the simplest shifts in ingredients. Spaghetti and tomato sauce is suddenly filled with capers, olives, anchovies and chile flakes (266), and the innocent sweet potato is jazzed up with saffron, ginger and cilantro (520).

Rather than overwhelm the basics that form the backbone of the kitchen, though, Waters opts to accent them: lemon sauce for a pan-fried fillet of bass sounds fancy, but turns out to be no more than a light blend of oil, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt (332). Even the tarte tatin on page 366 is devoid of any spice – the apples prove to hold their ground. If any of the cooking techniques or terms seem unfamiliar to the reader, a full explanation is quickly located in the glossary.

The Art of Simple Food is not, by any means, a cookbook set on transporting the reader to far-off lands filled (in reality) with a team of sous chefs and an infinite pantry. Far from a new-fangled, flashy affair, this book lives up to it’s title in every way expected. If there is any doubt as to the Alice Waters philosophy after turning the last page, the back cover will leave you with a note that everyone who grows, cooks or eats will take to heart: remember food is precious.