'Edible Selby' and 'Come In, We're Closed': Two insights into culinary culture

Works by Todd Selby and Christine Carroll & Jody Eddy offer riveting portrayals of culinary craftsmen and their workplaces

"Edible Selby" by Todd Selby and "Come In, We're Closed: An Invitation to Staff Meals at the World's Best Restaurants" by Christine Carroll and Jody Eddy are two books released this season that offer riveting portrayals of culinary craftsmen and their workplaces.

Rather than examine the performance of service, the authors explore margins, away from diners and customers. Readers are privy to kitchen design, inspiration sources, rituals and preparation that reinforce a passion for work.

These books unearth the culture of place, not just plates.

"Edible Selby," so named for the New York Times T Magazine column, offers intimate portraits of San Francisco's Tartine Bakery, Tokyo's tuna wholesaler Ishimiya, Brooklyn's Four and Twenty Blackbirds and Copenhagen's Nordic Food Lab, among others.

Mr. Selby has garnered a cult following since 2008 for his whimsical images on theselby.com, the website he created to display people in their homes.

The website helped Mr. Selby land ad campaigns for Ikea and Nike as well as a home column in The New York Observer.

Across pages of "Edible Selby," photos are layered with drawings, sketched portraits, recipes and hand-written conversations between Mr. Selby and the people behind the 40 or so destinations around the world.

In the section on a Sicilian vineyard, Arianna Occhipinti, a handsome woman in boots, jeans and a gray T-shirt stands atop giant stainless steel vats, punching down grape skins to mix with juice during fermentation.

A two-page photo spread follows, a display of Ms. Occhipinti's purple-stained hands and wrists above white buckets splattered the color of Violet Beauregarde in the movie "Willy Wonka."

"Hi, Arianna," Mr. Selby writes in chicken-scratch on a piece of paper in the last page of her section. "What do you love about making wine?"

"I love the natural aspect of the wine," she responds. "I like to stay outside in the vineyards, but also to touch the grapes and wine in the cellar. The wine makes me feel free."

On the same notebook page, Ms. Occhipinti provides a pasta and broccoli recipe Mr. Selby asks for and another for grape marmalade.

Less of a recipe than a scrap of psychology, tight words and tiny letters show Ms. Occhipinti's restraint and deliberation.

In a phone interview, Mr. Selby said he was especially moved when he went to Tulum, Mexico, to visit Eric Werner and Mya Henry at their restaurant Hartwood, which is depicted on the cover.

In the photo, Mr. Werner, a lean young man -- white V-neck, tattooed arms, a sheen of sweat -- gazes intently at the photographer. Behind him is the glow of the hearth. He is framed by bowls of misshapen heirloom tomatoes and breakfast radishes, a jar of olives, stacks of plates, pails of garnishes and squirt bottles filled with elixirs. Herbs hang to dry overhead. Palm trees frame the background.

"That picture really kind of grabs people with a youthful energy," Mr. Selby said. "That's how his table looks for every day of service. It captures the do-it-yourself, follow-your-dreams thing that's going on right now in the food world."

On the notebook page in the section, Mr. Selby asks Ms. Henry and Mr. Werner what Mexico has taught them.

"Manaya," writes Ms. Henry. Mr. Werner concurs. "Patience."

Patience is what must have been required of authors Ms. Carroll and Mr. Eddy to navigate research for "Come In, We're Closed," a cookbook about family meals at renowned restaurants around the world.

A family meal is the name for the time during which staff dines together, usually in the hour before service. This meal is made with fine (albeit leftover) ingredients and is served family-style. Usually, staff meals take place around one big table.

"To cook well, one must eat well," is the adage.

In the introduction, the duo explain how they honed research and learned lingo. They discovered who makes the meal (answer: a line cook, interns and new hires). They tested recipes and burrowed into the culture of restaurant kitchens.

Like the contrast in the book title, they were strangers among kin at 25 restaurants such as Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif.; City Grocery in Oxford, Miss.; The Fat Duck in Bray, England; Grace in Portland, Maine; and Piccolo in Minneapolis.

Staff meal has become the subject of renewed interest following noted Spanish chef Ferran Adria's book on the subject last year.

In the foreword of "Come In, We're Closed," Mr. Adria notes, "You have to carefully organize the daily logistics balancing preparation time, the price per person, as well as the variety and quality of the food itself -- two factors that hold as much importance as the others."

Once Mr. Adria had systematized staff meal, each three-course meal cost 3 euros.

As the book progresses, each restaurant section features a photo of staff, a table shot from family meal, a menu with recipes, narrative, and a Q & A with a chef.

More straightforward than "Edible Selby," this book offers a balance between voyeurism and instruction.

While many recipes in the collection are accessible for a skilled home cook -- such as City Grocery chef John Currence's chicken and dumplings or his cucumber and sweet onion salad -- others are more demanding. Such is the case with deep fried-chicken feet or the beef heart and watermelon salad at The Bristol in Chicago or the homemade chicken and smoked paprika sausage at Grace. Making sausage at home requires hyper vigilance when it comes to food safety.

Whether a book's recipes are made is no longer a given, as books such as these serve to stir appetite and inspiration rather than instruct.

Mr. Selby admits on the last page of his book that he did not test the included recipes.

"I can't promise you that they are complete, accurate, will work, or, even if they do work, will taste good," he writes in a purple-penned disclaimer.

"Come In, We're Closed" offers a more direct admonishment, perhaps, of the very people who may buy such books.

"Foodies are killing good times," writes Stephen Stryjewski, chef and co-owner of Cochon in New Orleans, in his Q&A section. "Meals are about good company enhanced by good food and good wine."

Here are two recipes from "Come In, We're Closed":

Chicken and dumplings

Chicken soup
  • 1 whole 3-to 4- pound chicken
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons bacon fat
  • 2 small yellow onions, finely chopped
  • 2 celery ribs, finely chopped
  • 2 medium carrots, finely chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth
  • Grated zest from 1 lemon
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped thyme
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary
  • 1 teaspoon finely chopped oregano
  • 2 1/2 quarts chicken stock

  • Dumplings
    • 1/2 cup cornmeal
    • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
    • 1 teaspoon baking powder
    • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
    • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and diced
    • 1/2 cup whole milk
    For the chicken

    Cut the chicken into 8 skin-on, bone-in pieces and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Heat half the oil and half the bacon fat in a large pot over medium high heat until smoking.

    Add half the chicken pieces and brown on all sides, about 2 minutes per side. Remove and drain on paper towels. Add the remaining oil and fat and, once smoking, brown the remaining chicken pieces, then drain on paper towels.

    Add the onions, celery, carrots and garlic and saute until the vegetables are barely caramelized and stick slightly to bottom of pan, about 6 minutes.

    Add wine and vermouth, scrape brown bits at the bottom of the pan, then reduce the liquid by half, about 2 minutes.

    Add lemon zest, thyme, rosemary, oregano, stock and chicken to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer and cover.

    Cook until the chicken is very tender, about 1 hour, occasionally skimming fat and impurities as they rise to the surface.

    Remove the chicken from the liquid. Once the chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard the skin. Strip the meat from the bones and shred into bite-sized pieces. Return it to the stock in the pot.

    For the dumplings

    Combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt and butter in bowl of a food processor and pulse until mixture resembles coarse sand. (This can also be accomplished by hand with a bench scraper or your fingertips.)

    Add half the milk and incorporate quickly. If the dough does not easily come together into a shaggy ball, add small amounts of milk until it does.

    Knead dough on a floured surface until smooth, about 5 minutes. (While you don't want to overknead the dough to stave off toughness, the dumplings will fall apart in the broth if not enough gluten develops.) Let the dough rest for 15 minutes at room temperature.

    Using a rolling pin, roll the dough to a uniform sheet about 7 inches square and 1/4 inch thick. Using a sharp knife, cut the sheet into approximately 25 two-inch squares. The dumplings can be set aside in the refrigerator for up to an hour before poaching.

    To serve

    Bring the soup to a brisk simmer. Add dumplings carefully to the soup, adding more than one layer if necessary. They will initially sink but begin to expand and rise as they cook. Cover the pot and gently simmer the dumplings until they are tender and cooked through, 10 to 12 minutes. Season the soup with salt and pepper and serve immediately.

    Makes 4 to 6 servings.

    -- Adapted from "Come In, We're Closed"

    Cucumber and sweet onion salad

    Sliced red onions, rinsed under cold water, can be substituted if Vidalias or other sweet onions are not available.

    • 4 medium cucumbers
    • 1 large vidalia onion, halved and thinly sliced
    • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
    • 3/4 cup red wine vinegar
    • 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
    • 1/2 cup olive oil
    • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
    • 1 tablespoon herbes de Provence

    Peel each cucumber, alternating one strip of skin with one strip of peeled flesh. Cut off and discard the ends and cut the cucumber in half lengthwise.

    Scoop out the seeds with a spoon and thinly slice cucumbers into half moons. Combine the cucumber and onion slices in a plastic bowl with a tight-fitting lid. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

    In a separate bowl, whisk together vinegars, oil, sugar and herbes de Provence. Pour the dressing over cucumbers and onion, season liberally with salt and pepper, mix well and cover.

    Refrigerate for an hour, frequently turning the bowl upside-down to redistribute the dressing.

    Served chilled.

    Makes 6 servings.

    -- Adapted from "Come In, We're Closed"

    Melissa McCart: mmccart@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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