Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 19, 2022

Is This a Cookbook? by Heston Blumenthal

Ok, first up, I have to say that the font used for Heston Blumenthal’s ruminations on food and eating in Is This a Cookbook? is extremely annoying.  I don’t know what it is, maybe Informal Roman, but it’s a version of Italic which as we all know is tiresome to read if there’s a lot of it. So, if your eyesight is not great, you are not the designer’s demographic…


Rightio, that’s got that out of the way…

Heston Blumenthal is well-known to viewers of Masterchef where he is venerated like a god and subject to fangirl/boy ecstasy whenever he makes a grand entrance.   Whether this is because these apparently everyday contestants have actually eaten in his astronomically-priced restaurant, or because they aspire to his molecular gastronomy (or just the fame), I do not know.  However, I find him entertaining, because unlike Marco Pierre-White and his pompous posturing, though Heston is A Serious Chef in his restaurants, he does not take himself too seriously on the show.  I enjoyed the challenge when I attempted one of his recipes from Historic Heston (2014, see my review), but I do not take him seriously as a guide in the domestic kitchen.  I’m an experienced cook and I like to be adventurous with recipes, but I’m not a chef and I don’t aspire to be.

Is This a Cookbook? brings Heston back down to earth. A bit.  Opening his book at random I find his ‘Gut-Friendly Beetroot Soup’ involves nearly a whole page of ingredients and two pages of instructions for the pickled beetroot, the stock, the beetroot barley, the pan-roasted root vegetables, the kefir horseradish and the garnish. Plus there’s nearly a page (in the annoying Italics) about digestion and the microbiome, and next to each page of the actual recipe, there’s another page of tips and explanations (in the annoying Italics.) So, including the full colour page photo of the soup, this one recipe takes six pages.  ‘Exhilarating Geen Gazpacho’ soup takes four.  So does the ‘Kimcheese Toastie’ and the ‘Bacon Buttie’ preceded by five pages about sandwiches (yes, Italics for all of it) and photos of Heston eating ‘A Mindful Sandwich’.  You do the maths, not counting the index there are 340 pages, give or take 23 pages of the yada-yada at the beginning of the book, so there’s not a lot of recipes…

And most of them are for really ordinary food. Roasts, hamburgers, toasties, Italian dishes that everyone makes but jazzed up à la Heston.  The exception is the Breakfast section which offers ‘Parsnip Granola’; ‘Tomato and Coffee Muffins’; ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ (Noooooooooooo!); and the ‘Bacon and Egg Porridge’ (which looks as if someone’s been sick in the bowl).  In the chapter ‘Where do you want to eat tonight?’ there’s a Popcorn Popcorn (sic) chicken, which is unfortunately made with popcorn, the stink of which in cinemas, I loathe. Kids might possibly love it, but be warned, Heston’s idea of a ‘simple recipe’ is not the same as mine.

As you can see from the cover design, the sub-title of the book is Adventures in the Kitchen’ and in the introductory pages Heston explains his newish philosophy.  This is (mercifully not in Italics) the most interesting part of the book. He explains how he’s become more interested in sustainability (and in among the recipes there are little tips on not wasting things), and he calls for a ‘learning revolution’ to enhance human creativity in everything not just cooking.  He’s also on about ‘feeding the spirit’ and being mindful.  (Which is why there’s the five-page intro to the sandwich.  We should be mindful while we’re eating them, just as he was, on a plane, eating an airline sandwich.  I kid you not. This is culinary satire, surely…)

He goes on to explain how quantum mechanics (a branch of physics) made him realise that dual possibilities exist and they are part of how we experience the world: we’re constantly changing between different perspectives. In the kitchen this translates into a split between human being and human doing.

Human doing is the culinary task with all its strictures and structures.  Human being, on the other hand, is all that stuff that makes us, er, human beings.  Our ability to respond to cooking in an imaginative way — noticing things, finding connections, responding emotionally, taking everything in and turning it into experiences, consciousness and our own personalised version of reality. (p.12)

I suspect that every weary parent who has cooked something nutritious that’s within the budget, knows about this difference in perspective when the offspring refuse to eat it and nobody helps with the washing up.

Ok, enough.  Am I going to try any of the recipes?  Well, I am a bit of a masochist when it comes to experimenting in the kitchen… but there are limits.  I’m not doing anything from the section on fermentation, or mealworms or cricket powder, and if I knew where to get some hemp seeds I’d be growing them in the garden, not making a satay or a panna cotta with them.

And that’s the problem with this cookbook (if that’s what it is).  The recipes are either seriously weird, or not particularly interesting.  We’ve seen Heston do this on Masterchef where he’s made a grand theatrical production out of making a hamburger or (ugh!) Mac ‘n’ Cheese; and then he does something rather peculiar like his Chilli Con Carne with Spiced Chocolate… or Cricket Cookies.

However, the fish cakes with tartare sauce do look good.  A little bit different, and not too hard, and fortunately Heston suggests any white round fish as a substitute for pollack fillets, which I’ve never seen in Australia.  He doesn’t suggest a substitute for Maris Piper potatoes which are popular in the UK but not available here — but I’m guessing that Dutch Cream, Desiree, Coliban or Sebago spuds would be ok, and I do actually have a jar of goose fat to roast them in, and some thyme growing in the garden.

Is This a Cookbook? is not a practical guide to cooking, and it steers an uneven path between adventures in the kitchen and Tuesday night cooking jazzed up a bit (and sometimes a lot).  But since Heston is so famous for being Heston, I doubt if anybody really expects it to be a cookbook, hence its title.

Like Heston himself, Is This a Cookbook? is entertainment.

And I enjoyed it.

Theresa Smith enjoyed reading it too. 


Update, the next day…

I’ve been thinking about this book on and off, because I think that it heralds a different kind of cookbook.  (Heston always has been ahead of the game).  Cookbooks — and celebrity cookbooks in particular — as we all know are a mainstay of sales.  Whether they are practical guides for beginners, gourmet adventures for the bold and the brave, or food porn where the photography is the real star of the show, cookbooks are stalwart performers at Christmas, for wedding presents and housewarmings.  But these days, people have cooking apps, and they look up recipes online, and they live in minimalist housing with no space to store a cookbook anyway. What does a celebrity chef’s cookbook do these days, to warrant its purchase?

I think it becomes a book to read. Perhaps even for people who don’t read any other kind of book. A book with interesting ideas, and humour, and one that brings the celebrity chef alive on the page.

Author: Heston Blumenthal
Title: Is This a Cookbook?
Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2022
ISBN: 9781526621504, hbk., 367 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury AU.


Responses

  1. This made me laugh. I’d open this, read a section with my eyes of a bat, then go boil some water for three minute noodles. It’s fun to fantasise about though.

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  2. Do let us know if you cook the fish cakes!

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    • Ha ha, will do!
      BTW I can’t comment on your latest post on your new blog, but you know I’m reading it, I hope!

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  3. Thanks for the link Lisa!

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  4. Nicely reviewed, thanks, Lisa. I assume Heston explains that the Mexican origins of chilli con carne fit well with the Aztec use of chocolate (chocolate was invented / discovered / pioneered in Central America before Europeans arrived) as a savoury / bitter flavour. Of course modern European sweetish milk chocolate is the first thing we tend to think of when we read “chocolate” so “chilli con carne with chocolate” does initially seem weird until you remember where chocolate (and chilli con carne) came from.

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    • Hi John….
      I can’t vouch for what he might say elsewhere in the book because I might have missed it, but on p 231 he talks about how “chilli con carne’s origins straddle the border between Texas and Mexico”, how in cook-offs in America competitors have added cocoa powder or chocolate, and that Mexico has a “long tradition of putting chocolate in its mole sauce”.
      The chocolate that he lists in the ingredients is dark chocolate, 70% cocoa solids).

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      • Well done, and thanks for this, Lisa. Very quick! That Tex-Mex border region is historically complex. It is where Davy Crockett died, fighting for freedom for American settlers there. Inevitably “Mexican” cuisine lingered among surviving and arriving American settlers because Texas had been part of Mexico. It’s good to know that Heston has this awareness of historical cuisine. No mention of Aztecs, apparently.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I can’t say that for sure, John. I haven’t re-read the whole book to look for it.

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  5. Not for me. My attempts at kitchen chefing come from the likes of Jamie, who I at least can follow. Test in italics? Yikes.

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    • I hear you… but as with literature, so too with cooking. There are those who scale the heights, and those who are content to stay on the plains!

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      • LOL. Yeah, funny how I want to scale the height’s literature but with food…… Mind you, I do a fine Raman!

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        • *chuckle*
          Well, there you go, we’re all adventurous in our own ways!

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  6. I agree that he’s fun on Masterchef, but I can’t imagine reading a book like this. I enjoyed your post though – and the discussion with John Gough as Ailes some great Tex-Mex cuisine. Oh, and I wouldn’t discount popcorn though I know what you mean by cinema popcorn. Put me off for years but I’ve tried some great restaurant dishes using it and am now as likely to gravitate to it as not.

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    • I can’t say that I’ve ever seen popcorn anywhere except at a cinema and children eating packets of it…

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      • Oh, it’s out there more in some fine dining desserts than mains. Masterchef’s Reynold for example has used popcorn in his cakes, desserts. Next time I see it on a menu I will try to remember to photograph the menu.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I looked through this book and didn’t see a single recipe that I wanted to cook. Too much effort for not enough benefit.

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    • Your comment prompted me to add an update to my review… because I don’t think it’s that kind of cookbook.

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  8. I do wonder how publishers let a book get to production stage with an annoying font. I find Heston entertaining from an ideas point of view, but would never cook one of his recipes!

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    • Well, as you can tell, I found it very annoying. Book designers need to remember that we have an ageing population, and we have new generations with compromised eyesight because of all their screen time. (I have no idea where I read it, but there is evidence now that there are more kids who are short-sighted.)
      So if your product is something that people want to *read*, the product ought to be readable. You know, even with my glasses, sometimes I have to get a magnifying glass to read the name of the cover designer on the back cover because the font is tiny or it’s white on a yellow background…

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Um. Probably not for me, seeing some of the ingredients. Nowadays I favour practical, flavourful and as easy to prepare as possible!! As for the font – what *where* they doing????

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    • I hear you. But it’s interesting to reflect on why we (if we are omnivores) eat some proteins, and not others.
      I remember on my first trip to France, seeing a tin of choc-coated crickets, and thinking the same thing. I’ve eaten all kinds of odd things but I can’t come at insects. Why not?
      I know it isn’t rational, it’s emotional.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. So… you’d buy this as food porn, then? I’ve seen several of his TV series and I think he’s brilliant, but this does not sound like a book of his that I’d buy, if all I’m going to do is look at the pictures.

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    • I don’t think it counts as food porn…because the photography is not *chuckle* arousing. In our household, Historic Heston is the only food porn we have, in the sense that we just look at the pictures which are staged like still life paintings and are just beautiful as works of art.
      I think this is a book to read and be entertained by, and to think about.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. It’s certainly refreshing to find a chef without an enormous ego that has to be on display at all times. Kudos to Heston for experimentation but I can’t see me trying any of his techniques any time soon. I really dont want to spend a whole day in the kitchen just to make one meal – unlike Heston I don’t have kitchen fairies who magically clean up or do all the chopping either

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    • Yes, I always think about the cleaning up when I watch cooking shows.

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