I like to think of myself as a bibliophile. This isn’t to suggest that I simply like to read; I enjoy the physical experience of books. I like to look at them, and touch them. Run my fingers over an embossed cover, feel the dignified heft of a hardbound tome or the swishy flutter of the pages of a well-loved paperback with a broken spine,swirling her dogeared skirts like some biblio-bound flamenco dancer.
Needless to say, as a book nerd and a chef, I have a special relationship with cookbooks. I’m proud of my collection, so much so that they occupy a special bookcase all on their own, located just off stage from my kitchen. My main book collection, an amalgamation of paperback fiction, English literature textbooks from my University days, and a what may encompass the entire Russian cannon, is kept in pristine condition, presided over with a manner that can only be described as monastic. Not so for the cookbooks.
Cookbooks are working books. They don’t live in the hermetic conditions of a library, but rather the sauce-streaked world of the kitchen. They get splattered by boiling pots and soak up the excess moisture from fresh cut vegetables. There well-worn pages are highlighted and annotated in the rushed script of culinary inspiration, hurried conversions scribbled in the margins. They tell both the story of their respective restaurant, chef or cuisine, but also the story of the would-be cook that draws inspiration from them. This individual story is told in the myriad blemishes, burns, and grease stains, translucent windows through which we may view the creation of a chef.
In that spirit, I present five of the books that make up my story:
The Science of Good Cooking by The Editors of Cook’s Illustrated
This book is a great foundation for new cooks and one of the few books where every recipe is useful. This book is based around applying any particular technique to a wide range of dishes. Instead of just giving you a marinade recipe for chicken this book provides a detailed explanation of how marinades work. Basically the difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to catch his own; replace fishing with cooking pork (or beef, or vegetable, or, even, well… fish) and you’ve got the gist of what makes this seemingly ordinary cookbook so great.
This book also introduced me to the scientific, lab-like conditions and methodology of the modern kitchen. This book is rich with detailed explanations of the cooking process and how the scientific method can be brought to bear on culinary creation. Before the shipping-container test-kitchen at Noma or Sean Brock’s miso laboratory, there was America’s Test Kitchen. Modern cooking is about finding a balance between the inspiration of the artist and the rigidity of the scientist and this cookbook (as well as the parent publications) is a great introduction to that headspace.
The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller
The French Laundry Cookbook is to my generation what Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to the chefs of the 60’s. After its publication in 1999 this cookbook was quickly hailed as a must read. The French Laundry, helmed by demi-god Chef Thomas Keller, represents a watershed moment in American cuisine. Keller’s unassuming cottage of a restaurant, nestled in the heart of California wine country, showed the world that American cuisine, when done at the highest level, could rival any old-world restaurant.
The cookbook, more than a collection of recipes and beautiful photographs, was a history into this now storied institution, showcasing to the rest of us what a perfect restaurant looks like. Especially consequential was the book’s focus on the individual farmers, purveyors, and foragers who were so instrumental in the restaurant’s success and the direction of her cuisine. The French Laundry Cookbook was an introduction to local sourcing and its impact on a menu. The story of Keller’s personal mushroom monger, who spent summers scouring the hills of the Sierra Nevada in search of the world’s finest fungus, had an especially strong impact on how I think about sourcing ingredients. Keller’s book showcased the intimate relationship that exists between the greatest chefs and the people that supply them with food.
Finally, the book introduced us to Thomas Keller the man, on his own terms, in his own kitchen. Reading his words, his constant, gentle reminders that a requisite ingredient for truly great food is love, provided a welcome contrast to the pervasive image of executive chefs as militant authoritarians, a cliche popularized by Gordon Ramsey and Charlie Trotter. Keller showed a different, softer, much more California way of doing things, one that was always focused on preparing food of the utmost quality without sacrificing the development of his kitchen staff. This strategy has proven a winner, as French Laundry alumni, Alinea’s Grant Achatz and Noma’s Rene Redzepi to name a few, now own and operate some of the world’s finest restaurants.
Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook Will Gidara and Daniel Humm
This cookbook and I have a, let’s call it complicated relationship. To understand that relationship, we must first ask the question:
What is the purpose of a cookbook?
If you answered, “To provide a cook with recipes that can then be reproduced for personal use and enjoyment.” I think you’d be in-line with majority of others. Not so with the author’s of Eleven Madison Park : The Cookbook; even a casual glance at the first few recipes in this 350+ page behemoth makes something abundantly clear, these chefs don’t really give a fuck if you can make their recipes or not. You don’t have a sous vide machine at your house? Tough shit. You want a substitution for sea urchin, because you can’t find any…in your entire state? Too bad.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the cookbook actually contains this rather stark admonition to her perspective chefs:
If you never cook, this is probably a book that should stay on your coffee table. Many recipes require a significant time commitment, a certain level of skill, a reasonably equipped kitchen, and a healthy dose of persistence.
Translation: You aren’t good enough to make our food.
And you know what? That’s totally okay. Actually, its pretty much the whole point. The Eleven Madison Park cookbook is a work of pure inspiration. This is not a how-to manual; it’s a work of art, just like the food it depicts. This is a master class in modern American cuisine. This book distills 30 years of progress in American kitchens and presents it in the form of some extremely detailed recipes and breathtaking full page photographs.
What I take from this book, and what I find myself coming back for time and again, is the detailed description of finishing and plating dishes. Plating is my favorite part about line cooking and this book provided a seemingly endless font of inspiration from which to draw. This book is the logical end for the entire school of thought known, somewhat basely, as food porn. The difference here is that, unlike some imitators, E.M.P.’s plating isn’t smut: it’s erotica.
Heritage Sean Brock
This is the newest book on the list, and the most influential on the current state of popular American dining. While Europe and the Coasts have finally moved away from gussied-up Southern comfort food, the rest of us, at least gauging by trends in local and regional dining, are still quite enthralled with gastronomic offerings of those states south of the Mason-Dixon. The movement in new-Southern food is propelled by a cabal of post-Bellum chefs; hip, left-leaning culinarians who are much more approachable than traditional depictions of southern-ness.
Chef Sean Brock, of Charleston’s Husk, is the archetype for the modern Southern chef, with one foot firmly steeped in the South’s rich culinary past and the other on the cutting edge of American food. This past-meets-future dichotomy has proven itself to be irresistible to diners and critics alike, and has seen Southern food and flavors dominate the landscape of American cuisine for the last several years.
Brock’s book, much like Keller’s, place a keen emphasis on the role that careful sourcing of ingredients plays in the creation and success of his unique cuisine. The difference is that while Keller spent a lifetime fleshing his purveyors out, it would appear that Brock was born into a world of exceptionally diverse and interesting ingredients.
He who dies with the fullest pantry wins. – Chef Sean Brock
Brock’s book, which outlines many of his food and seed saving techniques, has inspired a generation of chefs to try their hands at pickling, preserving, and canning as a way of finding your own unique culinary palate. The rebirth of the root cellar and the rediscovery by so many chefs of traditional food preservation methods can be attributed, at least in part, to Brock and his book.
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
The last book isn’t a cookbook. And it isn’t really about cooking either. It’s a somewhat romanticized look at the life of a professional cook and the grand-daddy of the ever growing genre know as the Chef Memoir. Its about Anthony Bourdain “coming up” in the industry, in the cut-throat, hard-cooking and harder-partying world of 80’s & 90’s New York City. And it fucking rules.
This book is the reason I wanted to be a cook, and I know I’m not the only person my age that feels this way. Bourdain carries the chef-meets-rockstar banner passed to him by Marco Pierre White, without, ya know, being an asshat. Bourdain made the life, the long hours, the smoking, the cuts and burns, the booze, and most importantly, the work, sound cool. He was masculine without being stupid, cool but not pretentious. He was a pirate poet and a real cook’s cook. In short, this story is a guide book at becoming the man.
And for any parent who doesn’t want their kid to grow up to be a cook (aka, would like their child to retire someday) do not, under any circumstances, let them read this book, or any others on this list. (Sorry Pop…)
What are your must read cookbooks? Chef memoirs? Food magazines? Let me know in the comments!