For Americans, Richard Olney is one of the three most influential writers on French cuisine, along with Julia Child and Elizabeth David, although these three all approach their subject from a different direction. Child is the great popularizer who succeeded in communicating `la cuisine Bourgeoise' without compromising on the techniques used by housewives in Paris and Lyon and Provence. David was the `culinary anthropologist', possibly less interested in culinary technique as in rustic culinary traditions and thinkings. Olney is the ambassador of haute cuisine to American restaurant kitchens. He was a colleague of James Beard, who recommended Olney to Time Life to edit their popular series on world food. The California gang, Alice Waters and Jeremiah Tower also cite him as the ultimate authority on French cuisine.
Olney's notion of `simple' is quite different from what you may expect from modern fast home cooking proponents such as Rachael Ray and Sandra Lee. His explanation of `simple food' requires a rather closely reasoned seven pages in his Preface. Olney's position is like my favorite anecdote of Mario Batali commenting on a trainee's `rustic' dice job, he says `No dude, that's just lazy'. Olney recognizes that what many people call simple is really an excuse for the lazy cook. At the other extreme, Olney dismisses fancy architectural constructions on the dinner plate. This is certainly not lazy, but it is not simple either. Although Olney does not dismiss expensive ingredients like truffles and foie gras, he does indict them as crutches used to replace imagination in the kitchen.
Some people may promote being true to simple tastes as being the hallmark of simplicity. Olney rules this out by citing the many rustic methods used to transform base, inexpensive ingredients such as many vegetables into `something transcendental'. Here, he identifies the source of perceived complexity not in the kitchens of the Sun King (Louis XIV) or even in the Lyon three star kitchen, but in the efforts of peasants to turn marginally tasting ingredients into good food. Olney quotes Curnonsky's statement that `In cooking, as in all arts, simplicity is the sign of perfection.' Olney adduces from this the notion that the value of simplicity is not in the method but in the outcome. He is definitely opposed to efforts to make a leg of lamb imitate venison. One of his primary concerns is that we have respect for our materials.
In a nutshell, he says `Simplicity-no doubt-is a complex thing' and finally arrives at what he considers the essence of the issue of simplicity and, irony of ironies, ends up sounding like Alton Brown, that glib satirist of the doctrines of French cooks. Olney says that understanding your ingredients and understanding the logic of your procedures is the thing which turns disasters resulting from blindly following recipes into great results. Olney says that like all art, cooking rules can be broken, but they can only be broken to good effect if you know them in the first place and know why they are the rules! This, then lays down the basis for how Olney presents his material. Unlike most books, certainly unlike those by Child and David, Olney addresses a culinary subject very much like Alton Brown in giving a roadmap to a general subject such as terrines, gratins, and egg dishes.
This is not to say Olney would disagree with Child or David. In fact, I almost fell over when I ran into Olney's introduction to making an omelet where he says that `no method is better than any other'. This comes straight out of the mouth of Elizabeth David who says that the best omelet recipe is the one which works for you. One must be fair and say that both authors still have a pretty clear idea of what an omelet is and how it is different, for example, from scrambled eggs, for which, by the way, Olney gives an excellent recipe.
Olney's book is like many of David's books in that you can read it from cover to cover and feel much richer for it without having made a single recipe. But, unlike David, Olney's recipes are as finely detailed as Childs, with the added attraction that he explains what is going on and why. One of my favorite examples is his explanation of why finely sieved hard boiled egg yolks go so well with bitter greens, as they perform a function very similar to salt in balancing the bitter with the fatty and making the combination that much more worthy to eat.
Olney is a great fan of vegetables. His discussions and recipes for vegetables are some of the best and this must be one of the things which attract Ms. Waters to his writings.
This book is a classic and easily high on the list of choices for my ten best. The Preface summarized above is a bit tough but if you have any interest in food other than something you need to keep you alive, this book will reward you.