Lawyer cooks up book of goof-proof restaurant recipes

October 31, 1993|By Elaine Tait | Elaine Tait,Knight-Ridder News Service

She's convinced that the recipe your favorite restaurant chef shared with the world -- the one that made a six-mixing-bowl mess instead of a super dessert -- wasn't meant to mislead you.

"It's just that chefs operate on a different plane from home cooks," says Karen Gantz Zahler, a Manhattan lawyer and literary agent who decided five years ago to produce a goof-proof recipe collection from some of the best eateries in a city filled with fab restaurants.

The result is "Taste of New York" (Addison Wesley, $35), a first book that Ms. Zahler insists tells all.

You don't need to live and eat in New York to know that the book covers the "creme de la creme" of Manhattan eateries, including traditional toughies -- Grenouille was the hardest nut to crack -- that normally don't speak to amateur food writers, much less give them their signature recipes.

In almost every case, Ms. Zahler coaxed the chefs to let her come into their kitchens where, under their supervision, she prepared the recipes they submitted for the book as many times as it took to get them right.

"Maybe [they agreed to cooperate because] they were afraid, because I was a lawyer," she says. "Even Andre Soltner [of Lutece] let me come in on a Saturday to do the frozen lemon souffle."

The venerable Grenouille sent her a poached-chicken recipe that didn't seem quite right, says Ms. Zahler, and the owners turned a deaf ear to her request for kitchen time with the chef.

"But I was walking by the restaurant one day on my way from the office when out front I saw this guy dressed like a chef but with a baseball cap on backward."

Ms. Zahler's instincts told her that the man might be the restaurant's chef. She was right. They struck up a conversation in French and arranged a meeting. "We spent one hour going over the recipe in my office. When I continued to find certain things perplexing, he said he would come to my home."

The home visit evolved into a dinner for 12 that Ms. Zahler and the chef -- Frederic Heba -- cooked together in her Fifth Avenue kitchen. The recipe that started it all, a version of classic "pot-au-feu," now works beautifully.

To get the book's three recipes from Il Molina, an upscale Italian restaurant, Ms. Zahler worked in the kitchen every Saturday from 8 a.m. to noon for two months.

She came away, she says, with enormous respect for the quality of ingredients in Il Molino's sauces.

Her risotto recipe is from the Four Seasons restaurant. "I interviewed other chefs, asking who made the best risotto in town. They all agreed it was the Four Seasons."

Hatsuhana's star sushi chef had never permitted a woman in the kitchen before Ms. Zahler. After five office meetings, Ms. Zahler was permitted to watch the chef make sushi rice. "It's something they train for two years to do. One of the secrets is to aerate the rice properly."

Cooking with the chefs was an experience not unlike being called on by a tough professor in law school, says Ms. Zahler. "A little nod from the chef meant I got it right. I got incredible satisfaction from those nods."

"Taste of New York" started with 200 recipes, 80 of which were deleted so that printing wouldn't be too prohibitive.

Literary agent Zahler worked with lawyer Zahler to get a great contract from the publisher, but perfectionist Zahler says her insistence on lots of full-color photos cost her money. "Illustrated books are more costly for the publisher. In general, the royalties are smaller."

Every aspect of the book's publication and promotion, including the copy for the jacket cover and the index, had to meet with Ms. Zahler's scrutiny.

"I proofread the index four times," she says. She also chose the photograph of her that would be used on the jacket's inside flap.

And of course, she arranged her own publicity and marketing.

"Every author complains about not getting publicity on a new book. I didn't want to be one of those asking why wasn't more done." After persuading the publisher to hire a publicist for the book, Ms. Zahler hired an additional person to beat the drums.

In addition, "Taste of New York" will be merchandised on QVC. "I arranged it personally," says Ms. Zahler.

"No one seemed to mind."

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