Famous Chefs & Fabulous Recipes
While definitely very excited at the idea of reviewing a cookbook, I had to pause when I heard the title "Famous Chefs & Fabulous Recipes." It seems that famous chefs are absolutely everywhere. On the restaurant marquee, the television, the store shelves...even as far reaching as the gossip columns. I likely would have passed this book up on the shelf. But I took a seat and gave it look. I need to take that approach more often, I've decided! One quick flip through this wonderful book by Lisa Abraham and I found myself parked in that seat until I'd read the entire book from cover to cover.
This is a cookbook for readers. It will hook you on the history and introduction in chapter one and it's packed with not only recipes but also biographies of fascinating people that have either been born into a world of food or have grown into it. Their stories all lead them in one way or another to The Western Reserve School of Cooking in Hudson, Ohio.
I had never before heard of The Western Reserve School of Cooking or its founder, Zona Spray. You may never have either. If so, like me, you will be surprised you haven’t. The only reason Zona Spray is not a household name is that she hasn't had her own television show. But I find the descriptions of Zona and what she has done with her life no less impressive than stories of the life and career of Julia Child.
Zona Spray taught her first cooking classes from her homes, as her husband's jobs moved them around the country. With a passion for the science behind cooking, Zona's goal was to teach cooking technique to home cooks. As her classes outgrew her home in Twin Lakes outside of Kent, Ohio, she moved her little school to a church basement. When they outgrew the church, she purchased The Cookery- a cookware and gift shop at The Western Reserve Academy, a private preparatory school in Hudson, Ohio. Zona remodeled, building a kitchen in the back, retaining the storefront, and founded the Zona Spray School of Cooking. This is her path in a nutshell, but the descriptions of her determination, work ethic, knowledge and pioneering spirit as a tiny woman with a huge personality make the first chapter of this book a very good read.
Zona made friends with seemingly every talented chef both in her area and around the world, and they were more than willing to swing by her school and teach cooking classes in its homey, family style setting. But don't let the humble descriptions fool you. Zona's school and storefront were offering to the public cutting edge cookware and lessons in technique by a flow of prominent chefs from around the world well before (as in decades before) cooking schools such as this were common throughout the US.
Zona Spray retired to Florida in 1998. She had sold the school in 1997 to Carole Ferguson (who renamed the school The Western Reserve School of Cooking). Catherine St. John currently owns the school and is its 4th owner. The school's teachers continue to be traveling educators, chefs on the road to promote books, permanent staff from the region and friends from around the world- all indeed "famous chefs" in one circle or another.
And how about the fabulous recipes? The book's seven recipe chapters are subdivided by chefs, all chefs that have taught at the school as staff or guests and have contributed to the school's recipe box. As I am compelled to do when reading any good cookbook, I completed the book with many pages folded and flagged. Though, as a working class parent that can no longer afford to put pine nuts in anything, I was concerned this cookbook might not apply to my life in my kitchen. Some recipes impressed me, but- as an everyday person in Duluth, Minnesota versus a well-to-do in a coastal region - I either won't (pressed for time) or can't (pressed for money) accomplish them. Though some of the finer dining foods in this book will likely suit me on special occasions through years. At a second and third glance, I found many recipes that I can accomplish with no hit to my stress level or my savings account. Zona's Slow Roasted Chicken and Vegetables, an Armenian Tomato and Eggplant Salsa and an easy Grilled Flat Bread, a Warm Pear Tart...these and many others I can throw together in an evening or a weekend day even with little girls underfoot. I imagine this book will fit into my life as a go-to for something fancy and as a resource for weekly menu planning.
As part of the review process, I set out to find three recipes to create from the book. My personal goal was to create something I was compelled to try as soon as possible as well as something that stood outside of what I'm quick to endeavor. The Easter Soup with Chicken from Aglaia Kremezi was a recipe I knew that I could afford both in time and in money. For the tricky dishes, I noted that the book includes three recipes for an unadorned White Chocolate Mousse (as well as a 4th White Chocolate Pistachio Mousse- yum, but for another day.) I set to push the boundaries of what I would normally accomplish on a well-deserved day off work by creating and comparing all three mousses. I noted that the three recipes varied greatly in technique. Marcel Desaulniers' mousse involved melting white chocolate and folding in whipped cream before chilling. Bev Shaffer's recipe called for melting the chocolate with the whipping cream, then beating it to a fluff after chilling the liquid overnight. And Jeffrey Waite's mousse involved melting white chocolate while cooking sugar and water to a soft-ball stage...and then what? It's probably me, but I couldn't grasp this recipe (page 217- is it me? Or is there something missing from the recipe?). I guess the recipe might want me to pour the liquid candy into the egg whites while beating until it sets up as a meringue, but it doesn't say that exactly. Whether the recipe or me, I opted out. I tackled the first two, pulled my youngest out from under my foot, and recruited her to make Bev Shaffer's Strawberry Coulis to serve beneath the mousse. As you'll note in the provided photo- the mousse that was made with whipped cream folded into the chocolate set up perfectly and that which I chilled overnight and fluffed, did fluff, then sadly fell while we ate our soup. So, two mousses failed me (rather, I failed the mousses) though we happily devoured our dessert and licked our plates clean. And the soup was wonderful! Broth from scratch, the rich flavor of chicken liver, thickened with egg and flavored with lemon and dill. We practically inhaled this delicious soup (with a bit of good bread), lapped up our mousse, and had more soup for dessert.
True to the goal of Zona's cooking school, it wasn't necessarily the recipes I made that will stick with me. Instead I adopted knowledge which I will use in my future- how to thicken a soup with egg without it curdling, how easy it can be to create a quick chocolate mousse on a school night, how to save a buck and keep my girls from under foot by having them whip up a super simple coulis from last summer's berries in a blender.
This may be a book about famous chefs, but it's not a book about celebrity chefs. These are stories about real people that have done extraordinary things with their time. (Yes, I know celebrities are real people- but isn’t it hard to tell sometimes when branding rains on their parade?) Zona's goal for her school was to feed us "knowledge that spurs creativity" and Catherine St. John is likely working tirelessly to keep this spirit alive. Famous Chefs & Fabulous Recipes isn't the Joy of Cooking or your humble community cookbook, and it isn't just for folks looking for a window into the lifestyles of the rich and fabulous chefs of the world. If you're a foodie, a culinary student or even a student of life, you will value this book. If not for its recipes to impress, then it's recipes to feed your family the fantastic cooking they deserve. And you will value the inspiring tales of how prominent chefs have found their place in the food world and in this remarkable school in Hudson, Ohio.