Let's go unicorn-hunting
The reasons are quite straightforward. Normally the more influential cookbook has, the more widely it is read. This follows a straightforward commercial logic. 1) Chef becomes famous/important. 2) Said chef writes book. 3) Said book becomes famous/important. 4) Said book is subject to numerous reprints cos at the end of the day said chef wants to make a living.
For rare cookbooks the opposite logic applies. 1) Cookbook is published. 2) No one wants to read it. 3) Cookbook falls out of print. End of story. If it ain't good enough to attract a reprint, its unlikely to be particularly significant.
Of course (and there is an "of course" otherwise there wouldn't be much point to this blog post!) there is also a delicious category of exceptions. a small cadre of books do exist which are both mind-bogglingly influential and incredibly rare.
They have mostly been written in the last thirty years, many by chefs who are household names. For various reasons - cost, obsolescence or simply ignorance - their authors or publishers have let them fall by the wayside, such that they are almost unobtainable today.
Let me show you what I mean:
Joan Roca's revolutionary manifesto
|Sous-Vide Cuisine (Joan Roca & Salvador Brugues)|
It wasn't always like this. When I first went it was in a slight ramshackle out of town site by a service station (the restaurant originally started off in the basement of the Roca family's Catalan diner, hence the name). The food was good, the wine was a snip and as I was leaving I spotted Sous-Vide Cuisine on sale in reception.
Even back then it wasn't cheap. The book itself cost a hundred Euros (about the same price as the tasting menu!), and at under 200 pages you weren't getting much content for your money. But the information it contained was priceless.
|Part cookbook, part physics manual.|
`However the book itself remains frustratingly hard to find. Partly also its because of the obscenely high sticker price and limited distribution. Partly also I think is the nature of the work. The way the text is arranged and presented reminds me of some of the horribly obtuse chocolate-making books (e.g. anything by Jean-Pierre Wybauw). There are a bunch of fantabulous cheffy recipes a the back but you have to wade through an awful lot of flow charts and exposition before you get to them. I suspect this tends to banish it to the top-shelf marked "professional cookery" rather than the section marked "really interesting cheffy books" in any bookstore.
Anyhow I don't think I've ever seen it in a bookshop, ever. In the US second-hand copies are fetching $180 on Amazon (although strangely the UK site seems to have new copies - a snip at £85). Given the growing interest in sous-vide techniques I think this book deserves - and demands - a wider audience. But until the Roca brothers pull their finger out and arrange a more accessible edition, it will remain the quintessential culinary unicorn.
Bocuse and his friends
Great Chefs of France (Anthony Blake &
This was the first book to people's eyes in the Anglophone world to what food could really be. Unsurprisingly many of the today's leading chefs cite this as a definite influence. Heston Blumenthal writes:
More than any other volume, I read Quentin Crewe and Anthony Blake's Great Chefs of France, which presented, in words and pictures, portraits of a dozen of France's most influential chefs... I read these words over and over until I knew them virtually by heart.The genius of this book is its timing. Crewe and Blake were lucky to be writing as a the revolution was taking place. You see time you see Emeril or Gordon or Wolfgang on TV its all down to Paul. In the 1970s Paul Bocuse singlehanded defined the role of the celebrity chef, with sheer force of will accompanied by tureens of black truffle soup. This book captures him and his nouvelle cuisine cohorts - the Troisgros brothers, Michel Guerard, Georges Blanc in the pomp (it is notable that Crewe decided to focus on the non-Parisian three stars - as this was the age when France's regional restaurants really came to the fore).
As well a profiling the nouvelle cuisine muskateers, It also provides a nod to the generation of postwar chefs (many forgotten today) who laid the groundwork of the revolution Pic, Point, Thuiller, Bise. There is no other book in the English language which captures what was taking place. Just as Bob Carlos Clarke's White Heat captured Marco as he defined the rock star chef, Crewe was simply at the right place at the right time.
|Michel Guerard: Culinary revolutionary and fashion terrorist.|
|Noma Nordic Cuisine (Rene Redzepi &|
Claus Meyer); Source: TasteFood
I refer, of course, to the legendary Noma Cookbook.
Note that I am not referring too the Phaidon-published travesty that is Noma: Time and Space in Nordic Cuisine. The less said about that (or anything else by Phaidon), the better. Long before that was even a footnote on a marketing manager's schedule, Redzepi had published his original book Noma: Nordic Cuisine, wayback in 2006.
It's this English edition, of which only a thousand were printed, which is the ultimate culinary unicorn. I don't have a copy, and have never had a sniff of one. I know it only by reputation. If you search hard you can find traces on the web. The introduction (and manifesto for Noma's cuisine) is on the website of collaborator Claus Meyer, here. This blog post (part 2 here) has some pictures and a few recipes (even these authors admit they were only using a borrowed copy). It could be of course that the book is a complete let-down and consists largely of recipes for pickled herring, but somehow I doubt it (the egg yolk cream recipe looks both unusual and promising).
In fact the opposite is true. A mere seven years after publication the book is virtually unobtainable. One copy is listed on Amazon for a mere £1800 (although be careful - judging by the cover it might be the Danish version). Otherwise I think it's pretty much impossible to find a copy.
Postscript: Other unicorns
While writing this piece a bunch of former and nearly -unicorns crossed my mind. I thought they were worth mentioning:
La Tante Claire by Pierre Koffmannrecent reprint, Pierre Koffmann's Memories of Gascony would have been first on my list of culinary unicorns, not only as the heartwork of one of London's defining culinary figures (and for that pigs trotter recipe), but also because it is an excellent exemplar of the memoir-with-recipes. I do note however that its sister-volume La Tante Claire (co-authored with Anthony Blake, who worked on Great Chefs of France) remains out of print. This is a shame as it continues the story of Koffmann's journey to Le Gavroche in London, out to Bray to create the Waterside Inn and back to Chelsea to La Tante Claire, where he later won his three michelin stars. The pigs trotter recipe also features, if you missed it the first time round.
White Heat by Marco Pierre Whitealready written about this one before, but just to note that before its 2009 softcover reprint there was a period of 4-5 years where this book out of print and heart-breakingly hard to find. A good example of the publishers seeing sense and doing everyone a service.
Le Grande Livre de Cuisine de Joel Robuchonnoted before, the definitive record of Robuchon, at least in his Paris haute cuisine days. Unlike Ducasse's similar books however this one hasn't been translated into English which means it remains much more of a niche item. It can be had on Amazon for around $400, but I suspect as time wears on it will be rarer and rarer.
Pei Mei's Chinese Cookbookmy earlier blog posts, this book used to be readily available second-hand on Amazon, but I note it has become harder to find over the last few years. Partly a historical relic partly a culinary landmark,the user unfriendliness and 1970s styling of the book probably precludes a reprint (unless someone is willing to embark on a fresh translation). It can be had on Kindle but the full fat print version is becoming rapidly hard to find.
Future culinary unicorns
In the UK I suspect if David Everitt-Matthias ever got annointed with a third michelin star, his existing cookbooks (Essence and Dessert) will instantly become collector's items (viz the Noma book when Rene get made Best Chef in the World Ever). Ditto Sat Bains, helped by the fact that his cookbook is pretty much unobtainable already - as far as I can tell its available only direct from the restaurant or the publisher with little or no retail availability (I think its a Face Publishing thing). Also NB DEM has his third cookbook out imminently. Worth looking out for, three stars or no.
|And to finish with, entirely different kind of Culinary Unicorn.|