When a high-end cookbook recipe doesn’t work, how can this story have a happy ending? Somehow, it does.
First, a little backstory. Remember when Julie Powell started her career-changing food blog, The Julie/Julia Project, in 2002? It was about a government drone who makes every recipe from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over a one-year period. Her blog led to the first blog-to-book deal and a subsequent movie.
After that, a whole bunch of people started blogs about cooking their way through challenging cookbooks. One of them was Allen Hemberger, a visual effects artist who spent five years cooking and blogging his way through the Alinea cookbook after dining there in 2008.
Hemberger is a little obsessive and a perfectionist — anyone would have to be to dedicate so much time and expense to recreating molecular gastronomy dishes. According to him, it was worth it.
“Over the course of the project, I’ve built precisely-controllable heating chambers for warming chocolate, learned how to import super-fresh fish from the Tsukiji fish market in Japan and washed more dishes than I could possibly keep count of. Every recipe in the book has offered new and unique opportunities for me to deepen my understanding and appreciation of the food I eat, how it is procured and prepared and how it can be used as more than just a source of nourishment, but as an expression of artistic creativity,” he explains on his site.
He trusted that all the recipes in the Alinea cookbook were correct. “I treated it like a bible,” he states. So far so good. Those of us who write cookbooks want recipes to be rigorously tested and for all the recipes to work, especially a high-profile cookbook from a renowned restaurant.
About 7:45 minutes into the video, however, he reveals that one recipe was problematic: a gelatin swirl that fell apart, no matter how many times he made it. Keep watching. He emails chef Grant Achatz, who suggests Hemberger come to the restaurant, where he will demo the dish. To Achatz’s surprise, when doing the demo, the recipe does not work.
But Hemberger is jubilant. He had already figured out that the recipe needed more gelatin. For him, Achatz’s mistake was confirmation to trust his intuition and take ownership of a dish. It meant he knew how to cook.
Now this is a fascinating situation. As recipe developers, we believe different things that sometimes conflict:
1. Readers should follow a recipe exactly to get a good result
2. Recipes should always work
3. Readers should experiment and change the recipe, to learn how to cook and to suit their own tastes.
Hemberger fell into a fourth category: he cooked so much from one cookbook that he knew how to fix a failed recipe. He was pumped. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of a book about his process, called The Alinea Project. The book costs $100. A filmmaker also contacted him to make a film about his process. Hemberger is a new celebrity.
Why does his cookbook need to exist? To quote him, “While my blog contains the hyper-detailed intricacies of each dish, behind it have been questions I’ve asked myself over the years, insights I’ve gained and lots of other stories I haven’t gotten the chance to tell.”
Having read this story, what do you think about the recipe not working, and Hemberger’s reaction? Is it okay to to write recipes that fail, if readers fix them and become more trusting of themselves as cooks?