The Amateur Gourmet: How to Shop, Chop and Table Hop Like a Pro by Adam D. Roberts
Length: 208 pages
I’ve read Adam Roberts’ weblog for nearly a decade now, starting just after this book was first published, and until I found it in a bookshop last month I completed forgot it existed. I’d always meant to pick it up, but it somehow didn’t happen for ten years. This isn’t like me. I’m amazing at buying books. You could make a very strong argument that I’m better at buying them than reading them.
If you’ve ever read Roberts’ weblog, you’ll know that it’s his combination of enthusiasm and humour that really pulls the reader in. His writing is relaxing and enjoyable to read, and he captures those little moments of a new cook so well, like the sense of pride that comes from throwing together a new meal from whatever’s in the fridge and pantry.
His food writing also stands out because it’s from the point of view of an amateur. He didn’t start cooking at all until university, so you aren’t reading a Michelin star chef’s memories of how it felt to learn to cook. You’re reading from the point of view of someone who is actively in the process of learning how to cook, so every new technique he’s excited about, every new ingredient he discovers, and every new milestone he reaches all feel genuine. It’s not remembered enthusiasm; it’s his excitement as it happens.
This book loses some of that energy, and I think the hint to the problem is in the subtitle – How to Shop, Chop and Table Hop Like a Pro. He tries to spin each chapter into a learning experience, and it just doesn’t really work. The worst chapter was on how to fine dine like a professional, in which he invites Ruth Reichl, food writer and former food critic for The New York Times, out to lunch to discuss how one should eat in a restaurant, and it was almost painful to read. He just bombarded her the most inane questions for the entire meal. I really thought (and, to be honest, hoped) it was going to end with Reichl physically attacking him.
There are some great bits. I loved his chapter on the anxiety of eating alone at an high-end restaurant in Paris. It was funny and interesting and the ‘how-to moral’ didn’t feel forced. I also enjoyed the chapter in which he introduces his Korean American friend to Jewish food and she introduces him to Korean dishes. In “Cook for a Date”, he walks a friend through cooking a meal for a new girlfriend, and that was quite funny while also capturing how to prepare a meal ahead of time without the stress. I also really enjoyed the last chapter, which flashes between him cooking a large feast for a group of friends and his time in university as he realizes the law career he’s pursuing won’t make him happy.
Roberts recently got back to blogging after a two year hiatus, and I’ve really been enjoying his latest posts. I hope he’ll go on to publish another collection of food writing at some point in the future. He did publish a recipe book, which I own but haven’t fully read yet, but I’d love to see something narrative-driven without the self-help angle. A book where each chapter is just him describing a food-related scenario, like visiting a renown restaurant or travelling to a country to try a specific dish – really just anything in a more natural format. Something heavier on the amateur and lighter on the pro.