A Cookbook Review: Coi

I have been taking my father-in-law to the library from time to time because he likes to check out audio books. I’ve been picking up cookbooks here and there as we’ve gone because I love reading cookbooks. Sometimes when we’re there, I can take my time and flip through a bunch of them, and sometimes I’m more pressed and pick books that look good from publishers I recognize.    

The cookbooks are in section 641 of the Dewey Decimal System. I only know that because a very helpful librarian showed me the way to the cookbooks the other day and said that the cookbook/food section is one of the sub-parts of the Dewey decimal system she knows by heart. “We have a lot of cookbooks,” she said.

They did, and I picked up a few, among which was “Coi: Stories and Recipes,” at 641.59794P317c.

Coi, which is pronounced similar to the French “moi,” is both a cookbook and not a cookbook. It’s a cookbook because it is in sec. 641, is reviewed as a cookbook, sometimes calls itself a cookbook, and has “recipes.” There are chapters at the start about ingredients, techniques, and equipment.

It is not a cookbook in that there are no actual recipes as most people understand that term.

I picked it up at the library because when I flipped through it, I saw a similarity to certain modernist cuisine cookbooks I like. When I got home and started looking through the book, however, I thought at first it might be a satire.

It is not. It is a deeply personal look at a restaurant in the early 2000s written by the chef, Daniel Patterson. It is an odd sort of memoir, but it is not a guide to making food, and thus to me not a “cookbook.”

I read through a number of recipes, looking for ingredients, but the one that I thought best exemplified this book was the one for “PINK GRAPEFRUIT ginger, tarragon, cognac, black pepper.”

Most of the recipes in this book are on a two-page spread, with two columns of text on the left page and an image of the dish on the right page. The first column generally has a story about the dish: how it was conceived or something about the main ingredients or a technique, and the second column is, per the author, the recipe.

In the case of “PINK GRAPEFRUIT ginger, tarragon, cognac, black pepper,” the recipe starts, “The day before, make the sorbet by combining all of the ingredients, and seasoning with salt and lemon juice to diminish the sweetness – it should capture the sharpness of the grapefruit. Freeze in a Pacojet beaker overnight and spin 30 minutes before serving.”

There is no list of ingredients in this book for this recipe.

Once you’ve made the sorbet, you can move on to the second paragraph: “To make the foam, heat 50 grams of grapefruit juice with sugar and honey. Whisk until sugar and honey are dissolved, and then stir in the gelatin…” That struck me as a rather precise amount of grapefruit juice if you aren’t measuring anything else.

I own a number of cookbooks that, in large part, are “aspirational.” I include books like Thomas Keller’s “French Laundry Cookbook” or “Alinea” by Grant Achatz. These are books that include ingredients and equipment I cannot easily obtain. There are foams and emulsions and equipment more often seen in scientific laboratories, but the ideas behind some of the dishes are inspiring, and I enjoy reading them. I enjoyed reading about the food in this book, too, but Keller and Achatz and every other cook who’s written a book about cooking give very precise measurements for each and every ingredient and describe the method of preparation in detail. Even if, as is true, I am never going to make a recipe from any of those books, I still feel like Patterson could have strode that extra mile and said how much sugar, honey, and gelatin to whip into the foam I was never going to make in the first place.

In his defense, Patterson says in the second to last paragraph of his introduction, “This is not a cookbook. This is the story of Coi, written through the food. It’s a little bit my story as well.”

There’s nothing wrong with that, and I’m not demanding a refund for a book published in 2013 that I checked out of the library. But the bizarre thing is that there is a chapter titled “The Coi Kitchen” in which Patterson discusses his approach to cooking and the ingredients, equipment, and techniques necessary to cook his recipes. These include things that some of us have in our home kitchens, such as a strainer, scissors, and a silicone baking sheet. But he also discusses things that you do not and will not have in your kitchen, like a combi oven (an oven/steamer) or a Pacojet, (a freezer/blender combination). Why Patterson goes into such detail about such practical matters but does not give basic weights and measures for his recipes is a mystery.

The overall impression I have is that the book was supposed to be a cookbook but the actual recipes never materialized. This could be because, as Patterson writes, “And then there are the recipes, which follow the essays. As I sat down to write them, I realized how poorly our dishes have been documented at the restaurant. I think of recipes as more of an oral history than a factual accounting of a process, so ours tend to have gaping holes.”

I think a factual accounting of a process is what most of us think when we think “recipe.” I don’t think “oral history” because there is already a term for “oral history.” There is also an accepted definition for “recipe,” but you won’t find the latter definition in Coi.

Patterson’s looks to be the sort of modernist, deconstructed cuisine that, when done right, is a goddamn joy. I will never taste it, because Coi apparently closed earlier this year. That’s a shame because the food on display in this book is beautiful, and I’m sure it was as delicious as the many, many famous chefs who contributed blurbs attest.

At the end of the day, I decided to approach this book as though it was a work of fiction. And on that basis, I think it’s swell. I would not necessarily recommend it for purchase, but I’ll be bringing it back to the library shortly, and if what you’ve read makes it sound interesting, you should check it out.

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