Page through Daniel Duane’s “How to Cook Like a Man” and you will fast wonder what havoc celebrity chef culture has wrought upon present-day notions of masculinity. It’s as if the blazing klieg lights of the Food Network, et al., have birthed a new variety of siren: male, agile, masterful, artistic, and barking orders from beneath a towering white toque.
Really, who doesn’t want to be that guy?
Certainly the author of this memoir displays such aspirations as he fanatically cooks his way through Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse books in extreme sport fashion, ticking off her recipes as though they were mountain peaks he’s conquered.
The love affair with the elusive “Mother Alice,” or “Queen Alice,” finally peters out when he locates the more Apollonian Thomas Keller, owner-chef of Napa Valley’s much celebrated French Laundry.
HOW TO COOK LIKE A MAN: A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession
It should not surprise us that this surge of masculinity and mastery is spurred by the bewildering and at times emasculating experience of parenthood. And this, indeed, is the book’s conceit: Duane, a rock climber and surfer, immerses himself in an ultimate challenge of cooking his way through thousands of recipes as a way of coping with the onset of fatherhood.
The peculiar thing about this latest addition to a trending type of memoir is that the author’s effort to master cooking can feel fueled less by sensory pleasure or passion for ingredients than by the pure, obsessive, male-tainted challenge of the enterprise.
The metric here may be food, yet the deeper you get into this three-part collection of essays spanning the eight-year project, the more you question whether Duane’s sights could have as easily been trained on ice-sculpting, sailboat building, or the gym.
As he puts it, “I get a hot kind of adrenaline rush when I’ve got a new obsession . . . challenging myself like an athlete. I cut vegetables with a ruler, to make sure my half-inch dice was precisely half an inch.”
It’s enough to make Julia Child drop to heaven’s floor and quietly weep.
Still, Duane appeals in the way he grapples so candidly with his own layers of self-involvement, such as the very good question of whether his cooking audience consists of his own young family or really, gulp, himself.
For her part, his wife, the writer Elizabeth Weil, prefers “a simple life,” disliking “fuss or complexity,” running quite the opposite of the bravura chef-fare he’s so determined to produce.
While some of the chapters smack of repurposed magazine pieces awkwardly jammed under the wide umbrella of “How to Cook Like a Man” — the author chasing down salmon in Alaska, truffles in Oregon, offal in London, and he-man steaks in Las Vegas — some of these jaunts prove highly entertaining. For example, an account of his visit to chef Fergus Henderson, the “Virtuoso of the Viscera,” who concludes his lesson on brain cookery with a triumphant “Gna!”
“Gna?” Duane writes. “It appeared to be a moan of delight.”
Equally beguiling are Duane’s live encounters with Keller, where for “exactly eighteen minutes” the cooking icon himself “ignored everything in the world except making sure that I mastered a simple knot.”
Duane’s brief tutelage under this gustatory grandmaster turns revelatory. The author may have started his cooking quest with a one-track male mind, but Keller, famed for his avant-garde creations, swoops in and gently reorients Duane. Ironically, he urges a more modest approach. Instead of striking technically challenging dishes off his kill list, Duane is urged by Keller to drop the recipe cards, return to basics, and through repeated attempts, make his creations his own.
It’s a wonderful moment when Duane, having absorbed these words of wisdom, cooks his family a humble meal of grilled chicken with garlic butter, Caesar salad with homemade croutons, and for his wanting wife, a cold beer. A labor of love.