Great Chefs Cook Vegan presents one of the more compelling arguments for veganism's entrance into the mainstream food consciousness. And it's not because it's filled with recipes from high-profile "normal" chefs on haute couture vegan cuisine. Neither is it because it generally avoids the categories of everyday, quick, or tastes-like recipes that can easily be found in abundance elsewhere. No, the clearer sign is that it doesn't even bother with telling you what veganism is, why you might want to go vegan, or tips for adapting to vegan cooking.
No, you're on your own if you still need that instruction. But the interesting thing is that the book doesn't suffer for this omission, and neither does it seem confusing without this obligatory introduction. It takes for granted – and I think rightly so – that we're all accustomed to the what and why of vegan eating, and skips to the how. Or perhaps more appropriately, skips pasts even that to the "holy crap, I have to do what?"
Linda Long is a prominent food photographer, and her images and relationships with leading chefs anchor this collection. The book is organized by chef, each offering roughly three or four dishes that can stand as a multi-course meal. And a lengthy list of chefs it is, with everyone from Charlie Trotter and Jean-Georges Vongerichten to Thomas Keller. These are highly respected chefs, and you can expect offerings that are a step above pedestrian fare.
But because of the high pedigree for Great Chefs, there are two equal, but hopefully complementary, ways of approaching a cookbook of this type. And the first involves fear.
After a brief look at the intriguing and sumptuous photos that are the centerpiece of the Long's work, it becomes more apparent that this is not exactly geared towards everyday cooking. Top chefs meticulously craft vegan dishes, with what must be world-class gourmet supermarkets in their backyards and budgets to match. And it seems that their pride is at stake, each one trying to one-up the chef before them with demonstrations of "yeah, but can you do this?" culinary experimentation.
This could probably be seen as more of an elegant coffee-table book for a vegan's home. You flip through and admire the exquisite dishes on display, but the thought of actually trying to tackle some of these might induce more fatigue than fever. As an example, the recipe for Cantaloupe Truffle Bar with Soy Caramel and Spearmint Ice occupies four pages (yes, for one dessert), including the crafting of decoratively imprinted chocolate bands for binding the creation. Not exactly something to whip up for a spot of tea. This is perhaps an upper-end example, but it's not extreme when compared to many of the other offerings.
But before you think that it's all hopelessly out-of-reach froofy fare, we should touch on the other aspect of the book, which is inspiration.
As detailed as some of the recipes can be, a bigger take-away from this Great Chefs is just being creative. Sometimes that creativity manifests inself in the details, but just as often it lies in resourcefulness. For example, all of Cat Cora's recipes are easily accessible fare, including a curried cauliflower dish. It's fancy only in the sense that you might not have previously considered that you could do much to dress up cauliflower.
Or David Burke's sweet pea ravioli. Or Anne Quatrano's simple tomato and avocado bruschetta. Or Vongerichten's chilled watermelon gazpacho. All of these recipes are easily obtainable for the average chef, but we may just need to expand our culinary vocabulary. Some just look more exotic than they are.
Which brings us back to the anchor of Long's photographs. Half of the allure of these dishes is how carefully they are styled and presented. Things are layered, others cubed, most are drizzled with something and half of them have either a sprig of something lying about or some sort of geometric complement elsewhere on the plate. In short, these are not straight out of the crock pot. But as part of the education aspect of the book, most of the recipes also include tips on styling. And some of the styling tips are downright basic. A decorative swirl of dressing from a bottle can do wonders. As Mark Bittman is fond of saying, "I just added ten dollars to the cost of this dish."
As long as you know what you're getting into, Great Chefs Cook Vegan can be a very inspiring – if sometimes overwhelming – book. Come for the pictures, but stay for the education.