Shefzilla: Conquering Haute Cuisine at Home (Borealis Books) is the new cookbook from Stewart Woodman, the celebrated chef at Heidi's, a neighborhood bistro in Minneapolis. It's also the name of his blog. Woodman has been a James Beard Foundation "Best Chef of the Midwest" finalist and a Food & Wine Best New Chef recipient. Sadly, Heidi's burned down and closed, leaving Woodman at home and at loose ends.
So he returned to home cooking for the first time in many years, and rediscovered a passion for that style of food. He rejiggered Heidi's recipes for Everycook and wrote this cookbook. Good story, makes sense, inspiring.
"We set out at a feverish pace to recreate, in my home kitchen, the magic that was Heidi's Minneapolis," Woodman writes. When he uses the term "feverish pace," he is not kidding around. Heidi's burned in February of 2010. Wow! That's a pretty short amount of time to come up with 150 recipes, write the text, photograph the dishes, have the book designed, edited and printed... Shefzilla indeed.
Unfortunately, I think the rapid pace shows in the final product. Shefzilla tries to be two things at once, cozying up to haute cuisine and the home cook. The conflicting interests of these two entities are not always reconciled. As a home cook who is only at home all day on the weekends, I found many of these recipes daunting.
An appealing one for a tomato-wheatberry stew became less approachable when I realized that to make it, I would already had to have made a tomato confit and something called tomato fondue, basically a cooked tomato sauce made from two pounds of fresh tomatoes. (Usually recipes for home cooks offer the option of canned tomatoes, and while the equivalency is pretty easily Googled, that's yet another step.) Good-bye, tomato-wheatberry stew, at least until I get some vacation time.
On the other hand, the simpler recipes I tried did not always impress. The recipe for pea soup was very easy, made with frozen peas, half-and-half and a bay leaf, plus water. "Peas and bay leaf, oh my: you'll want to bathe in this stuff," writes Woodman. I was intrigued -- that simple, and yet so delicious? I can't speak for bathing, but as far as consuming it orally, it tastes just about how you would think pureed frozen peas and half-and-half would taste -- bland and a little chalky.
But the vegetarian "bolognese" is a nice recipe, if not exceptional, and I liked the section on pizza, with a workable dough and ideas for toppings like truffle and honey or zucchini and basil. Also good -- a salmon salad recipe and sauteed green beans with peanuts.
The book is designed to within an inch of its life, with red and green border stripes, starbursts, text boxes with a sort of faux-painting textured background, more starburst icons behind the page numbers, and Godzilla wearing a chef's hat popping up now and then just to keep things interesting. And then there are the photos of the food, which are very nice and don't need the distraction of all the rest of that design. As for the text boxes, they sometimes provide kitchen tips but more often discuss Woodman's cooking past with big names like Alain Ducasse, Eric Ripert, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
I was more interested in getting to know Woodman as Woodman, though. His list of "ingredients to have on hand in your pantry," a typical but often boring part of many cookbooks, is here anything but. Stewart Woodman pantry essentials include whole spices, truffles, coconut milk, Sriracha, fish sauce, kimchi, fermented black beans, grana padano, fleur du sel, mustard seed oil and Nutella. How refreshing.
Bottom line: There's plenty to try here, but have a decent amount of time at your disposal.