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He wrote the book on cooking

  • March 3, 2004 - 10:00 PM

Wayne Gisslen really did write the book on cooking.

The man behind "Professional Cooking" is probably the best-selling culinary author you've never heard of. He may lack a berth on the Food Network's schedule, he doesn't own a high-profile restaurant, and his mug isn't a fixture in Gourmet, Bon Appetit or Food & Wine magazines. But if you're one of the hundreds of thousands of culinary students who have pored over his hefty textbook, then Gisslen, 57, is as familiar a figure as Lagasse, Batali or Puck.

Just don't call his work a cookbook.

"Professional cooking is not based upon recipes but on techniques, procedures and theories," said Gisslen. "You don't learn a recipe for pot roast, the way a home cook would. Instead, you learn how to braise. And once you learn how to braise, you can braise anything. The procedure doesn't really change. If you have that foundation, then you have the flexibility to do anything you want. You can innovate, you can break the rules, because you know what the rules are."

As "Gray's Anatomy" is an essential medical-school title, "Cooking" (and it's sibling, "Professional Baking") is an amazingly exhaustive introductory guidebook to the practice of commercial cooking. Over the course of nearly 1,000 pages, 32 chapters and 1,100 recipes, Gisslen deftly covers the gamut, from sanitation, measurement and equipment to the large-scale production of making soups, roasting meats, preparing pasta and baking pies.

It is widely considered to be the nation's top-selling textbook for culinary students. Not bad for a guy who wanted to be an English professor.

All in the education

The Minnesota native didn't set out to be the leading intro-to-cooking classroom authority. Gisslen's initial plan was to spend his life in academia. But during his fourth year in the Ph.D. program in English literature at the University of Minnesota, back in the 1970s, he had a change of heart.

"All of my friends and colleagues were getting their degrees and then driving cabs," he said. "I decided that was not for me."

His avocational interest in cooking suddenly developed vocational overtones.

"I have to admit that, during that last year in graduate school, I probably spent more time cooking and playing around in the kitchen than I did studying and writing papers," he said. "Cooking was a natural for me."

Two years of training at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., led to a position as a test-kitchen director for a New York City food-consulting firm, where he supervised cookbook production and product and recipe development. ("It was a crazy business," Gisslen said.)

Through his work he became acquainted with a book editor, who was on the lookout for a writer to develop a new culinary textbook.

"It was 1979, and the few textbooks that were out there were not very good," Gisslen said. "The editor saw a niche and wanted to exploit it."

A 2,000 page manuscript

What better combination for a chef with an English lit background? A year's investment in a book proposal led to a contract. It took another two years to complete his first draft, which he wrote using a pencil and paper; he hammered out the 2,000-page manuscript on a manual typewriter.

The result, "Professional Cooking," appeared in 1982; "Professional Baking" followed in 1985. "Cooking" is now in its fifth edition, and the fourth version of "Baking" is being released this month. Both books have evolved over time, though not drastically.

"The basic core material really hasn't changed, because braising and sautéing and roasting haven't changed," said Gisslen. "The same thing happens to meat when you put it in the oven now as it did 25 years ago, and it was the same long before I started writing. Cooking styles may change, but the basics remain pretty much the same."

Still, Gisslen tweaks recipes, revises nutrition and product-grading information and adds chapters. The current "Cooking" boasts new segments on charcuterie (curing and smoking) and garde manger (cold food preparation), and when the latest "Baking" debuts, it will feature a chapter on artisan breads. But nothing too trendy. With a two-year lead time, today's red-hot idea could be embarrassingly ice-cold by the time the books roll off the press. Besides, the books are designed to provide a solid foundation.

"The core recipes in the books are pretty solid, and they work well," Gisslen said. "But they're not cutting edge, and they're not intended to be. If they were, it would defeat the purpose."

Most of Gisslen's calendar is reserved for maintaining his textbook franchise. He'll devote the next year to the sixth edition of "Cooking," which is scheduled to hit bookstores in spring 2006. Then he'll turn his attention to the next edition of "Baking," another yearlong commitment.

It's a schedule he's maintained since the mid-1980s, and one that will continue into the foreseeable future. "My editor won't let me retire," Gisslen said with a laugh.

Gisslen returned to his home state four years ago. He works out of the Medina home he shares with his wife, Meg, where he writes -- now on a computer -- in an office adjacent to the kitchen. ("I have a very short commute," he said.)

Appealing to many

His books bear a discreet Minnesota imprint. Photographs were shot at Goodfellow's in downtown Minneapolis, and the Turtle Bread Co. opened its kitchens for research. Area purveyors -- from Wayzata Bay Spice Co. to Lofton Ridge Deer & Bison Farm -- supplied recipe-testing ingredients.

JoAnna Turtletaub, vice president at John Wiley & Sons, Gisslen's publisher, estimates that more than a million copies of Gisslen's books have sold. The culinary school Le Cordon Bleu joined forces with Wiley in the third edition of "Cooking," and the books now bear the school's high-profile stamp. But one of the secrets to Gisslen's success is that "Cooking" and "Baking" are flexible enough to appeal to a wide spectrum of educational experiences.

"I've tried to make them useful in a variety of contexts," Gisslen said. "Not just from school to school, but even from instructor to instructor. For students, they are a primary resource, but to instructors, they can be used as they see fit."

Local culinary educators sing Gisslen's praises. Larry Fischer, a culinary arts instructor at St. Paul College, has been using "Professional Cooking" for all of his 18 years at the school. "I haven't seen a better primer for basic cooking techniques," he said.

"It covers all the bases," said Gretchen Dorn, a member of the culinary arts faculty at Hennepin Technical College in Brooklyn Park (where Gisslen sits on an advisory board). She has been using "Cooking" in her introductory courses for more than a decade. "It's an excellent book for teaching methods," she said. "With the exception of a few chapters, my students read the entire book in their first semester, and then use it over and over as a reference."

But does a 960-page, 5 1/2-pound, $65 textbook have a place in the home cook's library? Particularly one where the recipes are designed to serve 25 or more?

You bet. There's a reason why Gisslen recently won an award from Amazon.com for top sales in his category (and why the third edition of "Baking" took top honors in the food reference and technical category at the International Association of Culinary Professionals 2002 awards).

"Way back with the first edition [of "Professional Cooking"], I gave a copy to a friend," Gisslen said. "He looked at it, because it was from a friend, and then put it on the shelf. A month or two later, he was cooking something and it didn't turn out. He thought, 'I wonder if Gisslen's book can help me figure it out?' He looked in the book, and sure enough, he found what he needed.

"That's the same for everyone. If the recipes don't interest you, ignore them. Take them out, and you would still have a 400-page book. If you want to learn what happens when you put a piece of meat into a sauté pan, read the section on sautéing meat.

"What happens in a home kitchen is the same as what happens in a restaurant kitchen."

Rick Nelson is at

>rdnelson@startribune.com.

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