Richard Neat, the cerebral chef over at San José’s Park Café, has a penchant for chess, Russian novels, philosophy and political manifestos. Now he’s whipped up perhaps his most complex dish in the form of a self-published reminiscence centered on “life at the center of the gastronomic revolution.”
Neat weaves in tantalizing snippets of how he prepares his signature dishes, as well as vivid travelogues covering his nomadic life over four decades, from London to France to India to Morocco to Costa Rica.
The introspective, existential themes of the book are played out against the strategic framework of an ongoing chess game and fashioned after a Platonic dialogue, with the chef debating such heady topics as ambition, faith, hubris and loyalty, with various opposing interlocutors. Along the way we are also treated to scathing but entertaining rants against greedy, over-taxing governments, and — my favorite — poisonous, overweening restaurant critics.
As a non-chess player, the metaphoric strategy was lost on me. What I did enjoy were the insights Neat provides into what it takes to aspire to and reach the pinnacle of artistry and craftsmanship in any field – in his case, gastronomy, and the golden grail of Michelin stardom.
The achievement of two Michelin stars in his London restaurant Pied à Terre, along with the only Michelin star awarded to an Englishman cooking in France, for his Neat Cannes restaurant, certainly qualifies the chef as an expert in what it takes to succeed in the gastronomic world. Much of the book deals with the collision between the forces of creativity and the high-stakes economics of the restaurant business.
Each chapter features the preparation of a Neat signature dish, starting with smoked foie gras with onion purée, and ending with an incredibly complicated braised pig’s head with pumpkin purée. Neat makes it all seem so deceptively simple. But these complicated “preps” make you realize how much training, experience and talent it takes to attain Neat’s level of creativity and craftsmanship.
The pressures to “create new temptations to amuse my ever-fickle audience” and to become a “faultless, fanatical craftsman” are neatly balanced by the pleasure Neat takes in the “beasts and vegetables that were reared and grown with care,” which, he says “oblige a cook to treat them with sufficient reverence.”
There is a lot to digest in Neat’s observations, on a number of levels. As a food aficionado, the lasting impression I took away was the realization that, along with skill, a lot of thinking goes into haute cuisine. All those decades Neat has spent in the kitchen were not just about producing food to eat, but also food for thought.
“Observations From the Kitchen“ by Richard Neat is available on-line for $7.99 at http://bookstore.authorhouse.com/Products/SKU-000683863/Default.aspx. Or visit Neat’s blog at www.parkcafecostarica.blogspot.com.