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Readers Reflect: Recipe for Greatness

October 19, 2010

“Readers Reflect,” is a weekly post by a guest blogger reflecting on a formative book, character, or reading experience that has been particularly meaningful in their life as a reader. To submit your own “Readers Reflect” essay, please contact us at Tonight we welcome Andrew Hall, a guest blogger for An Apple a Day and a writer on the subject of medical transcription training for the Guide to Health Education.

I wasn’t expecting a book to change my life in the last year, especially not a cookbook. But one, Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meehan, came pretty close. I was in the second year of my life in which I suddenly had to cook for myself every night (or eat out, which was both costly and repetitive in the tiny town in which I lived). At first, I felt confident; I could knock out a handful of sauces, stir-fries, soups, and other easy dishes. I made a few terrible things, like a cold dish featuring undercooked noodles, bad vegetables, and a peanut sauce that refused to coat anything (which I ate for three days, since I made so much of it), but it didn’t seem like things were going poorly.

I was wrong. I realized in the autumn of 2009 that I was simply unhappy with my cooking. It wasn’t developing anymore, I was simply producing mediocre meal after mediocre meal and I couldn’t come up with any answers as to what to do about it. The cookbooks around me seemed only to produce things like what I was making, and I was over those flavors

And so I bought Momofuku, Chang’s combination restaurant summary (told through a series of very compelling narratives about his development as a chef and stories as to how he opened his three major restaurants, Noodle Bar, Ssäm Bar, and Ko, with all of the failings and anxiety that went into them) and cookbook. Then I decided that I would cook everything in it.

And save for a handful of recipes, what set Chang’s cookbook apart from me was something simple: to actually fulfill my goal seemed doable. Unlike books by other highly-acclaimed chefs with Michelin stars and TV appearances, like Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, or Grant Achatz, the lists of ingredients and techniques didn’t number in the high dozens, didn’t call for expensive equipment that most restaurants don’t own, and save for high cook times felt completely and totally within my reach.

As a consequence, I fell hard for Chang’s cooking despite having yet to visit his restaurants (like my many friends who have and insist that they were served the best meals of their lives at Noodle and Ssäm). The eight hours of work that went into producing his recipe for ramen broth made me stop and say “I’d never tasted anything like this before.” Then I had that reaction again and again when I made my own kimchi, sauces that used Korean ingredients I’d never heard of before, my first ever terrines (which then went into the banh mí recipe, arguably the best sandwich I’ve had in some time), and eventually the more elaborate ssäm recipes (one of which culminated in cooking a hanger steak for 50 minutes in my bathtub) and desserts.

The book taught me a handful of simple, basic techniques I needed to know, pointed me in the direction of literature I should have already read but hadn’t, most notably Harold McGee’s On Food And Cooking, one of the definitive (and most accessible and engaging) texts on food science, and made me think, if only very briefly, about cooking with such seriousness for the rest of my life. Which is more than I can say about most cookbooks.

Andrew Hall is a guest blogger for An Apple a Day and a writer on the subject of medical transcription training for the Guide to Health Education.

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