What We’re Reading: Top Chef: The Cookbook

I’m an ardent fan of Top Chef, the competitive cooking show on Bravo, but I’ve often wondered about the judges’ decisions. Was Hung’s sous vide duck breast truly unique and delicious? What about Harold’s duo of beef? And C.J.’s broccolini—was it really pack-your-knives disgusting? Finally, with the release of Top Chef: The Cookbook, ambitious cooks can now taste some of that as-seen-on-TV food in their own homes. The book offers over 100 recipes, including the aforementioned duck and beef dishes, as well as Casey’s coq au vin (but no mention of the rooster vs. hen controversy), Marcel’s hamachi poke, and much more. What you won’t find are any of the bad dishes—there’s no recipe for Ilan’s chocolate ganache with liver, for example.Interspersed with the recipes are glossy beauty shots of both chefs and chow, profiles of almost everyone who’s ever logged camera-time on the show, and behind-the-scenes scoop that could be a little juicier (we’re more interested in knowing if Padma’s stoned than what’s stocked in the Top Chef pantry). And though at times the volume feels more like a tribute than a cookbook, enthusiastic fans will find much interesting trivia to digest.

But the real question is: How are the recipes? In a word, erratic. In the spirit of the show, recipes are lifted directly from an episode. So while some Quickfire concoctions serve two, other more complicated dishes might serve up to 20 people. Many of the recipes are extremely labor-intensive and intimidating for the home cook, and feature expensive ingredients (Dale’s Colorado rack of lamb is braised in three-and-a-half pounds of duck fat). Other recipes were prompted by gimmicky challenges, such as “Create a dish using three different canned foods.” Sorry, but Vienna sausages are not going to darken my kitchen.

Instead, I tried out Casey and Dale’s turkey-and-pork meatballs with orecchiette  and spinach-almond pesto, which originated from the challenge to “split into pairs to create a frozen pasta meal.” Though pasta meals are generally fast and simple, this recipe was quite labor-intensive, requiring lots of different elements like heavily seasoned meatballs, and spinach-almond pesto made with olive-oil poached garlic. I liked the tanginess of the meatballs, made zesty with lemon peel and crushed chili. But despite the golden, slow-cooked garlic, the spinach-almond pesto was too bland, making me wonder why Casey and Dale didn’t stick with traditional basil and pine nuts. Most of all, I was surprised by how much time it took to make this recipe—two and a half hours is way too long for a weekday meal. Dale and Casey made it look so easy, but I guess that’s why they’re Top Chefs and I’m not.
Top Chef: The Cookbook, Chronicle Books, $29.95.

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