Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell’s Kitchen by Mitch Omer (founder of the original Hell’s Kitchen Restaurants) and Ann Bauer (previous food editor at Minnesota Monthly) is a roller coaster of a book, from recounting Omer’s darker days of addiction and suffering from bipolar disorder to sweet childhood memories inter-spaced with belly rumble inducing recipes of the most exciting kind, all written in a style that makes you want need to keep turning the pages. Add to this some amazing photography of both the food and Omer’s famous Hell’s Kitchen restaurants with decor aptly dubbed “The nightmare side of Sesame Street” by Bauer and you have a book you will truly not want to put down, let alone, let out of your sight.
In places this book seems to go for the shock factor as much as the inducing mouth-watering moments factor. In fact, depending on how tender your sensibilities, there may even be moments where you wish the authors had held back, from various disclosures about relationships, or moments when Omer gets unnecessarily, perhaps, profane. It could be argued rather successfully though that this book wouldn’t be the ‘joy’ it is without that very notion of shock. Omer has had a life full of unconventional and shocking moments, this book relies on the truth being told, without it we would simply have another same old chefs memoir full of fuzzy feel good moments — this is not the movies, this is real life and the dark side of real life at that told against a backdrop of good honest food. It is very clear that food played a large part in Omer’s ‘recovery’ process, maybe too big a part as he ended up having to have a gastric bypass.
Damn Good Food: 157 Recipes from Hell’s Kitchen is beautifully presented, mostly in black and white but dotted with bright, full colour photographs which help bring warmth and dare I say it, even more character (as if Mitch didn’t already bring enough, just by talking about himself). The book is printed on premium quality paper, making it joyous to handle. The text is set out so that there’s plenty of white space around it, and the font is a good size, making the recipes and text paragraphs very easy to read. The excellent publication quality doesn’t stop there, the photography is both of excellent quality and inspiring, particularly the inner kitchen shots of the chefs at work.
Omer really does allow his soul to be bared, nothing is held back: not his opinions, not his personal failures and triumphs and most certainly not his recipes. Recipes range from the basic such as French Toast and Bacon, Lettuce and Tomato sandwiches to awe inspiring dishes such as Bison Sausage Bread and Chocolate Bunnies (you’ll have to read the book to learn more), covering every concept of American comfort food imaginable —macaroni and cheese, corned beef hash; of course the famous Mahnomin Porridge is included too, but how could it not be?
Most of the recipes have side notes as to how Mitch came up with the idea or for variations on the theme; for example next to the Mahnomin Porridge recipe is a text box that reads “I first got the idea for this recipe more than twenty years ago while reading transcripts of journals kept by fur traders travelling across Canada in the nineteenth century. There was a meal served by Cree Indians that consisted of wild rice with nuts and berries and sweetened with maple syrup. But I decided it needed more fat, so I added heavy cream.” These anecdotes really help to bring life and spirit to these recipes, many of which while a mainstay of American food culture, are unfamiliar to the UK market.
According to the book “Mitch was encouraged to hold some recipes back — ”God knows I tried,” says [his wife and business partner] Cyn but he chose not to do so; what you the reader have in this book is a ‘manual’ that includes every single ingredient, secret, and cooking tip from the inner sanctum of Hell’s Kitchen. With Hell’s Kitchen you really do have all the information you’d require to cook a Mitch styled restaurant dish, So it’s your choice. Prepare yourself for the crowds and the queues, fight for a table, and have a meal. Yes, I know — all very nice, but… or, spend that same money on the book, and be able to recreate over a hundred of their very best recipes in the comfort of your own home? I know which I’d be choosing.
With thanks to Minnesota Historical Society Press/Borealis Books for the review copy.
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Minnesota Historical Society Press,U.S.; 1 edition (1 November 2009)
EDIT: If anyone of you who buy the book have any queries about the recipes or ingredient substitutions please leave me a comment and I will pass them on to the publisher, who has very kindly said she will then pass them on to Mitch and I will get back to you asap with an answer.