Judging from New Cookbooks, Chefs Rarely Leave the House

The fall avalanche of cookbooks hasn’t turned up many surprises. Predictably, Bitchin' Kitchen’s Nadia G is Cookin’ for Trouble (with a foreword, even more predictably, by Guy Fieri). The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook (release date: November 29) wants us all to start baking Pat Nixon’s date-nut bread. Even Volt ink., the book by Bryan and Michael Voltaggio—LA’s food equivalent of the Madden Twins—seems to exist in large part to flaunt black-and-white photos of rad arm tats.

But wait, there is something new this year. At a moment when cooking has become a highly technical pursuit, and more and more kitchens are creating stylized platescapes with tweezers, a subset of chefs is kicking it at home.

New Orleans chef John Besh just released his second book, My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking. A man with seven restaurants in his portfolio, Besh is now content to turn his phone off and putter around the house.

“Sundays begin way too early around here,” Besh writes, describing his days off with the kids. “I hit the kitchen at first light, just as the bayou behind our house wakes up to the day.” He doesn’t need to sleep in after a hard week at the Besh Restaurant Group, apparently. Instead, he busts out beignets or cinnamon buns “before we’re dressed and off to Mass.” Then it’s a day devoted to “cooking of the heart,” which translates to a roast, multiple side dishes, and desserts in the plural, “usually cakes and pies.” It’s exhausting just thinking about it, especially since Besh says he’s spending his off Sundays cooking for 20 to 40 drop-ins, “easily.”

Besh isn’t alone. If you can believe Home Cooking with Jean-Georges, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, too, spends downtime at his weekend place in upstate New York thinking of nothing but food, whipping up pea potage, veal scaloppine with broccoli rabe and lavender, and Swiss chard braised in shiitake butter for the kids.

Why the sudden interest in what superchefs are tipping into their saucepans at home? “It’s the flip side of the coin,” explains Celia Sack, owner of Omnivore Books on Food, a cookbook shop in San Francisco. “The more molecular we’re getting the more interested we are in what these wizards are doing at home.” It’s part curiosity about cooking, Sack suggests, and part fan worship.

“Cookbook readers want secrets from these chefs,” Sack says. “What are they eating when they’re sitting around in their sweatpants watching Survivor, getting stoned?”

That goes for the chef of legendary modernist-cuisine restaurant El Bulli, which served its last meal earlier this year. The Family Meal: Home Cooking with Ferran Adrià stretches the limits of home—whipping up savory crème Chantilly to soda-siphon onto potatoes. And there's something called “green Perona beans” (they look like romanos). I pity those readers, on a Tuesday night at 7, who are stopping off at Whole Foods on a final hail-mary quest for Peronas.

Still, that may be easier to face than the so-called comfort foods laid out in Lucy Lean’s Made in America: Our Best Chefs Reinvent Comfort Food. Lean, the book jacket explains, “delved through [sic] thousands of traditional recipes to define the 100 that best represent America’s culinary legacy, and challenged today’s leading chefs to deconstruct them in entirely original ways.”

They're original, all right: guacamole pinched up into thin sheets of jicama like dumplings (from José Andrés), confit and roasted breast of turkey with clam stuffing and olive gravy (Todd English), and macaroni and cheese served in delicate-looking Parmesan tuiles (Patrick O’Connell).

Mario Batali offers the most plausible peek into a chef’s home kitchen in Molto Batali: Simple Family Meals from My Home to Yours. The roasts and pastas seem like something almost anyone could take on some Saturday, without destroying the kitchen or necessitating multiple unplanned store runs. Then again, after eight prior books, a total of 18 restaurants, and an unscripted weekday platform on The Chew, Batali comes across as a man with little to prove.