Flip through the weighty two-volume Notes from a Kitchen and you'll feel a bit confused. What is this thing? Cloth-bound and covered in scrawled handwriting, the book looks like a coffee table tour diary of a rock star. The subtitle doesn't do much to clear things up: "a journey inside culinary obsession." Turn a few pages and you see a bourbon glass set atop a bunch of notebooks, perfectly highlighting the word "fucking" amid the question "what about the clay?"
The technique of photogravure gives the pictures a layered depth, inviting you to stop and study each awhile. What is this book all about? Some pages are translucent, allowing you to look at the front and back of the image — a zoomed-in version of that glass of bourbon, artfully arranged so you can see through the glass to the title page. More handwritten words on lined pages: pork fat, rhubarb, and foie. Next are pictures of a finished plate, a marked-up menu from Husk, a cutting board with ingredients seemingly in the middle of being worked on in the kitchen, and finally a figure shrouded in the smoke of liquid nitrogen. It's at this point you can see the chef's name on his coat: Sean Brock. This culinary obsession thing is beginning to make sense.
Spend any time talking to Brock and his evangelical nature comes out. He preaches the gospel of seed-saving, bourbon, barbecue, fresh ingredients, fermentation, farmers, fishermen, or whatever topic is at hand. He's an obsessive guy with big passions and even bigger goals. Artist Jeff Scott has spent the last two years following Brock and seven other chefs just like him, delving into those obsessions, documenting them through recordings and videotapes, and finally distilling them into this art book. For it is much more of an art book than a cookbook.
"It's a voyeuristic view of the inner lives of chefs," explains Scott, "of what they go through and why they do it and push so hard to be true to beautiful product and farmers and purveyors and creativity and note taking. I'm obsessed with note taking and am deeply engaged in documenting private notes and journals, something that starts in the mind and then goes on paper. Sean says that it may start in the mind but once it's on paper, it's real."
In the introduction, Scott and partner Blake Beshore, a chef who helped bring this project to life, take critics head on, asking: "Why create a book about famous chefs' obsessions, rather than printing a recipe book of their most popular dishes?"
In their answer to this question lies a premise worth exploring: "A great chef's lifetime of effort is dedicated to singular moments created for one diner. Straddling life-long obsessions and momentary, magical creations is the impossible goal of this book."
Capturing any creative process, whether it's writing a song, painting a picture, or designing a building, is a wonky thing, done for people who are similarly obsessed or perhaps intensely fascinated by the work itself. If you've ever had a mind-blowing meal at McCrady's, one that includes smoke, hay, the freshest fish imaginable, pretty little flowers, and explosive flavors, well, then, you've probably sat back with eyes closed as you experienced the food and thought, "How in the world did this dish come about?"
And this book has that answer. Or as close to an answer as you can get.
"I went in trying to ask a bunch of questions," says Scott. "Who are these human beings? What makes them tick? How are they influenced? The idea is when you have this incredible plate of food, what if you could take it all the way back in time to the seed?"
In the foreword, Brock writes about the emotions of cooking, of taking risks and learning from criticism, of putting his heart and soul on a plate, of not being afraid to fail, of opening himself up to examination and sharing his notebooks. And he also writes about what it was like to work with Scott: "The words on these pages are from the heart, conversations between two people trying to find an answer. An answer to what, I'm not sure ..."
Scott and Brock met via mutual friend Johnny Iuzzini, the famous pastry chef who most recently worked at Jean Georges and is at the top of his craft. He came on through his relationship with George Mendes of Aldea and so on, back to Emma Hearst of Sorella, who Scott first started the project with.
"I just started calling up chefs and became friendly with Emma Hearst," Scott says. "Getting access is relatively easy. George introduced me to Johnny and Johnny to Sean. They trusted me because of their relationships with each other."
Scott came to the project via Elvis, of all things. For a solid decade, he had worked on a project that delved into the King's rags-to-riches story. "He's the perfect subject and no one has ever treated him, besides Andy Warhol, in the realm of modern fine art. I wanted to look at him as a human being. The estate gave me access to his private artifacts — his guns, his bedsheets, his driver's license —and I took tens of thousands of photos." That work brought him to the attention of a celebrity chef, a guy who wanted his life to be documented in a similar way. So Scott took it on, spending 500 hours in the kitchen of this celebuchef, documenting his chef de cuisine, his sous chef, and basically everyone except for the chef, who rarely went into the kitchen.
"I really like to be authentic, to get to the guts and tell the truth," says Scott, "I took thousands of photos but couldn't do anything with them because he wasn't in them." The chef was feeling insecure about the whole process, and Scott was left with a junkie's taste for the adrenalin of the kitchen. The two volumes of Notes from a Kitchen are the result of his newfound obsession.
As an artist, Scott stays with his subjects for a long time. He spent 10 years with Elvis. He expects to spend the next 10 with these chefs. He's working on an art installation piece that can function as a companion to the books, giving viewers an opportunity to have a tactile experience of a topic like, say, foraging. "I want to take people into the book in a 3-D way, with a multimedia experience ... I want to incorporate aroma, taste, visuals, obsessiveness. We are such an overstimulated society. I want to pull away from that and give people a tactile experience."
He's also at work on volume three, pinpointing chefs like Ned Elliot at Foreign and Domestic in Scott's hometown of Austin and Frank De Carlo at Peasant in New York City as people he'd like to document.
"I won't be done with this for a while," admits Scott. "I'm just probably getting started."
Jeff Scott, Sean Brock, George Mendes, and Johnny Iuzzini will be on hand for a book signing at Heirloom Book Company at 123 King St. on Sun. Feb. 5, 1-4 p.m. followed by a collaborative dinner at McCrady's on Mon. Feb. 6. Cookbooks will be available at both for purchase.