Articles in Chefs

“Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

Mystique — and hyperbole — surround North Berkeley’s legendary Gourmet Ghetto after almost half a century. The neighborhood, ground zero for a gastronomic explosion that morphed into a California cuisine revolution in the 1970s, seems to get more media coverage today than in its heyday. And sometimes it’s just plain silly.

Consider, for example, the overhyped version of today’s Ghetto portrayed in an October Forbes magazine article by Lanee Lee titled “Spending 24 Hours in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto.

Her mission to spend a whole day eating her way through the Ghetto begins at 9 a.m. But after just nine hours of nibbling and sipping at Ghetto icons such as the Cheese Board and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, and several of the nouveau arrivé spots such as Philz Coffee from San Francisco, Lee takes off south for downtown Berkeley and even Oakland. She as much as admits the aborted mission when she says about one downtown restaurant, “Technically, it’s not in the Gourmet Ghetto …” Technically? You are either in or you are out (see map).

Lee’s article reveals, however unintended, the unhyped truth that the Gourmet Ghetto struggles today to keep up with its own revolutionary legend, let alone the increasingly vibrant foodie meccas to the south.

The reality behind the hype

Two female chefs-cum-writers who can testify to the true gravitas behind the original Ghetto’s supersized legend are Ghetto legends in their own right — Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise. Both cooked at Chez Panisse during its formative years before moving on to their own fame: Wise with her Pig-by-the-Tail Charcuterie (1973-1986), across the street from Chez Panisse, and Goldstein at her Square One restaurant in San Francisco (1984-1996). Since the close of their much-missed showcases they have established themselves as culinary consultants and prolific cookbook authors with national reputations.

Both women have impressive new books out that attest to their continuing commitment to the revolution they served so brilliantly: Goldstein’s “Inside the California Food Revolution: Thirty Years That Changed Our Culinary Consciousness” (UC Press) and Wise’s recipe collection, “Bold: A Cookbook of Big Flavors,” co-authored with Susanna Hoffman (Workman).

With the publication of Goldstein’s book, we finally have a scholarly account of the California cuisine revolution based on hundreds of interviews of the food- and wine-loving souls who made it happen — cooks, artisan food producers, winemakers and farmers. Among them, adds Goldstein, were an “unprecedented number” of women. One of these was Victoria Wise herself. Before she opened “the Pig,” as her shop was affectionately known in the Ghetto, Wise was Chez Panisse’s first chef.

Wise’s new book, “Bold,” presents a collection of full-flavored and full-plated (bye-bye, little plates) dishes that further define the hearty international melting-pot foundations of a new American cooking that has emerged in the wake of California’s outsized culinary contributions.

When legends collide

I had known Goldstein and Wise professionally back in the day. Then in 2010, after publication of my “graphic memoir,” “Foodoodles: From the Museum of Culinary History,” I invited them to join me on an author’s panel at the Berkeley branch of Books Inc. I titled the presentation “Legends of the Gourmet Ghetto” and included Alice Medrich of Cocolat fame (1976-1991) as well as Bruce Aidells, Berkeley’s sausage king who got his start in the Ghetto in 1979 chefing at Marilyn Rinzler’s “still-clucking” ode to chicken, Poulet.

The panelists shared stories and laughs about the early years in the Ghetto and agreed that the revolution, though clearly Euro- and mostly Franco-centric in inspiration, was largely triggered by the lack of traditional culinary arts training in the Ghetto. An autodidact love of fine food translated our European food epiphanies into an ingredio-centric cooking language outside the narratives of haute cuisine and directly relevant to our own time and place.

A new body experience

To be sure, ours was not the first generation of Americans jolted by what we tasted in France and beyond. A generation before Julia Child’s fateful encounter with French gastronomy, The New Yorker’s “Letter From Paris” columnist, Janet Flanner, had her own Proustian moment in France. In the introduction to her book, “Paris Was Yesterday 1925-1939,” a collection of her still wonderfully readable columns, Flanner writes:

I can recall the sensual satisfaction of first chewing the mixture in my mouth of a bite of meat and a crust of fresh French bread … Eating in France was a new body experience.

Yes, a sensual body experience. Very different from the visual and brainy (as in left brain) extremes of fine food so common in today’s haute cuisine world of masculine high-tech art food offered in San Sebastian, Spain; Copenhagen; London; and New York.

And who better than women such as Goldstein and Wise a few generations after Flanner to seduce our sensual bodies with simple, traditional food sourced and prepared right in our own gastronomic region — California.

Cuisine bonne femme

If you study my map of the Ghetto of the 1970s you will note that it was, indeed, the women at their shops and restaurants who were calling the revolutionary shots: Joyce Goldstein, Victoria Wise, Alice Medrich, Marilyn Rinzler and, of course, Superwoman herself, Alice Waters.

I say “Superwoman” because Waters has always had the extraordinary ability — “genius,” Goldstein says — to get people to do her bidding — especially men, I’d add. When she came to the Cheese Board just before Chez Panisse was to open and asked whether I would wait tables, I jumped at the opportunity, as if I had been handed a first-class ticket to Provence. Waters must have memorized Dale Carnegie’s perennial bestseller, “How to Win Friends & Influence People.”

One of Waters’ leading men in those early Ghetto days, Mark Miller, who followed the epic reign of Jeremiah Tower as chef de cuisine, slyly observes in Goldstein’s book that the food emerging at Chez Panisse in the 1970s was far from revolutionary. It was, he notes, heavily influenced by the genre of French cooking known as cuisine bonne femme, the bourgeois home and humble restaurant cooking of French women. He’s right. But wasn’t that, if not the food per se, the Gourmet Ghetto’s revolution, or at least a key component?  Talented and powerful women running the show.

"Off With His Toque!" Credit: L. John Harris

“Off With His Toque!” Credit: L. John Harris

It was an increasingly feminist world we were living in circa 1970 and Berkeley was, of course, one of its capitals. Today, we take for granted women running professional kitchens, though it’s still a struggle for female chefs to get the same media attention as the men.

But back in those early days of the revolution it was, it seems to me, as if a Code Pink version of Mother Nature rose up and shouted out through Ghetto legends like Joyce Goldstein and Victoria Wise, “No more crap food! Off with his toque! You go girls!” And they still are.

Top graphic: “Original Gourmet Ghetto 1970s.” Credit: L. John Harris

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Richard Miscovich stands long and lean by the oven, a ponytail trailing down his back. Though the world doubts skinny cooks, he is the real deal, very aware of the fire behind him and all it can achieve.

The baker is also aware of the crowd in front of him as he leads classes, tending curiosity as if it were as important as loaves of dough. He knows his ingredients, so he can predict what those ingredients need. He’s also attentive to environments, so he can address questions that arise, in a wood-fired oven or a weekend workshop.

I’ve seen him at the Kneading Conference and Kneading Conference West, teaching workshops on baking with sprouted grain flours, and, most recently, making full use of the heat generated for wood-fired bread baking. He explores this potential — to make everything from beautiful bread to dried figs, not to mention rendering fat and building a classic pot of New England baked beans — in detail in his book “From the Wood-Fired Oven: New and Traditional Techniques for Cooking and Baking with Fire.”

Immersion in the American baking movement

The book puts his energy and knowledge at your fingertips, and appeals to a wide range of interests, from home bakers to those considering starting a small enterprise, or looking to revise an existing baking operation. These are the people Miscovich encounters at the Kneading Conferences, or when he guest-teaches at King Arthur Flour’s Baking Center, where he used to work in the bakery. He also sees these people in his baking and pastry classes at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, R.I., where he’s been an instructor for 11 years.

Miscovich speaks and writes as one not yet removed from the thrill of learning. The book is a scrapbook of his immersion in the American bread movement and features quotes from stars and sages of that movement, such as James McGuire and Thom Leonard. That immersion happened by chance and circumstance, more than design.

“I was working at a grocery store and they opened a bakery and I thought that would be fun,” Miscovich said in a recent phone interview, describing his random entry into the field. He was attending the University of Michigan, studying English literature. The store served an international population, and received deliveries from scratch bakeries in East Lansing. Once weekly, German bread came from Detroit. “I could tell that the bread that was delivered had more character than what we were thawing and proofing and baking.”

Pioneer bread makers

His passion for baking as a career, however, did not take root until much later, when the book “Bread Alone” exploded his idea of bread in 1994. The book ratcheted up his home bread-baking practice from yeast to sourdough, and inspired him to travel from North Carolina for two weeks of workshops at the newly formed San Francisco Baking Institute. This was in 1996, a big moment for bread in America.

Bread with creative scoring. Credit: Richard Miscovich

Bread with creative scoring. Credit: Richard Miscovich

On that trip, he met Alan Scott, the New Zealand-born baker and oven builder who, with oven plans, workshops and, later, the book “The Bread Builders” (written with Dan Wing) pioneered the wood-fired bread oven movement in America.

When Miscovich visited Scott in 1996, breadmaker Chad Robertson was using Scott’s oven. There was grain growing behind the house and inside, Scott had hooked up a Diamant mill to a washing machine motor, to mill flour for his baking.

“I distinctly remember him talking about the benefits of whole grains and showing me his little mill,” Miscovich said. “The whole wood-fired oven thing hadn’t started yet, and the local grain movement hadn’t even started yet.”

Practical and accessible

“From the Wood Fired Oven” is, like “The Bread Builders,” also published by Chelsea Green. There’s enough information on artisan baking to stand as a thorough guide, but the language is not too technical to lose the home baker who has never touched a sourdough. Similarly, the practical instructions on building an oven, and managing fire and combustion, are in depth enough for anyone who is ready to build a backyard oven or launch a microbakery.

The book has profiles of bakers and oven builders who are helping push community-scale artisan bread baking to another level. Information on equipment, oven size and production practices is presented to help show how to make baking and ovens physically practical and economically feasible.

“People get burned out,” Miscovich said of baking, but the improvements he and others outline in the book can help prevent burnout and help keep artisan bakeries alive. “I think the book talks about materials and design and efficiency in a way that’s hopefully going to help those businesses become or stay viable,” he said.

Yet cooking is at the core of the book, so these details didn’t drive me, who has little interest in starting a bakery, away. I love the book, and its author’s classes, for helping explain how ingredients become foods, and how those foods become most flavorful. Even in my $25 oven.

Top photo: “A Wood-Fired Oven” and Richard Miscovich. Credit: Courtesy of Red Door Media

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Christopher Kimball. Credit: Courtesy of

If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.

Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.

While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.

To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.

Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.

Kimball’s food publishing adventures

I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.

Kimball founded Cook’s Country magazine in 2004, and he’s also the bow-tied host of the PBS cooking shows “America’s Test Kitchen” and “Cook’s Country From America’s Test Kitchen.”

America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.

It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.

We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.

What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?

My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.

How did you learn to cook?

Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.

In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?

We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.

How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?

The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.

What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?

Almost no-knead bread from the "America's Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook" is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Almost no-knead bread from the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook” is baked in an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven. Credit: Tina Caputo

Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.

Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?

If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).

Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?

Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.

How much of being a good cook is science versus art?

There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.

How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?

Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.

What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?

Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.

Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”

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Chef Matthew Weingarten and

Foraging is the best way I know to stay immersed in the landscape I love. Equally important, I forage because it stocks my kitchen with scrumptious, high-quality food. I live at the base of the Rocky Mountains, where there are booming growing seasons and long cold winters, so preserving my wild harvest is the ideal way to have access to foraged foods throughout the year. As someone who puts up wild goods regularly, I was very excited to read “Preserving Wild Foods,” which addresses how to take advantage of wild products through pickling, preserving, fermentation and curing.

From the outset, it is apparent that author Matthew Weingarten not only forages, but enjoys it immensely. What is most intriguing about “Preserving Wild Foods” is the perspective the author brings to the subject as a chef working in New York City. He’s not someone who lives next to a remote stream in the woods. Rather, he’s a city dweller who still finds a valuable connection with the land through wild harvests. In this book, Weingarten and co-author Raquel Pelzel tackle products from environments ranging from ocean-side all the way to the countryside, transforming fruit, vegetables, nuts, mushrooms, fish and game, into tempting jams, chutneys, charcuterie and more.

Inventive wild food flavors

“Preserving Wild Foods” shines when Weingarten uses his sensibilities as a chef to both wake up standard recipes and introduce new flavor combinations. Take for example samphire pickles, in which he seasons the coastal plant also known as sea beans with chiles, coriander and garlic. Weingarten adds a slightly unexpected flavor twist in his old world rose hip jam by adding cardamom and grenadine. He also shares some recipes that may be new to the home cook, like crab apple mostarda, or frutti di bosco compote, which is made with wild mushrooms, blueberries and herbs.

Intrigued by the unusual flavor pairing, I tried my hand at a half batch of pecan and fennel seed brittle. I didn’t want to chance ruining the two cups of honey required by the full batch. The instructions were easy to follow, and even included a bit of advice I’d never before tried when making brittle: to put a second pan on top of the freshly poured candy, and press it with a rolling pin to made an evenly thick product. I found pecan and fennel seed brittle to be especially good crumbled over ice cream.

Foraged, feral and garden-grown

I was a bit surprised to find that one of the chapters in “Preserving Wild Foods” contains many recipes for agricultural or gardened food products. I appreciate the argument that feral foods, those that used to be kept but have since gone wild, bridge the gap between foraging and gardening. And I can also see that for a person operating in the heart of a major metropolitan area, visiting the farmers market feels a bit like foraging. But I found the appearance of a recipe for watermelon pickles in a book about wild foods to be a bit of an incongruity.

Instead of including recipes for dill cucumber pickles, pickled peppers and bacon, I would have preferred to see the chef share more recipes made with wild foods, perhaps with a focus on ways to preserve unloved weeds that thrive in the city. I’d love to see how the Weingarten would use his experienced palate to approach preserving lamb’s quarter, sow thistle, dock or the lemon clover he mentions in passing on a page dedicated to the joys of spring greens.

“Preserving Wild Foods” would benefit from a cleaner presentation. The mish-mash of recipe introductions, tips, drawings, formal photographs, and Polaroid-style snapshots seem to be an attempt at warmth, like reading the journal of a chef, but the overall effect is a bit jumbled. I would have loved to see this book broken into two volumes, one about plants, and the other with the focus on charcuterie. A full third of the recipes in “Preserving Wild Foods” are for meat or fish, so be aware if you are expecting all plant-based dishes or are vegetarian.

“Preserving Wild Foods” is a book packed with all manner of recipes for putting up wild products. I especially enjoyed the author’s clear delight in foraging. As someone who is adventurous in the kitchen, I was excited to see more unusual recipes like that for modern garum, a fermented fish sauce made from heads and guts. However, given the level of skill required to can and cure at home, this may not be the ideal book for home cooks who aren’t already fairly comfortable in the kitchen. Novices might be intimidated by some of the recipes, and it should be noted that this is a cookbook, not a field guide. While the author writes lovely introductions about the highlighted ingredients, there are no warnings to stay away from red elderberries or beware of angelica’s dangerous look-alikes. “Preserving Wild Foods” could potentially be a valuable book for aspirational foragers, preserving geeks, and people who forage regularly and serious about preserving their finds.

Chef Matthew Weingarten and “Preserving Wild Foods.” Credit: Storey Publishing

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El Caguamo, one of countless treasured street food locations in Mexico. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Suddenly street food is cool. Perhaps it’s a reaction to lofty trends like molecular gastronomy, vegetable foams and chefs in lab coats. People are ready for more accessible cooking. Some call it street food. Hugo Ortega, a home-schooled chef from Mexico, presents the most recent and best book on the topic in “Street Food of Mexico.”

In my hometown of Mexico City, the phrase “street food” might connote a low-class, unsavory, health risk from which tourists and locals alike are warned to stay away. But foodies on the cutting edge are busy promoting this popular cooking. Restaurants with names such as Street in L.A., Fonda in N.Y. and Ortega’s own Hugo’s in Houston are pulling in crowds. Anthony Bourdain and the Los Angeles Times are touting street food as trendy, reminding us that the best cooking is often found in the most humble places. We fearless global eaters could have told them.

Writing about Mexican cooking in his heartfelt introduction, Ortega’s description could apply to the popular cooking of any culture:

“… street food is actually “slow food,” prepared in someone’s own kitchen with little to no shortcuts, from family recipes handed down through the ages. The food is cooked all through the night on the outskirts of the towns and villages, in kitchen ovens or in deep earthen pits, and brought into city and town centers each morning … Rich with tradition and heritage, street food is the purest form of true authentic … cuisine.”

While other cookbooks on the subject might employ “street food” as a catchphrase, an excuse for simple, plebeian cooking (“easy” usually shows up in the title of these books), this one is true to its subject. Recipes are for dishes really found at stalls on the street or in markets.

The book is divided into chapters delineating seven styles of foods by their Spanish titles: antojitos, tacos, salsas, tortas, ceviches y cocteles, dulces and bebidas. Thankfully, Spanish names come first with descriptions underneath in English — no condescension here.

Recipes reflecting the spirit of the street

Recipes are tweaked, updated but only minimally, without losing their true homey nature. For example, empanada de camarón (half-moon pie stuffed with shrimp) is commonly found at every seafood stand in Mexico. Here, the dough calls for butter and the filling for olive oil, two ingredients undoubtedly too expensive for market and street stalls to stock. But nothing else about this recipe is compromised. It’s just as grandma would want you to make it, with good old butter and olive oil instead of the cheaper versions thereof.

The section on tacos is especially informative, and again true to the streets of Mexico — the most interesting recipes have been culled from the author’s travels around the country and interpreted to re-create authentic flavors. Occasionally a cooking method is altered, but to good effect. Tacos al pastor, Mexico City’s famous spit-grilled marinated pork, is impossible to reproduce in the home kitchen. But Ortega’s oven-roasted version will approximate the flavor and texture of the original.

One of the most visually astounding features of street and market stalls is the rainbow of colorful fresh and cooked salsas. This chapter gathers the best multi-regional examples and explains the essentially Mexican techniques, such as dry-roasting chilies, in detail.

Torta, a Mexican specialty. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Torta, a Mexican specialty. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Tortas get their due in ‘Street Food of Mexico’

The torta, Mexico’s version of the sandwich is not well known outside the country, but ubiquitous within. Ortega covers the topic thoroughly — even a recipe for the bread is given. He includes interesting regional items, like the capital’s guajolota (a tamal within a roll), a “gilded lily” to some, a divine treat to others.

Ceviche is another staple of Mexican street food. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Ceviche is another staple of Mexican street food. Credit: Nicholas Gilman

Although essential beach food, ceviches are found in street stalls throughout Mexico. Ortega’s simple ceviche de huachinango (red snapper) is a textbook example that should be in any Mexican cook’s repertory. The caldo de camarón, a rich soup made with chilies and dried shrimp, is true to the stand, Mexico City’s El Caguamo, from which the recipe is gleaned.

This is a fine cookbook — user-friendly, well written, uncompromising in transposing recipes for the home cook, and beautifully illustrated by renowned food and travel photographer Penny de los Santos. “Street Food of Mexico” is an important addition to any library of Mexican or world cuisine.

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Gift shopping for gourmands is usually pretty easy. There is always a hot new cookbook or an expensive, must-have kitchen gadget (although these usually end up in the cupboard by the beginning of February, never to be seen again). But you don’t have to look far or spend much on a great gift for a tech-loving foodie. This season, there is an array of multimedia culinary iBooks, e-books and apps in the food and wine category. Plus, by going digital, you’ll avoid the shipping mayhem of the holidays (to say nothing of in-store shopping).

Most of these recommendations are more for the home cook or kitchen novice who wants some hand-holding, but others would also appeal to seasoned culinarians, like Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Selected Recipes.” This app includes charming recipe videos plucked from the PBS archives and current commentary from famed editor Judith Jones. And the pricey, professionally-geared industry bible from The Culinary Institute of America, “The Professional Chef” app, is an essential resource for any serious cook.

Here’s my take on some of the best titles out there. They are multimedia-rich and engaging at every level, with personalized video lessons from some of the best chefs and best-loved cooks in the country, people like Rick Bayless, Ree Drummond, Steven Raichlen, Amanda Hesser and Evan Kleiman. I’ve picked some old-school grand masters like James Beard and Julia Child, and some decidedly new school chefs like the Sussman brothers. You could even give a gift card and this list of suggestions, and let the recipient pick and choose whatever whets their appetite.

It’s almost impossible not to love Drummond, whose popular blog, The Pioneer Woman Cooks, has grown into a sprawling lifestyle website. She’s a natural: Her writing makes you laugh, and her recipes, while not fancy, will appeal to most everyone willing to admit that we don’t all eat “gourmet” every night. I’m a huge fan of any cookbook published with Apple’s iBooks authoring software because of its intuitive, flexible interface. Embedded slide shows, videos, pop-up definitions and photo-enhanced navigation take cookbooks like this to a whole new level. $11.99

Chef Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory, offers a behind-the-scenes view of her Michelin-starred style. By the time you are into the first few pages of this iBook, she will have thoroughly charmed you with her British brogue and impressed you with her focus on perfection. Quirky illustrations and great food photography support her casual writing style. $12.99

If you are a pie-making beginner, you won’t be after you follow Kleiman’s master class techniques one video at a time. Each video screen features slide-out sidebars of step-by-step instructions and ingredient details. On-screen links to core crust recipes make the basics a single touch away. Kleiman, a former restaurant owner and the host of the radio show “Good Food” on Los Angeles’ KCRW (88.9 FM), takes the fear out of crafting the perfect pie crust. This app’s interface, however, is not as intuitive as most. $2.99

If this new Beard cookbook is not already on your shelf, it belongs on your tablet. A compilation of 450 of Beard’s best recipes with updated details from editor Rodgers, this e-book provides a window into the beginning of the culinary movement in the United States as seen through the eyes of the pioneer himself. Each chapter is enhanced with an interactive recipe index, note taking, bookmarking and enhanced search functions. $16.99

Stumped for what to serve for the holidays? Award-winning authors Hesser and Stubbs, who run the website Food 52, have assembled a wonderful assortment of party suggestions. Sprinkled with an occasional video, lots of instructional slide shows and links to shopping options, this app should be your go-to holiday cooking resource. The intuitive iPad-only interface from inkling is one of my favorites. $2.99

Curated by Ruth Reichl, former editor in chief of Gourmet, this app provides a seamless interface between well-vetted recipes, interesting articles and shopping for gourmet supplies on Gilt Taste, the food-and-wine branch of the Gilt designer flash sale site. Best of all, it’s first to offer the magic of hands-free technology. Wave your hand over the screen and it moves back and forth between recipe pages. No more sticky, flour-covered screen. Free

One of the newest subscription video magazines features master chefs Rick Bayless, Jonathan Waxman, Anita Lo and Nancy Silverton. The premiere issue of this classy quarterly publication features 12 original Thanksgiving recipes totaling 198 minutes of high-def video. The video presentation is so well done, it makes the viewer feel as if they are getting a private one-on-one cooking class from each master chef. $4.95/single or $14.95/year

Lifted from the pages of culinary history, this is one of the first apps I felt like sitting down and enjoying with a cup of tea. With vintage clips from Child’s PBS show, photos capturing her early life and commentary by her editor, it’s not a grand undertaking, it’s just charming. $4.99

You just have to give props to the M.S. machine. Both titles are well-designed, easy to follow, inspirational in depth and plenty functional. Although the apps are free, all those advantages still come at a price: Both apps are memory hogs. Free

Produced by the top cooking school in the nation, this powerhouse app includes 1,200 pages and more than 100 instructional videos. If you need more reasons to check this out, read my earlier review in Zester Daily. $49.99

Raichlen has taken his bestselling book on grilling and gone digital with an iBook version, all for the better. There may not be as many recipes as in the printed version, but that doesn’t matter when you have well-produced videos and slide shows to guide your instruction. I just wonder if the grazing cows in the background know what he’s firing up on the grill? $6.99

This iBook is proof that digital cookbooks are meant to be ripped into and used, because tablets don’t look all that cool on a coffee table. Chefs and brothers Max and Eli capture their Brooklyn-based food-consuming lifestyle using plenty of digital tricks in a fun, graphical style, including embedded audio interviews, “back story” pop-ups and slide shows. They even serve up their favorite food-inspired iTunes playlists if you want to go really deep and match the mood. It’s cookbook-cum-entertainment. $12.99

Photo: Panna, a subscription food magazine.  Credit: Caroline J. Beck, with permission from Panna

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So much has been written about the wildly creative Spanish chef Ferran Adrià, who brought molecular gastronomy into the spotlight, that a fresh perspective seems impossible. But when journalists take  trips that are more about the journey than the destination, they often discover something new. Such was the case for author Lisa Abend and filmmaker Gereon Wetzel in their separate explorations of the world created by Adrià at his now-shuttered restaurant, elBulli.

Neither one relates a single recipe or showcases the few fortunate patrons lucky enough to score a wundermeal at elBulli, which opened for a limited season each year. Instead, Abend, author of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices: A Season in the Kitchen at Ferran Adrià’s elBulli” (Free Press, 2012 paperback) and Wetzel, director of the documentary “elBulli: Cooking in Progress,” (Kino Lorber, 2012 DVD) both focus on the creative process that was at the heart of Adrià’s success. In doing so, they capture Adrià’s true legacy to future chefs: license to break the rules and play with their food. They also offer a glimpse of Adrià’s next venture, a culinary research foundation that is to open in 2014.

Getting to know elBulli through its minor players

Before elBulli closed for good in July 2011, the only spot more coveted by foodies than at its tables would have been behind the scenes, watching the preparations for one of Adrià’s performance art-like exhibits. Abend got a backstage pass for the 2009 season, and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentices” became the theatre critic’s notes.

But Abend did not focus on the show’s director. Instead, she studied the 32 apprentices who toiled to serve Adrià’s imagination. Readers are introduced to the entire repertory cast, from Katie Button, the American biomedical engineer motivated by the disciplined process, to Gael Vuilloud, the stubborn Frenchman with a penchant for pushing his own creativity, and Myungsan “Luke” Jang, the meticulous Korean who sought a culinary education by immersion. Viewing day-to-day operations through the eyes of elBulli’s kitchen brigade, Abend uncovers the themes that drive Adrià’s work and the reason that some of the best chefs in training from around the world chose to work gratis for six months in hope that they would absorb some of his genius.

It might be counterintuitive to suggest beginning a book at the end — in the section that readers often gloss over — but Abend’s acknowledgments succinctly capture her education in the kitchen at elBulli and the essence of her book. Then, go back to the beginning, where Abend invites the reader to stay the course as she recounts, month by month, the interplay between the apprentices and their chefs. Her ability to find the spirit of elBulli in the elusive details of tension and triumph are what makes this book such an interesting and intimate read.

“The portrait of him that emerges is based in part on the perspective of those who work for him, and is therefore necessarily more complicated than often seen,” Abend writes. “But I hope it is no less admiring; in addition to convincing me of his genius, the times I spent at elBulli revealed to me the great depth of Ferran’s intelligence and courage.”

The visual art of Ferran Adrià

Director Gereon Wetzel ripped a page from Adrià’s textbook when he opened his documentary with a darkly lit single shot. Barely discernible, Adrià licks a sucker-like fluorescent fish on a stick that leaves an eerie residue of blue light on his lips and his tongue. It’s theatrical, unexpected and definitely not for the squeamish, but this first scene gets to the heart of Wetzel’s film, also made during the 2009 season at elBulli: Its head chef’s insatiable curiosity for exploring the edges of imagination to create culinary art.

The film is neatly broken into two halves: six months of research in anticipation of six months of operation. Like other documentaries about artistic genius, the film starts in the artist’s studio — or rather, the elBulli workshop in Barcelona where Adrià and his top chefs meticulously explore the possibilities of ingredients for the upcoming season’s menu.

“At the moment, taste doesn’t matter to us — that comes later,” Adrià explains to a visiting sommelier advising the team on flavor issues at the workshop. “At the moment, what matters is whether something is magical, and whether it opens a new path.”

Unfortunately, the lengthy observation of these lab experiments in culinary science could lull a viewer to sleep. Wetzel’s cinéma vérité style of an unobtrusive lens with no supporting commentary works better in the second half, when the camera follows Adrià and his team back to the restaurant, where the tension and energy of the real performance begins.

The strength of the story is its singularly focused view of chef as artist. Adrià’s canvas of choice is dinner-table linen; and the chef’s body of work is every experimental oddity that graces the table. As the film unfolds, it’s hard not to imagine that the director was exploring the chef’s cultural DNA. Was Adrià simply following in the footsteps of fellow avant-garde Spanish deconstructionists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí? Perhaps. In style and in execution, Adrià’s penchant for looking at dinner from a different perspective suggests he is just as much a master of his medium as his forebears.

In a final nod to the real talent of the film, the credit roll is given over to a photographic montage of the dishes created during the 2008-2009 season at elBulli, with the chefs following in supporting roles. By the film’s conclusion, it is clear that Adrià would agree with the billing.

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“elBulli: cooking in progress” (2010, Germany): Directed by Gereon Wetzel, based on a concept by Anna Ginestí Rosell and Gereon Wetzel; director of photography, Josef Mayerhofer; edited by Anja Pohl; music by Stephan Diethelm; produced by Ingo Fliess; released by Alive Mind Cinema. In Catalan, with English subtitles. Running time: 108 minutes.


Caroline J. Beck is a freelance food and wine writer and a strategic advisor to specialty food start-ups. Her articles and columns have appeared in such publications as the Santa Ynez Valley Journal, Michigan BLUE — Michigan’s Lakestyle Magazine, and The Olive Oil Source, the world’s top-ranked olive oil-related website, where she has served as editor since 2007. Caroline’s website, www.carolinejbeck.com, provides common sense advice for enthusiastic entrepreneurs looking to succeed in the specialty foods business.

Top photo: From left, Eduard Xatruch, Oriol Castro and Ferran Adria. Credit: Alive Mind Cinema

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The Sorcerer's Apprentices
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Grilled Asparagus and Leeks with Romesco Sauce. Salted and Pickled Anchovies on Grilled Flatbread. Trout a la Navarra prepared with kale and Serrano ham. Confit of Duck Legs with Plums. I want to cook and eat all the dishes from Seamus Mullen’s first cookbook, “Hero Food: How Cooking With Delicious Things Can Make Us Feel Better” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2012). That he tells us these recipes are healthy is almost beside the point. They all sound — and look — delicious.

Mullen, chef-owner of New York’s acclaimed Spanish restaurant, Tertulia, (and also a bit of a star thanks to his performance on the Food Network’s “The Next Iron Chef”) was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis after excruciating pain in his hip made it hard for him to move. The flare-up may have been brought on by the harried schedule and intense stress of running a restaurant (it occurred a few years ago while he was executive chef at Boqueria), but Mullen was determined not to let RA keep him away from the work he loves.

Chef Seamus Mullen, who developed recipes for those with rheumatoid arthritis

“I know there’s no silver bullet, but I have discovered that some foods can make dramatic differences,” he writes. “And here’s the good news: In that great fatalistic way of Mother Nature, what I like turns out to be good for me!” That’s good news for us, too. Zeroing in on 18 “heroes,” as he calls these foods that make him feel better — parsley, olive oil and almonds among them, and treating them in the Spanish style, Mullen offers recipes we’ll make because they’re delicious. Their benefits, which I suspect apply to all of us, with or without RA, are secondary.

The moderate omnivore

This isn’t a book that banishes certain foods. There are lots of vegetables in it but there’s also some beef, a little butter, some gluten and eggs included in the recipes. Mullen, it seems, falls into the Michael Pollan omnivore camp and quotes nutrition expert Marion Nestle: “You are better off paying attention to your overall dietary pattern than worrying about whether any one single food is better for you than another.” He’s never militant, but recommends avoiding refined industrial foods, eating everything in moderation, listening to your body and enjoying yourself. Good common sense.

Mullen’s food is straight forward. He’s offers a lot of good research on nutrition, and he shares a lot of information about technique and his ingredients, too. He tells us what makes Bomba rice so special and why it’s the best for paella. We get lessons on cleaning squid and extricating a quail egg from its shell. (Cracking it on the counter doesn’t work.) After reading about anchovies, you’ll want to give them a second chance. And he makes a case for buying local lamb.

“Hero Food” is proof that Mullen isn’t letting his diagnosis get in the way of eating well and enjoying life. Photos, taken by Colin Clark, show him in his beloved Spain, making chicken and seafood paella with friends on his city roof, digging in the garden with a child, sharing a toast surrounded by family. “Even if that fresh ear of sweet corn were to cause me a bit of discomfort,” he writes, “for me it’s a good trade-off … After all, just how unhealthy could an occasional ear of sweet corn eaten only in season really be, compared to the life-pleasure it delivers?”

Buy Seamus Mullen’s “Hero Food” Now!


Zester Daily contributor Christy Hobart is a food and shelter writer in Los Angeles.

Photo: Pickled carrots from Seamus Mullen’s recip. Credit: Colin Clark

 

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