My favourite cookbook I have ever read has got to be Momofuku by David Chang and Peter Meighan. This book tells the story of David Chang set up his first, second and third restaurants across his three year meteoric rise from west village noodle bar to a Beard award winning culinary freight train. He is now one of the most influential Chefs in America, possibly the world with restaurants in Canada and now Australia.
The book is broken up into three distinct parts, each part for each of the first three restaurants he opened. Each section tells the story of the opening of the restaurants and guides you through the recipes and dishes that were on the menu when they first opened.
Throughout the book he keeps coming back to the idea of Authenticity vs Deliciousness and which is more important.
He talks about the search for “Authenticity” as a fool’s errand. Authenticity is an un-quantifiable entity. Especially when trying to recreate something like Tokyo Ramen on the streets of Manhattan. It’s impossible, the ingredients are different, the customers are different, the cooks are different, hell even the water in the taps is different.
Instead he says that it is far more important that first and foremost, your food be delicious than for it to follow some impossible notion of authenticity. When I go out for food I want good food made well. I don’t want food made in a pastiche of a dish without any of the correct ingredients or techniques.
“Is it delicious?” should always be your first question when making a dish.
When he talks about inventing new dishes for his Japanese inspired noodle bar he comes directly up against this conflict early on when making a base for his ramen broth. Ramen broth will usually contain a very strong smoky element in the form of katsuobushi which is a dried, smoked and fermented product made from bonito fish. He talks about trying to find a similar high quality product made in the states but without much luck. He then stumbled upon Alan Benton, a gentleman who makes what is reported to be the greatest smoked bacon in the world. Dave used this smoky bacon instead of the katsuobushi as the base for his Dashi. In that dish, his philosophy was formed. To take the idea and flavour of a traditional dish, and recreate it using the best of what you have on offer to you.
That is the kind of authenticity that David Chang believes in. Authenticity to the ingredients, not to a certain way of doing things with a certain exact set of ingredients.
It is worth noting also that the recipes in this book are extremely well put together, relying a lot on ratios and feelings more than the usual exact science of recipe writing. The photos are incredibly candid and natural. Most being from Chang’s personal collection of things he and his friends had swapped over the years.
Overall the book paints a really true and honest story about what being a chef in a restaurant kitchen is really like and all of the insanity that goes with it. I love cookbooks but sometimes with the prevalence of “Back to basics” and “Easy quick dinners” books it’s hard for me to get my hands on a cookbook I can really relate to. A book that speaks to me creatively and challenges me to cook better than I did today. This book is exactly that. The story is inspirational in a way that I could see it being my story in five or ten years time. The recipes are accessible but force me to think outside my comfort zone. The photos are scenes I see on a daily basis in work.
This book feels very much like a book made by cooks for cooks about cooks.
An absolute must read for anyone who takes food, or any form of creativity, seriously.