Cookbook Review: Once Upon a Chef, The Cookbook

(Image credit: Jennifer Segal )

Here’s a dream many of us have had: Quit that desk job, sign up for culinary school, run off to Paris (Rome is okay, too), and cook for a living alongside a ragtag team of chefs who form love interests, friendships, and rivalries around dinner service. It’s Grey’s Anatomy, but for people who prefer mise-ing to medicating.

Of course, many of us don’t actually want to live this dream — I want to share my counterspace like I want to share my toothbrush — but I do want to have that friend who did it and who’s going to tell me all the juicy bits later, so I don’t have to stand in a cold kitchen for 11 hours slicing onions and calculating my debt-to-income ratio.

That’s why I loved losing myself in my favorite new cookbook release of April: Once Upon a Chef, The Cookbook: 100 Tested, Perfected, and Family-Approved Recipes by Jennifer Segal, the blogger behind Once Upon a Chef. (Full disclosure: I worked on this book at that desk job, but most of Jenn’s culinary school stories and secrets were new to me.)

After college, Segal attended L’Academie de Cuisine, then took a grueling job in the kitchen at L’Auberge Chez François, where she discovered she’d be the only woman on the line. At 5’2″, she had to have lifts put on her shoes to reach the top stacks of plates. (Reason #124 I’d be terrible as a chef: too short.)

Segal quickly learned the ins and outs of professional cooking, and after several stints at other restaurants and running a specialty cake business, decided to trade in the toque for more time with her young kids. But she’d finally found her raison d’cuisiner: developing, testing, and perfecting recipes.

Soon, she started a blog, called Once Upon a Chef, and became a one-woman America’s Test Kitchen, but for people who live in the real world. Segal is the mom of two pre-teens, and she’s also an accomplished chef — her recipes perfectly toe the line between both worlds.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Chronicle Books; Photography: Alexandra Grablewski )

I especially loved that each recipe in the book was littered with little notes and tips from Segal, making me feel like I was cooking alongside a more experienced friend who keeps the running commentary going. I also found it refreshing that you don’t have to wade through a half-page monologue to get to the why. Segal shares her knowledge in a palatable, conversational way that reminds us we can learn much by doing. The gorgeous, yet approachable, photos hammer home that the Once Upon a Chef world is one where aspirational and actually-happening-in-my-kitchen can meet.

At every juncture, Segal is trying to help us pick up time in the kitchen while also picking up flavor, which as every panicked dinnertime cook will tell you, is the holy grail of home cooking.

And what should you do with those few minutes you shaved off in the kitchen? Dip into the “Pro Tips from My Kitchen,” the brief essays between chapters on smart things like how to balance flavor; how to tell when meat, poultry, and fish are done; and, my Achilles heel, how to transform scraps and leftovers into unscrappy, actually appetizing things.

Consider the following your 101 course on Once Upon a Chef, the Cookbook.

Who the Book Is For

Busy people who want to push themselves in the kitchen yet still save time. The book is especially chock-full of recipes that are kid-friendly, and Segal’s sensibility as both a busy mom and a former chef strikes a balance that keeps both kiddos and grown-ups happy.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Chronicle Books; Photography: Alexandra Grablewski )

The Weeknight Recipe You’ll Make Again and Again

Spaghetti with kale and walnut pesto. Triple the pesto and freeze it — you’ll thank me later. And the pan-seared halibut with cherry tomatoes and basil is what spring supper dreams are made of.

(Image credit: Courtesy of Chronicle Books; Photography: Alexandra Grablewski )

The Weekend Project You’ll Daydream About

The braided honey challah, which is pure therapy to knead and braid and which is accompanied by lovely step-by-step photos, so you’re not once breaking that zen calm.

(Image credit: Maria Ribas)

The Delightful Surprise

You’ll find not one but two new techniques for turning boring yet affordable ground beef into something exciting here.

First, Segal sets out to replicate the kofta sold at her local Persian market, where they double-grind the meat to get a fine, tender texture. The Once Upon a Chef hack? Mix your ground beef and spices in a stand mixer for two minutes to tenderize the meat. Hardly any extra effort and exponentially better results? That’s where my Venn diagram for keeper recipes overlaps.

And don’t you wish your burgers tasted like those $20 burgers from your favorite steakhouse? Well, most steakhouses combine different cuts of meat like sirloin, chuck, and short ribs to customize the flavor and fat content of their burgers, so unless you have a lot of time and a meat grinder, you’re $20 short of having one. That is, unless you set Segal on the problem.

Her solution? A panade — a quick mash of bread with milk — that’s mixed into the meat to add tenderness and moisture. (We even tried this technique with venison, the world’s driest meat, and it worked wonders. My 20-dollar bills are going back in the cookbook fund, thank you.)

As the book’s jacket says, “Jenn teaches you to improve your cooking one recipe at a time.” And at $29.95, I’ll take the 100 mini-lessons in Segal’s culinary-school-in-print any day, even if it means a little less intrigue and romance in Paris.

This Month’s Cookbook Crush

Welcome to Kitchn’s series Cookbook Crush, where a veteran cookbook editor shares what books you should be cooking from next!