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The beerbistro Cookbook

by Stephen Beaumont and Brian Morin

Ricardo: Meals for Every Occasion

by Ricardo Larrivée

Cooking with beer is often considered the domain of drunken bachelors who, in a flash of inspiration, dump a can of Guinness into their chili pot. Since 2003, however, restaurateur Stephen Beaumont and chef Brian Morin have been trying to change that attitude with beerbistro, an upscale downtown Toronto eatery where everything from the burgers to the ice cream is made with brew. The beerbistro Cookbook aims to extend that culinary education beyond the bounds of the restaurant.

The great strength of this book is the depth with which it explores beer – not only cooking with it, but also drinking it. There is a superb, lengthy section at the start that explains in detail how beer is made and how it should be drunk. The authors demystify the different types of beers – from basic ales and lagers to pilsners, stouts, fruit beers, and more – and offer instruction on proper pouring techniques (with photos), and explain how to match beer to food.

The recipes themselves tend toward the hearty and robust, with such offerings as porter-braised pulled pork, beer-cured salmon, coq au bier, lamb burger with stout, and numerous mussel dishes. And yes, there are even recipes for beer ice cream.

Where the book falls short is its design, particularly its photography. There is no reason in today’s professional creative culture that a cookbook from such a tony establishment should feature amateurish, blurry, unstyled and, in a few cases, downright repulsive photographs. The authors have worked hard to convince us that cooking with beer is for true gastronomes. Too bad they didn’t take their own efforts seriously enough to hire a food photographer who knows his or her stuff.

If beerbistro is underdesigned, Ricardo suffers from the opposite problem. One of the big dilemmas facing cookbook publishing is that content is often dictated by another medium: TV. These days, if you don’t look hot on camera, odds are you won’t get a TV cooking show, regardless of how talented a chef you are. And if you don’t have a TV show, your chances of publishing a cookbook are slim. This is not to say that all cookbooks spawned from cooking shows are junk, but the superficial nature of TV can often lead to privileging design over gastronomy.

Ricardo Larrivée has done some remarkable things with his Food Network show Ricardo and Friends. Based in Quebec, he is perhaps the only Franco-Anglo crossover food celebrity in the country who hasn’t hammered on les tambours d’habitants while doling out variations on sugar pie, poutine, and tourtière. Yes, the show’s shot in Quebec. Yes, there are French inflections throughout. But Larrivée comes off as just a regular guy cooking creatively in his home kitchen.

All of that, and too much more, comes through in his new book, Ricardo: Meals for Every Occasion. In an interesting twist on the title’s promise, Larrivée offers chapters that actually contort the notion of “everyday” into such uncommon occasions as surprise sleepovers and friends visiting from Europe. He also offers chapters about cooking for guys, the boss, unexpected guests, and the tardy. These contrivances push the book into conceptual overdrive, and its designers have employed copious “lifestyle” photography to inflate Larivée’s offering of 125 recipes into a 272-page slab that resembles an Eddie Bauer catalogue on steroids. Sure, the pictures are gorgeous, but the photo-to-recipe ratio of over 2:1 says it all. You can go half-a-dozen pages in this book without encountering a single word.

Wade through all that packaging, however, and you’ll find Larrivée’s excellent, approachable, and inventive recipes, such as pork tenderloin with bacon breading, chicken with morels, onion tarte tatin, cream of shallot soup, fiddlehead omlette, and muscat and red grape cake. If this were restaurant cooking, with its simple preparations, interesting ingredients, and basic flavours, we’d call it “new bistro” and happily tuck in. Too bad the book itself features more surface than substance.