This “cookbook” tells the story of NYC’s Contra and Wildair restaurants and provides insights into their intricate dishes, which are not for the casual cook by any means.
One of my goals this year is to read through three cookbooks per quarter like regular books — from front to back. The quarantine gives me enough time to do so, so I picked up “A Very Serious Cookbook” by the two chefs from NYC’s Contra and Wildair. Despite owning a signed copy of this book for quite some time, I never opened it or looked through it. All I knew was that their NYC restaurants have gotten rave reviews plus the cookbook has a pretty cool-looking cover.
My tl; dr (too long; didn’t read) Review
If you’re looking to try your hand at molecular gastronomy or other “next level” cooking, then dive into this cookbook. It’s filled with special ingredients and equipment that’s worthwhile to explore if you have the time and money. It is also visually stunning: pages are filled with beautiful pictures of dishes interspersed with photos of the chefs that have been key influences in Jeremiah and Fabián’s lives.
My Full Review
On a Sunday afternoon, I cracked open this cookbook. I quickly breezed through the passionately written “Forward” and read about how Contra and Wildair came to be through Jeremiah’s and Fabián’s perspective. It’s fascinating to hear from both chefs; I was especially surprised to learn that they initially disliked each other but eventually created two amazing restaurants together. Turns out that if your food philosophies align and you give relationships enough time to settle, two chefs with two different backgrounds and personalities can create magic.
The recipe sections are broken out into three categories: “Always”, “Sometimes” and “Never” which refer to how often these dishes appear on the Contra and Wildair menus. Since their restaurant menus change everyday, it seemed like writing recipes down was a feat unto itself (Jeremiah calls this out, noting that he doesn’t do this regularly).
This cookbook is adorned with beautiful pages of dishes paired with their recipes and stories. You hear from Jeremiah or Fabián (designated by letters “J” or “F” in the beginning of these paragraphs), or both, and get their take on why the dish is included in this cookbook or how it came to be.
“We both truly believe that cooking is about intuition and sharing that intuition with other people. The real understanding of cooking comes from someone’s memories, and to truly understand someone else’s cooking, you need to understand them.”Jeremiah Stone
They’re upfront about the fact that this cookbook is not necessarily a “cook book” where recipes are “easy to make at home” (they leave it as an open question really). Rather, each recipe is made up of several components that require time and effort to make — think sauces that have obscure ingredients or a special way of making it.
I also found it useful to read through each recipe since there are tips on how to maximize an ingredient or how to best cook specific things.
What Did I Make?
Personally, the most achievable thing I can make from this cookbook is within the “Pantry” section. Their “pantry” recipes are used in their other recipes and I found that they are a bit easier to make — there are less steps!
I ended up making the wakame butter — a dried seaweed butter — that they serve with radish. While seaweed butter is something that I’ve had at other restaurants, I was curious to see and taste what their version was like. Plus, it would be easy to use on toast or to cook mushrooms.
The recipe required me to grind the dried seaweed into fine powder, which was quite a lengthy process for me, because I didn’t have a spice grinder and used a pestle and mortar instead. After making the seaweed powder, it gets pretty easy: toss it in a food processor with some butter and salt, and there you have it!
I realized halfway through reading A Very Serious Cookbook that the dishes are a cross between molecular gastronomy and “farm-to-table” cuisine, and that this pair of chefs is creating something pretty special. While dishes are seemingly down-to-earth — the ingredient list doesn’t seem hefty and each dish only takes up one page — it takes substantial effort and special equipment (e.g. dehydrators) to recreate what they’re able to conjure up at Contra and Wildair…everyday. And while they largely use local produce, they also use specific ingredients like Castelvetrano olives. Where do you get that? Beats me.
Even though I can’t really cook much here, I was inspired to make a reservation to Contra or Wildair the next time I’m in New York. Hopefully post-COVID times will allow that to happen. In the meantime, I’ll try to tackle another pantry element during the next rainy weekend.