Friday, November 21, 2008

Tru--The Cookbook

I'm not usually one for these kind of vanity tomes--you know, these $50 glossy chef-driven cookbooks that are basically just a big PR piece for the restaurant/chef and have super-complex recipes with 6-8 different days-long preparations that no one will ever make at home.

But I was with my kid at the library the other day and was casting about for something to read while he played at the train table, and this one caught my eye. Should be a fun diversion, I thought...especially since I used to work at Tru.


These type of cookbooks are often riddled with pompous arrogance, name-dropping, and narcissistic egotism, but I think Tru: A Cookbook from the Legendary Chicago Restaurant may have set a new standard for vanity.

More name dropping, I have never seen. Tramonto goes to great pains to inform us that he's eaten at all the great restaurants the world has ever known, and that the chef of every one of them is "his good friend". In fact, I'm thinking that he must've created a macro on his word processor for the phrase "my good friend, chef..." when he was writing this book. I counted 28 separate references to world-famous chefs before I even got to the 'entrees' section of the book (I got sick of counting). Barf!

And I guess Tramonto was so busy name-checking celebrity chefs that he forgot completely to give any credit for anything, ever, to any of the cooks or chefs who worked in his kitchen over the years. The closest he comes is referring to when he and "his sous chefs" worked on a fois gras dish together.

Truth is, though, that since I worked in this kitchen during the opening of this restaurant, I know firsthand that at least a dozen of the recipes that Tramonto takes credit for in his book were created by chefs and cooks in his employ. Which is fine, of course. Cooks and sous chefs expect this sort of thing, and anything they create while employed at a restaurant becomes the 'creation' of the guy whose name is on the door. But it would've been nice to at least mention one kitchen employee at least once in the book.

This jives with my personal experience at Tru. When I worked there, as a young cook not too far removed from culinary school, I was idealistic and *very* into learning more about this kind of high-end cooking. I would go to work a few hours early almost every day and sometimes would go to the Borders bookstore on Michigan avenue in order to read these chef-driven vanity cookbooks--as many as I could get my hands on. I didn't have fifty bucks to buy them as they were released, so I'd read them in the bookstore over a coffee before going into work.

Soon, I began to become a bit disenchanted with Tru and Tramonto. "Hey!", I'd think as I read through a cookbook by Jean-Louis Palladin or Jean-Georges Vongerichten, "that's our smoked salmon dish." Or "that's how we plate our beef tenderloin". The more I read, the more I realized that Tramonto didn't create. He copped from the best.

I distinctly remember reading a new cookbook released by Hawaii chef Alan Wong, in which he featured a drink that was served in a fancy "glass within a glass" that allowed the placement of a live beta fish that would swim around within the glass while the diner drank the cocktail. Pretty gimmicky, I thought.

Then, a few weeks later, Tramonto showed up with a few dozen of these gimmicky fancy glasses and--surprise!--beta fish. He did a raw fish dish he then called a 'poke' (a Hawaiian term that Wong referenced in another section of the same cookbook), and he told us--as well as a Tribune reporter--that he was "inspired to create this dish by a visit to the Shedd aquarium with his son, Gio". That dish is called "Live Japanese Fish and Chips" in the book.

Interestingly, in the intro to this recipe, Tramonto does give credit to Alan Wong, contradicting his previous story in which he described how the idea sprung from his forehead, fully realized. Maybe he was worried that his "good friend, chef Alan Wong" would read the book.

In the intro to a recipe in the 'amuse-bouche' section, Tramonto writes "When I was coming up with an idea for a wonderful amuse-bouche for a vegetable collection, I thought of a perfect organic carrot that morphs into this light, pretty parfait." Hmmm. Did you? Is that what you thought of? Were you floating down a consomme river while lying on a truffled brioche raft while you "thought of" that, chef?

Because, see, you must be blurring the line between fantasy and reality, since your sous chef, Cesar Ramirez, brought that recipe with him to Tru when he came over from the Ritz-Carlton, and I can even remember you telling him that the recipe was "money" and that you were "totally going to steal it from him".

That brings us, sadly, to the writing in this snooze-fest. New standards of bad-ness. Tramonto is assisted by his usual co-author, Jill Goodbody, a seasoned 'helper' of chefs for cookbooks, but it appears that Ms. Goodbody's advice was discarded or perhaps she also drank the Tramonto kool-aid, because she allowed this kind of groan-inducing prose to get through the filter;

"When I hear that age-old question, which came first, the chicken or the egg? I say, Who cares? Eggs are so good, what's the point debating the issue? Just enjoy."

"Until I ate at Jamin, chef Joel Robuchon's Michelin three-star Paris restaurant, in 1980, I had used truffles extremely sparingly, if lovingly. My life changed that day!"

"You might be surprised to find oxtail in a chapter on fish and seafood, but I find that full-flavored, meaty, fatty fish such as sturgeon taste fantastic with braised meats. I credit the idea for this dish to chef Jacques Le Divellec of Le Divellec, the famed Paris restaurant that concentrates on seafood, where I first tasted braised meat with fish. You won't be surprised to hear that I loved it!"

Gag me! Did they have a sale! on! exclamation! points!??! Tramonto uses multiple exclamation points in the intro to just about every dish! Way to make your fifty dollar vanity cookbook appear to have been written by a 14-year old girl!

To summarize; the Tru cookbook is laughably bad--an ego-fest with poor writing, a catalog of dishes the chef/author copped from others, an opportunity for him to list dozens of his famous "good friends" and basically sprain his elbow clapping himself on the back for his "creations".

The photography, by Tim Turner, is wonderful and amazing. Some of the best food photography out there. In short, a perfect book for wasting a half an hour at the library idly leafing through while watching your kid. But, good lord, don't pay for it. (oh, for the record, and it retails for $35, not $50!)


aletheis said...

I'm sorry to hear that the Tru cookbook is so ridiculous - especially with regard to Tramonto's ego.

May I ask - were you working at Tru in early 2001? I had the pleasure of dining there then (at the age of 17) & the meal blew my mind/tastebuds. I am grateful to the chefs of Tru for opening my eyes to food-as-art & food-as-plaything. I know that sort of characterization sounds cliche' and pretentious, but I can't think of a better way to describe what it was like to eat there that night. After growing up on stodgy, boring, heartless food, it was a breath of fresh air.

E L said...

thanks for your comment.

i wasn't working at Tru when you dined there--i was living in Italy at that time.

and please do remember that my comments about Tru and the cookbook reflect only my own personal opinions, which are, of course, colored by my own personal subjective viewpoint. so...grain of fleur de sel and all that.

i think it's great that you had a mind-blowing meal there and that opened you up a whole new way of looking at food and cooking.

thanks for reading!