Antoine’s, the oldest restaurant in New Orleans, published a book of its original recipes for the first time in 1979. The text was written, in grand and sentimental language, by Roy F. Guste, Jr., the great-great grandson of the restaurant’s founder.
“This book is a statement of my own feelings, gained from my own experience and that of the greatest chefs and restaurateurs with whom I have had the good fortune to spend time,” Guste wrote in the introduction. “This statement is that there is no value to ‘secrets’ in cuisine.”
And so, from the table of contents sprawls a list of what appears to be every original recipe Antoine’s has produced, French in the left column, translated into English on the right. It’s a pleasure to scan the list, beginning with variations on the oyster, each named colorfully: Huitres a la Ellis, Huitres a la Foch, Huitres Thermidor, Huitres Bienville. Flip to the recipe for Oysters Rockefeller (so delicious upon its invention that the baked mollusk was named after the richest man in America at the time, and no doubt the reason why many bought this volume in the first place) and you’ll find three paragraphs dedicated to the history of the hors d’oeuvre, concluded by the sentence, “The original recipe is still a secret that I will not divulge.” Guste goes on to say that no restaurant outside of Antoine’s has come close to replicating the appetizer before providing a non-hint: “If you care to concoct your version, I would tell you only that the sauce is basically a puree of a number of green vegetables other than spinach. Bonne Chance!”
You can almost hear Guste cackling in the background. The omission is disappointing, for sure, but keeping this one recipe a secret helps build the mythos of the restaurant, one that’s as mysterious as New Orleans itself. In one deft move, tucked in what is meant to be a straightforward restaurant cookbook, Guste suggests the central dilemma of personal writing: How does a writer appear authentic on the page—a requirement for gaining a reader’s trust—while at the same time, carefully crafting each sentence they write?
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I was reminded of the Oysters Rockefeller omission when I arrived at the most affecting moment of The Mission Chinese Food Cookbook, a hybrid cookbook and memoir by Danny Bowien, chef and owner of Mission Chinese, which was published in November last year. Most of the book is composed of interviews with Bowien, and in one section early on, Chris Ying, a longtime friend to Bowien and the editor-in-chief of Lucky Peach, presses Bowien to reveal just how dire his financial situation was as he started the restaurant.
Bowien: “I didn’t pay back my student loan for almost ten years.”