You can't blame Mark Peel's publisher for positioning his latest book (New Classic Family Dinners; Wiley, $34.95) as one that contains simple, comforting dishes even a novice can reproduce at home. The 200 recipes are billed as “everyday” fare, and Peel goes to great lengths in his introduction to further hold the hand of the prospective buyer. “This is not a chef cookbook,” he says. “The recipes aren't difficult, the food isn't fancy, and you won't require a kitchen staff to succeed.”
True in a way. But full-service operators shouldn't be misled by this anyone-can-do-it pitch. Peel is chef/owner at revered Los Angeles restaurant Campanile, and this book details the greatest hits he's produced for Campanile's Monday Night Family Dinners. It's not lesser food than the usual Campanile fare; just different. Peel cooks it all to a very high standard, and the food detailed in this book has been served over and over to guests who, because they're eating it at Campanile, have lofty expectations of their own.
The restaurant's Monday night dinners typically consist of seasonal fare, often arranged around a particular culinary theme (New England clambake; meat and three). An evening's menu might offers fare that is middlebrow (coq au vin) or even lowbrow (tuna noodle casserole). Peel particularly loves to revisit the “Continental” dining era, when items such as veal picatta, lobster Newburg, spaghetti with clam sauce and peach Melba starred on fancy restaurant menus.
“These dishes were extremely popular in America in the 1950s and 1960s, but eventually they became clichés and fell out of favor,” he says. “They were done by too many restaurants, usually badly with lousy ingredients and lots of shortcuts. But a dish doesn't end up on thousands of menus if it doesn't have some kind of core value. I've made it my mission to find those core values and bring these dishes back to life.”
The result: rejuvenated old school food. Even better, Peel shows you how to market it. He offers 19 complete four- or five-item menus that have stood the test of time in Campanile's Monday Night series. So if you plan to, for example, offer his beer-braised brisket, you'll know what else to serve with it. That menu starts with Peel's radish and cucumber salad with yogurt dressing, moves on to beer-braised brisket with caramelized root vegetables and his signature “mashed potatoes, finally revealed”; and finishes with another classic, devil's food cake with white mountain frosting. Readers can feel secure that the recipes will work, and they further know that customers will enjoy them and come back for more, because they've all been test-marketed over the years at Campanile.
You can't ask for more from a book than this, especially now that customers demand great taste and solid value each time they dine. Peel shows you how to pull it off without breaking the bank on food costs. It's quite a skill to have in these tough economic times.