Biff Bam Pop!’s Holiday Gift Guide 2021: Renee Paquette’s ‘Messy in the Kitchen’

Cookbooks always make a solid gift for the person in your life that loves to knock about in the kitchen. While I think that a cookbook from a personality best known for her tenure as a pro wrestling interviewer isn’t necessarily the most intuitive project, if you have any familiarity with Renee Paquette at all, whether from her WWE days or from her Oral Sessions interview podcast, you know that her winning personality and passion shines through in every project she takes on. Renee’s cookbook Messy in the Kitchen is no exception. 

Messy in the Kitchen reads like Renee is right there, hanging out with you in your kitchen and gently giving you pointers as you go along. You know how tons of recipes have this long and generally pointless preamble about how the recipe came to be, where it came from, and all that, but then when you get into the actual instructions, it reads as cold and clinical? Not Messy. Renee has written these out in a refreshingly conversational and engaging way that’s a joy to read, even if you’re not cooking at the time. Personal anecdotes about where and when these recipes will really shine, and ideas on how to present or adapt the meal for different occasions add a ton of flavour, so to speak, to the book.

There’s recipes in here that I’ll never be wealthy enough to make, like Deep Fried Lobster Tails in Champagne Batter (though, mad respect for that level of decadence), but there’s also a really good and comprehensive guide to building a charcuterie board or other much simpler creations. There’s a great breadth of recipes in every section, from make-ahead crowd-pleasers like Overnight Breakfast Casserole, to things I barely even considered making myself like Jamaican Beef Patties. I especially appreciate the entire section on snacks, just little munchies that don’t fall neatly into breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even the lesser-known 11 pm-12 am Fourthmeal. Actually, as I say it, the snack chapter is basically built for Fourthmeal.  There’s also a pretty great section on cocktails.

One of my many pet peeves is recipes or cooking shows that just tell you to do whatever. Sub out every ingredient, cook it as long as you want, add any spices you please! I appreciate the freedom to make something my own, but I’m reading a recipe here, bud. Tell me what to do! Renee’s recipes allow for substitutions – a hardass she ain’t – but she has an opinion or at least a point of view on what you should do, and exactly what (if any) corners to cut to maximize your results. And most times, like this opinion on sandwiches, she’s objectively correct:

“No one here is judging you, but diagonal is the only real way to cut a sandwich, if you have any self-respect.”

Renee Paquette, ‘Messy in the Kitchen

I also like that Messy in the Kitchen is also a lowkey travel guide to my hometown of Toronto. Renee’s love for the city comes through in many recipes, talking about the annual Greek festival Taste Of the Danforth, a legendary fish and chips place called Duckworth’s, and other foodie landmarks. It’s just one way that Renee’s personality is on full display in Messy, while also having some value add to just reading it (as I did) even if you’re not cooking. The section called ‘The Jams’ is one of the most unique features of Messy in the Kitchen, because it has Renee providing specially-curated Spotify playlists for you to throw on while you cook or entertain. there’s one for ‘Date Night’, ‘Girls Night’, Dinner Party’, and more. It’s clear that music is an important part of Renee’s life, and it’s always great to see some Canadian content like Alvvays and Metric get repped here alongside Kendrick Lamar and Tom Petty. Basically, it rounds out Messy in the Kitchen as a fully-formed ‘vibe in a box’, which is always helpful.

Another added bonus is some excellent food photography by Gaby Duong. I’m no Johnny Foodstyle but the pictures of the food really inspire you to want to make (or at least eat) them, and of course are instructive for reviews like the mac and cheese to know exactly how brown you can take things or exactly where to put those crackers and rosemary sprigs on that charcuterie board.  There’s also some great photos of both Renee and husband Jon hanging out and generally being the cool people we all know they are.

The sixty-ish recipes in Messy in the Kitchen not only read as a cheat sheet for both entertaining and for feeding yourself and your family, but do what every great cookbook does: it gives you a perspective on it’s author. Even if a recipe seems like it’s going to be fussy or difficult, Renee has a way of explaining it so that it feels attainable, and will tell you where you can fit it into your life. Are there some recipes in here that will make your neck snap like you’ve taken one of husband Jon Moxley’s trademark Paradigm Shifts (I’m looking at you, Clam Chowder Poutine and Anchovy Popcorn)? Sure, but they’re presented so that you can’t help but want to try them, even if only once. Whether you’ve got someone on your holiday list that’s either just getting into cooking or a seasoned (heh) pro, I can all but guarantee that Messy in the Kitchen has something for them.

Messy in the Kitchen is published by Simon and Schuster and is available wherever you usually buy books.

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