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Zest for Life: Classic Dishes for Family and Friends from the Fifties to the Nineties

by Diane Clement

Ostensibly, Zest for Life is a cookbook hybridized with the autobiography of Vancouver chef, restaurateur, and former Canadian Olympian Diane Clement. But like most tools designed for two jobs, it does neither particularly well, and while the cookbook element is strange but innocuous, the autobiography is certain to disappoint.

Zest, the cookbook, offers recipes from kitschy food trends of the last 50 years, as consumed and cooked by Clement and her friends and family. Potatoes Romanoff, cheese fondue, and meatloaf are museum pieces of the 1950s and ’60s. “Gems” like quiche lorraine and kiwi lamb represent the 1970s and ’80s. And while newer recipes may, like all hot trends, seem timeless now, they’re just kitsch in waiting. The 1990s Tuscan roasted chicken is the 1970s chicken cacciatore is the 1950s chicken à la king. All fun, but as one scans these recipes, a little ironic voice keeps asking, who really wants to eat this stuff? Who really wants to cook cheese fondue?

Zest, the autobiography, is interspersed throughout as chapter introductions, recipe histories, and sidebar anecdotes within this WASP-ish country-club menu. Appropriately, and annoyingly, it is gossipy, hyperbolic, and supercilious. But worse, it totally lacks insight. Clement seems to have led an interesting, though privileged, life. She was a champion sprinter, has travelled the world, has published many cookbooks, and, as owner of the Tomato Fresh Food Café, is now a minor Vancouver celebrity. But when not name-dropping here, virtually all she does is recount her busy travel schedule and offer vacuous, Cosmo-style platitudes about lifestyle goals, family values, and the new millennium.

This is not autobiography. If you want to cook cheese fondue, fine. If you don’t, but are hoping to understand someone who does – and who believes you do too – you’ll be utterly thwarted by this book. But then, there’s that little ironic voice again.