The School of Essential Ingredients follows
the lives of eight students who gather in Lillian's Restaurant every Monday
night for cooking class. It soon becomes clear, however, that each one seeks
a recipe for something beyond the kitchen. Students include Claire, a young
mother struggling with the demands of her family; Antonia, an Italian kitchen
designer learning to adapt to life in America; and Tom, a widower mourning the
loss of his wife to breast cancer. Chef Lillian, a woman whose connection with
food is both soulful and exacting, helps them to create dishes whose flavor
and techniques expand beyond the restaurant and into the secret corners of her
One by one the students are transformed by the aromas, flavors, and textures of Lillian's food, including a white-on-white cake that prompts wistful reflections on the sweet fragility of love and a peppery heirloom tomato sauce that seems to spark one romance but end another. Brought together by the power of food and companionship, the lives of the characters mingle and intertwine, united by the revealing nature of what can be created in the kitchen.
Lillian loved best the moment before she turned on the
lights. She would stand in the restaurant kitchen doorway,
rain- soaked air behind her, and let the smells come to her ripe
sourdough yeast, sweet-dirt coffee, and garlic, mellowing as it
lingered. Under them, more elusive, stirred the faint essence
of fresh meat, raw tomatoes, cantaloupe, water on lettuce. Lillian
breathed in, feeling the smells move about and through
her, even as she searched out those that might suggest a rotting
orange at the bottom of a pile, or whether the new assistant chef
was still double-dosing the curry dishes. She was. The girl was
a daughter of a friend and good enough with knives, but some
days, Lillian thought with a sigh, it was like trying to teach
subtlety to a thunderstorm.
But tonight was Monday. No assistant chefs, no customers looking for solace or celebration. Tonight was Monday, cooking class night.
After seven years of teaching, Lillian knew how her ...
Bauermeister treats all her characters with similar care and imagination. Her novel is as magical and healing as the food Lillian and her students create. It's a food novel with ideas, but not recipes. It offers lessons on everything from a simple crab dish (with instructions on how to kill the crabs) to homemade tortillas and salsa ("it was both satisfying and invigorating, full of textures and adventures, like childhood held in your hand") to an elegant white cake with white icing. I read it after Christmas, during a down time in the season and in my life. It brought me more than great pleasure: it made me feel better, but more, it made me feel hopeful and helped me to remember that arid periods pass, that life gets its flavors back.
(Reviewed by Joanne Collings).
Full Review (1116 words).
Cooking by Feel
Although Lillian calls her cooking classes "The School of Essential Ingredients" and has been asked what those are, she doesn't keep a list of them, nor are any of her recipes written down. While she does acknowledge that baking requires a more carefully balanced set of ingredients (she also believes that couples should make their own wedding cakes "as part of preparation for their lives together"), cooking allows considerably more freedom. Cooking is "all about preference."
Most of us are used to a kind of cooking that begins with recipes: a list of measured ingredients and instructions on what to do with them and when to do it. There may be some variations included, but it all seems more to do with science than ...
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