Given the nonstop attention devoted to chefs, it seems unlikely that any of them who possess real talent could fly under the food world's radar for long.
But it turns out that there is an entire universe of sophisticated, accomplished chefs few people know. And these chefs, their food and their restaurants are worth learning about, judging from the staggering array of information about them presented in COCO: 10 World Leading Masters Choose 100 Contemporary Chefs (Phaidon Press, $49.95). If you cook for a living and are wondering what your peers elsewhere in the world are up to, this is the book for you.
Be prepared to feel inadequate after you read it. The 10 “World Leading Masters” (Mario Batali, Alain Ducasse, Gordon Ramsay, Alice Waters, et al.) are giants of the industry, all right, but few of them spend their time cooking in restaurant kitchens anymore. Their task here is to tell us about the people who do, with each “master” nominating 10 chefs for a turn in the spotlight. The nominal criterion for inclusion was that a chef be one who is “creating the most innovative and delicious food in the world today.”
A tall order, indeed, since each “master's” selections seem to revolve around favored ex-employees who have moved on to other jobs and found success, chefs at whose restaurant the “master” had recently eaten a memorable meal, or just their pals.
This methodology seems shaky, but the result is brilliant. The chosen chefs come from all over the world — Latin America and Africa getting short shrift — and they're worth getting to know. Few are from the U.S., and most readers will have only heard of a handful of the others before. But as you page through this book, you can't help but feel that, yes, there are ethereally high levels of cooking going on in the world, and it's handy that so many details about who's doing it have been collected here in one place for you.
The chosen format helps. Profiles of the 100 chefs are presented in alphabetical order, yearbook-style, with a four-page section devoted to each. The first two pages include a four- or five-paragraph introduction from the nominating “master;” the chef's biography; a representative menu; and an assortment of photos showing the chef at work.
The remaining two pages provide three or four of the chef's recipes, each accompanied by a food shot showing the final presentation. It's not in-depth, but it's plenty to whet your appetite. Especially when you consider the range of the 375 recipes included here. All we can say is that the culinary world is vast, and this books shows us that there are many ways to create great food.
It's a bargain at $49.95. Many readers will want to menu multiple items from this book right away; others will get busy figuring out how they can be included in the next edition.