There is something wonderfully indulgent about a Phaidon book. They are so elegantly designed, printed on a paper sympathetic to the subject and beautifully bound to complete the perfect package. ‘The Garden Chef’ is no exception to this rule. Printed on an uncoated stock to give it a rustic feel, with copper foil lettering on the jacket and a wonderfully uncluttered layout, this book is a wonderful object in itself.
The 256 pages take the reader on a journey across the globe to the gardens and kitchens of 40 of the worlds greatest ‘plot-to-plate’ chefs. From farming in Russia to foraging in Iceland, and from a community garden in Brazil, to a rooftop garden in the UK, it tells the stories of chefs who have put the plants they have grown at the centre of their menus.
Yet while these chefs are allowing vegetables to take a role ‘front and centre after many years of playing a supporting role with [and] exploring the depth of flavour and versatility of plants’, this isn’t a vegetarian cookbook. In fact, very few of the 80 recipes included are totally plant-based.
Nor are these recipes that you could easily whip-up for a weeknight dinner party. Indeed there is a caveat on the imprint page that notes: ‘a number of the recipes require advanced techniques, specialist equipment, and professional experience to achieve good results’. The list of ingredients put Ottolenghi to shame, with everything from to slipper lobsters to kanpyo gourd and a wide variety of leaves, tubers and edible flowers such as mizuna, huauzontle and ullucus, all of which I have to admit needing to Google! Even those ingredients I recognised had an added twist to them, such as the new potatoes ‘picked and rinsed no more than 15 minutes before cooking’.
But once I’d accepted the book as a case study in ‘farm-to-table’ cooking, rather than a practical ‘how to’ I was able to set aside the feeling of intimidation and enjoy learning more.
This is really a book that is more at home on a coffee table than in a kitchen.
The case studies of each of the chefs are fascinating, and it is clear that plot-to-plate cooking is no mean feat: ‘this is in no way the easy route; it’s far more challenging, more expensive, and more unpredictable for chefs, but it’s also more exciting [and] dynamic […] The rise of the kitchen garden has reconnected chefs to the earth and inspired them to be better cooks’.
In his foreword to the book, chef Jeremy Fox observes: ‘When you grow ingredients yourself […] you gain a real connection to what you are cultivating. […] As a chef with a kitchen garden, you’re not shopping for ingredients; it’s more like you are translating the garden.’
The photography is also enchanting, and it transports you to gardens in Spain, France, Denmark, Australia, Mexico, Russia and Brazil to name but a few.
While I won’t be rushing into the garden to forage for nasturtium and locust flowers, this is a book that I think horticulturalists and foodies alike will enjoy.
‘The Garden Chef’, £29.95, is published by Phaidon