Review – Botanical, by Paul Wilson

Botanical front cover

Botanical: Inside the iconic brasserie. Recipes by Paul Wilson. Photography by William Meppem. (2007: Hardie Grant Books, Melbourne.) RRP AUD 85

Overview: An impressive ‘chef’s book’ by respected Melbourne chef Paul Wilson, Botanical is both a serious cookbook and a self-congratulatory piece about the restaurant (the Botanical). Intended for serious home cooks or other chefs, this is perhaps the first local heavy-duty ‘chef’s book’ Australia has seen, with recipes often encompassing many steps and long lists of ingredients. (It’s possible Tetsuya competes in detail — I haven’t been able to look at a copy to compare.)

Botanical photography 1

Good bits: The recipes are interesting and span an impressive range. Emphasis is placed on local ingredients. Excellent design and photography. Another feather in the hat of the publishers Hardie Grant.

Recipe examples: wood-roasted calamari with chorizo sausage, olives and smoked paprika; gingerbread hotcakes with caramelised pineapple; slow-roasted beef blade over organic baby beetroots with red wine and beetroot sauce; grapefruit tart with sauternes jelly.

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Bad bits: One clanger: the ‘Conversions’ page (p18) lists a tablespoon as being 15ml, which it definitely isn’t in Australia (20ml). The publishers assure me that the error will be fixed in the next print run. Australians can ignore the typo, while overseas readers will just find some things a little underflavoured.

I feel the book needed tighter editing. The introduction, history of the restaurant, etc, are overly long and a touch repetitive, reading too much like a piece of untempered self-congratulation. Chris Lucas (the owner former owner) gets to write a recommendation of Riedel glassware in the section on wine and that seems out of place in this sort of volume.

A set of ingredient notes makes clear that flat-leaf parsley is the variety to be used in all recipes, but then every recipe with parsley re-states that it is ‘flat-leaf parsley’, making the original note unnecessary.

Wilson’s passion for the best produce is admirable, but comments like ‘make a worthwhile investment by buying real buffalo milk mozzarella’ overlook the fact that the variable quality of Australian mozzarella (shaggy moo or normal moo) can make it an extremely bad investment on some days. Commentary on the recipes is also too loose sometimes.

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Comments: Most of my negatives are unimportant when it comes to the cooking itself, thankfully. It’s about time we saw a local book of this calibre in Australia! It won’t be for everyone (because of the ambition it requires), and it certainly reflects Paul Wilson’s style — solid classical cookery with modern flourishes, complex restaurant dishes, frequent nods to cuisines of the Mediterranean, and an affection for quail eggs, truffles and local seafood. This is an attractive large-format volume (almost 30x30cm) and I dread to think how many people will use it as a coffee table piece rather than actually cooking from it.

– DM


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11 thoughts on “Review – Botanical, by Paul Wilson”

  1. Hi Duncan,

    I like your site, I’ll have a bit more of a stroll around so I can be more informed when next we meet.


  2. Having had Tetsuya’s cookbook for a while I can say that it does look good but when you actually go to make the recipes there is a lack of detail, there’s a bit of vagueness and worst of all, flavourless end products.
    For excellent local chef authoured cookbooks try Serge Dansereau’s The Bathers’ Pavilion: Menus and Recipes, Justin North’s BĂ©casse and Shannon’s My Vue – The Botanical certainly isn’t the”first local heavy-duty” chef’s cookbook, it’s just the latest in a string.

  3. Hi Haalo. My impression was that Botanical was the first heavy-duty book by a chef here (I didn’t mean the first by a heavy-duty chef). Do you feel that the titles you mention compete in gastronomic detail and ambition?

  4. Quick answer – Yes.

    If you want to go further back Christine Mansfield’s books (Paramount, Paramount Desserts and Spice) were first rate – both in structure and quality.
    BĂ©casse has got to be one of the most beautiful books and not just beautiful in the sense of the photography or the layout but beauty in the spirit and intent of the book. It is a love letter to Australian ingredients.

    Serge’s book is high art food, just his chapter on amuse alone was enough for me. My Vue is like having the restaurant in your bookshelf – every dish we had is in there, well every dish from the Carlton days – I’m looking forward to the sequel.
    Another excellent chef’s books is Damian Pignolet’s French.

  5. I think you (Duncan and Haalo) are looking at it from different perspectives. I can see what Duncan means with Botanical. The recipes look daunting, whereas the books Haalo mentioned, like Bather’s Pavilion and Becasse, seem a bit more home-cook oriented even though some recipes are long and ambitious. I might be wrong, but Haalo seems to be looking more at the whole package while Duncan seems to concentrate on the recipes.

  6. Hi dc – I have to assume you don’t have those books as even with a quick glance you would never be able to say that either were pitched at the home cook market. I don’t know how many home cooks could actually have the time and possibly the ability to make the Assiette of pig’s head for example.
    I also had another longer look through The Botantical and have to stand by my initial impression. For me, it’s very much in the mould of Grossi’s book on the Florentino, just a bit larger and more expensive but neither are daunting.

  7. Haalo, please keep it civil. I believe dc wrote ‘a bit more home-cook oriented’ – a far cry from saying these were average home-cook books. We will have to differ about what we think about the various titles. I’ve heard a few experienced, confident home cooks gasp a little when looking at Botanical, yet they find the titles that you and dc mentioned and, say, Pignolet’s French generally less daunting. Clearly there are a variety of reactions amongst people who know the books. I would also probably agree with you about Christine Manfields’ books (I had overlooked them – a while since I’ve had them in my hands).

  8. Funny, I was just leafing through my copy of Botanical yesterday. I was going to wait til it hopefully came down in price a little at the shops, but then the bf got it for me as a present. Must say, I really love the book (it brought back memories of when I had a meal there) and think the recipes actually look pretty accessible -not that I’ve had a chance to try them out yet-.

  9. Welcome back, Y! Nice to hear your thoughts and I’m glad it seems accessible. Hope you enjoy what you make out of it.

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