1 Ordinary Cook, 35 Impossible Recipes

Can a home cook learn anything from the supercomplicated cookbooks of the world's most celebrated chefs? We asked Timothy Taylor to dive into the deep end and then throw some dinner parties for friends.
Timothy Taylor

It was while I was attempting to make "soil" that it occurred to me that my experiment with very difficult dinners might drive me insane. This is edible soil, from the cookbook by René Redzepi, chef at the world's most buzzy restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen. Noma's soil is sprinkled on a dish called "vegetable field," which was the second course for a dinner party I was going to hold for friends in the small dining room of my home. The soil dish came after blueberries and onions, before oxtails in dark beer, and before the finale of potato chips dipped in chocolate and fennel seed.

Only the soil wasn't working. I'd combined wheat, hazelnut, and malt flours, each weighed by gram on a scale. I'd pulsed these ingredients three times in the food processor while dribbling in five grams of beer. I'd baked the mixture at 195° for six hours, and still didn't have soil. Instead, I had rock—a solid sheet of beige slate. Push through a coarse sieve to remove the thickest lumps, the recipe suggested, at which moment I felt like heaving Redzepi's book across the kitchen. There's no room for temper tantrums in a small home kitchen, though, with no staff to terrorize, no TV audience to entertain. I had a job to do: cook really, really complicated meals all by myself over a couple of weeks from five really, really complicated cookbooks. Then serve to friends.

You've no doubt flipped through these massive, exacting culinary tomes, with their gorgeous photos and lengthy text. They have always struck me more as impressive publishing artifacts than instructional documents. In the case of Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck Cookbook, for example, you won't find a recipe until you've read 140 pages of restaurant history and culture notes. The other books on my list, besides Blumenthal's, were Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine Volume 3: Animals and Plants, Thomas Keller's Under Pressure, and Daniel Humm's 11 Madison Park.

"Long" doesn't begin to describe some of these recipes. One for roast turbot calls for 84 ingredients. One for Black Forest Cake features 16 subrecipes and a cross-section diagram of the cake that looks like an architectural rendering. This is food that relies on staff, commercial-grade pantries, specialty equipment, and patrons who pay through the nose. Can we even call these "cookbooks" in a meaningful way? Is a Noma recipe for soil really a recipe, or is it a note from a brilliant artist saying: Don't try this at home, folks? I was wading into hot waters to find out.

I didn't train in culinary school or work in a restaurant, but I do cook in a focused way. I spend an awful lot of time at the stove, and it's not unusual, on a Saturday morning, for my waking thoughts to concern what I will be cooking for dinner. But I knew, after studying these books, that a new level of planning would be needed.

Quite a few recipes auto-eliminated for practical reasons. Some called for ingredients I couldn't source, like goosefoot leaves or Västerbotten cheese. Others were impossible to fit into the time I had—like the 48-hour Noma walnut juice. And many recipes called for gear I didn't own: flash freezers, high-pressure vacuum packers, Thermomixes, etc.

This raises a point about restaurant-grade prep for the home cook: Even if you avoid the most gear-intensive recipes, you'll need to buy or borrow extra tools. Start with a gram-accurate kitchen scale, because virtually every recipe is measured out in precise units of weight. (How much is 75 grams of beer? Just over a third of a cup, it turns out.) You'll need more whisks, more mixing bowls, more sieves in ultrafine mesh—because nothing, apparently, is ever made in high-end kitchens without one or more strainings.

Also, you'll want more small saucepans. If you just have one you use to melt butter and such, buy more, because there isn't a recipe of this ilk that doesn't call for the preparation of numerous constituent parts to be made in advance and held until plating. Blumenthal's Saddle of Venison? By the time you serve this, you will have previously prepared and be holding: venison consommé, frankincense hydrosol, frankincense dilution, confit of vegetables, tomato fondue, sauce poivrade, a gastrique, blood cream, celeriac puree, celeriac fondants, celeriac rémoulade, civet base, red wine jelly discs, venison medallions, red wine foam, grelot onions, chestnut tuiles, and a butter emulsion. Needless to say, I avoided that recipe. I'm not a maniac.