51cakj72tl_sl500_aa240_Press releases drop into my mailbox daily and I usually give them a glance but rarely read them unless they’re addressed to me by name with some sort of request that’s unique to me.  When I received a mass-mailed release from Group Alain Ducasse, however, the first few lines…well… if the goal of a press release is to grab your attention, this one worked. I found it immediately and viscerally infuriating.

Chef Alain Ducasse’s Recipes Adapted for the Home Cook by Cookbook Author Sophie Dudemaine Ducasse Made Simple by Sophie aims to bring fine dining and the art of entertaining back into the home

(New York, New York – September 2008) This October with the release of French cookbook author Sophie Dudemaine’s newest title, Ducasse made Simple by Sophie, home cooks will be able to effortlessly recreate the world-class cuisine of renowned Chef Alain Ducasse in their own kitchens.

My first thought was, Ducasse made simple?  Why on earth would you want Ducasse simple?  What makes Ducasse preparations Ducasse prepartions are the details, and it’s the details that make a dish increasingly less simple.

But really it was this statement angered me most: “home cooks will be able to effortlessly recreate the world-class cuisine of renowned chef Alain Ducasse in their own kitchens.”  It’s this kind of claim on which many cookbooks stake their reason for being and that I find fundamentally dishonest—that anyone can do this food quickly and easily, and, that quick and easy are what we most want in a cookbook from a Michelin-starred chef.

Do people actually believe this?  I don't know the author, Sophie Dudemaine, but I certainly have nothing against her.  Though I’ve never met Ducasse, I have only the highest opinion of his work as a chef, restaurateur and businessman.  And I must also add that what I’m writing here is not a review of the cookbook itself, which may well be filled with delicious easy recipes—I wouldn’t know, I haven’t seen the book.

What I’m criticizing here is the conceit of this cookbook, and all others that claim to make refined cuisine simple for the home.  It makes me crazy not because it’s fundamentally a lie, though that’s never a good thing, but rather because publishers don’t seem to recognize that it’s a lie, and they want to keep on telling it to us.

Can you imagine a book called The French Laundry Cookbook Made Simple?  Such food would cease to be French Laundry food.

In my experience excellence and ease usually don’t go together. 

There’s nothing wrong with easiness—a poached egg with a little shallot-lemon butter and a good piece of toast can truly excellent.  But to try to combine the two ideas, Ducasse and “made effortless” or the “four-star cooking at home” premise—this idea is harmful to home cooks.  It encourages them to believe that every kind of cuisine can and should be made easy for them.  This is simply not true.  Some recipes are easy.  But many recipes are excellent in direct proportion to the labor that goes into them.

If what you want is quick and easy recipes, buy a cookbook comprising recipes that use five ingredients or fewer.

Or try this: buy better food.  That’s the quickest easiest way I know to quick and easy meals.

Here is a quick and easy recipe.  Pair it with roast chicken, with a grilled steak, a crisp salad or simply a very good glass of red wine.

Pasta with Parmigiano-Regianno

Kosher salt as needed
1 pound dried pasta
4 ounces/1 stick of butter cut into four pieces
1 cup coarsely and freshly grated, excellent Parmigiano-Regianno

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (salted, meaning that it tastes nicely seasoned).  Place a large oven proof bowl in your oven and turn the oven to 200 degrees F.  Drop the pasta in the water and cook it just until it’s tender, then drain it.  Remove the bowl from the oven and toss the butter and pasta in the bowl until the butter is melted and the pasta is evenly coated with the butter.  Taste the pasta.  If it needs more salt, add it now (remember that the cheese you’re about to add is salty).  Divide the pasta among four to six bowls and sprinkle each with the Regianno.  Serve with a delicious red wine.

That's an honest, quick and easy meal.

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128 Wonderful responses to “The Fallacy of the Quick-and-Easy Cookbook”

  • derek

    @latenac

    “I think it’s far worse to imply that you can make great meals from great chefs in 30 minutes or less than to have a bad cook pen a work of 30 minute or less meals.”

    Although I appreciate the sentiment, I do disagree. To me, the worry that this cheapening (or even corruption) of the work of great chefs is fairly meaningless outside of some abstract sense that such pandering delegitimizes the rest of their work. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Boulud will not continue to make great food regardless of having endorsed and written this book, so who cares?

    And finally, I would like to emphasize that someone cooking their quick meals with a book endorsed by Daniel Boulud is probably going to be making a lot better food (or at least more varied–not everybody subsists solely on cream and bacon, like this blog’s author) than someone using even an HTCE or dumping some butter on some pasta. I can’t seriously have a problem with that.

  • sou

    Derek- I find myself in agreement with your posts more than most of the other ones here. I’m glad you took the time to write.

    I love books. I love to cook. I have a large number of books that I care enough about to keep, and I give away the ones that I think I will never turn to again.

    I buy a large percentage of my food at farmers’ markets and vegetable stands, in addition to the herbs, citrus, fruits and vegetables that I grow myself. I don’t buy a lot of processed products.

    I lived in France earlier in my life, and return to visit as often as possible. When I’m there, even for a short time, I rent an apartment so that I can cook at least a portion of the time that I am there.

    There were a large number of comments by the time I read the post and I was struck by what seemed to me an overall jarring tone, given that most posters seemed to have been reacting only to Michael’s post, not to have done any other research on their own. Are usually thoughtful posters really judging a book by its cover?

    Michael and many of you have inspired me to check this out further for myself. Normally, if a cookbook like this had caught my eye, I would have waited for more reviews that described actual cooking of some of the recipes and their reactions.

    In this case, it amused me to go against the tide here and buy it right away. If it turns out that I don’t like it, I will pass it on to someone I think may like it, or give it to a library. Amazon has been quick with this particular shipment. I should receive it later today or tomorrow. I am looking forward to it.

  • Jennie Cesario is Jennie Tikka

    MessyONE –

    Okay, had to google the egg recipe and found it in french only. I see it as –

    1. Standard french omelette recipe found on page 543 of “On Cooking.” Standard sweated onions were added along with curry, sweetbreads, and scallops (no, this does not sound good). Sauced with a standard Anglaise custard sauce, found on page 185, “Professional Baking” and god I hope they omitted the sugar!!

    2. Standard gnocchi recipe page 677. I don’t know what the ’47 version means by “Russian” but with the basic gnocchi recipe I can play with it and come up with something. Almost makes me wonder if they’re making a pierogi reference?? So, is it gnocchi with sweated onions sauteed in butter (and maybe vodka)??

  • MessyONE

    Jenny, I had a look at those recipes again, and the first recipe involves cooked spaghetti and hard-boiled eggs in a cream sauce. Yuck. The second one appears to be standard gnocchi with the addition of some sour cream, cayenne and chili pepper. How that makes it Russian, I have no idea. It also sounds deeply weird.

    One thing I’ve been meaning to do is throw a 60s food party. I got my hands on a copy of the “Better Homes” cookbook with the gold cover. It has nightmares in it like three bean salad, porcupine meatballs and other ghastly things. Nowhere does it claim to be “quick and easy”, either.

    My theory is that the cocktails were good enough and plentiful enough to cover up the food… That said, I have a suspicion that a lot of people my age remember this stuff from childhood and might just like it. Disturbing.

  • Kate in the NW

    MessyONE – we did a party at our house a couple of years ago that was ’70’s theme and asked people to bring a favorite ’70’s dish. It was HORRIBLE (and fun, except that a lot of our friends are “foodies” and the “rumaki”, for instance, was made with uncured, organic bacon – but still, it was wrapped around canned Chung King water chestnuts and served on cellophane-tipped toothpicks. Mmmmm. I made some sausage-cheese balls with sweet-hot mustard sauce. Of course, there were pigs-in-blankets, and iceberg lettuce wedges with blue-cheese dressing (I can’t tolerate 1,000-island, sorry!). It was a really fun thing to do – to play bad music (and some good music too), to reminisce, to see how far we’ve come since then, and to just be campy and enjoy ourselves. And yes – the liberal use of alcohol is recommended.

    Hey – in the ’70’s EVERYTHING was quick and easy…

  • Tyler Nemkov

    I’m hoping in a few years we get ‘Alinea, the Do-It-Yourself At Home Cookbook!

  • S. Woody

    Why should I want a book like “Ducasse Made Simple,” where his recipies from his “Grand Livre de Cuisine” are re-written by someone else, when I already have “The Good Cuisine”, which Ducasse co-wrote with Francoise Bernard, where he himself gives good, simple recipes which I can re-create in my own kitchen.

    Oh, maybe it’s because “Ducasse Made Simple” is NEW! “The Good Cuisine” was published way back in 2002, ages ago.

  • sara

    I’m inclined to agree with the original point of the post.

    Why should a priori fancy-pants cooking be ‘made simple’?

    If I go out to dinner, I typically order something I would not make for myself. I’ll go for something complicated-sounding in construction. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    That being said, I can see why there’s such a market for such books. I think it’s a vicarious experience, and about the food porn in the pictures and the descriptions. And it’s another in the celebrity chef groove.

    But ‘Ducasse made simple’ sounds like it is destined for Food Network shows. Rachael Ray executing the dishes maybe, or Emeril (I’m trying to think which would be more offensive). I dunno.

    I used to have three Alice Waters cookbooks. Chez Panisse recipes. Woooo. I never did cook any of them. Sometimes it’s about reading a cookbook like a book?

  • Bob delGrosso

    Ok, that’s it. I’m jumping on the Ducasse bandwagon with a book that will bring all cutting edge hi-tech cooking into the kitchen of anyone who aspires to cook like Feran Adria and Grant Achatz but hasn’t the time, money or the will to tackle the craft head on. The working title is “MACRO-Molecular Gastronomy.” Developing…

  • S. Woody

    Sara: Forget Rachael or Emeril. Let’s have Paula Deen Does Ducasse!

    I agree with you, that sometimes… OK, a lot of times… cookbooks should be read like books. I love ’em that way. It’s a great way to find out someone else’s point of view, learn about another part of the world. But, if that’s the case, I want the real McCoy to be the one doing the writing, not someone giving me an interpretation of the real McCoy’s cooking. I spend plenty over at Jessica’s Biscuit (ecookbooks.com), I don’t need to waste my money on a knock-off.

  • luis

    Jennie Cesario is Jennie Tikka, Ok time to throw down Jennie.

    What are the rules for combining vegetables in a dish??????
    Can you answer that question for me?

  • b.barnett

    Testify Ruhlman!!!

    I want “quick and easy” in a woman, not my food.

  • Jennie Cesario is Jennie Tikka

    Luis –

    Okay – I’ll bite! :)

    I’ll go with –

    1. Choose what’s in season
    2. Never overcook (mushy means you killed it and its no longer a veg)
    3. Cut them to equal sizes so they’ll all cook evenly
    4. Shock them to prevent carryover heat from overcooking them
    5. 15 vegetables and 6 different herbs in a veggie salad is too many flavors and won’t taste good (I actually know a caterer who did that). It was awful. Less is more.
    7. Multicolored veggies = good. Monochromatic veggies = bad.

  • luis

    Very good rules Jennie. I will take them. In my database they will be known as Jennie’s rules for vegetables.

    But I wonder in all the proffesional cooking books and textbooks you collect if someone hasn’t really developed this theme.

    Not from a Kafka or a Chesman perspective (let’s cook what’s in season,recipes) but more from a Karen Page Flavor Bible (flavors that work together,no recipes) empowering point of view?. How do I know which veggies cook well or taste welll with others? Other than experience and trial and error?

  • Erin @ The Skinny Gourmet

    Bravo! And your pasta recipe reminds me of the moment when I first discovered the pure joy of a simple alioli pasta (similar to yours, but with garlic and a dash of cayenne).

    And I have to admit that Claudia’s comment about a recommended box stock had me chortling.

  • condiment

    It’s hard to see what the big deal is. Michel Guerard has a book designed for home cooks. Bocuse has one. Alice Waters has one. Daniel Boulud has one. Pat Wells did a very good one with Robuchon. Jean-Georges did one with Bittman. There is nothing venal, nothing remotely wrong, with a chef wanting his approach to soak its way into the way a country cooks its everyday dinners. If Rachel Ray crushed out on Adria enough to inspire her followers to aspire to the cooking of El Bulli, it would only be a good thing – like Oprah’s championing of Faulkner and Toni Morrison. To insist otherwise is just snobbery.

    Ducasse has many, many long and rather scholarly cookbooks out. His thoughts on food are as well-recorded as those of any chef in the history of cuisine. But as you know, his food is revolutionary not in its unusual combinations or new techniques, but in its exquisite attention to detail, something that can easily be communicated to even the most novice of cooks. Out of his thousands of published recipes, it is not far-fetched to imagine that there would be at least a hundred or so easily adapted to the needs of the modest home kitchen.

  • Wilmita

    Boy, Have I been a sucker for these types of cookery books.

    I agree with Jennie above.

    I also believe in knowing the fundamentals, and at least acquainting oneself with the classics.

    If all else fails, using my nose and sense of taste to recreate any dish over which I have swooned either made by a friend or relative, or enjoyed in a restaurant.

    It works if you know the basics, use quality ingredients and follow your “gusto.”

    So why have I been guilty of purchasing those sorts books? Gullible, gullible, gullible!

    They did lead me back to what I have always known.

    That said, I do believe there could be a culinary equivalent to “absolute pitch” in music for cookery.

    Those who are just born great chefs who can turn ingredients into culinary symphonies naturally with no training.

    Most chefs relate their years of apprenticeship and experience to achieving greatness.

    Possible interesting topic for this blog.

    -Wilmita

  • We Are Never Full

    I’m so sick of everyone trying to shortcut this and “make simple” that. If I want to make some fucking Ducasse meal, I want to make a real fucking Ducasse meal. Give me a few hours, some spending money for ingredients and a good bottle of wine and I’ll be happy to do this.

    I’ll turn on Sandra Lee if I want to make simple stuff.

  • Robert

    I am a simple home cook and none of the dishes that I am proud of are simple or easy. The dishes that impress take effort, not only in the cooking, but also in the conceptualization, sourcing, and execution.

    Broccoli Rabe with Orecchiette should be simple until you make the little ears from scratch. Then it becomes difficult and a masterpiece at the same time.

  • luis

    Jennie, I am enjoying the “Flavor Bible” read. This bottom’s up approach to cooking may be the thing I have been looking for.

    It’s important to recognize the components of taste in a cuisine and also the ingredients and textures that are compatible.

    This will help me a lot to define and organize my kitchen and my cuisine.

    I think Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill Cookbook is great in that respect. Because Flay Lists the goto southwestern ingredients in his cuisine. Flay DIFFERENTIATED his food from others in this way. This is the key to consistency and efficiency.

  • Jennie Cesario is Jennie Tikka

    Luis –

    I can remember someone suggesting a book when I was in school that sounds a lot like the one you’re reading. I never got the book.

    What I did do is apply the skills I picked up in my wine classes to food. Its not foolproof but its definitely a quick way to make an assessment of whether or not something will work.

    Take 2 foods/spices/ingredients you want to combine. Actually chew 1 but inhale the scent of the other. Technically you’re tasting both of them on your palate. You can try the same chewed ingredient against a whole slew of other things very quickly that way.

    Or chew 2 things and smell 1 – you get the idea. Its a very simple shortcut. It also helps me speed up wine selections for a particular dish, too. Of course, sometimes wines smell totally different from how they taste, but that’s another topic altogether……

  • Miss Needle

    I totally agree with condiment. Many chefs have cookbooks out that are more approachable for the home cook. I don’t see what the whole big fuss is. I don’t think Ducasse is dumbing down anything. And why does one think Ducasse is all about fancy-schmancy dishes? I think there’s more to him than a foie gras torchon with dots of a balsamic reduction served with freshly toasted brioche in the shape of a swan. His restaurant Aux Lyonnaise in Paris serves food that’s a lot more rustic than what most people would think of when they hear “Ducasse.” I had a deep-fried breaded tripe dish there. No complicated preparation. No dots on a plate. No super-expensive ingredients. I think you’re typecasting Ducasse as a certain type of chef when in fact, there is more to him than what you think.

  • luis

    Thank you Jennie. Never thought of doing that before although I am constantly smelling spices and tasting whatever is in the pot. Your idea is a very good one.

  • girl cook in paris

    Thank you for understanding the true work of chefs around the world. I also don’t find an association between the work of Michelin 3-star chefs and “easy to make at home”. You’ve articulated it well. Bravo et merci.

  • faustianbargain

    2 things: the book’s publisher is les editions alain ducasse..which is ducasse’s own publishing firm.

    #2. the cover of my book is different and it’s ‘100 recipes’ and not ‘120 recipes’..the cover in this blog is a mock up, perhaps?

  • Lisa

    Just wanted to say thanks for reminding me about pasta with butter and cheese. I cooked up some angel hair to eat with leftover eggplant parmigiana yesterday, and I did as you suggested with the pasta; it was just divine and I sat there and ate the entire small portion of pasta without even heating up the eggplant! Heavenly, and the essence of quick and easy.