I have a lot of cook books. There are many that are little more than recipe collections, that outside of the recipe itself, provide little more insight than, "we used to love these on summer afternoons" or "my brother got in so much trouble trying to make these himself" or maybe, "my sister used to squeal on me when I would try to make these myself."
Most of the cook books that I read and use on a regular basis are more concerned with theory. Several are dedicated to the science of how food works. In those, the majority of the recipes exist purely to demonstrate a particular theory or theories. And then some are non-fictional books written by or about chefs. And when you read enough books and articles by chefs that consistantly refer to a particular text, you know it's going to be good. And when, in looking for books on something completely unrelated, you run across one of these books, you know you have to buy it. Right now. No, don't worry about how much money you have in checking, you have a credit card too. This one is worth it.
I picked up Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, and I was not disappointed. In fact, I have been geeking out with this book since I bought it on Saturday. It's certainly not for the faint of heart. In fact, I would guess that most home cooks would probably feel a little alienated reading it. Imagine this: you have a panel of perhaps 2 to 3 dozen brilliant chefs, names that culinary students are required in school to learn, and a mediator in the middle directing conversation. You are in the audience, watching as a topic is presented, and a handful of the chefs in the panel discuss various theories and concepts, often disagreeing but never fighting. As one chef discusses her dislike of tall dishes, another may state how he occassionally likes to add a little extra height, but disdains elements that don't belong, such as a single rosemary sprig standing up in the middle of the plate.
I'm sure my wife grew tired of me within the first few minutes of my cracking open this book. Every other paragraph seem to say to me, "yeah brother, I know what you're talking about". I would read an entire paragraph to her, basking in its profundity, and seconds later have yet another paragraph to read aloud. The side margins are littered with quotes from famous chefs, both alive and dead. I would often almost get frustrated at the sheer volume of information that was available on a single page, that I couldn't cram all into my brain that very second.
As I read this book, I discovered something truly of value, possibly more than the panel of chefs. There are pages and pages of reference material, ranging from an index of ingredients and what other ingredients are perfect matches, to sample menus, accompanied by brief overviews from the chefs who constructed them. And yes, there are recipes. I practically drooled on myself at the mere mention of Duck Prosciutto. And when I saw the recipe, in all its simplistic glory, I would have grabbed my car keys to run down to the store that minute to buy duck breast, had it not been 11 o'clock at night.
If you're just looking to feed your family at dinnertime, this book is probably not for you. Even if you're planning a special dinner for your significant other, a one-time meal that you want to be truly special, this book is probably not for you. But if you're truly passionate about food, if the latest Anthony Bourdain or Jeffery Steingarten is far more exciting to you than the latest Michael Critchen or Steven King, then this book is for you. If your biggest culinary aspiration involves flipping burgers, then feel free to go on with your deprived palate. But if you can't watch Emeril Live without screaming at the TV about how it's not a real bechamel if you use heavy cream, if you run your own high-class restaurant or have plans to do so, then you need to buy this book right now.