In The School of Essential Ingredients, by Erica Bauermeister, eight people are brought together in a monthly cooking class with an intuitive and slightly mysterious chef, Lillian. With the exception of one couple, all are strangers to one another and to a certain degree, to themselves. Lillian's slow but startling method of instruction spills over into their inner lives, gently nudging each to explore what needs to be examined. Along the way, of course, they cook. True to Lillian's style, they cook without written recipes, guided by senses, memory and instinct.
Perhaps the most satisfying character study is the glimpse of Lillian's own genesis as a chef, and her earliest attempts in the kitchen. As a damaged child, she begins with little more than sheer will. With patient, methodical, focused experimentation (and a little help from a Wise Woman archetype), she begins what can be described as a journey of faith. Transforming basic ingredients into new works becomes a type of spirituality, a religion. With it, she saves her own mother, finds her own calling and masters her profession. Delicious. Copyright 2009 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2008 October #1
Take a batch of characters, toss them into one cooking class, glaze heavily with folk wisdom.Lillian, the Pacific Northwest restaurant owner and teacher of the Monday night school of the book's title, is part matchmaker, part Buddhist priest, part Alice Waters. She specializes in organic ingredients and a slow-cooking, who-needs-recipes style, an approach she perfected as a child when her dad ran off and her mother retreated into books. Cooking, for her, is a pathway to healing, and conveniently enough her latest group of students could each use some help. Among them are Chloe, a young woman who's klutzy and in a bad relationship; Tom, who's mourning the death of his wife; Claire, a mom who fears motherhood is erasing her identity; Ian, a computer engineer who's incapable even of cooking a pot of rice; and Carl and Helen, an older couple who've gotten past a history of infidelity. Together they reminisce, vent and learn their way around crab dishes, cakes and Thanksgiving dinners, even though Lillian's stingy about instructions and the entrees aren't exactly beginners' fare. Bauermeister capably evokes the sensual pleasures of a busy kitchen, but her story is thickly sentimental, all smoothed edges and earnest dialogue. For instance, one character introduces herself, ridiculously, by saying, "before you start cooking with me, I should tell you, I am losing my way, these days." No worries: Lillian will assuredly give her and the rest of the class some direction, and Bauermeister guides each individual's story along with a pitiless blitzkrieg of soft-focus similes and metaphors--each action and detail persistently equates to a dancing child, a happy puppy, a down comforter, a butterfly or a flower. To her credit, the author pulls off a tough trick of juggling an assortment of characters and making each feel lived-in and human. But as she inevitably guides each toward bliss, the book feels less empathetic and more hokey and melodramatic.The stifling humidity of the prose will push a lot of readers out of this kitchen.Agent: Amy Berkower/Writers House Copyright Kirkus 2008 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2008 September #1
A widower, a young mom, an immigrant, and more gather at Lillian's Restaurant for lessons in cooking and in life. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal BookSmack
If the connected stories of Holly's students and the magic of cooking are what captured your readers, then Bauermeister's lush and evocative story should make a great next read. Ever since Lillian was a little girl, she has understood the power of food to fulfill the heart's desire. As a successful restaurant chef, she now hosts a cooking school, helping others explore the magic ingredients that their lives are missing. Told in a series of character studies, the novel illuminates the lives of Claire, a young mother overwhelmed with her new role; Carl and Helen, a long-married couple with a complicated history; and a handful of others (including a Lillian herself). Each finds hope and solace in this novel that unfolds in a pace similar to Senate's and with the same attention to detail and description. - Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads," Booksmack! 2/3/11 (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Publishers Weekly Reviews 2008 October #2
In this remarkable debut, Bauermeister creates a captivating world where the pleasures and particulars of sophisticated food come to mean much more than simple epicurean indulgence. Respected chef and restaurateur Lillian has spent much of her 30-something years in the kitchen, looking for meaning and satisfaction in evocative, delicious combinations of ingredients. Endeavoring to instill that love and know-how in others, Lillian holds a season of Monday evening cooking classes in her restaurant. The novel takes up the story of each of her students, navigating readers through the personal dramas, memories and musings stirred up as the characters handle, slice, chop, blend, smell and taste. Each student's affecting story--painful transitions, difficult choices--is rendered in vivid prose and woven together with confidence. Delivering memorable story lines and characters while seducing the senses, Bauermeister's tale of food and hope is certain to satisfy. (Jan.)[Page 36]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.