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Why Restaurant Cookbooks Can't Have It All

Ashley Christensen's Poole's and the limitations of the restaurant tome

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ow that "cookbook author" is a required stage in chefs’ careers, lots of restaurant cookbooks are being published all the time. At their best, these books are decoder rings for replicating famous flavors in your own kitchen, or they're simply pure, uncut armchair-chef eye candy. A great example of the latter is Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune cookbook: With sharp, spiky prose that treated the reader like an about-to-be-fired employee at her New York restaurant, Prune, she made it clear that her book was about recording how things work for her—but wasn’t really expecting you to try to make Prune happen at home. When restaurant cookbooks flop, it’s because they’re neither transporting enough to read for their own sakes, nor quite accessible enough to cook from. A restaurant chef needs to set out to write either a voyeuristic peek into her kitchen or a useable cookbook; if she doesn’t choose, or if she tries to do both, it’s likely that she’ll fail.

Ashley Christensen is one of America’s most impressive young regional chef-restaurateurs. After opening Poole’s Downtown Diner in Raleigh in 2007, she has gone on to open five more restaurants in the area, including an upscale burger spot, a coffeeshop featuring locally roasted Counter Culture beans, a craft cocktail bar, and most recently Death and Taxes, a restaurant that celebrates "wood-fired cooking with Southern ingredients." Christensen has almost singlehandedly helped to revitalize a swath of downtown Raleigh, and along with chefs like Sean Brock, a fellow James Beard award-winner, she has helped make "Southern food" synonymous with authentic, terroir-inflected cuisine, rather than simple artery-clogging indulgence.

The food that Christensen cooks at Poole’s — which was added to Eater’s 38 essential restaurants list earlier this year — features those un-hateable flavors of the new South: fresh, seasonal, and strenuously locally-sourced fruits and grains and vegetables, cut with plenty of mayo and meat and deep-fried crunch. Updated diner classics like buttermilk fried chicken with hot honey, short rib pot pie and macaroni au gratin are there to tempt traditionalists, while for more adventurous and vegetable-oriented cooks there are slaws, pickles and "vinaigrettes" (Christensen’s term for her precisely composed salads) galore. When I first leafed through the cookbook inspired by the restaurant, Poole’s: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner (Ten Speed Press, September 2016), I was excited to cook it all.

But I struggled to find my way in. This was because of the unconventional way the volume is structured — more like a menu than like a cookbook. It begins with an introduction that tells the story of the restaurant, which Christensen opened in a space where she’d once worked as a teenager, when it was a less ambitious venue. With a lot of sweat and many long days and nights, she transformed it into Poole’s. The book also sweetly recounts her parents’ love of food, and the way they danced in the kitchen as they made dinner for her growing up. This is all very nice, but if a reader doesn’t have already have strong feelings about Poole’s, it doesn’t quite connect.

The next chapter covers the backbones of Christensen’s flavors and techniques: what salt she uses — she sprinkles fine sea salt from two feet up — and what pepper, her brines, cures, pickles, butters and stocks. There’s a chapter of "counter snacks," which you might not find useful if you’re not running a restaurant or planning a gala with passed hors d’oeuvres. (The exception is her recipe for Poole’s signature pimento cheese, which has quick-pickled bell peppers, aged cheddar and homemade mayo.) Next comes a chapter of cocktails, which sound delicious and are all something I would love to order from a bartender.

And then come the vinaigrettes, followed by a chapter on vegetables, which includes a variety of dishes that could be sides or mains, and which range from simple, like braised greens, to ornate, like duck liver and sweet potato dirty rice cakes. Even more confusingly, the next chapter is called "Bowls & Such," where you’ll find soups, but also mussels and short rib pot pie, both of which could also be at home in the next chapter, "Meat & Fish." Which, of course, also contains some vegetable dishes — including a recipe for chowchow, to go on fish — and an ode to brunch. It all makes intuitive sense eventually, but it’s a little bit like being led through a maze, trying to remember whether a dish you wanted to try might be considered a "vinaigrette" or a "counter snack" or something else entirely.

Christensen's signature pimento cheese

A lot of the recipes seem simple, but they contain specific ingredients — heirloom grains, beans, or specific vegetables — that I didn’t have easy access to. Other recipes require one or more of the components that Christensen explains she always has in her walk-in: batches of roasted tomatoes, homemade malt-vinegar mayo, compound butter, cornbread bread crumbs. At home, with an ordinary fridge, it was tricky to figure out where to even start.

When a friend invited me to their backyard barbecue, I thought about trying Christensen’s potato salad recipe. It calls for Rose Finn Apple potatoes, which Christensen promises are worth "snooping around" to find, with a flavor "as though a Yukon gold and a red new potato had a baby." I will continue to keep an eye out for them, probably forever, but I didn’t have it in me to go on a potato mission that day. Besides, the recipe called for buttermilk and sour cream in addition to that homemade mayo; I ended up improvising my own (almost certainly inferior) recipe, though I did borrow Christensen’s excellent trick of poaching the potato slices in vinegared, salted water so that the dressing isn’t their only source of flavor.

Over time, I came up with a dinner party based on recipes from the book that appeared doable. To start, I had to make the salad featured on the cover. Looking at this photograph, it took a minute for my mind to fully assimilate what I was seeing. Eventually, it resolved into a thick pink wedge of watermelon topped with a prettily fanned-out, perfectly ripe avocado half, shellacked with sweet-onion vinaigrette and scattered with chunks of goat cheese and torn basil leaves, all punctuated with little black flecks of ground pepper. It is pretty, and weird looking. Repeated in miniature, it would be a good 80s print, maybe on a pair of baggy, pleated below-the-knee shorts.

It was impressive to look at and good to eat. I had never fanned an avocado before, because I don’t have a food-photo Instagram account, and it was fun to learn how to do that; the book contains a helpful diagram. My dinner guests were similarly intrigued, but found the salad a little bit hard to eat; getting a bite with slippery avocado and a watermelon chunk required some maneuvering. A tastier approach would be to just cut everything into chunks and mix it in a bowl, but that would look disgusting.

In general, Christensen is very serious about vinaigrette, and about salad. There is a two-page recipe for red wine vinaigrette that must be followed to the letter; it is admirably sound and thorough, and includes texture, taste and even sound cues to help you determine whether you are making your vinaigrette the Ashley Christensen way. The end result is nothing more or less than a faultless red wine vinaigrette. There is also a checklist of salad rules and regulations that spans a couple of pages:

"Do these ingredients share a season and are they local?"

"If not, is the combination delicious enough that I can overlook the guilt of working with an ingredient that I’ve pulled from another climate or season?"

It goes on like that for several more bullet points. There’s a lot of emphasis on guilt: "Have I sourced these ingredients from quality-driven producers who better our foodways? The answer to this question (if you can afford this book) should be yes." It’s sort of charming, and sort of not. It’s very earnest. It also doesn’t make salad seem like much fun. Growing up, making salad was a kid's task — we would wash the lettuce and make the same dressing every night in a wooden bowl, by mashing a garlic clove with salt, adding olive oil, then tossing the greens and whatever vegetables were in the crisper drawer with this mixture. Then, just before serving, we’d sprinkle on some vinegar. It was always a little bit different, and sometimes it was too salty, or too vinegary, or too garlicky. But it was quick, and usually good, and there was no checklist required. I still think I’d rather have an okay salad than a perfect one most of the time.

The main course for my dinner party was Slow Shrimp With Marinated Peppers, one of those pesky recipes with a subrecipe embedded in it. I didn’t mind, because the actual shrimp recipe was so simple, more technique than recipe: You just put shrimp and butter and oil in a cold pan and heat them slowly together, so that the shrimp don’t seize up and become rubbery. It works! The marinated peppers, which have to be started the day before, are much more time-consuming: You char them under the broiler or over a gas flame, which fills the kitchen with tiny flecks of burning pepper-skin and a delicious smell, and also takes forever.

What comes out is good, and very, very similar — some people might say identical — to marinated peppers that you might buy in a tiny jar at a fancy store for $7. I had wanted to serve this over rice grits, which I was excited to learn about the existence of. Rice grits! In the recipe, Christensen notes that they are available online via Anson Mills, but Anson Mills requires you to buy a minimum of several pounds of its organic heirloom grains before they’ll ship them to you; I served it with ordinary white rice, which was fine. I was still on the fence at this point about whether the book managed to be both useable and good for recreational ogling, but I was feeling hopeful.

Encouraged, I began to flip through the book again to decide what I might cook next, but I kept losing track of recipes that had seemed promising, so I ended up spending lots of time admiring the photos, which are pretty and admirably down at heel. Nothing looks too dauntingly perfect, and dishes that are inherently unphotogenic, like plates of beans or grits, are allowed to just look like themselves, without being beset on all sides by distracting plates and napkins.

Just in time to take advantage of a late-summer glut of zucchini, I tracked down a recipe I remembered having seen but that had kept disappearing into the book’s structural clutter. (It’s in the "Vegetables" chapter.) To make Charred Summer Squash with Fresh Herbs, you put halved squashes and onions cut-side down in a heated cast-iron pan and deeply char them, then cut them up into bite-sized pieces and season them with salt, pepper, lemon juice, olive oil, and handfuls of freshly torn herbs. It’s an interesting new take on the vegetable, if you’re sick of sautéed or grilled or ribboned incarnations. The char brings out interesting new dimensions of flavor. But it’s hard to get the onion soft enough that its top part isn’t raw without turning the bottom inch of it into cinder. The whole charred-vegetable thing, which recurs throughout the book, might work better on a higher-heat restaurant stove.

It may be that some restaurants should just remain restaurants; their magic is in their specific geographic coordinates, the way light comes through their windows and hits your plate of pimento cheese toasts, the relaxing way it feels to eat a meal someone else has lovingly prepared for you. I did feel like I learned a lot from reading this book about what makes Poole’s work so well, and I’m totally convinced that Christensen cooks great food. But showcasing great food and beautiful photos of it aren’t quite enough on their own to make a restaurant cookbook that satisfies.

Emily Gould is the author most recently of Friendship, a novel. She works at Emily Books, a bookstore and publishing imprint.
Editor: Matt Buchanan
Excerpts reprinted with permission from Poole's: Recipes and Stories from a Modern Diner by Ashley Christensen, copyright © 2016. Photography by Johnny Autry. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Random House LLC.

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