Books editor Linda Herrick and her team of reviewers round up their choices of best books for Christmas gifts, leading with the French Cafe’s new triumph.

Book of the year

Saison: A Year At The French Cafe

by Simon Wright (Godwit $95)

We are privileged to have a chef like Simon Wright in our city, and in our country too; the French Cafe having just been voted by Trip Advisor as the best in New Zealand and the South Pacific, and fourth in the world. That's a truly impressive achievement. So, too, is this very elegant book, two years in the making.

Those who have been there know that to dine at the French Cafe is a treat, a dream come true. It's for special occasions and celebrations, where you are treated kindly, and with great warmth. Once seated in the dining area, a beautiful room furnished with beautiful furniture, art, cutlery and crockery, you are given an amuse-bouche, a gift from the kitchen, small taste explosions which set your taste buds tingling. It just keeps coming. Warm bread arrives, and 12 minutes later, your first course. When you have finished that, 14 minutes later, you will receive your second course, slightly bigger, more complex. You are starting to relax. The waiters are talking and laughing with the guests. It's a good feeling. Then your third and main course arrives...

The order and purpose of the courses described in Wright's introduction to Saison is a summation of what he and his team are trying to do for you at the French Cafe. His writing is so thoughtful, sincere and modest it made my stomach rumble and my eyes prick. "Our restaurant is based around our personalities and is very much a reflection of how we live our lives at home," he writes. "There can be no lies, no divide between the way you live your life and the way you work." When Wright started to put the book together, he quickly realised that the divide between the professional and the domestic "can be so extreme that achieving the same results at home is sometimes not possible". But he persevered. "I don't expect you to try to reproduce my dishes to the letter ... but they are there in their entirety if you wish to do so." The layout, with watercolours by Kirsten Roberts and photography by Charlie Smith, is worlds away from your standard cookbook. As the title indicates, it is divided into the four seasons of the year and subdivided by each month because the foundation of the French Cafe's cuisine is seasonal availability.


The structure of the layout is different, too. For example, "Summer: December" opens with a list of recipes with two separate page numbers above each one - one number to indicate the recipe page, the other to point to the photo of the dish. The list is followed by a sequence of exquisite full-page images of each dish, followed by the recipes. A lovely touch: The seasons are separated by full-page black lattice dividers, another example of the superior design skills brought to this book.

The recipes are written very precisely, and you would need to read them carefully before proceeding with shopping and cooking. But they are do-able. Imagine that! Cooking like the French Cafe at home. At the very least, trying to. Saison is a landmark in the life of a chef who has supreme confidence in what he is doing, yet he will always be learning.

Most importantly of all, he is doing what he loves. But his life is also about family. The dedication reads: "For Creghan and Miller, thank you for opening my eyes to a life outside the kitchen." The book ends with a photo of Wright with his wife, Creghan, who runs front of house, and their young son Miller, all with smiles on their faces. Saison is sensational, deservedly our book of the year. It's a treat, a dream come true.

View all book reviews here.
* Graphics by Claudia Ruiz