Sophistication made simple

New book reduces chefs' recipes to 3 basic steps

Posted: September 13, 2007

YOU GO TO A FANCY restaurant, have a wonderful meal, and on the way out spot a table displaying the chef's latest cookbook. You leaf through the pages, and there it is - the recipe for that amazing dish you just had, showing how you can make it, as easy as pie, in your own kitchen.

So you plunk down $50 for the book and take it home. But a couple of weeks later, when you look at that recipe again, you realize that maybe it's not so easy after all. What do these French cooking terms mean? Where in the world are you supposed to get some of these ingredients?

You give up, put the book on your bookshelf and forget about it until you eat at another fancy restaurant and buy another expensive celebrity-chef cookbook. Now you have two beautiful, useless books gathering dust.

This was the scenario Hope Fox followed, hundreds of times, until the bookshelves in her Bryn Mawr home groaned under the weight.

But not long ago, Fox, who sells health and beauty products on QVC, got an idea: Why not put together her own cookbook of celebrity-chef recipes - recipes that really can be made at home?

The result is Fox's new book, "Impress for Less," which gathers the favorite recipes of 100 chefs from 10 restaurants in each of 10 cities around the country, including Philadelphia.

Many of the chefs are celebrities, such as Rick Bayless (Topolobampo in Chicago), Daniel Boulud (Daniel in New York), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean Georges in New York) and, of course, Philadelphia's own Georges Perrier, the owner-chef of Le Bec-Fin.

But what makes Fox's cookbook remarkable is not the pedigree, but her heartfelt sympathy for the noncelebrity home chef.

There are no exotic cooking terms or techniques, no complicated, 35-step procedures to make a sauce. Nearly everything can be purchased at the grocery store.

Fox and the chefs have made substitutions for expensive or hard-to-find ingredients in the original recipes - for example, salmon roe instead of Osetra caviar in an egg dish from Lacroix at the Rittenhouse. But if you still want to use that caviar, or other original ingredients, Fox provides Web sites and phone numbers for businesses that sell them through mail-order.

And, true to the title of her book, she also suggests inexpensive wine alternatives. For one recipe, the crab ceviche from Philadelphia's Alma de Cuba, the cheaper libation is beer - Corona Light with lime.

Fox said she and the chefs have not dumbed-down the recipes. Most of the substitutions, she said, don't change the taste of the dishes.

In a few cases, the dishes-made-simple might not be as rich as the original - for example, the roasted orange chicken breast with wild rice pancakes, from the Fountain Restaurant in Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel, is usually made with Muscovy duck.

And as chef Martin Hamann said in his accompanying notes, "As far as flavor and moistness goes, duck wins over chicken every time."

But even with such substitutions, said Fox, you're still going to have something very tasty and very close to the original.

"I really kept the integrity of the dish," she said.

A big bonus of the streamlined recipes is that you don't have to spend all day in the kitchen. Most, said Fox, can be made in a half-hour or less.

In other words, she said, "Impress" is a cookbook for people like her.

Home cooking

Fox, 51, grew up around food in West Oak Lane, where her mother and grandmother were always cooking. There were typical Jewish dishes - brisket, cabbage soup, chopped herring - and "platters in abundance."

Cooking became an important part of Fox's life. "It's always about the little things, and the warmth it brings," she said. "It's a way I show love."

Like many people who love to cook, Fox also likes to sample the best in dining, and so in her travels over the years she has dined at many of the top restaurants across the country. And every time, it seemed, she left with a big, glossy, $50 celebrity-chef cookbook that quickly became one more lesson in frustration.

"I didn't know the French cooking terms and techniques," she said. "I didn't know what the ingredients meant, let alone where I would find them. I didn't know what a daikon was. I didn't know what edamame beans were. I didn't know what chorizo was. I would go home and open the book and say, 'What are they talking about?' "

But Fox is crazy about cookbooks, so much so that her idea of beach reading is a cookbook. And she was on the beach in Avalon, N.J., perusing yet another frustrating celebrity-chef cookbook - "I'm looking at one of these five-page recipes" - when she got the idea of developing simplified versions that anyone could use.

"God was speaking to me," she said. I thought, 'I'm going to write a book and call it "Impress for Less." ' "

Persuading the chefs

Fox began researching the top restaurants and chefs. She consulted food and travel writers, including Beth D'Addono, whom she hired to help out with the book. And she began contacting the chefs, asking for their "signature recipes" - and their cooperation.

That was very difficult at first, she said. "They didn't know who I was."

It took two years, but all the chefs she wanted in the book eventually agreed to participate. It turned out, she said, "they wanted to make their recipes more accessible."

Although many of the top restaurants in America serve French cuisine, Fox said she wanted to provide a variety. So her book includes Asian, Latin American, Italian and other styles of cooking.

She and D'Addono tested the recipes and also got the help of chef Joseph DiGironimo and his students at the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts on South Broad Street.

Fox said she initially intended her book to focus only on Philadelphia, but as the project grew she decided to go national, including top-flight restaurant cities like San Francisco, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Boston.

Boston?

"Long considered a bedrock of culinary conservatism, Boston has shed its traditional skin to become a vibrant and respectable restaurant town," Fox wrote in her introduction to the recipes from that city.

Philadelphia, of course, gets higher praise than "respectable." And, as she does in all her introductions to the cities, she puts the restaurant scene in context.

"In this town, food is serious business," she wrote of Philadelphia. "Restaurants are at the forefront of urban development, transforming ignored intersections and outlying neighborhoods into pockets of trendy nightlife and vibrant residential enclaves."

Fox provides the same kind of context for each of the chefs and restaurants she features, which gives the reader a closer connection with the dish. The recipes are also accompanied by brief chef's notes, where the chefs share their thoughts and tips.

For example, Marc Vetri, of the restaurants Vetri on Spruce Street and Osteria on North Broad Street, says this about his wilted Tuscan salad with egg and pancetta: "For this dish, it's important not to cook the eggs too much. They must be very runny, so they almost emulsify with the oil and vinegar. This dish is very messy, but very tasty!"

In line with Fox's mission for the book, there are only three basic steps to the entire recipe, and no trace of any unusual ingredients, techniques or cooking terms.

Easy enough for anyone to follow. Including, maybe, other chefs?

Fox said that when she told the chefs why she wanted to write the book, many confided that they had the same frustrations she did.

"They said, 'Guess what? I can't work out of other chefs' cookbooks, either.' " *

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